Members of the group Israel on Campus (IOC) at the University of Western Ontario are calling on their student council to respond to an anti-Israel protest that violated Western’s building usage policy.
On Feb. 1, IOC organized a tabling event beginning at 9 a.m. in the atrium of Western’s University Community Centre (UCC) to celebrate Israeli culture, film, music and food.
IOC president Sara Gurza said each student group is granted permission by the University Students’ Council (USC) to present a display in the school’s atrium.
“This was our day to have that space, and we chose to celebrate our culture. We like to create a very apolitical environment for the day so we can engage as many people as possible,” Gurza said.
She said that at around 1:30 p.m., members of the campus group Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), as well as members of the Occupy London movement, approached their display holding signs and wearing duct tape over their mouths.
The signs included messages such as “Israel steals 83 per cent of Palestinian water,” and “You can’t sugarcoat apartheid.”
“They fully blocked our display so that no one could see it,” Gurza said.
“We approached them and said, ‘We’re trying to celebrate our culture. Why are you protesting this?’”
Aubrey Chapnick, a third-year business student and an IOC member, said he tried to engage the 30 protesters in conversation, but they refused to speak to him.
“We asked them, ‘Why are your mouths taped up? We want to talk to you. It’s the only way the peace process can work. They wouldn’t talk to us. They would only talk to the media,” Chapnick said.
“We weren’t doing anything political. None of our material had a political slant. But this group of students took it upon themselves to make it political.”
Gurza added that there was nothing controversial about the IOC message.
“Literally, we were celebrating our culture, so it was very upsetting.”
One of the protesters, Sumbal Sabah, said the demonstration was planned in solidarity with Palestinians.
“Israel can continue to enjoy its freedoms – cultural, educational, economical freedoms – at the expense of millions of Palestinians who continue to suffer,” Sabah told The CJN in an e-mail.
“The students who took part did so out of respect for Palestinians, not hatred for Israel.”
Gurza said she complained to Mark Wellington, the USC’s senior manager of student life, that the protesters were violating her club’s right to hold an event and therefore violating school policy.
According to Western’s building usage policy, “counter-programming and protesting are not allowed on the same day as the programmed event…” and “no individual or group shall… distribute posters, banners, flyers, handbills or any other printed material without prior written approval of the USC.”
Gurza said Wellington called campus police to monitor the protest and ensure it didn’t cross the line into a physical confrontation.
“I was speaking with the campus police, and they said that because it was peaceful they didn’t do anything, but what I want to stress is that the members of SPHR violated the policy. You’re not allowed to counter-protest, especially without approval,” Gurza said.
“My biggest concern is that they violated these policies, and the USC has to make sure that these policies are enforced.”
But Chapnick explained that the SPHR members may have found a loophole that could let them off the hook.
“No particular group took ownership of the protest, so technically, [USC] can’t sanction the group, because they didn’t take responsibility for it,” he said.
USC president Andrew Forgione said the council “is currently investigating whether or not any USC clubs had direct involvement in the protest.”
He added that if it can be proven that SPHR used club resources to support the protest, his office will file a complaint to the USC’s clubs governance committee (CGC) for review.
“CGC can authorize the sanctioning of a USC club – sanctions that can range from prohibitions to probation to de-ratification,” Forgione said.
London Jewish Campus Services executive director Naomi Mazer condemned SPHR for its “clear violation of university space policy.
“The administration must ensure that their policies regarding space are enforced and that SPHR face disciplinary action for their despicable behaviour, which was an embarrassment for the entire student body.”