Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Montreal Then and Now

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

On Victoria Day weekend, I attended my 50th year high school reunion in Montreal. Outremont High had been an English-language Protestant school and, with the outflow of Anglophones from Quebec after the 1970s, it no longer exists.

It was amazing to see the 200 or so graduates who returned after five decades. We even toured the old school, now a French education centre.

The school had always been a first-rate institution, and most of us seem to have done quite well in life; many of us are academics, doctors, lawyers, business people, and other professionals. At least half are retired. Only about half still live in Montreal, the rest scattered in the rest of Canada, the United States and even Europe. And the children of those still living in the city are also mostly gone.

But things are not going that well for others in Quebec. A three-month-old student strike by college and university students against the Quebec government’s plan to raise tuition fees has almost brought the city to its knees.

Students in Quebec pay by far the lowest fees in the country and as a result Quebec’s institutions are underfunded compared with those elsewhere in North America. Currently, annual tuition is $2,168 – the lowest in North America. The increase would bring tuition to $3,946 by 2019.

The additional sum the students were being asked to pay was just a small percentage of what the government itself pays for higher education. Yet this was met with massive opposition.

There have been nightly marches and demonstrations, and in some cases students opposed to the strike were harassed and forced out of classrooms by militants.

As well, in various neighbourhoods, people who support the students go outside and start banging saucepans and skillets every evening at eight o’clock. It can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.

The campaign was inspired by the pot-banging protests that shook the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile in the mid-1980s.

(In this and many other ways, Quebec has become more of a Latin or Mediterranean society than a North American one.)

In response, on May 19 Jean Charest’s governing Liberals brought in a law to bring the student strike to an end. As well, Montreal’s city council passed an anti-mask bylaw.

Bill 78 imposes fines of $25,000 up to $125,000 against student associations and unions. They could be charged if they do not stop their members from protesting within university and college grounds.

During a street demonstration, the organization that plans the protest will be penalized if individual protesters stray from the police-approved route or exceed the time limit imposed by authorities. Student associations and unions are also liable for any damage caused by other marchers during a demonstration.

Violence marked every night of the long Victoria Day weekend – we could hear it from our hotel on Sherbrooke Street -- and the first part of the week. The biggest demonstration yet drew 250,000 people on May 22, according to various estimates.

A day later, more than 500 people were arrested at another march, the 30th since the student protests began.

The march had been declared illegal by police the minute it was scheduled to start but was allowed to proceed for almost four hours before a line of Montreal riot police blocked part of Sherbrooke Street as the marchers approached. The arrests followed.

The student organizations have gone to court to try to get Bill 78 struck down. It continues to be flouted and some radicals have said that if talks fail they plan to disrupt various events planned for the summer tourist season. They predict a long, hot summer in Montreal.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Jews, Israel and the Left

 Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

Though the topic was billed as Jews and the left, the conference held at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York earlier this month became most contentious when the 240 participants, from as far away as Chile, Israel and Lithuania, dealt with the animosity towards Israel on the part of the left worldwide.

Among the most heated arguments was the one between two political scientists, Yoav Peled of Tel Aviv University and Mitchell Cohen of Baruch College in New York.

Peled argued that the Zionist enterprise in Palestine fit the “colonialist thesis,” albeit it was an unusual case, because it did not have a “mother country” to support it. Great Britain, although committed by the Balfour Declaration to Jewish settlement in Palestine, soon proved an unreliable ally.

Still, asserted Peled, Jewish projects in the country after 1920 marginalized and impoverished the Palestinian Arab peasantry, as Jews bought up land from absentee landlords during the Mandatory period, and directly expropriated Arab land after 1948. Also, many institutions such as the kibbutz refused to employ Arab labour.

Peled was taken to task by Cohen when the Israeli academic maintained that the 1967 Six Day War was not a defensive one but one initiated by Israel. Cohen challenged this statement, referring to Egypt’s massing of troops in Sinai and closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.

Cohen also asserted that parts of the left “have swallowed anti-Zionism” and have “a Zionist problem.” Many see Hamas and Hezbollah as part of the “progressive movements” in the world. There is now an overlap between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, as more and more antisemitic motifs appear in the left’s critique of Israel.

Professor Ronald Radosh, author of a book on Harry Truman and the founding of Israel, concurred. The current left-wing delegitimization of Israel is, he remarked, the new “antisemitism of fools.”

The left’s attacks on Israel (and on the United States) also stem from their antipathy to globalization and western hegemony, remarked Moishe Postone, professor of modern European history at the University of Chicago, in his presentation. So, in Europe, the anti-globalist left now sees Israel as a centre of global evil.

The conference also dealt with Jews in both the old and new lefts of the 20th century, and the role of Jewish women in these movements. Among the distinguished speakers were Harvey Klehr of Emory University, Antony Polonsky of Brandeis, Riv-Ellen Prell of the University of Minnesota, Paul Berman of New York University, Alice Kessler-Harris of Columbia, and Michael Walzer of Princeton.

The final keynote address was delivered by Ezra Mendelsohn, the distinguished scholar from the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University.

He found it ironic that people on the left in the 1950s had believed that socialism had helped create Israel. “The kibbutzim and the Histadrut were thriving. Productive people were not exploiting others. The Arab minority was considered inconsequential.”

Yet now Israel is cast by the left as a nationalistic oppressor.