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'Silence isn't neutral': Emails show debate in Quebec universities on Israel, Hamas

MONTREAL — Five days after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Université de Montréal rector Daniel Jutras was under growing pressure to say more about the conflict. Shortly after midnight on Oct.
Université de Montréal's campus is seen Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, in Montreal. Documents obtained from Quebec's largest universities through access to information requests show how they developed statements following the Oct. 7 Hamas rampage. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL — Five days after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Université de Montréal rector Daniel Jutras was under growing pressure to say more about the conflict.

Shortly after midnight on Oct. 12, he sent an email to colleagues saying that as other universities took public positions on the war, it was becoming increasingly difficult for the school to not follow suit. 

"I believe you're right: silence isn't neutral," Sophie Langlois, the university's communications director, wrote back the next morning. "Especially after we took strong positions following the Paris terrorist attacks and the beginning of the war in Ukraine." 

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press from Quebec universities show the debates within the institutions in preparing statements on the conflict between Israel and Hamas, and in navigating the emotionally fraught tensions between the Jewish and Arab diasporas in the province. The emails reveal the pressures, internally and externally, on the schools to take positions on the war, and how administrators faced strong criticism no matter what they said — or didn't say. 

Around 1,200 people have died on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during Hamas's Oct. 7 attack. The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said the death toll in the territory has surpassed 17,100, with more than 46,000 wounded. 

On Oct. 10, Jutras issued a short release, describing how he was "shocked by the brutal escalation of violence." But that wasn't enough for some senior administrators; others, however, recommended caution. Later that day, vice-rector Jean-François Gaudreault-DesBiens emailed to say the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs was upset the university seemed to draw a moral equivalence between the actions of Hamas and Israel.

Gaudreault-DesBiens emailed again on Oct. 11, saying the rector was "dithering" on whether to take a stronger stance against Hamas's attack.

"For me, silence is difficult to accept," Gaudreault-DesBiens wrote. “Would we be dithering on this if it was Muslims, trans people or Indigenous people? What exactly are we afraid of by acknowledging the fact that these despicable acts were committed in Israel?”

On Oct. 12, Jutras issued a second statement, referencing the "horror" of the acts that were perpetrated and his concern for civilian populations. That declaration said the university takes no position on geopolitics but instead focuses on creating spaces for learning and dialogue, and on caring for the well-being of its community members.

Meanwhile, in response to an access to information request, McGill University released 152 emails, mostly to principal Deep Saini, from students, faculty, alumni and members of the public. They discuss the university's statements about the war, and express concern about the position taken by a student group. They also include comments about Saini's Oct. 12 statement in which he wrote that he "watched with horror the immense suffering and loss of human life that Hamas caused through its heinous terrorist attack on Israel." 

At least two dozen emails praised his statement; a similar number expressed disappointment, with some saying Saini minimized the deaths of Palestinian civilians. Other emails described worry that the principal's words would have a chilling effect on pro-Palestinian voices on campus. A few emails criticized Saini for not taking a stronger pro-Israel stance. 

The documents also include an email to Saini from someone who writes that they are following up on a phone call from the principal during which they discussed the McGill response. The email recommends Saini read a "brilliant analysis" on the Israel-Palestine conflict that echoes themes discussed during the call. Details of the analysis are redacted. 

But that email to Saini was forwarded to Jutras and included in the documents released by Université de Montréal. It shows that the "brilliant analysis" is an opinion piece published in the Jerusalem Post titled "Palestinian culture is morally bankrupt," suggesting most Palestinians are nihilistic and "evil neighbours."

In an emailed statement on Friday, McGill University said Saini and other members of the senior administration "have had conversations with many members of the community on this issue, as is often the case on any number of issues .… As in all exchanges, it doesn’t mean McGill agrees with the views that are expressed to them."

McGill did not respond to a question about why it redacted the content of the Jerusalem Post article.

In the 20 days following Hamas's attack, Saini received more than 30 emails calling on him to take action about a student club — Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill — which had praised the Hamas attacks as "heroic" in a social media post.

The university announced on Oct. 10 that it would no longer allow the group to use the McGill name; Saini described the group's social media posts as "abhorrent." 

Concordia University declined to release internal communications related to its public statement on the war. The university did release several emails between administrators who discussed a planned Oct. 25 student "walkout" of classes in protest of the continued "siege" of Gaza. 

"We will need to be prepared for Jewish students and profs seeking assurances of their safety," provost Anne Whitelaw writes in an email to other senior administrators.

The Canadian Press filed the access request a week and a half before violence between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists broke out at Concordia's downtown campus, leading to several injuries and one arrest. 

The Université du Québec à Montréal declined to release emails, citing several sections of the province's access law, including one that allows public bodies to refuse to release documents that could reduce the efficiency of a program, an action plan or a security measure.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2023.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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