It was seven years ago this month – Sept. 9, 2002 – that a controversial speech planned by a student group at Concordia University turned into an out-of-control riot that became a major turning point in student politics.
For all the media attention it received, the Netanyahu riot didn’t cause much lasting physical damage. There were no serious injuries, and the 2008 Habs riot caused much more in the way of property damage than the two windows and emptied fire extinguisher cost Concordia. But the political and media fallout was enormous. The riot led to an unprecedented ban on all organized events related to Middle East issues on campus. After that ban was lifted a few weeks later, the Concordia Student Union pounced on a controversial flyer and some amateur legal analysis to hastily suspend the Jewish student group Hillel. The next spring, students voted en masse to expel the left-wing radicals in charge of student politics. For the next half-decade, students continually decided that a corrupt moderate student government was still better than bringing the leftists back.
Two documentaries were produced about the Netanyahu riot and the political conflict around it.
One was called “Confrontation at Concordia”, by Martin Himel, which aired on Global TV. There’s no official version online, but it was uploaded to Google Video in its entirety (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5) by a white supremacist group (it’s unclear whether they take the side of the Jews or Palestinians in this debate – one would assume they despise both). Himel’s documentary makes Michael Moore look reasoned and unbiased. He clearly takes the side of Hillel, even comparing actions of Palestinian supporters on campus to actions in 1930s Germany that preceded the Holocaust, asking rhetorically how far Concordia’s tensions could escalate in comparison. The film invites experts from only one side of the debate, and includes a lot of voiceovers in which Himel makes bold statements based solely on his own opinion. Himel even appears multiple times to talk into the camera.
The documentary caused outrage among Concordia’s left, and even moderates (such as myself) decried it as biased. It was the subject of complaints to both the Quebec Press Council and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. Both dismissed the majority of the complaints, finding only that Himel and Global should have made it clear to viewers that this was a point-of-view opinion documentary and not a news piece.
The other documentary, called Discordia, was a production of the National Film Board and the CBC. Directors Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal took a radically different approach to their film, focusing it more on three figures involved and the personal, emotional rollercoaster they went through in those months. Addelman and Mallal do not appear in their own film, and there are no voiceovers. Only a few subtitles give dry, matter-of-fact statements. All the opinion is given by the three stars: Noah Sarna of Hillel, Samer Elatrash of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, and Aaron Maté of the Concordia Student Union. Though it is slightly biased to the pro-Palestinian side because two of those three are on one side of the debate, the film makes no grand hyperbolic statements and gives no clue to its directors’ political views.
Neither documentary, of course, tells the whole story. Such a thing would be impossible in an hour-long film. But the latter, at least, gives a slice of the nuances of the debate, while the former shows the real (if outrageously exaggerated) fears that Israel’s supporters had about what was going on at the activist university.
Concordia has calmed down considerably in those seven years, so the closest the younger generation will get to the “viper’s nest” is through such historical documents.