A Montreal university has barred former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak from speaking on campus, igniting a storm over whether the institution is curbing free speech in the name of keeping peace on its politically fractious campus.
Concordia University, the site of violent clashes two years ago that scuttled a speech by former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, has turned down a request by a Jewish students group to have Mr. Barak deliver a lecture this month.
Concordia said that after consulting the RCMP and Montreal police it couldn't guarantee adequate security for the event, a decision that prompted condemnation from major Jewish groups in Montreal.
Federation CJA, the city's main philanthropic Jewish organization, accused Concordia in a statement of letting itself be "taken hostage by a small and violent group within its campus." They did not identify the group by name.
"A university is a place where students come to debate and challenge ideas from all angles," said Sylvain Abitbol, president of the group. "A lot of immigrants come to Canada because where they were coming from, they weren't allowed to debate things. Are we allowing some groups to bring their baggage with them?"
Concordia Hillel, the Jewish students group that had invited Mr. Barak, agreed to move the proposed venue for his speech to the university's sprawling Loyola campus in western Montreal, several kilometres from the compact downtown campus that erupted in violence before the appearance of Mr. Netanyahu on Sept. 9, 2002.
But Concordia said it still couldn't guarantee the safety of Mr. Barak, his audience, the campus's residential neighbourhood or several adjoining buildings, including one housing a campus daycare.
"We cannot deny that the events of Sept. 9, 2002, have influenced us," Michael Di Grappa, vice-president for services at Concordia, said at a news conference yesterday. "When we work with the RCMP, when we work with the Montreal police, we look at our facilities from the point of view of: 'What would happen if things go wrong?' "
Mr. Barak has appeared on several North American campuses in recent years, including at Yale two years ago and the University of Texas in April. The Texas university set up a designated area for protesters and Mr. Barak unexpectedly took a question from a Palestinian protester at the end of his speech.
The Montreal university, which praised Mr. Barak as a figure standing for "conciliation, understanding and negotiation," offered to co-sponsor a lecture in an outside location such as a downtown hotel or at Place des Arts. The offer was rejected. "That doesn't solve anything. It's a Band-Aid solution," said Jason Portnoy of Concordia Hillel, who has been organizing the Barak visit.
Mr. Barak's Labour Party headed Israel with a centre-left coalition from 1999 to 2001. He gained a dovish reputation for trying to negotiate a peace settlement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
But the head of a Palestinian rights group active at Concordia said he warned the university recently against staging the former leader's speech. Chadi Marouf, national director of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, said Mr. Barak's expansion of Jewish settlements and other actions belie his image as a dove.
"He is a war criminal and he shouldn't be allowed to speak at a public institution like Concordia," Mr. Marouf said. "Free speech is not unlimited in Canada. I'm glad they learned from their first mistake and came to their senses."
The latest furor is a setback for Concordia, which managed to restore calm on campus after being shaken by tensions reflecting the conflict in the Middle East. It has tried to steer a peaceful course between its Jewish student body and a large Muslim student population, which have found themselves at opposite sides of the conflict.