This is not a terrorist camp

“Anyone want some oranges?” We have too much…” June* offers fruit around. Since Saturday, the occupants of the pro-Palestinian encampment at McGill have received so many donations that they no longer know what to do with them. Jugs of water. Energy drinks. Tim Hortons coffee. Waterproof ponchos. Toe warmers.

Inside the muddy encampment, students spread sleeping bags on ropes, in the somewhat vain hope of drying them between two showers. The torrential rains of the previous night got the better of a few tents, but not the determination of their occupants.

“There are Jews, Muslims, anarchists, people you never thought you would see together, but here we are all together for the same cause, it’s super beautiful,” June, a student, told me. of Palestinian origin.

“We really feel loved and supported. There is a whole community around us,” adds Blue*, another student. She has been there since the first day of the occupation and plans to stay until the last, because she wants to be able to look back on her life, later, by telling herself that she contributed to changing the world.

These are specimens of this type – young, idealistic, pacifist – that I observed on Tuesday on the McGill campus.

I therefore find it very difficult to reconcile my observations with those of the University, according to which “it is undeniable that these camps contravene both the freedom to make one’s voice heard and the freedom to assemble peacefully”.

That’s not at all what I saw or heard.

McGill claims to have viewed videos containing “blatantly anti-Semitic remarks”. It’s possible – and totally reprehensible, if that’s the case. But this is not what Scott Weinstein observed, a Montreal Jew who has spent his entire days at the camp since Saturday to support the demonstrators. “There are no threats to Jews,” he assures, “no threats to students. »

Scott Weinstein challenges University to release incriminating videos. He doesn’t believe it. And even if it were true… it would not be representative of what is happening right now on the downtown Montreal campus.

McGill University made a serious mistake by requesting the intervention of the police to dismantle the encampment. You only have to look at what’s happening in New York to see what a bad idea this is.

Columbia University, the epicenter of the pro-Palestinian student movement, hoped to nip the protest in the bud. As of April 18, she called on the New York police to clean up her campus: 108 students were arrested, the first time since the protests against the Vietnam War. Dozens more were on Tuesday evening.

Columbia claimed the protesters posed a “danger.” However, according to New York police, the students arrested two weeks ago were peaceful.

By trying to stifle the movement, Columbia only succeeded in adding fuel to the fire of student anger. And not just in New York.

The intervention of the riot police caused a national shock. Other pro-Palestinian encampments began to spring up – first at Columbia, again, then on dozens of other American campuses. On Saturday, the movement reached Montreal. It has probably not finished expanding.

On April 23, 1968, Columbia students were the first to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. History has proven them right. Columbia even installed a plaque to commemorate this blessed time when brave young people were not afraid to stand up to the establishment…

At the time, it must be said, the students were rowing against the tide. In 1969, three-quarters of Americans disapproved of their protests against the Vietnam War, according to a CBS poll conducted that year.

According to another survey, in 1968, a large majority of Americans blamed students for the Kent State massacre. The National Guard, called to the campus of this Ohio university, opened fire on the crowd; four students had died. And they had been looking for it, most of their fellow citizens believed!

Fifty-four years later, Republican Senators Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley are calling on President Joe Biden to deploy the National Guard on campus to put down once and for all the students who are demanding an end to another war, in Gaza.

And I have the impression that, if we did a poll, a good portion of Americans would perfectly agree with that.

Universities are right not to tolerate any violence or hate speech. They are worried about the climate that pro-Palestinian camps risk creating on their campuses. We understand: since the outbreak of this war by Hamas on October 7, tensions have continued to rise, to the point where Jewish students no longer feel safe in their own universities.

But freedom of expression is worthless if it is tolerated on the sole condition that it does not disturb anyone. The vast majority of pro-Palestinian students make comments that are disturbing and critical of Israel’s policies… without these comments constituting hate speech.

Scott Weinstein, the Jewish activist we met at McGill, thinks that too many politicians and institutions tend to accuse people of anti-Semitism in an attempt to censor any criticism of Israel. He believes that the “war crimes” perpetrated there are dangerously fueling anti-Semitism here. “It worries me a lot, a lot,” he whispers.

We can agree, or not, with his point of view. We can debate it vigorously.

But we can’t send the cops to him.

On the McGill campus, I have not seen students glorifying Hamas or calling for the Israeli people to be annihilated. I haven’t seen anyone advocating terrorism.

I saw students demanding, with all the idealism of their youth, an end to a war that transformed the Gaza Strip into a field of ruins.

Who knows, in a few decades, perhaps they will be remembered as these brave young people who were not afraid to stand up to the establishment…

*The students refused to give their real first names for fear of reprisals.


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