MONTREAL — Concordia University president Alan Shepard has denounced academic boycotts in principle in the wake of undergraduates at his school narrowly voting in favour of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
The results of the referendum, part of the Concordia Student Union (CSU) byelections, were made known on Friday evening, Dec. 5, more than a week after the polls closed.
Reiterating that the result of the vote is independent of the university, Shepard stated immediately after the tally was in: “In my view, a boycott barring us from contact with other universities and scholars would be contrary to the value of academic freedom that is a pillar of Concordia and of universities all over the world.
“That freedom – to think the thoughts we want to think, to test ideas however controversial – is the bedrock of university life. Boycotts by definition foreclose all opportunities for such a free exchange of ideas and perspectives.”
He called on discussion surrounding this “complex, controversial and emotional” issue to be conducted in an atmosphere of free speech and mutual respect.
“I have heard from a number of members of our community who worry that this issue is divisive and could create an unwelcoming environment on campus,” he said. “I call on everyone in the Concordia community to work together to sustain an environment in which all of us are emotionally and physical safe and secure.”
To the question “Do you approve of the CSU endorsing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel?” the final count was 1,276 in favour, 1,067 against, and 237 abstentions or spoiled ballots.
The bylection/referendum, held from Nov. 25 to 27, was open to Concordia’s more than 36,000 undergraduates.
In January 2013, the Concordia Graduate Students Association passed a pro-BDS resolution at its general assembly. Its membership is about 8,000.
Jewish undergraduate Shelly Kubik said the No committee, which she chairs, is considering its options, which include challenging the results. It has concerns about reports of infractions taking place during the voting period.
In a Dec. 6 article in the Prince Arthur Herald, an online student newspaper, Kubik wrote that tension is high on campus over the BDS issue and some comments against members of the No committee on social media have been “openly anti-Semitic and hateful,” and crude graffiti about Jews has been found in washrooms.
“The BDS motion will not simplify the issues on campus, but it will endorse and nurture that hate and tension that marked its presence on campus in recent weeks,” Kubik wrote. “The win of the BDS is a great loss for our freedom, safety, acceptance and diversity on campus.”
The No committee estimates there are about 1,000 Jewish students at Concordia.
The No committee will contest a $150 fine levied against it by CSU chief electoral officer André-Marcel Baril for alleged violations during the campaign. The student newspaper the Concordian reported that until Baril’s report is released, what those violations are won’t be made public.
A new committee, open to those on both sides of the debate, from inside and outside the university, is expected to be formed to decide where to go from here.
Yes committee chair Javier Hoyos told the Concordian that his team plans to spend the rest of the year gathering “empirical evidence showing institutions and certain products are complicit in the occupation of Palestinian territories” in order to persuade the CSU to implement a BDS policy by next fall.
The No committee succeeded on the evening before the polls opened in having the CSU judicial board agree to simplify the question by dropping the clause “until Israel complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.” BDS opponents believed this would make the question less prejudicial.
The byelections/referendum took place after two weeks of vigorous campaigning, during which both sides accused the other of violations and lodged complaints with Baril.
The BDS question was the only one of eight put to the undergraduates that did not directly relate to student affairs.
Late on the final voting day, Nov. 27, Baril made the surprise decision to have the ballots cast on the BDS question sealed and left uncounted until an outside firm specializing in legal matters like this could be consulted.
In the end, after a reported one-hour consultation with the firm, the votes were counted by five CSU members, overseen by Baril, with representatives of the Yes and No committees present.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) stated: “We are concerned with the climate of division created by this referendum, but we are confident that the university administration will not only stand up for what is right, but take appropriate measures and follow up on threats, harassment and bullying by some pro-BDS students…
“[Shepard’s statement] highlights for us the administration’s commitment not to have university policy dictated by a radical student union decision.”
The close vote, CIJA said, “demonstrates that those who seek to divide do not have a majority and do not represent the thousands of students on campus who did not vote.”
StandWithUs Canada, a Toronto-based pro-Israel organization working on campuses, said it’s “disappointed, but not surprised” by the vote. It noted the result has no effect on the university administration’s policy and welcomed Shepard’s “unambiguous and bold statement.”
“What is particularly disturbing is this: when three per cent of a university student union makes a decision for 36,460 undergraduate students at Concordia, there is no hint of the majority ruling in this ‘vote,’” said executive director Meryle Kates.
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC) in Toronto condemned the CSU’s BDS endorsement.
“FSWC is appalled to see the results of this vote at Concordia, particularly as the memory of the 2002 anti-Netanyahu riot and anti-Semitic violence is still fresh in the minds of the Jewish community,” president and chief executive officer Avi Benlolo said in a statement.
“It is distressing to see the level of anti-Semitism at the university has again reared its ugly head and Jewish students once again are harassed and intimidated at a Canadian university.”