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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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Windsor BDS referendum was a first in Canada

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Mohammed Almoayad

WINDSOR, Ont. — The controversial boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) referendum at the University of Windsor was a first for a Canadian campus and designed to be a “more democratic” way of endorsing a campaign against companies that support the Israeli “occupation,” a spokesperson for the yes side said.

The undergraduate referendum on the resolution to support BDS, which passed by a vote of 798 to 585, “would give a more legitimate statement” to the campaign, which up until now has seen motions passed only by university student councils, not campus-wide votes, at least at the undergraduate level, said Mohammed Almoayad of the campus Palestinian Solidarity Group (PSG).

“It’s much more productive in terms of some of the main goals of the movement,” he said.

These include to “spread awareness… so instead of just a few student representatives in a room discussing it and voting on it, now all students hear about it and have to decide how to vote and they look into the research and are involved in campaigning.”

The referendum has been severely criticized for its “abuse of process,” a charge initially brought by the campus Jewish Students Association (JSA).

Association vice-president Josh Zelikovitz castigated the vote for being “rushed through in a way that would minimize debate, minimize dissent.” A JSA letter detailed a long list of alleged violations of the University of Windsor Students’ Alliance’s (UWSA) own constitution.

Officials from the UWSA, which ran the referendum, have not commented on the charges, except to post a letter stating that it was “aware” of complaints that were to be made to its election monitoring committee. The UWSA’s chief returning officer (CRO) is slated to submit a report to student council March 13 on the referendum.

The UWSA appears to be ready to accept the report, despite a request from university president Alan Wildeman that it “defer” it and the “finalization of the referendum process” until both the UWSA and the university administration complete a review of the way the vote was held.

“Should you choose not to defer the tabling of the CRO report, and the complaints are proven to be valid, the University of Windsor will have to consider its options,” Wildeman said.

He said the administration “cannot allow student organizations to compromise the university’s commitment to provide a welcoming learning and living environment for each and every student.”

But in its response, the UWSA said it would be up to its discretion to defer the report and not anybody else.

“This referendum and its results are not binding on the University of Windsor but on the University of Windsor Students’ Alliance, which as Dr. Wildeman has noted, is an autonomous organization.”

The reviews of the vote also come in the wake of vandalism when a Support Our Troops flag belonging to a UWSA vice-president was desecrated with the word “Zionist” and a Star of David spray-painted on it. Police are investigating the incident, which has received international coverage.

Meanwhile PSG spokesman Almoayad said he was “disappointed” by Wildeman’s intervention.

“But it’s not surprising,” he said. “We totally expected the administration and the president and everyone to sort of put up as much resistance as possible,” noting “pressure” from the likes of the media, politicians – “from all over the place.”

Almoayad said prior to the vandalism, which he condemned as a “hate crime,” there were “no incidents” and the mood on campus was “very quiet.”

The flag desecration, however, “created a lot of hysteria, a lot of students were upset asking questions – the administration obviously had to react.”

Asked about the fact only a little more than 10 per cent student body turned out for the vote, Almoayad said that at first glance, that number might appear low, but compared to other similar votes, it attracted more voters. A referendum last year on what to put in the space of the former campus pub “didn’t even reach quorum,” he said.

Brent Farrington, internal co-ordinator for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), said BDS has been a localized campus issue. And while the national student organization has taken stands on a variety of issues – from sexual assault to the Idle No More aboriginal protests – it has never debated a BDS resolution.

He said several years ago, a motion that wasn’t about BDS but criticized certain Israeli government actions, came forward but there were “objections” because some of the clauses were not factually accurate.

Farrington said referenda, however, are widespread at the campus level and provide “a viable way” for students to make their voices heard to student councils.

Donald Sylvan, executive director of Hillel Ontario, said it’s important to distinguish between student associations and university administrations, since the latter aren’t affected by these resolutions.

“These are being done by student organizations that don’t have any implementation authority,” he said.

Sylvan also applauded university administrations for increasingly taking the initiative to ensure campuses remain peaceful and to protect freedom of speech.

“A lot of them are moving pre-emptively in advance to take steps to calm fears and make dialogue constructive,” he said.

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