A speaker with controversial views on the Israeli-Palestine conflict sparked protests and sit-ins when he appeared at York University this week.
Students occupied York University President Lorna Marsden’s office last Tuesday night, objecting to what they called a “unilateral” decision to allow controversial speaker Daniel Pipes to appear on campus this week.
Pipes, a Mideast specialist and founder of the Web site Campus Watch, spoke at York earlier that day. Campus Watch says it “monitors and critiques Middle East studies in North America, with an aim to improving them.” The site lists academics whose views Pipes considers anti-American and anti-Israel.
Pipes was originally scheduled to speak at The Underground, York’s campus pub. The event was cancelled after students and community members vigorously opposed the engagement, saying his Web site stifles academic freedom and his endorsement of racial, ethnic, and religious profiling is offensive and racist.
But Marsden allowed Pipes to speak at another location after opposing groups objected and The Underground and sponsor York Centre for International Security Studies (YCISS) withdrew their support.
Daniel Held, the Israel Affairs Coordinator of the Jewish Students Federation (JFS) at York, was pleased Pipes was allowed to speak. “I’m glad that an academic was able to speak in the academy. That’s we what we stand for in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry. I believe that democracy came through.”
Many students, professors and staff feel Pipes’ Web site poses an unacceptable threat. “The Campus Watch project works to crush any kind of dissent or any kind of criticism of U.S. foreign policy or Israeli foreign policy,” said Mina Sahib, one of the students who occupied Marsden’s office.
Sahib said, “Daniel Pipes believes that anybody who comes from the Middle East imports certain ideas or ideologies about the West and about the United States and Israel.”
Held disagreed. “Daniel Pipes is concerned for freedom of speech, is concerned for freedom of expression and is concerned for the way that the academy is used,” he said.
“Freedom of speech is definitely something we all value,” said Sahib, “but not when it infringes on my right to feel safe and secure on my campus.”
The coalition of groups that mobilized to oppose Pipes’ appearance drew a crowd of approximately 600 to Tuesday’s demonstration. Protestors then moved outside the speaking venue. Following the speech, about 150 students occupied Marsden’s office, remaining inside the lobby for seven hours before police threatened arrest.
Sahib explained protestors felt it necessary to target Marsden. “The decision [to allow Pipes to speak] was made by the president, so we decided to take it to the president’s office.”
Held felt those who opposed Pipes’ views expressed their dissent inappropriately. He said the protestors walked out of the Pipes speech before the question period began. “If [the protestors] really wanted to challenge his views and challenge what he says, they should have asked questions. They should have asked questions in a manner befitting the academy, and occupation of offices and bomb threats, which we also had on campus that day, simply are not appropriate.”
Sahib said the day of protest was a success. “I think York made a grave mistake by [allowing Pipes to speak]. I think they really need to realize that there are repercussions for the kinds of decisions that they make.”
Sahib added that the protests raised awareness among many students who did not know Pipes was speaking. The York Federation of Students said yesterday they have “no position” on the issue.