Watching movies at UQAM’s now-dismantled pro-Palestinian encampment leads McGill student Ben Wexler to reflect on the protesters’ success—and the message for Jews

The two films scheduled for screening at the UQAM encampment—although only one was shown.

UQAM’s pro-Palestinian encampment was scheduled to come down on June 6, after protesters reached a resolution with university administration. McGill student Ben Wexler visited the site on its final weekend…

I promised myself I would watch more films this summer. So when I saw that the al-Aqsa encampment at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) was planning two movie screenings, for May 31 and June 1, I decided to check them out.

On my visit, I slipped away to buy A&W and returned to eat at the camp. Two different people remarked in passing that A&W was on the BDS list—followed by the caveat that they did not really care, that it was not our individual consumption that mattered but institutional factors.

I checked; A&W is not on any official BDS list. But the boycott of Israel has become a kind of proxy for generalized resentment against consumer culture and globalization. Fast food itself is considered a Zionist product. If the cliché of a few years ago was that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, there is now no ethical consumption under Zionism.

UQAM’s encampment ran from May 12-June 6, 2024.

The UQAM encampment has received relatively little attention in anglophone media. (One would think McGill was the only university in Montreal.) But just a few days before the screening, they had a breakthrough. The UQAM administration acceded to several demands: a promise to divest from weapons companies, a call for a ceasefire in Gaza, a nod to the International Court of Justice’s warning of the risk of genocide committed by Israel against Palestinians in Gaza, and a recognition of “the violation of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination”—a kind of unambiguous phrasing rarely seen in university communications. Following this victory, the atmosphere at the camp was festive, and activists were discussing next steps.

Students deserve to be taken seriously. Conspiracy theories of a foreign influence operation, or facile defences of the inherent virtue of student protest, strip the encampments of any immediate meaning. The student encampment at UQAM succeeded in putting Palestine on the agenda of their universities in an unprecedented way; they also risk contributing to a new and precarious reality for Canadian Jewry.

The composition of the UQAM encampment differs from McGill’s. Despite naming itself after the sacred Jerusalem mosque, it presents as a very secular space, immersed in local militant-activist culture. There are few women in hijabs. At McGill, I picked up a friendly pamphlet from a booth intended to clear up misconceptions about Islam; outside the UQAM encampment, a pile of zines offers mostly anarchist reading material, explaining organizing strategies and protest protocol.

The exception to this secularism, a stack of pamphlets from the antizionist ultra-Orthodox group Neturei Karta: “For now, the Jewish people must continue her mission and accept the divine decree of exile,” the pamphlets explain. “We demand the total peaceful dismantling of the state of Israel, without delay or compromise. When this is done, the Palestinian people and her leaders will decide the number of Jews authorized to remain in the Holy Land.”

The camp itself feels cozy and well-designed. It is squished into a courtyard at the heart of UQAM campus, hardly visible from any of the surrounding streets. Each entrance is a chokepoint between buildings, making the camp easy to defend from police incursion. Two whiteboards overlooking a central area announce plans for the week. Large sloping tarps protect from rain. For many activists, the medium is the message: the encampment is an exercise in collective living, disrupting the status quo, and basic activist skills like protest discipline.

Slogans and symbols cover the encampment, inside and outside. “Free Palestine,” “Ceasefire,” “Down with capitalism,” “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards).

Efforts are made to reconcile the more locally-minded activists with an eminently international cause. “Zionism” accompanies and sometimes eclipses more nondescript enemies of the revolution. Thus, alongside ACAB is the corollary, AZAB (All Zionists Are Bastards). Scrawled on a table: “Death to soldiers / Death to states / Death to Zionists.” One of the posters hanging at the entrance to the camp reads: “From Turtle Island to Palestine, end the Zionist occupation.” Are we occupied by Zionists now? This last one recalls almost verbatim the white nationalist conspiracy theory of a “Zionist Occupied Government.”

The first night’s movie was Fedayin, Le combat de Georges Abdallah. This tells the story of the titular militant, a Lebanese communist still in French prison for involvement in the 1982 assassination of an Israeli diplomat and American military attaché. The documentary, from the French collective Vacarme(s) Films, attracted interest and intense controversy. A 2021 screening at UBC was postponed (and seemingly abandoned) following a complaint from B’nai Brith Canada. The entire film more recently became available on YouTube.

As a documentary, Fedayin is confusing. The first half, a broad Arab nationalist history, only feels loosely attached to the second, in which a series of talking heads recount Abdallah’s capture, trial, and imprisonment. The first part of the film is most compelling. Historical video footage accompanies commentary from the leaders of Samidoun, a Canadian-based organization with strong ties to the PFLP. Theirs is a clear nationalist narrative: Israel’s establishment in 1948, and the mass dispossession of Palestinian Arabs from within the nascent Jewish state, embody the humiliations of European colonization. Palestinian refugees, scattered across the Arab world, carry with them the Arab revolutionary spirit and continue in armed struggle until they can return to their homeland.

“Many Arabs found that this is the way to liberate even their own country, by liberating Palestine, as the cause of the Arab people,” explains Khaled Barakat. Palestine, and more specifically the Palestinian refugee camps across the Levant, became the crucible for Arab national identity.

What distinguishes Abdallah in this history is his willingness to take the struggle internationally. Mohammed Khatib, from the European branch of Samidoun, quotes Wadie Haddad: “We follow our enemy everywhere.” (As military leader with the PFLP, Haddad organized several airplane hijackings, including the Entebbe hijacking of 1976). In this context, the documentary introduces militant European activists who became involved with Georges Abdallah’s cause. They are what the French call soixante-huitards, formed in the youth protests of 1968. Unlike most of their comrades, these ones persisted in the global struggle against imperialism and capitalism after the mass demonstrations fizzled out. Take Jean-Marc Rouillan, whose organization Action directe led dozens of terror attacks and attempted assassinations across Europe in the early 1980s—several of them against what Rouillan at the time described as “Jewish targets.”

Abdallah became a cause-celebre in France and across the Arab world following his arrest. There is, in fact, little doubt as to his involvement in the assassinations—the weapons were found in his house—but the 1980s were a period of intense political violence in Europe. At the ethical level, activists argue Abdallah was responding legitimately to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and treatment of Palestinians; at the legal level, they argue that his trial was full of procedural violations, and that he would have been released by now for a comparable crime if not for American and Israeli political pressure. So, the film ends with a call for viewers to militate for his release.

Other viewers I spoke with found the film boring but edifying. The woman who organized this screening has some background in activism for Abdallah, in France and in Tunisia. She led a small discussion afterwards centered on the question of “armed resistance.” Resistance is a capacious term, but there is no doubt to its meaning here. “Do you know what they ask Georges now, in prison, to determine if he is fit to leave?” she said. “Do you support Hamas?” The group laughed.

Abdallah’s answer, evidently the correct one, was: “We have our political disagreements, but they are the resistance.” Charlotte Kates and Khaled Barakat of Samidoun Canada, who featured centrally in the documentary, likewise received a mention in the post-screening discussion. Both were in the news recently for leading chants of “Long live Oct. 7” in Vancouver. Kates was arrested by Vancouver police and released with an order not to participate in any protests until her October court date.

Unlike its McGill and Concordia counterparts, UQAM’s lead pro-Palestine organization never bothered to delete from its Instagram the invitation to an Oct. 8 celebration in Dorchester Square.

I did not feel unsafe. Indeed, a space can be uncomfortable, even antisemitic, without being dangerous; and celebrations of violence do not equal the thing itself. Still, I am not much kindlier towards the boisterous rhetoric of “armed resistance,” simply because it seemed to me like empty posturing. And what if someone takes it all a little too seriously?  It only takes a few such “misinterpretations”—and I don’t really consider them misinterpretations, given how close they are to the text itself—for the drip-drip-drip of anti-Jewish violence to continue here in Canada.

Another arson attack here, another shooting there, resisting Zionist occupation “from Turtle Island to Palestine.” And as Canadian Jewish institutions look more and more like those in Europe, protected daily by armed police or soldiers, that association of “Zionists” with police and the state only grows stronger.

I was much more interested in how the second film would go over: Ici et ailleurs (Here and elsewhere), from the famous French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard. Post-1968, Mao’s Little Red Book in his pocket, Godard accepted a commission from the Arab League to document Palestinian militants in Jordan. “This film was meant to be called: Victory,” an opening narration explains. Then came Black September: The kingdom of Jordan cracked down on the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1970, killing thousands of militants and pushing the rest into Lebanon. Godard’s confidence was shattered, and his film emphasizes this discontinuity.

Ici et ailleurs pokes holes in all that seems linear about film and war. Why should one scene lead to the next? Why should war lead “Until victory”? Godard interrogates his own propagandistic footage, sometimes cutting it together with images of the bodies of dead Palestinian militants following Black September. It is an unsettling watch, and I was curious to see how the camp would reconcile Godard’s irony and uncompromising images of violence with the strident nationalism of Fedayin.

I am left wondering. No one was at the screening location when I arrived. The sound of music boomed from the encampment. “It’s a party,” they said. “No screening tonight.” They were playing Britney Spears. Oops!… I did it again