How a conflict from halfway across the world has become the focal point of discussion on Canadian university campuses
Reading Time: 11 minutes
By Tom Yun
In February, Conservative MPs Michelle Rempel and Tony Clement introduced a motion to the House of Commons to condemn organizations that expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement — a campaign that calls for economic sanctions against the state of Israel in response to alleged human rights violations committed in Palestine.
With the support of nearly all of the Liberal and Conservative MPs in Parliament the motion passed, despite members from the other parties voting against the motion. Criticism of the motion by Members of Parliament has almost always been preceded by an affirmation of support for the State of Israel. Despite voting against the motion, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May also expressed opposition to the BDS movement.
In a serious disconnect between parliamentarians and citizens, the nearly unanimous condemnation of BDS by Canadian MPs is far from being echoed by the Canadian public. Some labour unions have endorsed BDS. CUPE Ontario endorsed the movement in 2006, and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers did so in 2008. The Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, have called for their members to boycott products from Israeli settlements. The United Church of Canada, which is Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, has also taken this position.
Of the groups promoting BDS, campus organizations have been among the most active. Several student unions have endorsed the movement, including the York Federation of Students, the McMaster Students Union, the Concordia Students Union, and the Ryerson Student Union. At U of T, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), the University of Toronto Mississauga Students Union (UTMSU), the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU), and the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) have all endorsed the movement.
Divergent stances on BDS have produced a tense climate of division, especially on university campuses. At U of T, which has a long history of BDS-related organizing, the movement continues to grow. It has been met with determined support by some, and fiery opposition by others, leaving many to criticize the role of this university in the long-standing conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Nadi Sa’adeh, a graduate student who is involved with the U of T St. George chapter of Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), describes the campus group, which was founded in 2004: “Our organization is non-hierarchical so we are all equal organizers in a flattened structure,” he explains, “and, our work… revolves around specific events that we do throughout the year and basically building movement capacity and doing outreach to students, especially revolving around doing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.”
One of SAIA’s best known initiatives is Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), which hosts events on campus and “brings in different scholars, academics, activists, artists from around the world, and sort of tries to bridge the Palestinian struggles with other struggles around the world,” according to Saadeh. The first Israeli Apartheid Week was held by SAIA at U of T in 2005. The event has since spread and is now held in over 150 of cities around the world.
SAIA often works closely with the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union’s (UTGSU) Ad-Hoc Committee on BDS, also called U of T Divest. “SAIA and the GSU ad hoc committee are part of the same movement for BDS and, you know, work together in part of… an informal BDS coalition and also working with other… groups both at UTM and UTSC but [also] outside the U of T system,” explains Omar Sirri, a graduate student speaking on behalf of U of T Divest.
The BDS movement at U of T calls for the university to divest from Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Hewlett-Packard — companies which, in Sirri’s view, “are arms and weapons manufacturing and technology companies that profit explicitly from violations of international law in Israel and Palestine and profit essentially from war crimes.”
To Sirri, U of T’s investment in these companies makes these institution complicit, albeit indirectly, in the propagation of war crimes. “[A] growing number of staff, faculty, and alumni are of the opinion that the University of Toronto should not be invested in companies that profit from, and itself should not be profiting from, war crimes,” Sirri says, “It’s a very simple campaign in that respect.”
Sirri identifies two key ways in which BDS has an effect on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The first is financial.
“You have divestment… where you literally are demanding to stop investing in these companies because they violate international law and because you want to make economic difference,” Sa’adeh explains.
Sirri sees a 43 per cent drop in the level of Israel’s foreign direct investment, as well as senior Israeli officials calling the movement a “strategic threat” as evidence that the movement is putting strain on the state. “They’re feeling this,” he says.
Sirri also notes what he calls a “symbolic” effect of organizations expressing support for BDS.
“Student unions, labour unions, and faith based groups… who are calling for endorsements for BDS,” he says, “are people who are relied on to have a kind of moral conscience in one form or another, whether it be in terms of labour, whether it be in terms of students having a particular moral authority, which has been the case of decades.”
In addition, Sa’adeh explains that the BDS movement on campuses opens up a vehicle for education and citizen participation.
“It’s actually believing that individuals… could actually change the conditions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by our immediate actions, either through consumer boycott, participating in a divestment campaign or supporting one,” Sirri says.
“It’s actually believing that individuals… could actually change the conditions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by our immediate actions, either through consumer boycott, participating in a divestment campaign or supporting one.”
To others, however, the BDS movement and its implications are less straightforward. It has received persistent resistance as well especially from those connected to the Jewish community.
When it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, emotions on campuses often run high. In 2002, protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Concordia University escalated into riots. In 2009, competing rallies of pro-Palestine and pro-Israel students chanting at each other at York University’s Vari Hall made headlines.
U of T has also seen heated debate about the movement. The Varsity recently reported that three grievances were filed by students against the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Social Justice & Equity Commission’s BDS activism, citing that the work was being conducted without ample consultation with students, or democratic process.
Over the summer, a motion to officially endorse BDS was discussed by the UTSU, but was never tabled. Members of the Federation of Students at the University of Waterloo recently voted to reject a boycott of five Israeli universities, while a pro-BDS motion was not ratified by the members of the McGill University Students’ Society.
Some who oppose BDS credit these reactions to a general feeling that the movement is incongruous with the aims of university campuses.
“Just this year, BDS has failed several times on our campus, as well as at the University of Waterloo and most recently at McGill by failing to be ratified by the student body. That’s a clear demonstration of the fact that BDS is at odds with the Canadian consensus and outside the genuine peace movement,” says fourth-year kinesiology student and co-president of Hillel at U of T, Rachel Benezrah. Hillel is the world’s largest Jewish campus organization.
“Hillel plays a fundamental role the in the experience for Jewish students on campus. It acts as a space for educational and social programming, and supports Jewish students in exploring their Jewish identity,” explains Benezrah. “It is our view that Israel plays an integral part [in] that identity.”
Aidan Fishman, first-year law student, and co-founder of Israel-On-Campus (IOC), a group designed to host cultural events showcasing Israeli food, music, film, and artwork, expresses similar sentiments. IOC has also been involved in opposing the BDS movement on campus. “And if I’m honest about it, this year, because there’s been a lot of BDS activity, a lot of attempts against us,” Fishman explains, “we’ve been spending much more time than we usually would on the political side of things and less on the cultural side of things, which is what we’d like to do ideally and enjoy doing most of all.”
Fishman argues that bringing the BDS movement to campus creates a “general hostility” between students, citing York University as an example. “The people it really hurts are Jewish students, not Israel,” he says.
He also questions the legitimacy of the financial pillar of the BDS campaign. “They’re targeting Israel’s ability to thrive economically,” he says, “But what they don’t understand is that that’s not why Israel exists. Israel exists because without… the Jewish state of Israel, the physical safety of its Jewish inhabitants can’t be guaranteed.” As a result, Fishman says, “No matter how much money Israel loses as a result of BDS, it won’t change Israel’s behaviour.”
“No matter how much money Israel loses as a result of BDS, it won’t change Israel’s behaviour.”
In some cases, opposition to BDS has come from groups outside of U of T. The Jewish Defence League (JDL), an off-campus right wing pro-Israel organization classified as a terrorist organization in the US by the FBI in 2001, has a history of disrupting U of T Divest events. On the first occasion, at a U of T Divest launch event in October 2014, the university administration called for the event to be cancelled. Thirty faculty and staff signed a letter to the administration denouncing the response as a failure to uphold freedom of speech.
Prior to a more recent meeting of U of T Divest in January 2016, the university’s Office of the Vice President, Human Resources & Equity sent a letter to the JDL threatening to issue a notice of trespass should their members not “comply with university policies.”
Campus groups such as IOC and Hillel have distanced themselves from the disruptive tactics exercised by the JDL in opposition to BDS. These groups, however, feel strongly that BDS should not continue. Both Fishman and Benezrah suggest that the movement is anti-Semitic.
“The intent of those employing BDS language is not to resolve the conflict or to promote reconciliation, but rather single out Israel — and Israel alone — and challenge the Jewish state’s right to be treated with the same standard of fairness applied to any other democracy in the world,” says Benezrah.
Sirri maintains that assertions of anti-Semitism in the BDS movement are categorically false, as the movement targets the state of Israel, not Jewish people. Jewish voices, he says, are part of the diverse group of people who support BDS.
Jens Hanssen, associate professor in the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations and a supporter of the BDS movement, also denies the notion that BDS is anti-Semitic. Hanssen acknowledges that many countries violate human rights, but does not believe this precludes the BDS movement from justly criticizing Israel.
“I’m all for an overthrow of the Saudi government. I’d sign any petition. When they behead a Palestinian poet, that’s terrible. But I don’t know why I should wait for my critique of the state of Israel until Saudi Arabia is some form of democracy or when China is no longer exploiting its Apple workers.”
U of T Divest’s primary target is the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM), the entity that manages the university’s investments, including in Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Hewlett-Packard.
On March 3, Hanseen and over 130 faculty members put out a press release and petition announcing their support for U of T Divest’s call for the university to remove its holdings from these companies.
At that time, Natalie Rothman, associate professor of history who signed the petition and press release, told The Varsity that faculty should be critical of the university and its investments. “As faculty we have a responsibility to ask difficult questions about how our university upholds its own standards of ethical conduct,” she said.
According to the Governing Council Policy on Social and Political Issues with respect to University Divestment, a Governing Council review committee determines the “extent and significance of the University’s investment in a particular entity” and “the degree to which the entity itself is involved in the undesirable activity,” which is generally ten per cent of the entity’s revenues.
Fishman, who served on U of T’s Governing Council from 2012 to 2014, and will be returning to the Governing Council in July, believes that there is “a zero per cent chance” of these divestment aims succeeding.
“[T]he percentage of those companies’ activities that take place in Israel is not high enough to have a divestment trigger,” claims Fishman, “If what the BDS people really wanted was actually for the university to divest from this company, they wouldn’t focus on Israel. Maybe they would mention it, but what they would… really focus [on] is the much larger investment it has in other sketchy areas.”
Aidan Swirsky, a second-year University College student, Israel engagement intern with Hillel, and the external officer for IOC, proposed a motion at the UTSU’s special general meeting (SGM) earlier this year to support “ethical divestment,” regardless of country or region. The motion called for the UTSU to lobby UTAM to divest from “any company that is found to profit from human rights violations, labour violations, especially those involving children, sweatshops or undocumented workers, war and weapons manufacturing, and/or the creation of environmental disasters.” This was in the wake of the UTSU’s discussions over a BDS proposal that occurred earlier in the year. The motion has been forwarded to the Board of Directors after the SGM failed to meet quorum.
The House of Commons motion condemning BDS has spurred conversations about the movement among the Canadian public and within the national media.
Sirri calls the motion “shocking and deplorable.” He says that it is an example of the Liberal government reneging on their commitment to end former Prime Minister “Harper’s policies of fear and censorship, bullying and intimidation… [and] to back, ultimately, an apartheid state.”
Fishman supports the motion. “I think that all Canadians should be pleased to see Parliament condemn a movement that targets and harasses a certain sector of Canadians,” he says.
Divided though they remain on BDS and its demands, both opponents and proponents of the movement are eager to see a peaceful conclusion to the conflict in Israel and Palestine.
“I’d like to see peace and Israelis and Palestinians live happily in one state,” Hanssen says, “We’re getting further away from it, you might think, with the entire Middle East up in flames. But, the one light that I do see is the BDS movement. It’s [one of] the only good things that comes out [of] this whole mess.”
“I’d like to see peace and Israelis and Palestinians live happily in one state. We’re getting further away from it, you might think, with the entire Middle East up in flames. But, the one light that I do see is the BDS movement. It’s the only good things that comes out this whole mess.”
On the other hand, Swirsky supports a two-state solution as well as reparations paid to those who were displaced because of the 1947 war, and he calls upon Israel to do more to protect Palestinian rights.
“I believe that as the side with more power currently, it is on Israel to stand up for its future as a Jewish and democratic state by demolishing the settlements, integrating their inhabitants into Israel proper and allowing for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that is not terribly hamstrung by security measures,” Swirsky says.
Although there appears to be little movement towards an end to the conflict in the region, Sa’adeh remains optimistic, saying, “we measure the progress of the BDS movement, because it’s an international campaign, [by] how much momentum it gains internationally, by how many people endorse it, and under what circumstances people endorse it around the world.”
“[T]he rise of the BDS movement and the momentum it has gained throughout these years makes me hopeful. Yes, apartheid will end, just like apartheid in South Africa did end. And yes, equal rights should be granted for everyone and will be granted,” he says. “That’s the only logical and sustainable solution for everyone.”
Speaking to the activism on campus, Sa’adeh adds, “I think if this is an indicator of something, this is an indicator of expansion and successes of the BDS movement, and think that’s our point to move forward on the work we do.”
Only time will tell how and when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may end, and what influence the BDS movement may have on the region. In the meantime, U of T is without a doubt at a critical juncture, in which its investments are increasingly scrutinized by its students, its faculty, and the national and international communities.