TORONTO — The University of Toronto’s Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) defeated a motion that called on the university to divest from companies that do business with Israel.
During the Nov. 21 GSU council meeting, members voted 37-25 against a motion that was endorsed by the group Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), and presented by the GSU’s social justice committee.
The motion, just three paragraphs long, called on U of T “to divest from and refuse to reinvest in BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, Hewlett Packard, and Lockheed Martin.”
In the past, SAIA groups on Canadian campuses have campaigned to have student unions vote on motions that endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.
Last February, SAIA’s Carleton University chapter tried to present a motion to its student union that condemned Israel and called on the university not to invest in companies that do business in Israel, but pro-Israel students succeeded in convincing council members to shelve it.
However, the motion presented to U of T’s GSU last month was carefully worded to avoid mentioning Israel.
Instead it singled out companies that do business in Israel, asking for the university to divest from firms “involved in violations of international law.”
Andrew Gross, a political science graduate student and a member of the GSU, said SAIA’s new strategy was an attempt “to have their cake and eat it, too.”
“On the one hand, they did not mention Israel in the motion itself, so that the motion would not raise any red flags, in that it would seem to be neutral,” Gross said.
“On the other hand, had the motion passed… it would have been interpreted by SAIA as a very strong statement against what they call ‘Israeli apartheid.’”
Despite SAIA’s strategy to refrain from mentioning Israel in the motion, on Nov. 15, a week before the GSU council meeting, the social justice committee held a panel discussion for graduate students to decide whether the GSU as a whole should support SAIA’s call for U of T to divest from companies “that support Israel’s war and occupation of the Palestinian territories.”
Gross was on that panel in an attempt to convince his peers that this motion would not speak for the majority of U of T’s 14,000 graduate students.
He also tried to use the platform to dispel claims that Israel is an apartheid state.
In addition to the panel discussion, Gross said that during the council meeting, a social justice committee member distributed flyers with information about the call for divestment.
“It had to do with Israeli actions, the Gaza occupation and that kind of thing – and on the back of it, there was information about Students Against Israeli Apartheid.”
As students debated whether the motion should pass, Gross said council members eventually put an end to the debate, deciding that they spend more time focusing on issues that directly affect U of T’s graduate students.
In the end, a majority voted against the motion.
“I am relieved that the motion failed, because cooler heads prevailed,” Gross said.
“We showed very clearly that the motion was inherently duplicitous and false… and a harmful act of propaganda.”
Brandon Lablong, Hillel of Greater Toronto’s special programs co-ordinator, said he worked with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs to help students at U of T develop a strategy and present arguments that would get the motion defeated.
“The beautiful thing about this is that it really was a student initiative. These grads, who are all academics, were able to independently learn up on the issues,” Lablong said.
Although the motion was voted down, the social justice committee and SAIA haven’t conceded defeat.
The committee had planned to urge the GSU this past Monday to have each section of the three-paragraph motion considered as a separate resolution.
The first paragraph calls on U of T to divest from the four aforementioned firms. The second calls on it “to refrain from investing in all companies involved in violations of international law,” while the third urges it “to work with students, faculty and staff to undergo a democratic and transparent process to ensure accountability of its investments to principles of social and environmental justice.”
The committee would have needed to get the approval of two-thirds of the roughly 100 GSU council members to break up the motion and have each part considered individually, Gross said last week, ahead of the Dec. 5 meeting.
Lablong predicted that even if the committee were to secure that approval, “It won’t go very far because separately, it’s very vague.
“And the first part of the motion, which calls for the divestment from the four companies, has already been [defeated].”