While most Jewish students have a positive university experience, it should come as no surprise that radical anti-Israel groups are active on some campuses. What may surprise some is the extent to which their activities have been supported by organizations funded through mandatory student fees.
This is changing, at least in Ontario, thanks to a policy adopted by the provincial government in January. Students now have the ability to opt out of fees that were once automatically included on their tuition bill.
Previously, tuition included an additional levy paid to the local student union and related campus groups that purport to represent student interests. As a result of the province’s new policy, those fees will be divided between essential services funded through the student union (such as health insurance and transit passes) and non-essential services, namely the union’s advocacy activities.
Students can opt out of non-essential services, potentially returning several hundred dollars every year back to their cash-strapped wallets.
This policy should be supported by anyone who is concerned about BDS activity on campus, or, frankly, the lack of accountability shown by some student unions and groups.
During the 2015-16 school year, I served as president of the University Students’ Council at Western University. While I am not Jewish, I was nevertheless shocked and disturbed by the behaviour of anti-Israel groups on campus. I saw firsthand how BDS activities directly undermine the well-being of Jewish students, most of whom see Israel as a core part of their identity.
The idea that any student would encounter activists on campus who are attacking their very identity is upsetting. The notion that Jewish students would be forced to pay for those very activities is outrageous and indefensible.
This is precisely what was happening on some Ontario campuses through mandatory fees paid to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and various public interest research groups (known as PIRGs). These groups are mandated to advance the interests of all students through advocacy and research.
The idea that any student would encounter activists on campus who are attacking their very identity is upsetting.
Outrageously, the CFS and some PIRGs are openly supportive of the BDS movement. This fact, combined with allegations of mismanagement and lack of accountability, has fomented a backlash by students of all backgrounds.
In 2016, students at the University of Waterloo voted to defund the local PIRG, which had lent significant support to a prominent BDS group on campus. And rightly so: it is one thing to fund a political cause that matches one’s values; it is quite another to be taxed against one’s will to fund organizations that spend their resources on a radical agenda that directly undermines the well-being of Jewish students.
The fact that this comes at the expense of advocating on the issues that actually matter to students – tuition costs, student services, student health and safety – adds insult to injury.
If you care about the fight against BDS on campus, please spread the word. Every Jewish student and parent of a student should take a moment to closely examine their tuition bill. If, like me, you are appalled by the behaviour of some of these student groups, remember to opt out these fees. It only takes a few clicks to reserve your dollars for legitimate student services and send the message that these organizations don’t deserve your support.
Thanks to the Government of Ontario’s new policy, every student in the province can now send that message.
Sophie Helpard is associate director, government relations (Ontario) at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and the former president of the University Students’ Council at Western University.