University of Waterloo students have voted No in a referendum that called on the university to sever ties with Israeli academic institutions.
A two-week campaign to persuade students to vote either for or against the boycott followed, and on Jan. 28, Waterloo’s Federation of Students (Feds) said 4,216 students had voted, with 2,329 of them voting No. Waterloo has about 30,000 undergraduates.
In October, a student group called Ethical Collaboration UW submitted a petition with about 4,400 signatures to Feds. It claimed that Palestinian students and teachers are routinely prevented from reaching their schools because of military checkpoints and roadblocks, and that they face systematic discrimination at the Israeli institutions that Waterloo has academic partnerships with, including the University of Haifa, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Tel Aviv University and Weizmann Institute of Science.
After the submission, Feds was tasked with verifying the signatures to ensure they came from registered undergraduate students. In early January, a referendum was called when the minimum requirement of 10 per cent of undergraduate student signatures was met.
“Following this result, the official stance of the Federation of Students is that we do not have a stance on the University of Waterloo severing ties with the institutions mentioned in the referendum question,” said Stéphane Hamade, Feds’ vice-president of education.
“This means Feds will not be advocating for this because of the results.”
Ilia Sucholutsky, an 18-year-old second-year mathematical science student who was part of the No campaign, recalled being approached last year while waiting for a bus on campus.
“A couple guys were going down the line approaching each person, saying, ‘Do you believe in human rights?’ Of course we all said we believe in human rights, so they said, ‘OK, sign this paper here.’ I was put off by that and asked them what I was signing. Then they started talking about Israeli institutions and Palestinian human rights violations,” Sucholutsky said.
After that encounter, he approached the student union and convinced them that part of the verification process should include a confirmation email to all the students who signed the petition to make sure they understood what they had signed.
“According to what I was told afterward, over 1,000 signatures were dropped from the petition based on those processes, so it came to about 3,000, which is just barely enough [to trigger a referendum],” Sucholutsky said.
Supporters of the No campaign drafted letters against the boycott that were signed by students and Waterloo faculty members, and they also took part in a public debate that was streamed live on the student union website.
Although students voted against severing ties with Israel, Sucholutsky said the result of the referendum likely would not have made a difference to the administration.
“The administration is very much committed to their relationship with Israel. The president of the university spent a month in Tel Aviv last semester building relationships with Technion, but for the student union, [if students had voted Yes] it would be binding on them to do something about it,” he explained.
“For me, it’s never been about these ties actually getting severed. We know that it’s not going to happen, but it is more about how it is polarizing the student body. It is creating this toxic environment… There is a large population on campus that is very apathetic, but of those who do get interested, they tend to be very polarized,” he said.
He credited the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Hillel Ontario and StandWithUs Canada for providing pro-Israel students with the guidance and resources they needed to put forth an organized response to the anti-Israel boycott movement on campus.
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center called the result “a stunning victory” and “another blow to the BDS movement on campuses across the country.”
Spokersperson Nick Manning said that the “University of Waterloo values free speech and freedom of expression and we believe that it is important that universities provide an environment where students can debate the issues that are important to them.
“Waterloo proactively engages with international research-intensive universities that share our values of academic freedom, freedom of expression and equity. Our academic partnerships seek to advance knowledge creation that will positively impact the world in which we live and are administered through processes that are open and transparent.”
Marc Newburgh, CEO of Hillel Ontario, lauded the results of the vote. “This decision is an important step toward building a campus community where all students, regardless of their background and identity, feel safe, welcome, and accepted,” he said.
Meryle Kates, executive director of StandWithUs Canada commented, “We applaud the students of Waterloo University who rejected bigotry on their campus, and all of the student leaders who worked together so admirably.”
Judy Zelikovitz, CIJA’s vice-president of university and local partner services, noted that Waterloo “is just the latest campus to reject BDS and reaffirm strong and mutually beneficial ties with Israelis. This would not have happened were it not for the hard work of students on campus who refused to be silent in the face of this discriminatory movement.”