Groups hope new university policy will stymie BDS

McGill University campus MCGILL PHOTO
McGill University campus MCGILL PHOTO

Jewish groups hope that an updated non-discrimination policy endorsed by a body that represents 97 Canadian public and private universities will block promoters of the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement from targeting Jewish and Israeli students on Canadian campuses.

At the Universities Canada fall membership meeting on Oct. 27, the group voted to adopt a new criterion that requires member universities to include “place of origin” in its list of what qualifies as discrimination in a school’s code of conduct.

The updated anti-discrimination policy says that “the institution affirms its commitment to equal treatment of all persons without discrimination, on the basis of race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, physical or mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, family status, sex, and sexual orientation, or other grounds identified in applicable human rights law.”


Current members of Universities Canada have until 2020 to make the change.

Spokesperson Helen Murphy said the “new criterion has been developed through a series of consultations and discussions by Universities Canada members over the past six years, through the membership, governance committee and the board of directors. It reflects the shared principles and views of members. It was not developed in response to any one event or issue.”

But Matthew Godwin, the Centre of Israel and Jewish Affairs’ (CIJA) universities and provincial government relations associate director, said the new policy benefits Jewish and Israeli students across Canada.

“We had been expressing to their leadership for a number of months that this is something we encourage,” Godwin said.

“It sends a clear statement to campuses that inclusivity is paramount and is obviously something that administration should be taking into account and their codes of conduct will reflect that.”

Judy Zelikovitz, CIJA’s vice-president of university and local partner services, called the measure “a crucial defeat” for BDS activists, who openly call for discrimination against Israelis based on their country of origin… This vote by Canada’s universities entrenches a zero-tolerance approach to bigotry based on nationality, and CIJA will be working hard to ensure that this policy is used to block BDS efforts.”

Hillel Ontario’s CEO Marc Newburgh said discrimination on the basis of someone’s national origin “rears its ugly head in efforts to boycott Israel, [promote] hateful rhetoric against Jewish students hosting pro-Israel events, and other anti-Israel activities on campus… We will be watching closely to see how the new Universities Canada criterion is applied at the campus level, but we are encouraged that Canada’s academic leaders have recognized that ‘place of origin’ is a factor that must be incorporated when it comes to codes of conduct.”

StandWithUs Canada executive director Meryle Kates opted for a wait-and-see approach to determine how the policy will affect Jewish and Israeli students.

“In theory, it is really what we need, but I don’t honestly know how it will work in practice and whether it really can be as effective as we want it to be. I hope so,” Kates said.

Robert Walker, Canadian president of Hasbara Fellowships, said he didn’t want to speculate whether the BDS movement was a motivating factor for Universities Canada to amend its policy, but “I think it was a consideration. I’d be very surprised if it was not a consideration.”

Walker added that the new criterion will only benefit pro-Israel and Jewish students to the degree that universities implement it.

“What we expect of the university leadership is that they hold student governments to account when they discriminate against Jewish and Israeli students through anti-Israel programs and activities,” he said.

“I think the success of this will come down to how universities are willing to implement this on their campuses when it is uncomfortable, and when they are facing off against student governments who discriminate through BDS motions. If this is words only… then unfortunately, it won’t be as effective as it can be.”