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Thursday, August 21, 2014

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Firm threatens to pull funds over Windsor BDS vote

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WINDSOR, Ont. — A well-known Windsor engineering firm says it will withdraw a long-running work placement program for students at the University of Windsor (UW) if the university’s student government endorses an anti-Israel boycott vote.

Richard Spencer, president of RC Spencer Associates Inc., told UW president Alan Wildeman in a letter that the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) referendum, which passed in an undergraduate vote earlier this month, is “an expression of anti-Semitism” and slammed it for singling out Israel.

Spencer, a UW graduate who has employed the school’s co-op engineering students for more than 20 years, said he would “cease support” unless Wildeman intervened to prevent the endorsement.

In an interview, Spencer called the boycott “prejudice” because Israel was the sole country being targeted. “Why didn’t they issue this against the Chinese… in Bangladesh where Joe Fresh is doing all kinds of things,” he said.

The letter was swiftly condemned as “Islamophobic” by the Palestinian Solidarity Group (PSG), the campus organization which brought the vote, the first such undergraduate referendum to pass on a Canadian campus.

Spokesperson Mohammed Almoayad said the letter was filled with inaccuracies, was “crude,” and “not very well thought out.”

He pointed to one sentence that said, in part, that “the Muslim faith… promotes violence and hatred toward the Jews in the Middle East.”

Spencer said he has received a lot of support from people in the community, including some “I highly respect.”

The letter went viral on the university student engineering society’s Facebook page. It sparked a heated online discussion and was later withdrawn.

Spencer said he’s not anti-Muslim.

“If they want to come over and see who works for me, I’ve got every nation and every religion represented,” he said.

The referendum passed 798 to 585 – UW has an undergraduate population of about 14,000 – but Wildeman immediately announced he would launch an investigation into complaints about how it was handled.

He also asked the University of Windsor Student Association to defer accepting the chief returning officer’s report until the university completes its investigation, which the student council agreed to do March 13.

Wildeman called wording in Spencer’s letter “totally inappropriate” because it “targeted one group of students.”

Wildeman said he wrote Spencer and others saying students have a “legal right” to hold referendums and the university “could not stop them from doing that if it wanted to.”

The BDS vote would only affect student government policy and not that of the university administration.

The referendum question called on the student government to commit to “divesting from companies that support or profit from Israeli war crimes, occupation and oppression.”

Since the vote, the university has become a lightning rod for attention from around the world, with extensive international media coverage including in Israel.

Wildeman said he was probably “getting an email a minute from somebody in the world somewhere… on all sides of the issue.”

He also said he has received many comments from alumni and benefactors, but no one has yet withdrawn funding or tangible support.“I think we’re still at the point where a lot of people are wondering, waiting to see what’s going to happen,” he said.

The university has appointed Raj Anand, a lawyer and former chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, to conduct the investigation into how the vote was handled.

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