Waterloo student group presses for Israel boycott

University of Waterloo
University of Waterloo

A student group at the University of Waterloo (UW) has submitted a petition to the school’s Federation of Students – known as Feds – to push for a referendum on whether the school should sever academic ties with Israeli post-secondary institutions.

The petition, drafted by Ethical Collaboration UW, states that Palestinian students face systematic discrimination at the Israeli institutions that UW has academic partnerships with, including the University of Haifa, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Tel Aviv University, and the Weizmann Institute of Science.

On Oct. 8, the group handed over 4,000 signatures – which meets the minimum requirement of 10 per cent of undergraduate student signatures needed to trigger a referendum – to the student federation.

Feds, which represents UW undergraduates, is currently in the process of cross-referencing the signatures to ensure they’re Waterloo students. If the 4,000 signatures are verified, a referendum will be called.

But Judy Zelikovitz, vice-president of university and local partner services at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said that even if a referendum is called and students vote in favour of boycotting Israeli academic institutions, the result will be non-binding and will likely not have any bearing on the university’s decisions to partner with Israeli schools.

“We look at Waterloo, which has an excellent number of joint programs and partnerships with Israeli universities. We know that this is not led by one or two people, but by people at the very top. UW president Feridun Hamdullahpur has been instrumental in securing those partnerships and being on the ground in Israel with his team to make sure that’s happening,” Zelikovitz said.

“I presume that regardless of what a vote might determine, these relationships are going to remain in place and student resolutions or a referendum isn’t going to impact that right now.”

In a statement to The CJN, UW spokesperson Nick Manning said the administration is monitoring the situation and will respond accordingly.

“Waterloo proactively engages with international research-intensive universities that share our values of academic freedom, freedom of expression and equity,” he said.

Although she’s confident that a referendum won’t affect UW’s relationship with Israel, Zelikovitz said she was concerned the petition “was presented somewhat dishonestly in terms of the intent of what they were asking people to sign up for.”

According to Alexa Fuentes Valdez, a second-year psychology student, when she and her friends were approached by an Ethical Collaboration representative to sign the petition last March, they were vaguely told the petition was in support of human rights.

After Valdez pressed the group’s representative for more information, she told her that UW is collaborating with universities in Israel that were developing weapons to kill Palestinians.

Valdez said she doesn’t have an issue with Ethical Collaboration’s decision to advocate on behalf of Palestinians, but disagreed with their approach to pressure students by implying if they didn’t sign it, they didn’t support human rights.

“Originally, I was going to sign it because I didn’t know what it was for. I was like, ‘Of course I care about human rights.’ But when I asked for more details they started talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict… Two of my friends signed it. They said, ‘I didn’t want to not sign it.’ So there was some peer pressure because they worded it like it was about human rights. My friends want their signatures removed now.”

Requests for an interview with an Ethical Collaboration representative went unanswered.

Marc Newburgh, CEO of Hillel Ontario, who has been working with UW students to respond to the petition, said, “There’s a heightened conversation that didn’t exist before. It’s creating awareness in conversation with students and ensuring that students are aware of what they’ve signed on to and how this represents or doesn’t represent Israel and what the ties are that the university has with Israel.”

While Feds is currently working on verifying the signatures, CIJA and Hillel Ontario launched an email campaign to urge members of the pro-Israel community to send an email to Hamdullahpur to thank him for his commitment to working with Israeli institutions.

Zelikovitz said about 500 people took part in this initiative.