On Jan. 29, the Trent University Central Student Association passed a motion revoking a 2013 policy endorsing boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against the State of Israel. This development – a setback for the divisive and destructive BDS movement – would never have happened were it not for a group of dedicated Trent students. Their remarkable victory is significant in that it offers a four-point blueprint for how campus activists can effectively counter BDS.
First, it’s critical that anti-BDS students build a highly motivated coalition of allies to take unified action. The Trent example shows that victories against BDS can be achieved even on campuses with few Jewish students, provided the Jewish community engages and supports our non-Jewish friends who are in a position to make a difference.
At Trent, both Jewish and non-Jewish students organized the successful campaign against the BDS policy and proactively reached out to and worked with the various political clubs on campus. This approach demonstrates that BDS is not just a Jewish or Israel issue, but a Canadian issue concerning student rights and campus discrimination. The same principle was true at the University of Regina, home of the first student union in Canada to pass a BDS resolution in 2012. A year later, a non-Jewish union member who had attended a Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA)-organized student leader mission to Israel successfully passed a motion annulling BDS.
Second, successful political campaigns at all levels expend tremendous energy knocking on doors, identifying supporters, and contacting them in the days and hours leading up to the close of polls. An intensive get-out-the-vote effort is no less critical in student votes.
Overturning a student union policy at Trent required securing a two-thirds majority of votes at the student union’s annual general meeting. This was no easy task, and it certainly could not have been achieved without a strong push for supporters to attend the meeting and vote. There is value in having brilliant messages, online ads, eye-catching posters, and persuasive flyers. Arguably, however, nothing makes a greater difference than in-person outreach and repeated reminders to supporters about why, how, when and where to vote.
Third, it’s critical that students work with supportive faculty members. While students will only spend a few years on campus, faculty have a wealth of experience. They can offer invaluable advice to students on how to work with the administration, frame their messages, engage other student groups, and navigate campus policies. At Trent, the anti-BDS campaign enjoyed strong support from a number of faculty members, including Prof. Asaf Zohar, who chairs a CIJA-affiliated group called Canadian Academics for Peace in the Middle East (CAP). As Zohar noted: “The events at Trent speak to the power of a determined group of students who were successful in mobilizing and engaging their colleagues to make a difference.”
Many Canadians are unaware that student union votes on BDS have no tangible effect on a university’s policies or investments. Faculty have significant credibility with university officials and can serve as a vital bridge between students and administrators to help ensure the latter disavows BDS when resolutions are passed. When administrations publicly criticize BDS and applaud academic partnerships with Israelis, it signals to Canadians that BDS is a fringe movement that warrants rejection.
Fourth, we cannot overlook the value of students working with the broader Jewish community. At Trent, members of the Jewish and pro-Israel community in Peterborough provided advice and support, assuring students they were not alone and enjoyed backing from residents with strong local roots.
Students also received resources and materials from CIJA, which provides advocacy training, programs, and support for Hillels and students across Canada. As Rebecca Hubble, a student and key organizer in the Trent campaign, remarked: “After the first email that I sent to CIJA, I immediately received full support and guidance for how to approach and plan the anti-BDS campaign…a great deal of advice on how to strategically plan the campaign, reach out to students and get the message across effectively… Everything that CIJA provided for me and my team helped us immensely.”
It is important to reaffirm that BDS generally garners only a weak level of support among students, and it often takes fewer votes than one would think to thwart anti-Israel resolutions. Pro-Israel students at Trent have shown that BDS can be defeated with hard work and the right strategy. By doing so, they have provided a case study in effective advocacy that can prove instructive for similar efforts by Hillels and student activists across Canada.
Judy Zelikovitz is vice-president, university and local partner services, at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).