The Ministry of Social Justice (MSJ) led an awareness campaign called Xpression Against Oppression (XAO) last week, which began on January 12 and concluded with a three-hour discussion featuring Doctor Norman Finkelstein on Thursday January 15 at CCIT 1080.

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photos/matthew filipowich

Doctor Finkelstein is a renowned academic with a controversial reputation for opposing Israels recent actions in Gaza despite being born of WW2 Holocaust-survivor parents.

Israels right of self-defence is not really the issue here, Finkelstein noted, but [rather] about Palestinians right to defend themselves, and to live free from economic embargoes or military attacks.

Finkelsteins point of view is controversial because Israel has claimed all along to be engaged in a defensive military operation against Hamas in Gaza according to the Canadian Jewish Congress, suggesting very clearly that Hamas is the aggressor in this conflict. XAO and MSJ deny this is the case, pointing out that it was Israel who broke last years ceasefire agreement, and is therefore responsible for the conflict. Dr. Finkelstein for his part has been banned from Israel for ten years for holding such views.

Over 500 people were expected to turn up for the event and a dozen Campus Police and Ontario Provincial Police officers were present to maintain crowd control. Despite a few heated questions posed to Dr. Finkelstein, the event went smoothly and calmly, save for a few microphone problems throughout.

Dr. Finkelstein explained how the real question was: Does violence and attacks help Palestinians to achieve their goals? To resounding applause, he pointed out that while he wished Palestinians had chosen non-violent means, they ultimately have the right to defend their homes and nation, citing Mahatma Ghandi to back up his argument.

He further argued that no one can afford to be bound by dogma or ideology in finding a solution to the forty-year occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank by Israel. If the whole world has embraced the current two-state solution, how likely is it that any one group will be able to change that consensus?

At one point, Finkelstein rejected a question from the audience about the truth in the Koran or Torah. I dont care what they say, replied the scholar, who added that they have nothing to do with the on-going peace process and the two-state solution.
Compromise and adaptability are the only things that will lead to change, and the goal of allowing Palestinians to govern their own territory must be the paramount concern in any discussion. He pointed out that Hamas was elected in an internationally-monitored, free and democratic election. The rejection of Hamas as a legitimate government by the international community — Prime Minister Stephen Harper being the first leader to denounce Hamas and cut off aid — is hypocritical, Finkelstein suggested, especially since they themselves determined the elections of 2006 to be legitimate.

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There were a number of tables set up outside the lecture theatre from organizations such as International Relief Canada, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, and Islamic Relief Canada (IRC), which is run by UTM Alumni Shaila Kibria. As executive director of IRC, Kibria is closely involved with the process of providing humanitarian support to Palestine, and offered ample statistics and logistical figures to demonstrate how aid is being distributed.

From the first day of the airstrikes, Islamic Relief Palestine (IRPAL) provided hospital stores with medical supplies including essential equipment such as syringes, disposable surgical gloves, oral tubes and bandages, explains Kibria. IRPAL also provided the hospital stores with four large trucks filled with desperately needed food supplies for patients and their families.

According to Kibria, packing of an additional 5,000 food parcels began before the current conflict began, and they were to be distributed on January 4, but this was suspended due to the ground incursion by Israel. The inability of aid organizations to deliver needed supplies means that civilians in Gaza suffer in ways not reflected in simple death tolls or casualty reports.

The XAO awareness week also featured other events such as a discussion with the Filipino Canadian Youth Alliance about land appropriation and political rights in that country. James Clark from the Toronto Coalition Against War spoke about Canada’s role in Afghanistan, and a Palestine Poetry Night and Gaza Vigil was held on Wednesday. All of these events were successful and saw good turnouts, according to Steven Zhou, leader of MSJ.

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I think we were able to send out a good message to a substantial amount of students, just to infuse some sort of activist responsibility in student life, Zhou commented. I think students are in a good position to be active on issues about human rights and social justice due to the common space we all share, and the opportunities available to learn more about the nature of hypocrisy surrounding our world. The MSJ group raised thousands of dollars towards the Gaza Coalitions humanitarian fund by selling over 400 T-shirts on campus.

The highlight of the week was definitely the Finkelstein event however, which saw beyond capacity attendance — more than 500 people — and which made a meaningful impact on attendees. I thought it was very informative, and I learned a lot of things I never knew before, said second-year life science student Manar Srajeldin. Second-year psychology student Dania Srajeldin agreed that the lecture was not emotional, but rather factual.

Not everyone was pleased with Dr. Finkelsteins visit, though. According to Zhou, a few students expressed their disagreement with Finkelstein’s views, suggesting he was not objective and did not give both sides of the story. These concerns were solved after some discussion, and MSJ was always supportive of these students’ right to express their concern.

In the end, all left happy, he added, and described how in the future, his group may try to bring awareness to other issues such as Native rights, and African awareness. Specifically, I’d like to look at the influence of the Black Panthers in the Black movement during the 60s, mused Zhou.

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