McGill student union censures Jewish student over Israel trip

McGill University in the winter (McGill University photo)

A Jewish McGill University student who has been asked to resign her posts with the student union because she is going on a free trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories under Hillel Montreal’s auspices is getting support from some of her colleagues.

On Nov. 28, the Legislative Council of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) voted in favour of a motion calling for Jordyn Wright to step down from her position on the council, as well as the board of directors, SSMU’s highest governing body.

The council’s motion must go before the board for ratification and Wright insists that she will not resign either post voluntarily.

Students’ Society of McGill University building (File photo)

Whether or not participation in the all-expenses-paid trip, which is scheduled to take place Dec. 29-Jan. 8, violates SSMU’s conflict of interest policy has been debated since Nov. 13, when the McGill Daily published a copy of a letter inviting the recipient to join “a select group of student leaders,” Jewish and non-Jewish, at McGill.

Signed by Kylie Huberman, Hillel Montreal’s senior engagement associate, and Ben Ravid, a Jewish Agency emissary in Montreal, the letter states: “We’ve identified you as an invaluable student to have on this trip due to your student leadership experience and connections on campus.”

The letter was reproduced in an opinion piece by Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill and Independent Jewish Voices’ McGill chapter, which obtained it from SSMU vice-presidents Samuel Haward and Sanchi Bhalla, who say they were approached by Hillel to take the trip.

On Nov. 21, the SSMU board decided that Wright and other councillors who wanted to go were not in a conflict of interest, according to a policy that cautions against SSMU representatives accepting “gifts, hospitality or other benefits” that have the potential of influencing their decisions.

Wright, a second-year science student and active Hillel member, claims she is being subjected to discrimination as a Jewish and pro-Israel student in a post on her Facebook page.

Jordyn Wright (Credit: Jordyn Wright/Facebook)

Regarding the meeting of the council, whose 35 members are elected, she wrote:

“The SSMU president (Bryan Buraga) personally singled me out, and actively encouraged others to attack me. Only I was targeted, despite the fact that another non-Jewish councillor will also be joining me on the trip. I am outraged and disgusted, but not surprised. This is not the first time that Jewish students at McGill have been bullied out of student government.”

In an open letter on Dec. 1, 11 councillors expressed concern about “the tone and aggressiveness” at the meeting, saying the focus on Wright was “startling and unwarranted” and the motion adopted was “hostile, directed and should be a matter of wider concern,” due to the political beliefs of certain members.

In addition, the signers argue that the council erred procedurally. They think the council “overstepped its mandate” in attempting to overturn the board’s decision on any conflict of interest. They also think that the board’s condition that participants subsequently recuse themselves from any meetings “related to the region of their trip” is reasonable.

They are particularly critical of Buraga for “singling out” Wright, even though another councillor, who is not Jewish, also signed up for the trip. (A second non-Jewish councillor, Adin Chan, who initially accepted the invitation, has since declined. He is one of the 11 signatories to the open letter.)

“That the president would identify councillor Wright uniquely in this context is seriously problematic,” they write.

The ethical question of SSMU members accepting a sponsored trip was initially brought up by councillor André Lametti, who is also a university senator, at the council’s Nov. 14 meeting.

The dissident councillors conclude that, “If this mistake is not rectified, it risks tarnishing the reputation of the SSMU, further problematizing the nature of political discourse within the McGill community and, ultimately, alienating whole portions of the McGill student body who have invested their faith in us and for whom we should strive every day to better serve.”

On Dec. 2, the university’s administration issued a statement saying that it is “highly disturbed” by the council vote, which “purposely singles out an individual member of SSMU,” despite the board’s previous assessment that no conflict of interest exists. It is called this a “very serious breach of trust.”

Signed by Fabrice Labeau, McGill’s deputy provost of student life and learning, the statement says the administration will “continue to monitor the situation as it unfolds, and take needed measures to ensure that our students feel safe and free of harassment, including holding SSMU accountable to the principles and values of its own constitution.”

Labeau acknowledged that in recent months, “we have seen increasing polarized debate among some members of the student community and student associations, particularly regarding the State of Israel.”

Labeau further stated that the council’s decision is contrary to the university’s “values of inclusion, diversity and respect,” and possibly the SSMU’s own constitution.

“I would like to take this opportunity to make it clear that there is absolutely no place for discriminatory behaviour, attitude or discourse that run contrary to our core values and principles,” wrote Labeau.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) condemned the council’s motion, but applauded the administration for “clearly articulating its opposition to attempts to ostracize a Jewish student on the basis of her identity.” In a Nov. 30 statement, the organization’s Quebec co-chair, Rabbi Reuben Poupko, said that, “It is obscene that Jordyn Wright, a Jewish student at McGill University, is being subjected to relentless harassment by the SSMU because of her attachment to Israel.…

“The SSMU’s persistent abuse of power and displays of hostility toward Jewish and pro-Israel students are clearly not representative of McGill’s mainstream student population. We call on McGill students to reclaim the SSMU from the ideological fringes and rebuild an open, tolerant and inclusive campus environment.

“CIJA will never stand idle in the face of intimidation and anti-Semitism and will continue to ensure that our partners at Hillel and the McGill students have the support they need.”

Ravid told The CJN on Dec. 1 that the trip is going ahead with 20 participants, the number it had planned to include. According to the invitation, the program is “an intensive experiential seminar that will explore the region’s deep history and grapple with nuanced political and religious realities from various angles and perspectives.…

“Students will meet with politicians, activists, civic leaders, academics, artists, Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, clerics and humanitarian leaders who offer diverse perspectives.”

In her lengthy Facebook post, Wright also spoke of being “attacked” at the science students’ general council the week before the SSMU council meeting.

“I was blindsided and interrogated on-the-spot for almost two hours about my participation in Hillel Montreal’s trip. Not only were the questions designed to target and intimidate me, but I was purposefully prevented from having sufficient time to find the information they wanted.”

She also claims to have been “the subject of thinly veiled and blatant anti-Semitism” by colleagues and even friends.