2003 & 2004 documentaries reflect ongoing Israeli-Palestinean debates within Concordia

Netanyahu’s invitation to Concordia in 2002 sparked debate and controversy that divided the student body; which remains divided

Graphic by Joey Bruce

On Sept. 9, 2002, current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited to give a lecture at Concordia University by the Jewish Student Union.

Pro-Palestinian students rioted in front of the university on the day of the scheduled lecture in order to prevent Netanyahu from speaking. 

Many pro-Palestinian Concordians were against this riot due to supposed freedom of speech violations. Nonethless, I believe Palestinians had the right to be outraged that Netanyahu, a then-former Israeli Prime Minister known for opposing the 1993 Israel-PLO peace accords that could have ended the Israeli Palestinian conflicts, was invited to Concordia. He was, and still is, considered to be a war criminal who is responsible for the killings of nearly 3 500—and counting—Palestinian civilians and soldiers.

Discordia, directed by Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal, and produced by the National Film Board of Canada, filmed this riot, as well as events that ensued.

On the day of the scheduled lecture, rioters went to extreme lengths to prevent visitors from attending Netanyahu’s talk at Concordia; from spitting on attendees, to smashing windows.

The police got involved when rioters became violent. They started hitting, pushing, and tackling rioters to the floor in order to arrest them. Eventually, the police made Concordia cancel the lecture for safety reasons. 

As seen in Discordia, the Jewish students were angered that Netanyahu’s lecture was cancelled. Instead of attempting to understand why pro-Palestinian Concordians had revolted, they decided that the riot was a display of anti-semitism and pure hatred. 

To be fair, many rioters displayed hateful behaviour, and one allegedly punched an elderly man. While calling out violent behaviour is certainly necessary, it is important to make the distinction between the very small Concordian minority that may “hate” Jewish Concordians and the vast majority that simply wants justice for Palestine.  

When the announcement that Netanyahu would not be giving his lecture was made, Sameer Elatrash, a spokesperson for the rioters, affirmed that justice had been served. He told the filmmakers of Discordia that the rioters felt a sense of accomplishment.

Elatrash would later be accused of anti-semitism, as the documentary shows. He explained to the filmmakers that he had never said or written anything anti-semetic.

“It’s a very convenient explanation,” Elatrash elaborated. “If you’re going to be an apologist for Israel and the occupation, you have to deny that there is any Palestinian suffering [...] You have to furnish another explanation to why Palestinians are revolting, and that, of course, is that Palestinians are simply anti-semetic. Why else would they revolt?”

Indeed, with the history the Jewish people have, it is very difficult for non-Jews to defend themselves when they are called anti-semetic. Jewish people have the right, of course, to call out anti-semetism, which is still very prominent in society. However, when they intentionally misconstrue criticism towards Israel as anti-semetism, then their argument becomes one of bad faith.  And how can one debate these bad faith arguments?

“If you’re going to be an apologist for Israel and the occupation, you have to deny that there is any Palestinian suffering [...] You have to furnish another explanation to why Palestinians are revolting, and that, of course, is that Palestinians are simply anti-semetic. Why else would they revolt?” — Sameer Elatrash

Shortly after the lecture was cancelled, Elatrash and Aaron Maté, the Vice-President of the Concordia Student Union (CSU) at the time—who actually opposed the riot—were suspended from Concordia.

The fact that Maté, a Jewish pro-Palestinian who opposed the riot, was arrested for “inciting violence” and then suspended is extremely illogical. The documentary actually shows that it was a young white woman who delivered the punch that broke the window- and Maté was nowhere near her. Nothing seemed to have happened to her or to the people allegedly responsible for spitting on, pushing, and punching attendees.

Maté, a Jewish pro-Palestinian activist, described how the CSU had been the subject of a lot of animosity over the past years due to its political affiliation with and support of Palestinian students. 

“People say things like ‘the Arab terrorists’, ‘the Arab fascists’, and ‘the Marxist-Arabist Cabal that runs the Concordia Student Union,’” he explained to the filmmakers. “These are words that you can find not just from individuals but reported in the press [sic].”  

The 2003 documentary Confrontation @ Concordia, directed by Hemel Martin, delivered a different viewpoint. Instead of being neutral like Discordia, it gave a strongly negative narration of the events, which caused a lot of controversy at the time of its release. The documentary accumulated a total of 19 complaints sent to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council within the span of a year. 

Aaron Maté later wrote an article for rabble.ca explaining how the documentary painted a very unfair picture of Concordia, and the Netanyahu protest. He also corrected some points that the documentary got wrong in its attempt to blindly oppose pro-Palestinian activists.

Indeed, Confrontation @ Concordia stigmatized pro-Palestinian activism within Concordia instead of separating the violent radicals from the movement. Very few pro-Palestinian Condordians became violent the day of Netanyahu’s scheduled lecture, but the documentary left a lasting impression that all pro-Palestinians within the University were violent terrorists, even likening the CSU to Nazis

The documentary was accused of giving more screen-time to supporters of Israel than to supporters of Palestine, and did not include Aaron Maté in interviews or discussions, proving its anti-Palestinian agenda. 

As Maté wrote in his article, “a program like Confrontation @ Concordia does nothing to combat anti-Semitism.” In fact, it exacerbates it by deliberately lying about the actions of pro-Palestinian activists. It further divides Palestinians and Israelis by turning them against each other instead of attempting to understand the anger of Palestinians, who felt betrayed by the University.

Furthermore, excluding Maté, who was a key figure at Concordia during his time there, from the documentary showed that Global TV’s agenda was not to provide a full picture of events, but rather to villainize pro-Palestinian Concordians. Moreover, this documentary was aired on Global TV, whose owner at the time, Israel Asper, helped organize Netanyahu’s invitation to Concordia.

“Concordia has been shaken by a groundswell of hatred and prejudice and that toxic atmosphere has spread to other universities across the continent,” explained the narrator of Confrontation @ Concordia in the wake of the riots that prevented Netanyahu from speaking at the University.

“[H]atred,” “prejudice,” and “toxic atmosphere” were qualifications the narrator attributed to the actions of the pro-Palestinians at Concordia rather than to the heated arguments both pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians were causing by refusing to listen to the other’s point of view. 

The pro-Palestinians were hardly prejudicial towards the pro-Israelis, they were simply beside themselves that these students were quite literally genocide apologists.

Why are these documentaries still so important nearly two decades later? Because the same protests are still taking place across the world today. Protests in support of Palestine have been happening in over 122 cities worldwide in May alone, and pro-Israel protests have also been occuring in cities like Montreal.

On May 16, 2021, pro-Palestinian protestors and pro-Israeli protestors violently clashed with each other in downtown Montreal. This led to the deployment of tear gas by police and at least one arrest.

The pro-Palestinian protestors were calling for Israel to stop bombing the Gaza Strip. During the past few months—and even weeks—the dial seems to have been turned all the way up. Israel has been initiating the most violent attacks in the history of the 73 year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

On May 16th, shortly before the protest, Israel had unleashed its deadliest strike yet, which killed 42 Palestinians. Twenty-four hours later, they continued the airstrikes.

The United States and Canada have stated multiple times throughout the past decades that they support a two-state solution, which they deem to be the most peaceful answer. However, support for a two-state solution has been steadily decreasing in both Palestine and Israel, with less than half the citizens of either country supporting it.

With the rise of the media’s attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel has proven time and time again that it has been unlawfully occupying Palestinian territories and bombing civilians. The world, including the USA and Canada, has been hesitant to denounce Israel’s actions out of fear of being labelled anti-semetic. 

If we must choose between being a genocide-apolologist and being an anti-Zionist, I don’t think it is a difficult choice.