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University of Toronto allows controversial student-led debates on the false belief in Israeli democracy

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04/09/2006 02:23 AM
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University of Toronto allows controversial student-led debates on the false belief in Israeli democracy
University of Toronto allows controversial student-led debates on Middle East

[link to cnews.canoe.ca]

TORONTO (CP) - Administrators at Canada's largest university have cautiously embraced free speech, allowing students at the University of Toronto to organize discussions on the evils of Muslim extremism and the false belief in Israeli democracy.

This past week, a group of Jewish students held a weeklong series of debates called Know Radical Islam, and next week the Arab Students Collective are hosting Israeli Apartheid Week, with lectures including one entitled The Myth of Israeli Democracy. The discussions culminate with a protest in downtown Toronto on Feb. 18.

David Farrar, the University of Toronto's deputy-provost, said the school drew lessons from the unrest that erupted at Montreal's Concordia University after Jewish and pro-Palestinian students clashed ahead of a speech by then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September 2002.

"We paid a lot of attention to it," Farrar said.

Windows at one campus building were broken during the melee, which saw tension simmer between Jewish and pro-Palestinian groups for months afterward.

The incident prompted Concordia officials to refuse Netanyahu's successor, Ehud Barak, from giving a speech in 2004.

Allowing this month's events from both student groups actually goes a long way toward diffusing anxiety, Farrar said.

"There is a component of making sure students know how to manage these events and allow those students to deal with their emotions, to blow off the steam . . . without having that happen in an explosive and a destructive way," he said.

But a national Jewish group said the University of Toronto lectures beginning Monday are a "hate fest" that marginalizes students.

"At this time, when the atmosphere is so heated around the world, it would be very prudent on the part of the University of Toronto to try to calm matters as it impacts on Middle East situations," said Frank Dimant, executive vice-president of B'nai Brith Canada.

"To allow a seminar which is blatantly a lie and is blatantly meant to incite . . . is irresponsible."

While recent events such as the election of militant group Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the publication of Danish cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad have sparked worldwide protests, student leaders agree that the university has established a climate that prevents friction from escalating as it did at Concordia.

"It's totally overblown, there are no tensions on campus between members of different religious groups," said Ahmad Shokr, 22, a fourth-year history student who is president of the Arab Students Collective.

In recent weeks, the Jewish students' group Hillel and the Muslims Students Association have teamed up to organize lectures aimed at building bridges between religious groups on campus.

But they were not held specifically to counter this month's events, said Melissa Lantsman, vice-chairwoman of Hillel.

"I think we've been lucky enough to have a campus free of violence of outright racism," the 21-year-old said.

"The university administration has done a very good job and I think various student groups have done a very good job at promoting diversity, discussion and interaction among each other."

Most of the university's 70,000 students are "oblivious" to these events, Farrar said, refusing to speculate on the chances of a "nightmare scenario" occurring at the school as it did at Concordia.

"Part of this is just you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, so there's a component of this that is completely out of your control," Farrar said.

"We work as hard as we can with our students, helping them navigate this difficult terrain and then we hope we're lucky."

Philosophy professor Peter March at St. Mary's University in Halifax sparked the ire of Muslim students this week when he taped the Danish cartoons on his office door.

Anger grew and shouting matches erupted when March joined 100 protesters.

March said he was merely trying to promote a reasoned debate when he showed up.