MONTREAL — McGill University undergraduates have rejected a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) motion that was approved last week at a general assembly of their student association, and the university administration issued an unequivocal repudiation of the anti-Israel campaign.
Members of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), members voted 2,819-2,119, with 68 abstentions, online over three days last week, nullifying the motion put forward by the McGill BDS Action Network at the SSMU winter general assembly on Feb. 22. At that time, the motion passed 512-357, with 14 abstentions, in secret ballotting.
SSMU rules require that all motions carried at general assemblies must be ratified by the membership at large, with a quorum of 10 per cent.
The SSMU represents the approximately 22,000 undergraduates at McGill’s main downtown campus.
Immediately after the results were released Feb. 27, McGill principal and vice-chancellor Suzanne Fortier issued a statement that the university administration “steadfastly oppose[s]” the BDS campaign.
It was the third time in less than 1-1/2 years that pro-BDS students have failed to have a motion adopted. The latest was a general endorsement of the aims of the worldwide campaign launched in 2005 and included a specific demand that McGill divest its holdings in three companies the Network claims are “profiting from violations of Palestinians’ human rights” due to their alleged complicity in Israel’s occupation.
This was actually the fifth attempt to get BDS support on the student record since 2010.
With 57 per cent of SSMU voters refusing to ratify the motion, Fortier stated: “The university as an institution has not commented publicly until now out of respect for the student governance process. Students respect our governance process. We do not interfere with theirs, or their right to put such motions within the context of their affairs…
“[W]hile we respect the freedom of expression of all members of our community, the administration of the university will have no part of the BDS movement.”
She said the campaign’s call for universities to cut ties with Israeli universities “flies in the face of the tolerance and respect we cherish as values fundamental to a university. It proposes actions that are contrary to the principles of academic freedom, equity, inclusiveness and the exchange of views and ideas in responsible, open discourse.”
McGill has extensive academic relations with Israeli institutions going back many years.
The ratification failure and the university administration’s strong position on the issue of BDS were hailed by Jewish groups.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) termed it “the victory of reason over hate.”
CIJA Quebec co-chair Rabbi Reuben Poupko said the defeat of the motion “demonstrates that McGill students reject BDS and value intellectual freedom and the right to healthy and constructive debate. McGill students have clearly indicated, for the third time in 18 months, that BDS is unwelcome on their campus because it stigmatizes people for holding a different point of view.”
Some pro-Israel students reported experiencing insulting and hostile remarks, particularly on social media, since the motion was first proposed at the beginning of February.
B’nai Brith Canada said pro-Israel students at McGill have felt “targeted and unsafe” and “fear reprisals for speaking out,” in the words of Toronto-based CEO Michael Mostyn.
“The boycott organizers have bullied students over the course of three years, continuously raising the issue and intimidating dissenters until the motion was passed,” he said.
“BDS is an incessant and relentless attack against the national liberation movement of the Jewish People in its promotion of the belief that Jews are the only people in the world who do not deserve their own homeland,” said Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center.
“While it is to the credit of the undergraduate body that they have once again rejected this discriminatory campaign, the level of hate directed at Jewish students, including comments referencing ‘little Zionist Jewboys’ on social media following the original student motion in favour of BDS, demonstrates how entrenched anti-Semitism on our university campuses has become.”
President Evan Feldman and CEO Deborah Corber of Montreal’s Federation CJA congratulated the “around-the-clock” effort, “often in a hostile environment,” of pro-Israel students to mobilize their peers to vote down the motion.
They conceded that the battle is not over, however. “[T]he fight against BDS will require a sustained effort on the part of the community,” including “combat[ing] any instance of harassment and anti-Semitism” students may encounter in defending Israel.
In a Feb. 25 statement, the pro-BDS Network, which claims the endorsement of 19 student clubs and campus organizations, “acknowledge[d] the concerns that have been raised about anti-Semitism on campus, and recognize[d] that this is a reality for many Jewish students.”
The following day, it “strongly condemned the active campaigning efforts and tactics used by various students, professors and student groups” opposed to the motion, which it said violated SSMU rules against campaigning during the ratification process.
The violations it said it documented consist of “intimidation” and the use of “external organizations… to disseminate misinformation,” including professional public relations firms.
Specifically, the Network said “fraudulent” Reddit and Instagram accounts were created with its name and logo, and it dissociated itself from their content.
The original motion was passed by the SSMU general assembly the same day the House of Commons passed a motion formally condemning BDS. The parliamentary motion passed by a vote of 229-51. It calls on the Canadian government to “condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups, or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home, and abroad.”