MONTREAL — The consuls general of both Israel and Egypt were confronted with heated questions at a Concordia University event organized by a pro-Israel student club.
The Egyptian envoy, Amin Meleika, was disparaged by some students for sitting at the same table as an Israeli diplomat, for his defence of Egypt’s ruling military council and his Mubarak-era connections, while the Israeli Joel Lion faced accusations about his country’s alleged aggression against civilians in Gaza and doubts about Jewish national rights.
The situation, however, never got out of hand, thanks to polite but firm chairing by Dana Remer and Ehle Shachter, co-presidents of Concordia Students for Israel (CSI). The group was formed last semester by students of varying political leanings as an “educational initiative” and to encourage dialogue.
The March 14 event, which was open to anybody, was held in the seventh-floor Concordia Student Union lounge, with visible security. About 100 students attended, exceeding the number of chairs set up.
It was publicized as being co-sponsored with the Concordia Egyptian Students Association, but Remer said the group pulled out the morning of the event.
Remer said she respected that decision and credited the 15 or so members who did attend with helping to calm things down when questioning was becoming hostile.
The scheduled discussion on the importance of peace between Israel and Egypt was overshadowed by the Islamist-led Egyptian parliament’s anti-Israel resolution earlier in the week and renewed fighting between Israel and Gaza terrorists.
It was also taking place while Israeli Apartheid Week continued at Concordia with an exhibition at the McConnell building.
Meleika, who has been in Montreal since December 2010, described the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, although limited, as still being in the interest of both countries.
However, whatever regime comes to power in his country will be “taking into account the opinions of the man on the street” and that is turning against Israel, he said, because they see Gaza Palestinians as being “punished for matters that are out of their hands…”
“Egyptians always thought that the treaty would lead to a broader regional settlement, particularly of the Palestinian question,” he said, adding that “disunity and mistakes” among Palestinians is also to blame.
Meleika said Egyptians today are about equally divided among those who want to keep the treaty, those who want it repealed, and those who don’t know. If Israel and the Palestinians achieved a lasting peace, polls indicate that roughly 40 per cent of Egyptians would support maintaining their treaty with Israel.
Lion said that sitting together with his Egyptian counterpart shows that, at the official level, the two states can disagree without resorting to violence.
However, the ties between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is gaining support in Egypt, have Israel wondering how much longer it can trust that country, he said.
The first to ask questions were two women wearing the hijab. One, incensed by the Egyptian and Israeli flags side by side, started yelling at Meleika in Arabic.
“I did not organize this event, I was invited to participate,” he replied. “It is my job to talk about the situation in Egypt and to present the government’s policies in all its aspects, including the treaty. I did not force you, I did not ask you, to come here.”
Lion, not quite as coolly as Meleika, responded to comments about Israeli armed forces allegedly killing civilians: “As I always tell my own people: Don’t believe your own propaganda.”
He contended Palestinian terrorists use civilians as “human shields,” hiding munitions in residential neighbourhoods, even schools. Israel has no choice to strike there if it is to defend itself, he said.
On the other hand, Gazans are targeting missiles at Israeli citizens, he said.
“We are family. We have to find a way. I respect the Palestinian people and their right to an independent state. They must accept Israel as the state of the Jewish nation… There is no other solution but one state for each people… A bi-national state is not viable,” Lion said.
Many students stayed behind after the formal session gathering around each of the diplomats to continue the discussion in a less heated manner.
Concordia fine arts professor David Pariser, active with the pro-Israel Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, called the event “a red-letter day for Concordia.”
“There was arguing and shouting, but overall it was a civil discourse,” he said in an interview. “There could have been a disaster here, things could have gotten out of control, but the students agreed to disagree. You can’t expect better than that.”
Remer was also pleased at the conclusion.
Asked if she thought unnecessary risk had been taken in staging such an open event, Remer said, “One of the problems on this campus and in the city is that people are afraid of yelling or repercussions or of a repeat of 2002 [a reference to the violent protest against Benjamin Netanyahu]. We want people to not be fearful. We knew that the second Israel comes up there will be emotion, but this was in a civilized, academic manner.
“We also had confidence that when we asked people to step down, they would, even if it was not right away.”