Canadian university decision to ban Barak sparks free-speech demonstration

montreal | Concordia University’s decision last week to reject Hillel’s request to host former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on campus opened a floodgate of protest.

At a peaceful demonstration outside Concordia’s downtown campus on Tuesday, Oct. 5, speaker after speaker condemned the university for denying the principle of free speech.

The controversy comes two years after the university was the scene of a violent anti-Israel riot, when another former Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was due to speak there. That speech was canceled in the wake of the violence and Concordia became the target of international controversy, criticized for allowing pro-Palestinian students to dictate who can and who cannot speak there publicly.

This week, some 200 students, including some from McGill University and some Palestinian supporters, attended the rally along with community activists.

Rabbi Reuben Poupko, a well-known community activist and spiritual leader of Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation, attended the rally in support of the students. “Through its actions, this university has made a clear admission that it cannot guarantee a safe environment for a distinguished speaker like Ehud Barak,” Poupko said prior to the rally. “They have also told us that any anti-Israel speakers are allowed to come here, but that pro-Israel speakers would cause a riot and are therefore denied access.”

Concordia has some 800 Jewish students out of a population of 30,000.

The university denied the Hillel request at a committee meeting that included school officials and campus security. A statement by the director of security, Jean Brisebois, said that the security of members of the Concordia community could not be guaranteed.

It was the principle of free speech that protesters addressed at the mid-day rally.

“Free Speech Unless Concordia Vetoes It,” stated one sign held aloft by a Jewish student.

Rev. Darryl Gray, a prominent black community and Christian leader, told the crowd, “What are we afraid of? This kind of information should never be suppressed” because it “makes us uncomfortable.”

“What happens next? When someone doesn’t agree with the next speaker, and the next speaker, and the next speaker? Do we tell them we’ll support it, but only if they go down the street, only if they speak someplace else?”