The B.C. Supreme Court has rejected a petition to stop the University of British Columbia’s student government from holding a referendum April 3-7 on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
Justice Frits Verhoeven denied the petition March 29.
The referendum question is the same one the Alma Mater Society (AMS) asked students in 2015, which was defeated: ““Do you support your student union (AMS) in boycotting products and divesting from companies that support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians?”
The question was put forward by the UBC branch of the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), which collected the required number of signatures to force a referendum, which was initially scheduled during AMS elections in the last week of March.
It was postponed after third-year commerce student Logan Presch filed a petition against it. He and his lawyer got a court order that delayed the vote until early April.
In his petition, Presch said the proposed question “is divisive, creates a toxic atmosphere for students supportive of the state of Israel, and is destructive of open and respectful debate on an important issue.”
It also raised safety concerns, he said, noting the 2015 referendum, “drove a wedge between religious groups on campus who had previously enjoyed inter-faith outreach and collaboration. Students outwardly opposed to the [referendum] encountered a hostile reaction, and there were reported acts of anti-Semitism on campus.”
In an affidavit, Rabbi Philip Bregman, executive director of Hillel BC, recalled that at the time, anti-BDS lawn signs at UBC were pulled down. He also cited “a lack of personal security that many Jewish students experience on campus that is exacerbated by referenda such as the proposed question. There is an important line between robust political discourse and circumstances where I am compelled to deal with the personal security of students who study and live on campus who feel threatened by the consequences of this type of proposed question, which I believe foments the anti-Semitism and hostility I have described.”
While not Jewish, Presch is a member of the Jewish Students Association and Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity. He declined requests to comment for this story, but in an affidavit filed with his lawyer, Howard Mickelson, Presch said the first referendum two years ago created a “toxic environment on campus.”
He said the question being posed was contrary to the AMS’ mission statement to “cultivate unity and goodwill among its members” and “encourage free and open debate as well as respect for differing views.”
Presch also argued that the AMS’ code of procedure requires referendum questions to have a clear a “yes” or “no” answer, but this question is “so loaded with assumptions (which are themselves highly controversial), that it will not be clear what a yes or no vote by my student colleagues will actually mean.”
Mickelson said the court recognized the question was loaded and the intention of a “yes” vote could be unclear, but denied the petition because it determined “the society’s bylaws do not require that a question be fair as long as it can be answered yes or no. The standard for a qualifying question is a low one.”
But he said the court also recognized “concerns for student safety” and “the responsibility of the AMS and UBC to ensure student safety and respectful debate by all means necessary.”
Rabbi Bregman said he was “disappointed” about the ruling, but added that “we really won the battles, because the judge didn’t disagree with any of our arguments… So we go forward fighting this nefarious referendum aimed at marginalizing and demonizing not only Israel but by extension, those who support Israel.
“[In 2015], we had the largest ‘no’ vote ever seen in Canada at that time. So the staff… and the students are ready to fight the referendum… But really, what we’re all about is dialogue, and this is something that the SPHR has never taken us up on. Whereas we have dialogue with all sorts of groups on campus, the SPHR has rebuffed all of our efforts.”
In a statement, the pro-BDS group Independent Jewish Voices Canada praised the ruling.