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Sheri Shefa, Canadian Jewish News
March 3, 2011
Pro-Israel students at Carleton University say they were harassed and intimidated by Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) members after the group’s anti-Israel motion was shelved at a student council meeting last month.
“People were banging on the doors, screaming, calling us names… We had to wait until campus [security] sent more officers to make sure students could get safely from the council room out to the elevators,” said Emile Scheffel, 21, a fourth-year political science student who isn’t Jewish but is involved in the Israel Awareness Committee (IAC) at Carleton.
Scheffel said the incident began when the IAC learned the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) council would be considering a motion put forward by SAIA that would endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
“The content of the motion called for socially responsible investment by the university’s pension fund… But the section that led in to the motion, the preamble, essentially condemned Israel for various crimes against humanity, for war crimes, and completely unfounded allegations,” Scheffel said.
“This was a motion we felt would be unacceptable for [CUSA] to pass, so we exerted pressure to prevent it from happening,” he said, explaining that IAC members and others wrote e-mails to councillors before the meeting urging them not to pass the measure, and they urged pro-Israel students to come out to show their opposition to it.
About an hour before the Feb. 17 meeting, held in a boardroom in Carleton’s Dunton Tower, about 100 SAIA members began to gather outside to show their support for the motion.
Ryan Flannagan, Carleton’s director of student affairs, said that when he made his way up to the boardroom that evening and saw how many people had gathered in the lobby, he decided to allow 20 SAIA members and 20 students who opposed the motion into the room, leaving the rest of the crowd out in the lobby.
“The paramount issue for me was physical safety. At that point, fire capacity issues had been broken and more people were coming onto the floor with every passing minute,” he said. “There just wasn’t enough space for everybody.”
He said SAIA members were very upset with his decision, and when they began to yell and insist that they all be allowed into the boardroom, he called two campus security officers to the meeting.
Scheffel said that while the numbers were even inside the boardroom, in the lobby “our people were outnumbered probably three to one.”
When the meeting finally began, Scheffel said, the CUSA executive put forward a compromise motion that endorsed the socially responsible investment policy without singling out a particular state.
“That was something we were very much prepared to support,” he said.
“It was passed, and then as a result of that passing, the person who chairs CUSA council… ruled that… the SAIA motion that singled out Israel would not be considered because it was redundant… It would essentially have the same effect, without having singled out Israel.”
Scheffel said the decision caused SAIA members outside the boardroom to erupt in anger. “They started banging on the walls and doors, screaming and basically demanding that council reverse the decision. The SAIA members who were inside the room basically went up to individual councillors and began harassing them, berating them and demanding that they reverse their votes.”
Outside the boardroom, they chanted slogans including “Shame,” “This is not democracy,” and “Free, free Palestine.”
Scheffel said students who opposed the SAIA motion, especially the Jewish students, didn’t feel safe enough to leave the room without being escorted by security officers.
Hashem Hamdy, a 21-year-old fourth-year political science student and the faculty of public affairs councillor, opposed the anti-Israel motion.
He explained that as an Arab who was raised in the west, “the values which I hold closest to me are those of democracy, minority rights, rule of law, rationality, and I see those in Israel, and I see the exact opposite in everyone who opposes Israel.”
Hamdy said that SAIA members tried to pass off their behaviour as being “excited and electrified,” but he added, “These people were angry. And it was a very hostile environment.”
In a statement he released after the meeting, Hamdy went a step further and said, “I truly feel that the university is no longer a safe place for those who support Israel. My personal safety was threatened repeatedly last night, and I am extremely apprehensive about coming onto campus now. I feel like a marked man, like many other students on campus.”
Flannagan, who was on the scene, said that while the situation was tense, he didn’t feel intimidated. “But I am a university official who has the authority of the university behind me, and I had two university campus safety officers flanking me, so that was helpful,” he said.
He was careful not to say that the situation got out of control, but he did say he felt the need to call additional security officers to escort students from the boardroom to the elevators.
“At the end of the day… that’s what had to be done,” he said. “When you’re a person going into a room where people are being quite loud with you and they’ve got megaphones and it is very intense, it can be intimidating.”
Hamdy said the incident proved “how dangerous it is to be an Israel advocate on campuses today, and that something needs to change.”
Scheffel said he and Hamdy, who both sit on the university senate, raised the issue at a senate meeting the next day.
“The president of the university did indicate that this is something they are taking very seriously. They made it very clear they are not going to tolerate borderline violence or harassment of this kind on campus,”Scheffel said, adding that he’s been encouraging students who felt threatened to lodge complaints with Carleton’s safety and equity services.
“It’s kind of an echo of things that have happened in the past, and it’s scary when things get as close to violence as this,” Scheffel said, referring to the 2009 incident at York University when Jewish and pro-Israel students were barricaded in the Hillel office by anti-Israel students.
Flannagan said Carleton is committed to giving students a safe place to take part in respectful dialogue and debate.
“Certainly moving forward, we’re going to work with all parties to make sure that happens,” Flannagan said.
In a statement the day after the meeting, SAIA made scant mention of the confrontational atmosphere. Instead, it framed the compromise motion as a victory.
“This is an important first step” said Reem Bushaisi, a Carleton student and member of SAIA. “Now, we will be taking a motion to the board of governors in March with a clear message: we don’t want our money supporting military occupation.”