And now, to write about what happened tonight at Concordia:
I arrived at about a quarter to five, unsure what to expect in terms of turnout – after all, this event had been organized less than 24 hours in advance, and students are in the middle of final exams. No sooner did I get there but I caught sight of people walking in with sound equipment and others carrying large Israeli flags. After a few minutes went by, the crowd in the lobby began multiplying exponentially. There was a bit of confusion as to the location of the event, and then everyone was asked to enter the H-110 auditorium and have a seat. By the time the event began, the auditorium was more than half full; by the time it ended, it was well over three-quarters. Definitely an amazing accomplishment in terms of sheer numbers!
Noah Sarna, co-president of Concordia Hillel, spoke first. He welcomed everyone and thanked them for coming, and told us that we were there to celebrate our freedom, just as the Maccabees proclaimed theirs. Noah spoke briefly but powerfully, and then passed the microphone over to the president of McGill Hillel.
He spoke more at length about the issues that Concordia is facing, and how this is big news not only at Concordia, but at McGill, in the greater Montreal Jewish community, across Canada, the US, Europe, Israel, and around the world. “We are a small people,” he said, “with Am Echad, Lev Echad – one nation, one heart!” (Judging by the amount of e-mails of support I’m receiving from around the world, I’d have to say he’s right).
Next to speak was Rabbi Reuven Poupko, who is very active in community and campus affairs. Rabbi Poupko definitely knows how to work a crowd. He spoke passionately about how targeting Hillel is antisemitism, no matter how the CSU tries to cloak it. He said that Hillel is being targeted not because of any law, but because it is a Jewish students’ organization. And that the CSU only believes in freedom of speech when it agrees with what is being said.
At that point, some pro-Palestinian hecklers began shouting from the back of the auditorium, hoping to agitate the crowd. At first, heads turned as they distracted us. Rabbi Poupko addressed them directly, claiming that if they truly believed in freedom of speech and democracy, they would be right down there in support of Hillel. He then began talking about how there is no democracy or freedom in most of the Arab world, and how despite the abuses and lack of freedom, the words “human rights” are only used in the context of criticizing Israel. “When democracy and freedom comes to the Arab nations of the Middle East,” he shouted over the heckling, “then there will be peace!” This drew loud cheers and a standing ovation, but it wasn’t as loud as the cheering when he declared, shouting into the microphone, “AM YISRAEL CHAI!”
That was the signal for the time to light the menorah. The crowd was implored to ignore the hecklers and face the front, and Hillel led everyone in the singing of the Chanukah brachot while they lit the electric menorah. The singing drowned out whatever heckling was still going on – which was minimal – and as soon as we finished the brachot, we went straight into Chanukah songs – Maoz Tzur, for example – and then began singing Israeli folk songs, leading off with “Am Yisrael Chai”. Dancing broke out at the front, with circles of men and women doing the hora around the Israeli flag. Everyone stood and clapped and sang along.
This went on for about twenty minutes. Then, Noah Sarna once again stepped to the microphone and thanked everyone for being there, and stressed the importance of leaving peacefully and not getting drawn into a fight. Before we left, we all stood and sang Hatikvah together, proclaiming once and for all that the Jewish voices at Concordia will not be silenced!
The scene in the lobby afterwards was pretty calm, with most people just talking amongst themselves and their friends. At one point, I saw people with cameras running outside. I followed to see what was going on. A police car was there. I couldn’t see that well because of the crowd but apparently, Palestinian activist Samer Elatrash was arrested, ostensibly for violating the terms of his bail (after being arrested for participating in the anti-Netanyahu violence on September 9th, he’s only allowed on campus for classes and exams). The cameras seemed to be busy interviewing Elatrash’s buddies, and I’m sure that that’s the message that the mainstream media will carry – not the overwhelming message of peace and freedom that the rally was all about. And as much as that bothers me, I know what I saw. I know what happened. And I think that despite efforts to disrupt things, Hillel and the Jewish community organized an event that was an overwhelming success.
I invite anyone who attended the event to e-mail me with their firsthand accounts. I’m only one person, with two eyes and two ears (and no camera), so the more stories the better. If you give me permission I’ll post them.
Concordia has been hijacked. It’s time to reclaim it as an environment of equality, openness, and freedom for all.
Update: I accidentally and erroneously referred to Samer Elatrash as a CSU vice-president. This is incorrect. The reference has been removed, and I apologize for the error. Mr. Elatrash is, in fact, a former member of the CSU council of representatives, not of the executive.