A Jewish McGill University student who had been told that she should resign her posts with the student union because she accepted to go on a free trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories under Hillel Montreal’s auspices will not face any sanctions from the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU).
On Dec. 2, the SSMU board of directors overturned a motion adopted by its legislative council on Nov. 28, which called on Jordyn Wright to forgo the winter break trip or step down as a councillor and board member because it may breach SSMU’s conflict of interest policy.
The original motion urged the board directors, “as well as any members of student leadership, to decline the offer they might have received for the aforementioned trip to Israel on the basis” of avoiding “an appearance of a conflict of interest.”
The concluding clause mentioned Wright by name as being “in an apparent conflict of interest,” according to SSMU policy.
Wright, an active Hillel member, vehemently objected to being singled out, given that Andrew Chase, a non-Jewish councillor, had also signed up for the trip. Wright, however, is the only board member who is participating; a third student, Adin Chan, who also sits on the board, had signed up, but has since withdrawn.
After the board quashed the legislative council’s motion, its six executive members issued a lengthy statement, in which they said the matter had been “sensationalized” and based on misinformation.
“First and foremost, we want to extend our deepest sympathies to councillor/director Wright. Though there has been much contention around the topic of the free trips offered … no student at McGill should ever be made to feel unsafe because of who they are and the religion they follow. Ideas should be debated, but these debates should never feel as though an individual is being put on trial. The SSMU executive commits to standing with councillor/director Wright against all anti-Semitic comments and forms of personal harassment.”
The executive refuted the allegation that its president, Bryan Buraga, “actively encouraged attacks” against Wright, as she alleged in a lengthy Facebook post.
The motion approved “was in no way driven by anti-Semitic or anti-Israel sentiments or reasonings. It makes no mention of councillor/director Wright as a Jewish student, nor does it disapprove of a trip to Israel in particular,” the executives stated.
They defended the motion as expressing the council’s disapproval of both Wright and Chan (it was written before he changed his mind) accepting this sponsored trip because it “compromises their ability to be perceived as impartial when representing the entire student body on the board of directors.”
The executive acknowledged that the legislative council does not have the authority to dismiss an SSMU leader.
The board’s policy cautions against student leaders accepting “gifts, hospitality or other benefits” valued at over $50 that have the potential to influence their decisions.
“In subsequently overturning the council’s decision, the board of directors recognizes that the student body is upset with the narrow scope of the conflict of interest policy, but denies that the legislative council is the proper forum to make decisions regarding human resources.”
The board was under pressure from the university’s administration. Earlier in the day on Dec. 2, Fabrice Labeau, the deputy provost of student life and learning, who was at the legislative council meeting, stated that the administration was “highly disturbed” by the vote, as it “purposely singles out an individual member” and is “contrary to the university’s values of inclusion, diversity and respect,” and possibly the SSMU’s own constitution.
“While diversity of opinion is fundamental and should be respected at all times, polarization that reaches a point where it fosters a culture of ostracization, or when our students do not feel respected on our campuses because of their identity, religious and political beliefs, will not be tolerated,” Lebeau stated.
The executive criticized Labeau’s intervention in SSMU’s affairs and his lack of similar support for Palestinian and Arab students.
The SSMU board and council were also facing internal dissent: on Dec. 1, 11 of the 35 council members came out in support of Wright, who insisted she would not resign.
Whether or not participation in the all-expenses-paid trip, which is scheduled to take place Dec. 29-Jan. 8, violates SSMU’s conflict of interest policy has been debated since Nov. 13, when the McGill Daily published a copy of a letter inviting the recipient to join “a select group of student leaders,” Jewish and non-Jewish, at McGill.
Signed by Kylie Huberman, Hillel Montreal’s senior engagement associate, and Ben Ravid, a Jewish Agency emissary in Montreal, the letter states: “We’ve identified you as an invaluable student to have on this trip due to your student leadership experience and connections on campus.”
The letter was reproduced in an opinion piece by Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill and Independent Jewish Voices’ McGill chapter, which obtained it from SSMU vice-presidents Samuel Haward and Sanchi Bhalla, who say they were approached by Hillel to take the trip.
After the Nov. 28 meeting, Wright, a second-year science student, stated on Facebook that, “The SSMU president personally singled me out, and actively encouraged others to attack me.… I am outraged and disgusted, but not surprised. This is not the first time that Jewish students at McGill have been bullied out of student government.”
In an open letter, the ll dissident councillors deplored “the tone and aggressiveness” at the meeting, particularly on the part of Buraga, finding the focus on Wright “startling and unwarranted,” and the motion “hostile.”
The ethics of SSMU members accepting any sponsored trip was initially brought up by councillor André Lametti, who is also a university senator, at the council’s Nov. 14 meeting. On Nov. 21, the board ruled that taking the trip would not constitute a conflict of interest.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) supported Wright throughout the ordeal and condemned her being “subjected to relentless harassment by the SSMU because of her attachment to Israel.”
It applauded the SSMU board for rejecting the “discriminatory” motion, as well as Labeau’s “exemplary stand” and the “hundreds” of students who spoke out against the legislative council’s actions.
“CIJA will proudly continue to support our partners at Hillel and the courageous students who are addressing these instances of discrimination from the front line,” said Rabbi Reuben Poupko, CIJA’s Quebec co-chair.
Ravid told The CJN on Dec. 1 that the trip is going ahead with 20 participants, the number it had planned to include. According to the invitation, the program is “an intensive experiential seminar that will explore the region’s deep history and grapple with nuanced political and religious realities from various angles and perspectives.”