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Community of Tolerance

Guest Column
James Vanzo

I’ll admit that since coming to MIT, I haven’t paid much attention to news from the “outside.” It took something big -- and close to home -- to break my isolation and ignorant bliss. Being from Burlington, Vermont, a story from nearby Montreal caught my eye. On September 9, according to Canada’s National Post, “Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to abandon a speaking engagement at Concordia University after what organizers billed as ‘a peaceful information picket’ broke into a riot at the downtown Montreal campus. Concordia officials called off the event after some 200 Palestinian supporters smashed through the glass facade of the building where Mr. Netanyahu was scheduled to speak.” Irrespective of one’s home, this story cannot help but hit very close.

The rest of the story went on to describe the horrifying situation that Jewish students and other Montreal residents were put in. Sara Ahronheim describes how she barely managed to make it into the auditorium before protesters cut off any entrance to the building. Once inside, she says, “Chaos broke out and riot cops made us run for the door to the auditorium -- I thought I was going to get killed, I swear.” A fight ensued between the police and the protesters who had broken into the building.

Police finally managed to secure the situation outside. The people who had made it inside waited for three hours before they were let back out, in groups of 10, to the now barricaded mob. The Jews were spit on, shouted at, and assaulted with coins. As they made their way through, they sang Hebrew songs. Dalia Lubell said, “We were trying to show that peace is possible.” The response of a protester who refused to give his name was, “Israeli provocation, as usual.” When reading the story, I couldn’t help but see mental images of the Little Rock Nine.

Netanyahu, who was guarded in his hotel all day, was disappointed, but found some good in the situation. “[Canadians] were given an opportunity to see firsthand the mad zealotry that endangers our world. That same mentality -- whose offshoot you see here -- runs sovereign states, and those states are amassing weapons of mass destruction.”

The horror of this story is especially exemplified in the incident of Thomas Hecht, a 73-year old Jew who attempted to attend the lecture. In his words, “It was 1939 Europe all over again.” According to the National Post, “About 25 protesters screaming ‘Palestinian Checkpoint!’ encircled Mr. Hecht, a Czechoslovakian-born Holocaust survivor, as he attempted to enter the Hall Building. Several protesters pushed him against a wall, spitting on him and kicking his ankles.” A shaken Mr. Hecht responded to the assault saying, “This is a violation of all that Canadians value.”

Sara Ahronheim says, “If we cannot express ourselves here in Canada, champion of free speech and human rights, where on earth can we do so? If we cannot feel safe in our own cities where we have grown up and thrived, where are we to go?” It is shocking to me that such an incident could occur in Canada, one of the world’s foremost democracies, and especially in Montreal, a place where diversity and tolerance are expounded virtues. What occurs to me as even scarier is the possibility that such a thing could happen here. I can’t help but think of last week, when “Jews for Jesus” adopted the in-your-face tactic in dispersing anti-Semitic material. I’m not Jewish, but I can imagine that it would feel pretty horrible to have propaganda declaring how evil I am shoved in my face and the faces of my peers.

Ahronheim asked where in the world it is safe for her. If Canada is not that place, can America be? Can we here at MIT be that place? We have an Israeli lecture series coming up in October -- I can only trust in the reasoning minds of my fellow students. I absolutely believe that there will be no problem, but I think a more important question to ask is, if we are to be leaders in the world, are we the kind of people who will work against such “mad zealotry” as caused the Montreal riot? I have faith -- I believe that MIT students are the brightest in the world. If the same powers of reasoning that are applied in solving complex scientific problems are put to use in determining how we deal with other people, only the best can prevail. David Battistuzzi, a protester, said, “There’s no free speech for hate speech.” I think it’s good advice.

James Vanzo is a member of the Class of 2006.