After the third vote in 18 months, the Student Society of McGill University in Montreal decided to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. McGill’s undergraduate student union voted 512 to 357 at their Winter General Assembly (GA) on Monday evening, Feb. 22, 2016, to join the anti-Israel movement that is considered against not only Israel but also a symbol of anti-Semitism. Just a few hours the earlier in Ottawa, Liberals and conservative joined forces and voted 229 to 51 for a motion to “condemn all Canadian organizations groups and individuals that promote the BDS movement.”
On Monday afternoon, 900 undergraduate students attended the debate that lasts over two hours and filled four rooms of the SSMU’s building. Surprisingly, in the third attempt, the motion passed with 58 percent of the vote 512-357 with 14 abstentions. The vote came after 40 students from the “Yes” and “No” side took to the floor to debate the motion. The yes faction was jubilant after the vote. Still, the motion needs to be ratified by the entire student population in an online vote within a week of the vote.
In Ottawa, the Liberal government passed a Conservative Party motion condemning the BDS movement. The motion passed the House of Commons with a 229 to 51 vote. Opposing the measure were “members of the NDP, the Bloc Quebecois, and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May,” with only one liberal vote against the motion. Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is far less publicly pro-Israel than his predecessor Conservative Stephen Harper was, the Liberal Party supported the motion wholeheartedly. Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion spoke of the motion last week saying, “The world will win nothing for boycotting Israel but depriving itself of the talents of its inventiveness.” Meanwhile
The motion emphasizes Canada and Israel’s “long history of friendship as well as economic and diplomatic relations,” also said the BDS movement “promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel.” The motion resolves to “condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups, or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home, and abroad.” Strong Liberal support for the motion should quell some criticism from the Jewish community of Trudeau’s Israel policy. However, it will be difficult to live up to Harper’s public stance and camaraderie he had with Canadian Jewish leaders in his nearly 10-year tenure.
Mount Royal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather campaigned for the BDS motion in Parliament and against the one at McGill. In a speech in the House of Commons, Housefather said BDS is “part of a new anti-Semitism that stigmatizes and vilifies Israel.” He said that the movement promotes “hatred” on university campuses “that is shameful because all students in this country should feel safe when they go to school.”
In solidarity with the “No” side, Housefather tweeted on Sunday, Feb. 21 that McGill students should vote against the measure, “To students @McGillU. Please vote NO to BDS on Monday! Join @MarcMillerVM @LevittMichael @DavidLametti@NickWhalenMP and me in opposing BDS.” The “No” side used Trudeau’s tweeted from last March in opposition to McGill second vote on the issue as their slogan. Trudeau tweeted, “The BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses. As a @McGillU alum, I’m disappointed. #EnoughIsEnough.”
At the provincial level, D’Arcy McGee MNA David Birnbaum issued a statement on Feb. 16 calling the BDS movement “intellectually lazy, undemocratic and, ultimately, hostile to the peace process” and called the SSMU “wrong-headed.”
The last vote on BDS at McGill was in March 2015, and it was defeated by a close vote of 276 to 212. In the first vote in fall 2014 was postponed without a vote. This time, supporters created the McGill BDS Action Network, launching it in beginning of the month for the purpose of ensuring their motion passed. The motion seeks the SSMU’s support for “BDS campaigns through the office of the VP External, and that the President lobby the McGill Board of Governors for ‘divestment from companies profiting from violations of Palestinian human rights’ by bringing the issue up at every meeting.
The motion also read, “This call for BDS states that such campaigns are to remain in place until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination, and fully complies with the precepts of international law.” McGill has investments in three Israeli companies that “have activities” in West Bank and East Jerusalem, L-3 Communications, Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank, and RE/MAX.
Although the 512 votes are only three percent of McGill’s 27,000 undergraduate student population, it still is devastating to McGill’s Jewish population but also its reputation. A small portion of McGill’s student population gave the university the reputation of its students being hostile to Israel and a portion of the student population five times the size of the one that voted for the motion. Pro-BDS students are so worried about denying Palestinians rights that they are oblivious that are they are policing the Jewish students on campus, denying them their rights. The resolution, if it does pass will add tension, be divisive, and justify harassing Jewish students for expressing their views.
It was not just the 512 votes at the SSMU GA, the BDS movement at McGill had the support of some clubs at the university. They include “Queer McGill, NDP McGill, the Association of McGill University Support Employees, McGill Black Students’ Network, the Feminist Collective of McGill Law, Kanata: McGill’s Indigenous Studies Community, and McGill Syrian Students’ Association.” One of student papers “The McGill Daily and the student radio station CKUT also supported the motion.”
Now Montreal’s two English-language universities are supporting BDS. McGill’s SSMU joins the Concordia Student Union (CSU) who voted to join BDS in November 2014. The Concordia Graduate Student Association had already voted in January 2013 to support the BDS movement. Canadian universities are radicalizing, like their American counterparts, and in the past couple years have voted on resolutions to support the BDS movement. The BDS movement formed in 2005 with the mission to “impose boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against the State of Israel ‘until [it] meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law.’”
The difference between Concordia and McGill’s vote was Concordia long history of anti-Israel activity spanning over 15 years. McGill has a reputation for being friendlier to its Jewish students with a vibrant Jewish community on campus, so much that it is often mistaken as the Canadian university with the largest Jewish student body. McGill, however, is not without a history of anti-Semitism both institutional and on campus, but recently it has been on the rise again with the much more popular and excusable anti-Israel rhetoric among its students.
Most of the Jewish students who spoke out during the debate portion argued about how it “marginalize” Jewish students, make them afraid and lead to a rise in anti-Semitism. Arts student Noam Blauer noted in the debate that a BDS vote usually results in a rise of anti-Semitism on campuses. Blauer expressed, “Real allies would not ignore the call being made by the overwhelming majority of Jews, who, of any religious group, are the number one victims of hate crimes in the U.S. and Canada, and are saying that they have seen [a rise] in anti-Semitism wherever BDS has been adopted.”
While Science student Maya Rosenkrantz highlighted the restriction, this now places on pro-Israel Jewish students, “This motion contradicts SSMU’s safer space policy, as BDS proposes a cultural boycott of Israel, alienating students who belong to that culture [….] Students’ mental health is on the line. Students who identify as Israeli or Zionist are genuinely afraid that if that motion passes, they will not be able to truly express their identity on campus. No student should ever be afraid [of that].”
The debate took the obvious turn towards anti-Semitism. McGill BDS organizer and Palestinian Laura Khoury said during the debate, “First of all, as a Palestinian, can you not speak on my behalf? We have called for this. It is your moral obligation as people of social conscience to answer this call. It is not your obligation to tell what Israel has done to us. Every single Jewish student in this room can fly to Israel tomorrow, while I have never been able to step foot on that land.”
After the vote, “No” and #enoughisenough campaign organizer and co-chair of Israel on Campus Aliza Saskin commented on the vote saying the SSMU is “not representing all students on campus, even when their own bylaws call for no discrimination against anyone based on their cultural origins.” Saskin also said, “BDS collectively punishes Jewish students and is inherently anti-Semitic.” Saskin finds the vote even more disconcerting because of the vote against BDS by the House of Commons, “The government is acknowledging how detrimental this debate is to campus life.” Khoury, in contrast, was victorious, saying, “It is our moral obligation to fight for this cause. We are standing in solidarity with people who are oppressed daily and humiliated.”
The university administration was quick to distance itself from the SSMU vote. Dean of Students Andre Costopoulos made it clear that SSMU’s vote will not reflect McGill’s opinion. In a short statement, Costopoulos said, “Their discussions, motions, and votes do not directly affect university policy.”
B’nai Brith’s Quebec Executive Director Harvey Levine responded with a statement and op-ed in the Montreal Gazette. Levine commented with indignation, “The fact that the students’ groups, like the BDS and pro-Palestinian groups, use the university campuses as the defacto to de-legitimize one particular state and one group of people to us is very, very unacceptable.” Rabbi Reuben Poupko of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs also condemned the vote in a statement, saying, “The campaign to boycott Israel is unproductive, divisive, and hateful. Far from advancing peace of the Palestinian cause, it undermines coexistence by demonizing one of the two parties in a complex conflict.”
The vote is a major blow to the university’s Jewish population. McGill is a major destination for Jewish students from not only Quebec and the rest of Canada but also increasingly the United States. McGill has the third largest Jewish population of all universities and colleges in Canada with 2,500 undergraduate students representing nine percent of the undergrad population. The university also includes over 1000 Jewish graduate students that represent 11 percent of the total graduate student population.
In Hillel’s Fall edition of their semi-annual list of “Top 60 Schools Jewish Choose,” McGill ranked in 24th place in their public universities lists of American and Canadian schools. The universities included on Hillel’s three lists represent the highest Jewish populations but also the schools that offer the most Jewish studies academics, courses, majors, minors and even graduate work, some until the doctoral level, and also Jewish life on campus. McGill tied for fourth when it came to the schools that offer the most Jewish studies academics with 100 courses listed in their course catalog.