TORONTO — Canada’s largest university student association has passed a resolution to endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
The York Federation of Students (YFS), which represents more than 52,000 undergraduates at York University, voted on the resolution at a March 21 board meeting, after the Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), a campus group, collected the requisite 5,000 student signatures to force the item onto the YFS’ agenda. SAIA began collecting the signatures last fall.
The vast majority of YFS members present at the meeting voted for the motion, with 18 in favour, and only two against, according to a statement from SAIA.
In addition to having the YFS endorse the BDS campaign, the resolution also calls on York itself to “abide by the BDS call; specifically urging the university to withdraw its investments from Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, Amphenol and other companies that are selling weapons and military equipment to Israel,” SAIA said.
The YFS is the third student union in Toronto to endorse the BDS campaign in the current school year. The University of Toronto’s Graduate Student Union and York’s Graduate Students Association both voted to do so last fall.
Chaim Lax, president of Hasbara at York, a pro-Israel group, said he was upset by the March 21 result, since he believes the majority of York students don’t support the boycott.
In a joint statement issued by Hillel and Hasbara groups at York, Lax called the BDS endorsement “fundamentally racist, and a possible violation of the university’s anti-discrimination codes.”
Ever since York’s graduate students association passed its BDS motion last November, Jewish and pro-Israel groups at York have tried to galvanize student opposition to the BDS campaign, collecting some 4,000 signatures on a petition against it.
Five members from Hillel and Hasbara, including Jessica Cherkasov, president of the Hillel-affiliated York Students for Israel, spoke at the March 21 YFS meeting, presenting their own petition against BDS and urging the student federation not to vote on SAIA’s motion.
Some pro-Israel supporters also questioned the vote’s validity, saying they were surprised the YFS allowed SAIA to present the motion immediately after the group said it had gathered 5,000 signatures from York students, since the signatures hadn’t been checked.
SAIA said it reached its total on March 19, but an external audit to verify the authenticity of the signatures had not been completed before the YFS meeting.
The issue of the signatures’ validity was raised at the meeting, but did not affect the outcome of the vote, Lax said.
“Those signatures have not been verified for authenticity or duplication,” said Howard English, senior vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. “We don’t really know whether these are 5,000 genuine students.”
The decision to hold the March 21 vote was made the previous day, giving pro-Israel students little time to mobilize.
Nevertheless, about 100 pro-Israel students showed up to the meeting, carrying Israeli and Canadian flags, Cherkasov told The CJN.
Cherkasov added that she’s dismayed that the YFS, which is supported by mandatory dues from York undergraduates, would take a stand on a non-student issue, especially one that it says doesn’t have strong student support.
“While we may have lost the vote, we do feel like we do have the support of the majority of students on campus who don’t want to see their student government, to which they owe money, radicalized or politicized,” Lax said.
Now that the motion has passed, SAIA will try to “bring its demand for divestment to the York University administration by lobbying for the implementation of a socially responsible investment policy,” the group said in its statement.
However, York spokesperson Janice Walls noted that the YFS is completely independent from the administration.
“York University uses best practices in developing its policy on investments, and this is built on advice from major investment consulting firms,” Walls said.
The pro-Israel students say the YFS vote has only strengthened their resolve.
“We will not let the YFS intimidate us and other groups,” Cherkasov said. “We came in with a very positive attitude. We wanted to show that we have a unified front, as we always do.”
The motion passed just two weeks after SAIA hosted Israeli Apartheid Week at York.
Representatives of SAIA and the YFS could not be reached for comment.