UBC student union has voted against posing a referendum question about whether Hillel House should be evicted from campus

The student union at the University of British Columbia rejected a referendum question on its upcoming election ballot that would have, among other things, called for the eviction of Hillel BC from its Vancouver campus.

The Feb. 28 meeting of the Alma Mater Society (AMS/Student Union) lasted several hours and ultimately ended with a 23-to-2 midnight decision not to have students vote on the question, “Do you support the following demands of the AMS to promote systemic change at the AMS and representation of students’ priorities, as expressed in mobilization efforts for Palestinian human rights, food security, worker solidarity, climate justice, and Indigenous solidarity?”

The list of demands on the university contained in the referendum, besides terminating Hillel BC’s lease, included condemning Israel’s bombing of Gaza, divesting from several companies that do business with Israel, ending partnerships with Israeli universities and making a public statement regarding the genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza.

“We are very pleased and relieved that AMS chose not to include these very antisemitic demands,” Rob Philipp, the executive director of the Hillel BC, told The CJN. “We are believers in free speech that fosters inclusivity. That they kept this question off the ballot underscores a commitment by AMS to these principles.”

The petition to create the referendum, which had received over 1,000 signatures to be brought before the AMS council, also demanded that the university end Hillel BC’s lease for promoting an Israeli Defence Forces soldier’s speech at a campus event and “in response to a Hillel BC contractor distributing offensive stickers on UBC campus falsely attributed to the Social Justice Centre (at UBC).”

The petitioners blame Hillel for stickers one of its contractors distributed around the UBC campus in November 2023 which read, in large letters, “I (heart) Hamas.”  The stickers were falsely attributed to the UBC’s Social Justice Centre. Earlier this month, the centre announced it would take legal action against Hillel BC.

The incident involving the stickers took place in November 2023.  A contractor for Hillel BC had spread stickers on campus that read, “I (heart) Hamas.”  Hillel BC issued an apology and terminated its relationship with the contractor. Earlier this month, the Social Justice Centre announced it would take legal action against Hillel BC for defamation.

AMS released a seven-page document Thursday afternoon stating, it makes “no comment on the merits of the substance of the petitioned referendums and is solely concerned with the compliance of the petitioned referendums with AMS Bylaws.”

It added, “AMS Council is committed to maintaining open and honest discussion with all of our members. The AMS has always respected and will continue to respect the perspective of every single member of the student community. Above all else, each and every member of the AMS has a right to feel safe on campus. The AMS has always and will continue to fight to ensure every single student feels safe on campus.”

Voting in the UBC student elections takes place March 1-8.

Hillel BC put out a statement on social media Thursday afternoon expressing its relief with the AMS decision, “We are grateful that the AMS reached the right result and want to thank everyone who supported Hillel. We are proud of our brave students and staff for their steadfast advocacy in preventing the erosion of spaces for Jewish community and culture on campus. Our commitment to providing students with a safe and inclusive environment is unwavering.”

Other Jewish groups were similarly pleased with the AMS council decision. “This a clear message there is no place for hatred,” wrote Michael Sachs, the executive director of Jewish National Fund Pacific Region.

Nico Slobinsky, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, posted, “The AMS made the right choice by rejecting the discriminatory and antisemitic referendum. Kol HaKavod (well done) to all of those on the AMS executive for standing for diversity and student safety.”

Deborah Lyons, Canada’s antisemitism envoy, also praised the AMS outcome. “Caving in to the demands of a small but loud group–as has happened in various jurisdictions and organizations across the country—will never satisfy those groups and more importantly will diminish civil discourse in Canada and increase anti-Jewish hate. Good on UBC Student Union for standing up against hate,” she said.

Federal and provincial politicians had weighed in on the matter Wednesday afternoon before the AMS meeting took place. Montreal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather wrote, “This is not even a close call. A referendum calling on UBC to terminate the lease of the primary Jewish organization on campus is anti-Jewish. Jewish students have a safe space at Hillel. UBC has an obligation to stand up for its Jewish students.” 

The subject also came up during the Feb 28. question period at the BC legislature.  Conservative MLA Michael Lee said a move to place the referendum on the ballot “will not only divide students but will foster and fuel antisemitism on UBC’s campus.”

BC’s NDP Premier David Eby said that evicting Hillel House from UBC would be illegal. He noted that the vote presented an opportunity for leadership at AMS and a chance to show that everyone is welcome at educational institutions in British Columbia.

“I really encourage them to seize this moment,” he said. 

Eby has been the subject of intense criticism among Jewish groups in BC for removing Selina Robinson from his cabinet earlier this month. Robinson, a prominent Jewish politician in the province who served as minister of post-secondary education, had said that Israel was established on a “crappy piece of land” during remarks during a January B’nai Brith Canada discussion about the poor state of Holocaust knowledge among millennials.