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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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Hillel urges McMaster to reject BDS vote

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Avi Benlolo

HAMILTON — McMaster University Hillel representatives are expecting the university to reject a resolution calling for boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel.

At a McMaster Students Union general assembly meeting March 26, about 500 students voted to endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which calls for action against businesses with ties to Israel, due the country’s policies regarding the Palestinian territories.

The motion came just as the undergraduate student group had to vacate the gym where the meeting was being held, leaving little time for debate. The vote happened after the meeting was scheduled to end, and the assembly did not have quorum, which would have been 633 students. This makes it a non-binding resolution. It will now go before the Student Representative Assembly, the MSU’s governing council.

“This resolution has neither democratic legitimacy nor popular support at McMaster. If anything, it makes a mockery of the processes and mandate of the MSU, which exists to unite all students and advocate for student causes, rather than import divisive foreign conflicts onto campus,” said Raphael Szajnfarber, director of Jewish Student Life, McMaster University Hillel. “We fully expect the SRA to reject this vote.”

On its Facebook page, the Say Yes to BDS-McMaster campaign says it will take action to make the motion binding.

“A boycott of Israelis does nothing to promote a peace that benefits both Israelis and Palestinians, Szajnfarber said. “In contrast, it’s simply a modern-day blacklist and discrimination on the basis of national origin. To implement this resolution would almost certainly violate the university’s anti-discrimination policy.”

Szajnfarber called the general assembly meeting a “toxic and tense environment.” In fact, some BDS opponents left as a group and one student at the microphone asked security to stand between him and another student.

“The tension was palpable. It was the build-up of a week of escalating rhetoric and the culmination of a divisive campaign” Szajnfarber said.

“We support free speech and debate and people thinking critically about an important foreign policy issue. People should be talking about these issues in university,” he added. “But a unilateral campaign designed to shut down debate is not the way to go about it.”

Salah Khalaf, a chemical engineering student, had asked that BDS be debated at the meeting. He told the CBC the campaign “does not target any ethnicity race or religion, rather any corporation that helps sustain the illegal occupation.”

He sees universities as the place to have these conversations.

“In every academic institution since civilized man has existed, we have had discussion and debate,” he said.

York University students voted in favour of BDS last year. Last month, University of Windsor students voted for it, but those results are under investigation.

Following the McMaster vote, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC) called on McMaster president Patrick Deane to safeguard Jewish students on campus.

“The Jewish community is fed up with this discriminatory targeting of Israel, which is nothing more than the latest trend in anti-Semitism,” said FSWC president and CEO Avi Benlolo.

“Until these students wake up to the slaughter that is happening in Syria, or notice the naked Russian aggression against the Ukraine, or take a stand on attacks against Jews in France, their concern for human rights is revealed for what it is: outright hatred and hostility against Jews. It is time for president Deane to take his own stand and protect the rights of all of his students, and not just those who shout the loudest.

In an email to The CJN, Deane stressed that the student union is a separate entity from the university and that because there was no quorum, the motion isn’t binding on the MSU anyway.

“The university is guided by foundational principles of freedom of speech and expression in an inclusive and respectful environment,” Deane said. “We work to ensure students and other members of the community feel safe to express their opinions in an environment of tolerance and respect. There are a number of ways we work together to achieve this.”

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