Jewish women occupy Israeli Consulate

A U of T student was among eight Jewish and Israeli women that occupied the Israeli Consulate yesterday for about two hours to protest the ongoing Israeli invasion into Gaza that has killed more than 700 people.

“It was an action in solidarity with the people of Gaza, we were there to demand that Israel stop its massacres,” said Jennifer Peto, a Master’s student at OISE. Peto was one of a group of ten women, led by Ryerson professor Judy Rebick.

The reasons for the protest were two-fold, said Rebick: “One was to bring attention to the fact that many Jews don’t agree with Israel, and that we’re only hearing one voice. The second is that we’re really upset about the assault on Gaza right now.” The Israeli Consulate responded by calling in the police.

Toronto Police seized the protesters for trespassing and causing a disturbance. “They handcuffed us and put us in a paddy wagon, I guess we were handcuffed for about an hour and a half, and then they let us go,” said Rebick.

Peto said they had no problems getting into the building in smaller groups, at around 10 a.m. “We had had valid reasons to get in, we are all Jewish so we were treated quite respectfully,” she said. “Israel is an apartheid state, so if you’re white and Jewish, they treat you extremely well. Some of us speak Hebrew and were able to do that. They treated us amazingly… At least until we sat down on the floor.”

Before the police entered the scene, said Peto, the consulate security grabbed her and tried to drag her out. “One of us was taking pictures,” she said. “He slapped her camera and she got hit in the face.”

The communications office at the Israeli Consulate did not return The Varsity’s phone calls.

Judith Deutsch, president of activist-prof group Science for Peace, was unable to get into the building. “All of us also felt that there was insufficient attention to the complicity of Canada not calling for a cease-fire,” said Deutsch. “Actually being the first country to withdraw funds in 2006 [when Hamas was elected] and not recognizing the government that was elected.”

Rebick pointed to Conservative MP Peter Kent, who blamed Hamas for Israeli shells that killed 40 Palestinians, including children, at a U.N. school in Gaza this week. She said the protest aimed to challenge the media’s distorted portrayal of the conflict. “It’s portrayed as a war between two equal forces, and the Israeli forces are overwhelmingly more armed more soldiers, they are disproportionately reacting to rockets that came before this happened, and they are killing civilians left, right and centre, and it’s not justified.”

Blues spike back

The Varsity Blues women’s volleyball team hosted the 18th annual National Invitational Tournament on January 2-4 at the Athletic Centre.

The Blues finished in second place with a 2-1 record, behind tournament champions the York Lions, who finished with a perfect 4-0 record.

In the tournament’s opening day, Toronto defeated the Winnipeg Wesman with a total of 3-1 (25-20, 20-25, 25-17, 25-22). On Saturday, U of T lost to the York Lions with a score of 1-3 (25-21,18-25, 16-25,19-25). The Blues finished the tournament with a 3-1 (26-24, 18-25, 25-17, 25-19) win over the Saint Mary’s Huskies.

“It was a great way to start the second season, especially since there was some tough sets that we won. We rose to the challenge, and in the finals we demonstrated our ability to play,” said head coach Kristine Drakich. “We felt very good; everyone put in a real team effort, everyone contributed. This helped us to get focused and prepared for the second half of the season.”

Fifth-year Blues star Caley Venn was named the tournament all-star for her incredible play throughout the weekend.

In the game against Saint Mary’s, Venn and Heather Bansley tallied 14 and 13 kills respectively.

Bansley is currently leading in the OUA, and second in the CIS, averaging 5.64 points per game. She has been selected to be part of the Canadian National Beach Volleyball team.

Club Profile: Medieval martial arts

A few mornings ago I was walking down a busy downtown street during rush hour. The world felt slow; cars crawled towards an unending stream of red lights, drivers planted in their seats. Out of nowhere, two young men on svelte road bikes appeared, weaving in and out of traffic. They were challenging one another, taunting and shouting, grinning maniacally all the while. Their enemy was the environment, and sure of victory, they approached the fight with reverence and respect. But make no mistake: they were enjoying the hell out of it.

Meeting David M. Cvet was kind of like seeing those two young men racing down the road: he is all sureness and energy, bound together in an enormous 6’7” frame. The progenitor of the AEMMA (pronounced ‘Emma’), or Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts, Cvet’s organization is dedicated to recreating the philosophies and combat techniques of l´arte dell´armizare, based on an early 15th-century manuscript by Fiore dei Liberi. It details in both verse and illustration various combat and defence techniques using weapons common to a medieval fighter: daggers, swords, spears, and poleaxes.

Cvet saw the manuscript while on contract work in Italy in the late 1990s and instantly realized he could combine his fascination of medieval history with his love of steel weaponry, especially swords. “I wanted to do a martial arts activity that is not a re-enactment,” he says, referring to places like Medieval Times, the suburban spectacle that has more in common with theatre than combat. Instead, he aimed to reconstruct the art from scratch, and to adhere to its concepts as closely as possible.

When he got back to Canada, Cvet recruited a few like-minded friends and began applying what he knew of the manuscript to his own training. He soon retired from his day job as an IT specialist and dedicated his life to spreading medieval martial arts throughout Toronto. AEMMA has since grown into a non-profit school where history buffs and weapons nuts alike can pursue the strengthening of one’s mind and body. A dedicated group of about 25 men and women now train several times a week. “It has to be a lifestyle choice,” says David. “My wife refers to AEMMA as the other woman.”

Like many of the Eastern martial arts, AEMMA incorporates three elements into its rigorous training: books, brain, and brawn. “Eighty per cent of fighting is inside your head. You want to look for opportunities to take advantage [of your opponent] and not turn it into a brawl.” Many of AEMMA’s members spend as much time wielding bookmarks as they do broadswords, and, according to Aaron Bolarhino, both are equally important.

An AEMMA member for four years, 21-year-old Aaron has received the rank of scholler, or scholar, an accomplishment earned by enduring savage bouts against several provosts¸ or masters, with a range of weapons of his choosing. He currently heads AEMMA UofT, and, with Cvet’s help, is recruiting on campus. “AEMMA is one of my favourite courses at U of T,” he says, referring to the heavy emphasis on studying the many theories associated with Fiore’s manuscript. He commutes from Kitchener twice a week to attend university, and to practice. Lean, muscular, and goateed, he comfortably embodies both the scholar and the martial artist persona that AEMMA nurtures. But, he assures me, it is the sheer exhilaration of the fight that keeps him coming back.

“Human beings are inherently violent,” says Cvet, smirking. “Here is a chance to turn that violence into something useful. It helps you grow as a person, and I tell you, when you get into a free play fight, and you’re doing armoured fencing with swords, with spears, it’s freakin’ intense. But you know what, all the while we’ve got a big smile on our face. It is just so much fun.”

Watch for AEMMA UofT around campus, and check out a real tournament on Saturday, March 21, at the ROM.

Faculty union, staffers wrangle over salary

Two unionized staffers at the University of Toronto Faculty Association aren’t happy about their salaries, and they are in a position to strike.

UTFA refused to increase the salary of one of the members. George Luste, president of UTFA, says salaries are determined by a grid system. “The position she holds falls in the third level of the grid,” said Luste. “Her pay is higher than that of her level. UTFA’s offer was to give her one-time-only supplements to her salary but not add to base until the grid increases catch up to her salary.”

Since a fixed percentage of each employee’s salary is put towards their pensions, the staff member feels the salary dispute directly affects her pension.

“Although there is no literal reduction in these contributions, not increasing her salary affects the overall amount contributed towards her pension,” said Jim Morrison, the CUPE National Representative. The UTFA employees belong to CUPE 1281. “It was written in the collective agreement that there would be a 1% increase in her salary, which the UTFA want to remove,” he added.

Both sides have been negotiating the issue since before the winter break.

“We are willing to talk,” said Morrison, “The last thing we want to do is to strike.”

These negotiations come at time when UTFA is trying to negotiate for the faculty and librarians it represents.

“There is a difference between the academic and office staff,” said Luste. “The two negotiations can’t be compared. The salary systems are not the same.”

Morrison said the staffers’ demands are comparable to workers in the same sector. Considering the contracts only affects two members, Morrison said, “I don’t see what the big deal is.”

CUPE expects a response from their latest proposal this week.

North of the 49th parallel lies affordable education

It turns out Canada is more than just a destination for draft dodgers and war resisters. With lower tuition costs and a strong U.S. dollar, American students are turning to Canadian universities as an affordable alternative to U.S. colleges.

According to the Boston Globe, the number of Americans attending Canadian universities has risen by 50 per cent since 2001. The average tuition for undergraduate international students is $14,487 (US), far less than what American private schools and some public universities ask for.

Canadians universities are also less competitive.

In recent years, schools like U of T, McGill, and Concordia have seen a new level of interest from Americans, especially from students in the Boston area attracted to the cosmopolitan setting and proximity of Toronto and Montreal.

Iran jails Toronto blogger

Popular Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakshan has been detained on accusations of spying for Israel, Iran confirmed on Dec. 30.

The U of T sociology grad was deemed the “Blogfather” ever since he ignited the blog boom in Iran in 2001, after publishing instructions online on how to type in Persian characters.

Judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi told reporters that Derakhshan was charged with insulting religious figures.

Derakhshan also defied Iranian law when he made high-profile visits to Israel. His aim was to break taboo contacts with Israel, and to give Israelis a different view of Iran.

“Too bad, I don’t care,” Derakshan blogged afterwards. “I’m a citizen of Canada and I have the right to visit any country I want.”

Iran views Israel as its archenemy and states that it has forbidden Israeli spy networks in the country.The Toronto Sun reported that Derakshan could face execution. A foreign affairs ministry spokesperson said Ottawa is keeping tabs on the matter.

Inoculation not so innocuous

I’m certainly not the only one who’s been irritated by the barrage of government-sponsored Gardasil ads that littered our airwaves and newspapers throughout the past year. The tone of these ads is frustrating in itself, as the drug’s spokeswoman attributes her decision to take the vaccine to her superior intellect. “Because I’m smart,” she says—the implication being that non-vaccinated females must be the opposite.

Gardasil, of course, is not a medical label. Rather, it’s a product name, referring specifically to the cervical cancer vaccine produced by Merck & Co. In light of the extensive recalls and lawsuits surrounding its Vioxx painkillers, Gardasil has risen to become Merck’s bread and butter as far as revenue streams are concerned. The fact that our own government has paved the way for this revenue stream by providing Merck with a ready-made market monopoly and a young, non-skeptical consumer base is enough to suggest a strong ethical conflict.

The other side of the conflict is a strong case in favour of the product. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is conclusively shown to be a precursor of cervical cancer. As its ads prominently state, Gardasil is 100 per cent effective against strains of HPV that account for 70 per cent of cervical cancers. Since it is only effective if taken before one becomes sexually active, why should the government not want to administer such an effective vaccine to all young girls?

Cause for skepticism emerges when one looks at the numbers that Merck hasn’t reported in its promotional material. Approximately .06 per cent of those vaccinated with Gardasil were found to experience harmful symptoms, including paralysis and death. The drug’s supporters will say that this small rate of harm is justified by the greater good of nationwide vaccination against cervical cancer. Is it?

While cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in females worldwide, it is less pervasive in Canada. It comes in at a close tie for third, alongside lung cancer and behind breast and colorectal cancers. Overall, cervical cancer accounts for 4 per cent of the cancers that affect 2.8 per cent of Canadian women. Being 100 per cent effective against HPV strains causing 70 per cent of cervical cancers, Gardasil can, at best, help .08 per cent of all women in Canada. Subtracting the percentage should extend life by 64 to 136 years. Given that women are typically diagnosed with cervical cancer in their 40s, this is unlikely. One can also look of women that Gardasil is expected to harm or kill, this leaves .02 per cent of women able to receive the vaccine’s benefits without any offsetting harm. At this rate, one out of every 5,000 women will receive such benefits. As Gardasil is currently the world’s most expensive vaccine, this amounts to $1.8 million spent on every woman who actually benefits. Is this money well spent?

Statistics on the effectiveness of breast cancer screening suggest that each year of life saved by such measures is worth $13,200 to $28,000. To justify its cost, Gardasil at the opportunity cost of these vaccinations—what opportunities are forgone by spending this money on Gardasil? $1.8 million could be spent on 36 years worth of the best treatment for children with autism, or 31,000 goats provided to the international poor through Oxfam.

The exorbitant cost of Gardasil begins to make sense only when one thinks of such pharmaceuticals as a futures market. Essentially, the government is betting that present-day young girls will grow into women whose cases of cervical cancer will cost more than $1.8 million each. Thus, money is saved by paying less now. In Gardasil, Merck provides the instrument for such a bet to be made, collecting significant profits from the government’s speculation in the process. The money circulates in this way, from taxes to government to pharmaceutical company, so long as cancer remains both expensive and abundant. While the effective monetization of the Internet remains a distant prospect, the monetization of cancer is well underway. With vaccines for prostate, skin, and colon cancer currently in development, Gardasil will soon have company in this new market. As housing markets fall for the first time in years, cancer is emerging as the next sure bet.

One nation under Ignatieff

Thanks to that YouTube video, “Yes we can!” has become an immensely popular phrase, even a slogan for Obama’s campaign. The catchphrase united Americans from radically different demographics, opinions, and viewpoints towards a single goal.

If only the Liberal Party had the same electricity. That Liberals, and left-leaning Canadians as a whole, are divided is an understatement. Over the years we’ve witnessed incapable leaders, backroom deals, in-fighting, plenty of bickering, and a general dissatisfaction.

Harper’s Conservative party, an amalgam of substantial right-wing groups, has capitalized on this division. Having created a false sense of solidarity, the Tories are raising dough and hammering into Liberal and NDP territory. Although the majority of Canadians disapprove of Harper, his opponents have become increasingly apathetic.

The left is fractured. But it isn’t broken.

On December 10 2008, Michael Ignatieff was formally declared interim leader of the Liberal Party, after Dominic LeBlanc and Bob Rae pulled out of the race. Although Ignatieff’s leadership will not be ratified until the May convention, it matters. The Liberals had scrambled to find a party head to replace Dion and lead the country in case the proposed coalition took over parliament.

Although some are upset that Ignatieff was not voted into his position, Iggy might be the only one to save the Liberal Party, the Left, and even Canada.

Harper is definitely unwanted. He has done little for our troubled environment, called elections despite laws and public opinion, mismanaged our economy, and created a dictator-style communication structure. Harper has led us to voter apathy, increased economic risks, less freedom of information, and a crippling environmental crisis.

Ignatieff “gets” Canadians. Unlike Harper, Ignatieff supports freeing Omar Khadr and giving American soldiers fleeing Iraq refugee status. He opposes ballistic-missile defence and advocates for better immigration policies and gender equality. And unlike Dion, he communicates well in both languages.

Ignatieff is who we need to bring environmental concerns back to the forefront of public policy before it’s too late. The Liberals are the right party to manage the economy. Many economists believe, in spite of the financial crisis, that Conservative spending will be the main cause of federal deficits.

Some have criticized Ignatieff for living abroad for over 30 years. But one can just as easily say he gained insight by experiencing other forms of government. Not only is he knowledgeable, he is free from the corruption that infects so many politicians as time passes.

At present, the Liberal Party is broke, divided, and bickering. If Ignatieff can find a way to unite his party, managing Canada should be a breeze. The upcoming months will prove just how willing his party is to come together for a common goal. Clashes between Rae and Ignatieff supporters escalated in recent weeks, just as Obama and Clinton camps waged war for months. This conflict has haunted the image of the party and affected their support. If they can heal this division, the Liberals may face the same victory as the Democrats.

Although no one will be able to match the excitement and emotional impact of Obama’s victory for decades, Ignatieff is a similar force. Both are intelligent, excellent speakers, with the ability to motivate others. Both have a fresh vision to share with their nations. And both would work together to figure out environmental solutions and reexamine trade agreements rather than bargain for Alberta’s tar sands like Harper.

In September 2007, Liberals were disappointed when the party won only one of three by-elections. Amid much finger pointing, Ignatieff urged his party, “united we win, divided we lose.” He is the leader who can unite the divided. But can we, after so much toil and frustration, come together as one? “Yes we can.”