The Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) has turned down a motion endorsing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, following a concerted lobbying effort by a number of Jewish organizations.
The BDS motion was introduced on Nov. 3, shortly before the Sabbath, as part of a number of motions on social justice issues. It called on the SFUO to include a statement supporting the BDS movement in its policy handbook and to take a “pro-Palestine stance.”
In the end, the SFUO rejected the BDS proposal, instead adopting a motion to require the SFUO “to do all in its power to peacefully resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“We certainly hope this decision definitively shuts the door to BDS at University of Ottawa, but if it returns, we are ready to defeat it again,” said Dovi Chein, director of Hillel Ottawa.
Chein told The CJN that the pro-BDS motion did not come as a surprise to Hillel, “given the attempt a few weeks ago by several members of the SFUO to remove the club status of Hillel and the Israel Awareness Committee.”
“We believe this motion was advanced by a few individuals on the SFUO executive,” he said.
Rotem Fellus, StandWithUs Canada’s Emerson fellow, who attended the student union meeting, said that, “There were many persuasive speeches and questions that helped (defeat the motion). The two that I thought were the most effective was that of a student who was not Israeli or Jewish and spoke of her time in Israel, telling us that passing this motion would be a huge mistake for both sides. Another story was from a Jewish-Israeli student, who said that passing this motion would make him feel unsafe on campus. Both of these were very touching and truly impactful overall.”
Judy Zelikovitz, vice-president of university and local partner services of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said her organization supported Jewish students and their allies on campus in opposing the BDS motion.
“Together with Hillel, we mobilized 30 to 40 Jewish students and non-Jewish allies, to show up in the room where they spoke against the motion very passionately and intelligently,” she said.
The students were able to come together quickly over the weekend to make the case that saw the BDS motion effectively removed, she said.
Zelikovitz said that while proponents of BDS have introduced motions in favour of it on several Canadian campuses, “the BDS movement is a fringe movement. People on campus are trying to bring forward something that is not normative.”
Zelikovitz noted that both the attempt to delist Hillel and the BDS motion were introduced late on Friday, hamstringing the ability of Jewish students to react to them.
In a news release, B’nai Brith Canada also noted the timing of the BDS motion and said that it acted “quickly through its legal counsel, sending SFUO directors a letter on Friday afternoon explaining that any vote to endorse BDS could trigger serious legal consequences.
“The SFUO’s proposed BDS vote would have violated the notice requirements guaranteed by its own constitution, as well as the student union’s policy on discrimination, which prohibits the SFUO from discriminating on the basis of nationality or religion. It also came on the heels of a failed attempt by activists within the SFUO to revoke the club status of Hillel Ottawa in previous weeks.”
According to B’nai Brith, this was the ninth time in two years that BDS motions have failed on Canadian campuses.
“Over the past two years, BDS votes have failed at the University of Toronto (twice), the University of Waterloo, McGill University, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, the University of Winnipeg – and now the University of Ottawa, as well,” B’nai Brith stated.
“Anti-Israel motions have no place under policies purporting to promote social justice. SFUO’s board of administration, with a mandate to act in the best interest of all its students, properly rejected this latest attempt to marginalize the pro-Israel and Jewish voices on campus,” said Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Chein credited the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and CIJA with providing support to students who opposed the motion. “This entire episode has galvanized our community on campus, and has empowered our students,” he said.