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At U of T, Arab students´ event draws controversy - Planners say Israel Apartheid Week will encourage discourse, but opponents insist it will stir hatred (THE GLOBE AND MAIL) By HAILEY EISEN 01/31/05 Page A8)Source: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LAC/20050131/PROTEST31/TPNational/?query=israel GLOBE AND MAIL GLOBE AND MAIL Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
An event organized by the Arab Student Collective at the University of Toronto, to debate what it calls the Israeli apartheid state, is raising the ire of religious and human-rights organizations throughout the city.

Israeli Apartheid Week, is scheduled to begin today and has been organized by the collective, a recognized club at U of T.

"Each day we will focus on a particular theme," said Ahmad Shokrk, one of the event organizers. Themes are to include Palestinian political prisoners and what Mr. Shokrk called "the apartheid wall," Israel´s controversial separation barrier in the West Bank.

Groups including B´nai Brith Canada and the Evangelical Association of Canada have publicly condemned the University´s decision to permit the event, saying that it will incite hatred against Jewish students on campus.

"First and foremost, it is not a matter of freedom of speech, but a continuation of a policy of marginalizing and demonizing the State of Israel and by extension the Jewish people," said Frank Dimant, Vice- President of B´nai Brith Canada.

Mr. Shokrk said that although he knows there will be students who disagree with the program´s content, he stressed that the event will be held in a public forum and he welcomed individuals to raise questions and engage in debate.

He described an apartheid state as consisting of "an institutionalized discrimination against a group of people based on religion or ethnicity."

The event´s content is also raising concerns among the Evangelical Association of Canada.

"If you are going to use the term apartheid, then it must fit the criteria of the definition," said Dr. Rondo Thomas, the association´s director. "It doesn´t come close with Israel. There isn´t another democracy in the entire Middle East. And everyone in Israel is treated equally."

Dr. Thomas believes that the University should distance itself from the project.

In a statement, University Vice-Provost Dave Farrar said U of T will support the event based on its commitment to principles of freedom of speech. "The very fact that the Arab Student Collective and other campus groups exist speaks to a central value of the University of Toronto. . . . In this context, campus groups avail themselves of campus facilities for activities," he said.

The Arab Student Collective said it would like the week´s focus to be on engaging students in the content of the programs, rather than on issues of security and freedom of speech.

Israeli Apartheid Week is to begin as scheduled today, but the Arab Student Collective said it is concerned about the intervention of external organizations, such as B´nai Brith.

"It only goes to show that groups like this who are constantly pressuring the administration to cancel these events are really interested in censoring pro-Palestinian voices on campus," Mr. Shokrk said.

Jewish students at the university have been calling B´nai Brith since last week expressing frustration and fear about the program, Mr. Dimant said.

B´nai Brith, which focuses on matters of anti-Semitism, racism and human rights, says the University has an obligation to the safety and security of all its students.

"We believe that U of T is afraid to act responsibly and is hiding behind a false guise called freedom of speech," Mr. Dimant said.

He added that he fears this week´s events will spark security issues and he has notified the Toronto Police Services Hate Crimes Unit, as well as federal policing agencies.

"As of Friday, the University has moved forward by allowing the program, and I guess they are just going to hope and pray that there is no violence," Mr. Dimant said. "I join them in their prayer, but I think they have completely lost the sense of what it is for a student to feel second- or third-rate."

In his statement, Mr. Farrar said: "With respect to the events planned by the Arab Student Collective, the University has no reason to believe that the activities will exceed the boundaries of free speech."

This week, U of T will also host IsraelFEST 2005, a celebration of Israeli art, culture and diversity, organized by Hillel, the Jewish student organization on campus.

Although Hillel recognizes its events will be running at the same time as Israeli Apartheid Week, it acknowledged in a press release the rights of other groups to hold events on campus.

"Along with other student groups, we believe that the campus community at large should be free to consider all viewpoints and draw their own, unbiased conclusions." (© 2005 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. 01/31/05)


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