MONTREAL – A motion in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel was carried at a general assembly of the McGill University undergraduates’ association on Feb. 22.
The vote by secret ballot was 512-357 with 14 abstentions, and followed a lengthy, but mainly orderly debate at the winter general assembly of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU).
As with all motions adopted at a GA, this one must be ratified by an online vote by the total membership, Benjamin Dionne, speaker of the SSMU council, said, after the room erupted in cheers among those on the Yes side.
The motion was proposed by the McGill BDS Action Network, which was officially launched at the beginning of February and claimed broad-based support for the motion.
This was the third time in less than 1-1/2 years that a BDS motion has been put before a SSMU GA. The last attempt, 11 months ago, was defeated 276-212.
The motion calls on the SSMU to support pro-BDS campaigns through the office of its vice president external and the SSMU president to “lobby” the McGill board of governors in support of BDS campaigns.
The motion demands that McGill completely divest from companies “profiting from violations of Palestinian human rights” and implement an “investment screen” to prevent future investments in such companies.
The motion specifically mentions the Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank, an Israeli institution; L-3 Communications, an American surveillance and reconnaissance provider; and the U.S.-based global real estate broker RE/MAX as being among McGill’s current holdings.
The motion denounces the “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands captured in 1967,” and calls for the dismantling of Israel’s security barrier, the right of Palestinians to return to land now in Israel, and full equality for Arab Israelis.
McGill BDS cites endorsements from such campus groups as Queer McGill, NDP McGill, the Association of McGill University Support Employees, McGill Black Students’ Network, the Feminist Collective of McGill Law, Kanata: McGill’s Indigenous Studies Community, and McGill Syrian Students’ Association.
The McGill Daily and the student radio station CKUT supported the motion, while another student newspaper the McGill Tribune took a neutral stance.
More than 40 students spoke at the GA, roughly equally divided between the two sides, before a motion overwhelmingly in favour of doing so ended the debate.
Another motion to vote on the BDS motion by secret ballot instead of a show of hands also passed by a wide margin.
Speakers opposed to the motion denounced it as one-sided and unfair in singling out Israel. They repeatedly raised concern that it caused divisions on campus and marginalizes Jewish and other students who support Israel. Some termed it anti-Semitic and cause for fear among Jewish and Israeli students.
Josh Frank said be believed BDS campaigns at McGill would not end demands for withdrawing investment, but extend to a cultural and academic boycott of Israel.
Aliza Saskin said this was not the right way to address a “complex” issue and made a plea for respectful dialogue in “an appropriate forum.”
A couple who described themselves as critical of much of Israeli government policy said they would still vote No because the net effect of the BDS campaign is to strengthen the hand of Likud, while demoralizing the Israeli left.
One student who identified himself as Arab said he has been denounced as a traitor for speaking out against the motion.
The Yes side dismissed the claim the motion was anti-Semitic or even targeted Israelis as a people.
Michael McCauley, one of the motion’s drafters, said it targets multinational corporations who “have direct ties to enforcing or maintaining the occupation.”
Another spokesperson for the motion, Zara Habib, said it was “disgusting” and “heart-breaking” that she and other supporters should be labelled anti-Semitic or racist.
Another proponent, Laura Khoury, who identified herself as Palestinian, said it was a “lie” that pro-Israel students want dialogue. “Every time dialogue is promoted, only 10 students show up.”
George Gabriel said it is pro-Palestinian students who are being marginalized at McGill because the administration invests in companies like the ones cited in the motion.
Both sides waged campaigns on campus for three weeks before the GA. The Yes side’s posters featured Nelson Mandela, who was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, while the No side used Justin Trudeau as its icon. Last year, as Liberal leader, Trudeau tweeted his disappointment that his alma mater would entertain a BDS motion.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) March 13, 2015
This time around, Mount Royal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather took to Twitter to urge McGill students to reject the latest gambit.
Four days earlier, Housefather delivered a lengthy speech in the House of Commons excoriating BDS saying it is “part of a new anti-Semitism that stigmatizes and vilifies Israel.”
BDS campaigns are fomenting “hatred” on campuses, he said, and “that is shameful because all students in this country should feel safe when they go to school.”
D’Arcy McGee MNA David Birnbaum, on Feb. 16, issued a state characterizing the BDS movement as “intellectually lazy, undemocratic and, ultimately, hostile to the peace process” and the SSMU as being “wrong-headed.”
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) deplored the adoption of the motion, which Quebec executive committee member Rabbi Reuben Poupko criticized as “a betrayal of reason, [which] represents a denial of intellectual freedom.”
The BDS campaign is not only counterproductive to advancing peace or the Palestinian cause, Rabbi Poupko said in a prepared statement, but it also “vilifies Israel and Jewish students on Montreal campuses. It is troubling that a university campus, a place that should embody and exemplify free thought, would stigmatize a group of people for holding a different point of view.”
CIJA saluted efforts by Jewish and non-Jewish students to defeat the motion, and McGill for “build[ing] mutually beneficial partnerships with Israeli research institutions.”
The controversial motion passed just hours after the Canadian government passed a resolution to condemn the BDS movement 229-51, supported by both the Conservative and Liberal parties.