VANCOUVER — A student referendum at the University of British Columbia on boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel failed to pass last week after the yes side didn’t get the required percentage of votes.
Among students who chose to vote on whether they want their student union to support the BDS campaign against Israel, 3,493 voted “yes” and 2,223 voted “no.” The referendum required a quorum of 4,130 “yes” votes, or about eight per cent of UBC’s 48,000 students, in order to pass.
“We are proud to announce that after a long and rough campaign period, we have succeeded in keeping BDS off of our campus!” the group UBC Students Against BDS said in a statement. “This is a great day for peace and dialogue at UBC.”
Students were asked to respond to the question: “Do you support your student union (AMS) in boycotting products and divesting from companies that support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians?”
The vote was held March 23 to 27 by the Alma Mater Society (AMS), which represents all students and says its mission is “to improve the quality of the educational, social and personal lives of the students of UBC.”
Reflecting on the vote numbers, Rabbi Philip Bregman, director of Hillel UBC, said the fact the pro side got more votes than the no or abstentions was no surprise. “I believed that those that hate Israel would be greater than those that support us,” he wrote in a letter to the community. “What was truly a surprise was that the pro-BDS group failed to get at least 4,130 votes. And what absolutely shocked me was the number that voted no or abstained–almost 2,700.That number is the largest number of anti-BDS votes ever cast in Canada, and I believe possibly in all of North America.”
The referendum was a contentious issue even among members of the AMS executive committee, which received the request for a vote from a student member of the campus club Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR). A referendum is granted when the AMS receives a petition with a minimum of 1,000 student signatures.
SPHR said in a statement that “boycotts and divestments have and continue to be a powerful, peaceful method for change in the world” and that “UBC students have a history of utilizing referendums to garner support for marginalized groups.”
“Subject to continued military occupation, annexation of land, underdevelopment, discriminatory treatment, and military assault, the Palestinian people, including students on our campus, deserve the solidarity of UBC students. By voting ‘Yes’ on this question, you encourage investigation into UBC’s ties with any companies that might maintain the occupation of Palestinian territories, set a precedent against any future involvement with such, and show symbolic solidarity with Palestinians.”
On March 4, the AMS council gathered to discuss the question and released a statement saying that the “passing of this referendum will go against one of the primary objectives of the society, to promote unity and goodwill amongst our members.”
The AMS council endorsed “any vote but yes,” but said it “could not launch a full campaign and further direct the executive committee to release a single communication statement that states the AMS’ stance on the BDS referendum.”
On March 24, the council amended this vague wording by adding that “a yes vote would isolate certain members of the AMS and go against the ideals of inclusivity and the promotion of a safe and discrimination-free community for our members.”
Rabbi Bregman said the AMS could have rejected the referendum. “We’ve been fighting this referendum since November,” he told The CJN as the vote was ongoing. “The AMS could have chosen not to put out the referendum on a number of bases we gave them, but it was their choice to put it out. It contains the phrase ‘Israeli war crimes’ despite the fact that Israel has never been convicted of war crimes. It targets Israelis and Jews on campus and puts a toxicity into campus.”
Rabbi Bregman cited a number of recent incidents on campus in response to the referendum, including. swastikas that were found in two campus residences.
As well, earlier this month, another campus club that had planned to collaborate with the Jewish Students’ Association in making peanut butter jelly sandwiches for the homeless was pulling out. “They said they didn’t want to be seen with Jews this week during the voting. We believe this referendum is about hate,” he said.
Darren Mackoff, director of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Pacific region, said his organization has been working to confront BDS at UBC.
“From ongoing outreach to the student government, school administration, other student groups and leaders and the campus body at large, the message has been clear: BDS stands for hate, closes down dialogue and flies in the face of UBC’s longstanding academic, democratic and multicultural values. It’s a message which has resonated strongly at UBC.”
The AMS declined to be interviewed for this story.