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Students Endorsed Boycotting Israel and Got Condemned by the Canadian Government

Another Canadian university has voted to join the effort to boycott Israel, just a day after the Canadian Parliament overwhelmingly condemned the movement.

by Tamara Khandaker
Feb 23 2016, 10:10pm

Photo via Flickr/Tony Webster

On the same day the Canadian parliament voted to condemn the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, yet another Canadian university campus voted to do exactly the opposite.

Some 900 McGill University students turned up to debate whether their student union should join the movement, which seeks to boycott Israeli products in protest of the ongoing conflict in Palestine, filling up four overflow rooms after the main venue reached capacity. Although only a small fraction of the 30,000 student body showed up, the tension was palpable. Many lined up behind a microphone, churning out impassioned one-minute spiels in support or in opposition of the proposal.

By a margin of 512-357, the Student Society of McGill University voted to urge school administrators to declare their support for the movement, divest "from companies profiting from violations of Palestinian human rights," and screen out similar investments in the future.

McGill's student government is only the latest to endorse the BDS campaign, which been publicly supported by groups at, among others, York University, Carleton University, and Concordia University.

Related: Canada Slams Report That It Will Use Hate Speech Law Against Anti-Israel Boycotters

McGill student Rayna Lew, who was heckled while speaking in opposition to the motion, said she also saw anti-Semetic messages from members of the university community online. Lew believes the motion's passing will affect the "general campus atmosphere by deteriorating the safe space" for students.

"I don't believe that students who disagree with this motion felt safe beforehand. I believe they will now feel even more silenced and afraid to express their culture, beliefs, and opinions on campus," she said.

Since its birth, among students themselves, the movement has always been intensely polarizing.

"The world will win nothing for boycotting Israel but depriving itself of the talents of its inventiveness."

Concordia University in Montreal, where a referendum on the issue took place in 2014 — the motion to endorse was adopted with a small margin — has long been a hotbed for tensions surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict. Riots broke out at the university in 2002 after a planning speaking engagement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

During a weeklong event promoting the BDS campaign in November, some Jewish students at Concordia said they felt like targets of a hate campaign. One student told the Montreal Gazette the event consisted of a series of speakers "slandering Israeli tactics and spewing hate."

Over the past decade, the BDS movement has been at the centre of some of the most divisive campus politics in Canada and the US, spurring heated rhetoric among student populations across the country and the occasional brawl.

The evening prior to the McGill vote, in the federal House of Commons, the majority went the other way. A motion to condemn the BDS movement passed, with 229 in support and 59 against.

The motion, introduced by the opposition Conservative Party, received a ringing endorsement from the governing Liberals.

"The world will win nothing for boycotting Israel but depriving itself of the talents of its inventiveness," Foreign Affairs minister Stephane Dion said during the debate.

"We will find a solution through informed debate and engagement, not by condemning people or disrupting dialogue."

Only three Liberal MPs voted against the motion, while more than 40 missed the vote. The smaller NDP and Bloc Quebecois voted against the motion, which called on the legislature to reject the movement, "which promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel, and call upon the government to condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad."

Related: The UN's Expert on Human Rights in Palestine Resigned Because Israel Won't Let Him Enter Palestine

The Liberal Party stance is nothing new. Energy Minister Jim Carr, while he was running for office, called the BDS movement "a new manifestation of anti-Semitism." But other Liberal MPs, who had previously voiced support for the Palestinian movement, were nowhere to be found on Monday night. Calgary MP Darshan Kang had previously spoken at pro-Palestinian rallies, while Toronto-area MP Omar Alghabra had previously endorsed the idea that Israel should vacate the occupied territories. Both Kang and Alghabra, as well as several others who had previously voiced support for the Palestinian movement, did not vote on Monday evening.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair directly criticized the motion, equating it to suppressing the civil liberties for advocacy groups. The party's foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière said while the New Democrats don't support the BDS movement, "it does not mean that the House can condemn people who peacefully support another idea."

"The environment they create for activists on campus is hostile."

"We will find a solution through informed debate and engagement, not by condemning people or disrupting dialogue," she said.

The government's actions, said University of Toronto grad student Omar Rizzi, work to bully and intimidate BDS activists on campuses.

They "miseducate, mislead, and misguide the Canadian public about what BDS is," he said.

Lew, on the other hand, said that "overwhelming, multi-partisan" condemnation of the movement by the government "speaks for society at large."

And while the government denouncing the BDS movement is a first, activists say university administrations have been clamping down on them for years.

At the U of T, for years the administration has also fought "any kind of activism on this issue," said Sirri.

"The environment they create for activists on campus is hostile," he said, citing difficulty booking spaces to hold events and a lack of protection from "hate groups" who try to intimidate them.

Sirri said his organization has been threatened by members of groups like the Jewish Defense League, which has been labeled as a radical organization by both the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Centre.

Michael McCauley of the McGill BDS Action Network called the passing of the motion on the same day the government condemned the movement "symbolically significant," pointing to what he sees as a disconnect between public consciousness and government policy.

"It really reflects how the growing public support for the Palestinian cause has not yet translated into any growing government action," he said. "In fact, it's been the opposite." 

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk

Photo via Flickr/Tony Webster

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