Opinion: I protested in the '60s; what I see at McGill is different

Article content

Lately I spend Sunday afternoons on the McGill campus, sitting with friends on a bench draped with an Israeli flag and a yellow ribbon symbolizing a longing for the safe return of Israeli hostages.

Passersby stop to speak, to fill information gaps, lend support or to ask tough questions. We talk about peace and justice. Many have doubts about the anti-Israel signs on the encampment we face. None of the encampment protesters talk with us, which, I recognize with chagrin, is the difference between this protest and the antiwar movement of my youth.

Article content

I was an undergraduate student at Columbia University during the protests against the Vietnam War. Many of the student actions then have been compared to recent encampments at Columbia and McGill.

My university years were formative for me, as they are for all young adults, when I discovered my positions on matters of import and what moved me to action. In the fall of 1969, the antiwar movement embodied what was generally the anti-establishment spirit of the time, in culture, music and art. Feminism was a rising force, we were listening and learning, debating and challenging ourselves with new ideas. Dialogue and transparency were hallmarks.

The majority of students on campus were against the war, although not everyone agreed on the more dogmatic positions. For my American peers, it was even more concrete because there was a military draft: stop the war.

After college, I attended McGill medical school, did additional training in the U.S. and finally was recruited back to McGill, where I am professor of medicine. Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent brutal war, I have watched and participated in internal debates, not regarding geopolitics per se, but about local events.

Article content

As if on cue, in the immediate days after the Hamas attack, and before any Israeli response, there was a campaign of denial online, in some surprising circles, including among my colleagues. Initially, small groups, not all of whom are students, roamed the campus, shouting and disrupting classes, and not long after they formed the encampment.

They profess to be progressives in a peace movement, but unlike my antiwar compatriots of years ago, they have refused to speak to me when I have approached them. Their faces are covered.

Instead, they chant. What began with “ceasefire” and “peace now” is now “global jihad,” “all Zionists must die” and vile, explicitly antisemitic phrases. From what I see and hear, it does not feel like a peace movement but instead a pro-Hamas action. The real tragedies of the war seem secondary when, with calls like “repeat after me: from the river to the sea,” they deny Israel’s right to exist. I have tried engaging women in the group to talk about the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas on Oct 7. They won’t discuss it, much less condemn it.

One of the students’ stated goals is to have McGill cut academic ties with Israel in medical research and health-care innovation, two areas where Quebecers have much to gain from our collaborations. Partnerships with Israeli universities and scholars have led to amazing numerous new medicines and innovations that save and enhance lives here and elsewhere. What a tragedy it would be for our population to lose these.

As a longtime antiwar activist, with progressive principles of civil and human rights, I’ve been astounded at how easily some friends and colleagues abandoned these to join what seems to be a movement with another agenda. I am uncertain about the outcome of this campus occupation or of the war, though I still have hope for peace.

As a health-care leader, I recently attended a meeting of the Canada-Vietnam Chamber of Commerce, dedicated to exchanges of knowledge and experience in health technology innovation. As I listened to remarks from the ambassador of Vietnam, now a thriving and peaceful nation, given my historical perspective, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful as it was clear at that moment that anything is possible.

Gerald Batist is a professor of medicine and oncology at McGill University.

Recommended from Editorial

Share this article in your social network