It doesn't take much to spark a fight between Arab and Jewish students at Concordia University these days. Sometimes food will suffice.
Last Wednesday, two days after their campus was shaken by violent protests over the Middle East, student clubs at Concordia put out their colourful tables for orientation week.
One table was operated by a Palestinian student group offering key chains and pamphlets that were critical of Israel. At another were students from the Jewish group Hillel, who were offering falafel and other items.
Suddenly, a representative from the Palestinian table stepped up to the Hillel table. He accused the Jewish group of cultural theft for selling falafel.
"Hillel is stealing Arab food," he shouted in the crowded hall.
The fact that a snack food could become a symbol of cultural imperialism says a lot about the state of Jewish-Arab relations at Concordia.
The street protests that stopped former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from delivering a speech on Monday thrust the campus conflict into public view. But the ingredients had been simmering for a long time.
For years, Concordia has been turned into a mini-Middle East, divided by the upheavals tearing at Israel and the Arab world.
On one side is a group called the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, which has advanced its cause with a stream of provocative speakers, posters, protests and exhibits critical of Israel. On the other are many Jewish students who say the group has created a climate of intolerance and intimidation on campus.
If Concordia University has fallen under the shadow of convulsions in the Middle East, its student profile partly explains why. Fed in part by recent waves of immigrants and refugees from Arab countries, Concordia is now home to an estimated 5,000 Muslim students, one-fifth of the student body. Another 1,500 to 2,000 students are Jewish. And both groups have been caught in the aftermath of the second intifada (uprising) in September, 2000.
Noah Sarna is a fourth-year political science student who considers himself a liberal when it comes to Israel. He is in strong disagreement with the hawkish views of Mr. Netanyahu. But even he started to feel targeted as the mood shifted.
In recent years, he said, he has felt uncomfortable walking around campus with his skullcap, or kipa. "I used to walk around with a kipa and I didn't feel the tensions. But then, I started to notice the stares," he said. Mr. Sarna recalls one particular day in March as his "nightmare."
The Palestinian rights group created a mock graveyard in the main building, with elaborate headstones made of plastic foam. Each of the 44 graves was marked with the name and photo of a Palestinian killed by Israeli forces.
"Made in Israel," said the large sign behind it.
On the way out of the graveyard exhibit, students had to go through a checkpoint where they were made to produce identification papers and were inspected with a "metal detector" made of cardboard and duct tape. The same week, the Palestinian group staged mock military checkpoints in the building. Wearing army fatigues, they grilled students on their identities.
"We wanted people to pass through what the Palestinians are passing through every day," said Basel Al-Ken, president of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights. "We wanted to let them experience the occupation."
Last year, the Concordia student union, which included Palestinian supporters, produced a handbook titled Uprising, sparking an uproar. The handbook -- paid for with student dues -- praised the intifada, urged the burning of the Canadian flag, and featured an article entitled Arabophobia. It noted the fact that Concordia rector Frederick Lowy and provost Jack Lightstone are Jewish. Its author was a prominent student activist, Syrian-born Leith Marouf, who was at one point barred from campus along with another student after being accused of spray-painting anti-Israel graffiti and clashing with security guards.
The atmosphere has tested the university, which has always fostered a reputation as a pluralistic and accommodating institution, but has now found itself mediating a dispute from halfway around the world. "I should be doing stuff like improving services, but I've spent more time in the last two years troubleshooting on this issue than anything else," said Donald Boisvert, dean of students.
"Some days, it's really depressing. Some days, it's really draining," he said. "Not that I'm going to make the world better, but I'd like people to at least live together on this campus. But what happens over there [the Middle East]has a direct impact here."
Concordia administrators spend hours fielding aggressive e-mails and personal insults, sorting out disputes between the feuding sides.
Last year, Arab students objected to posters for a Hillel-sponsored speaker in which there was a reference to "Palestinian terrorism." University administrators intervened and the wording was changed to "Palestinian Authority terrorism."
Hillel students were, in turn, upset about a poster for a lecture sponsored by Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights featuring a bulldozer atop a pile of corpses. The Jewish group felt it evoked disturbing images from the Holocaust. The poster was judged to be targeting a state, not people, and was not changed. "I'm kind of like the buffer, the DMZ," Mr. Boisvert said. "It wears you down after a while."
Concordia has always prided itself as Montreal's non-establishment "people's university", welcoming students from generally humbler backgrounds than those found at neighbouring McGill. From the 1920s to the early fifties, Jews who found doors closed to them at McGill because of quotas turned to Sir George Williams University, Concordia's precursor. One Sir George alumnus was author Mordecai Richler, who grew up in the tough neighbourhood around Montreal's St. Urbain Street and who criticized the quotas at the more elite university.
"Sir George Williams was always a second-chance university," said Ira Robinson, a Concordia religion professor. "When McGill had quotas, there were a lot of Jewish students for whom Sir George represented that second chance -- and they took it."
Other students have arrived: older students, immigrant students, many of them holding down a job and too busy to get involved in student government, which is left to a hardy core. One in four students today has a mother tongue other than English or French.
Concordia has always been buffeted by social currents from the outside world. In 1969, students took over several floors of the Hall Building, the centrepiece of the cosmopolitan downtown campus, and, in a protest against a professor's alleged racism, threw thousands of computer data cards out the windows in what became known as the computer riot.
The present conflict has cemented Concordia's reputation as the seat of tough pro-Palestinian militancy and has sparked interest from campuses abroad.
"Human-rights activists love this school, all around the country, all around the States as well," said Samer Elatrash, a Palestinian student of English literature who was one of the organizers of this week's protest. "They love the way Concordia activists refuse to acquiesce to hate speech, they refuse to acquiesce to oppression."
Activism on behalf of the Palestinians has also fused with forces in Montreal opposing globalization. Mr. Elatrash, who has been an activist squatter, is also a member of Anti-Capitalist Convergence, the group that spearheaded recent antiglobalization protests. And Monday's demonstration brought out in many veterans of the antiglobalization movement, such as Jaggi Singh.
It was against this backdrop that the clock began to tick on Mr. Netanyahu's visit.
About six weeks before his arrival, the Asper Foundation, headed by CanWest Global Communications chairman Israel Asper, approached members of Montreal's Jewish community about their interest in having Mr. Netanyahu speak. The foundation was already organizing a visit by Mr. Netanyahu to Winnipeg.
Mr. Netanyahu has addressed Montreal's Jewish community several times without fuss, most recently at a private fundraising charity event this year. But this time, organizers decided to make a statement by staging it at Concordia.
"I thought it would energize the [Jewish]students and be a rallying point for the start of the school year," said Rabbi Reuben Poupko, who helped organize the Montreal visit. "It would be a day of pride for them."
From the moment word about the speech began to spread, protesters on the Palestinian side vowed to shut it down. In the days before Mr. Netanyahu's arrival, a notice was circulated among Montreal's Muslim and leftist Web sites, announcing that a "peaceful protest" would be organized to counter the event. At the same time, the announcement made it clear that "the intention of this demonstration is to stop Netanyahu from speaking."
If the visit was indeed designed to "energize" the Jewish community, it enraged pro-Palestinian activists.
"It was a calculated provocation to bring a person who is despised by Palestinian students, Arab students and all humanist students," Mr. Elatrash said. He added that Hillel, sponsors of the event, urged members to claim tickets for the limited-seating event ahead of time. "The access was restricted, so the vast majority of students who were in the auditorium were Zionist supporters," he said.
In a bid to defuse a potentially explosive situation, rector Lowy and other senior administration members urged Montreal organizers to move Mr. Netanyahu's speech to Concordia's Loyola campus, a leafy, expansive site more than seven kilometres from downtown.
The organizers refused.
"We felt it would be a victory for intimidation," Rabbi Poupko said. "You don't cave."
As the day of the speech dawned, 150 security officers from the Montreal police force, the RCMP and the university began to mass around Concordia. Riot police lined up in full gear in the street, while other officers stood watch from rooftops around the Hall Building, where the former prime minister was to speak.
At first, protests were spirited but contained, with pro-Palestinian demonstrators waving flags and shouting anti-Israel slogans. But emotions flared. Security began to break down.
As people tried to enter the building for the speech, protesters, encouraged by organizers on megaphones, resisted and blocked the way. A Montreal rabbi's skullcap was ripped from his head. Thomas Hecht, a Holocaust survivor who heads the Canada-Israel Committee's Quebec branch, was pushed against a wall, spat on and reportedly kicked in the groin.
As several Arab women locked arms to prevent people from entering the building, some Jewish students tried to stop them by groping their chests, Mr. Elatrash alleged.
One journalist who witnessed the incident from up close gave a different account, however. He said one Arab woman did at some point yell that she was being touched. However, the reporter believed that the touching was accidental, as the throngs on both sides, hemmed in by police barriers, were jostling against each other.
Mr. Elatrash said protesters were provoked by Jewish students who were hurling racial epithets at them.
" 'Suicide bomber. Terrorists. Insects.' Things of that sort, standard features of any Zionist lexicons," he said.
In the tumult, protesters managed to enter the building through Java U, a campus café. They swarmed the escalators leading to the lobby where Mr. Netanyahu was to speak.
Meanwhile, Mr. Netanyahu was waiting in the fern-filled Jardin du Ritz restaurant, a flew blocks away. At regular intervals, RCMP officers came in with updates on the security meltdown.
"The officers kept saying condition red, condition red," recalled Rabbi Poupko, who was with Mr. Netanyahu. They said, 'You can't go; there are demonstrations; you can't get through.'"
The protest had spun so far out of control that the Mounties were considering getting Mr. Netanyahu into his auditorium by way of an underground tunnel. But the plan was never executed. Unable to ensure his safety, the Mounties and Concordia decided to cancel the speech.
In the aftermath, the university has slapped a moratorium on events related to the Middle East, and it cancelled an appearance this past Thursday by U.S. professor Norman Finkelstein, a fierce critic of Israel. But no one believes the wounds from last Monday will disappear anytime soon.
Patrick Amar, a Concordia student who headed Hillel last year, said that until Monday, relations with Arab and pro-Palestinian students were strained but civil. But he feels a change since that day.
"I witnessed real violence," he said yesterday. "For me, it's been a real loss of innocence about the world."