McGill’s student union’s Palestine policy has little to do with democracy or academic freedom, says a former student representative

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) recently made headlines after the school threatened to sanction the association for adopting a “Palestine Solidarity Policy”—a misleadingly named, unconstitutional proposal to marginalize Jewish groups.

Nevertheless, many undergraduates and staff continue to defend the manifesto as an example of student “democracy.”

When McGill warned students on March 24 that the Palestine referendum question violated the student union’s own policies, then-student president Darshan Daryanani alleged that administrators were undermining SSMU’s autonomy.

He even told the Canadian Press that the referendum—where the 71 percent who voted in favour represented a mere seven percent of students—was “academic freedom” at work. That faux populism did not earn him any absolution days later when he was impeached for “impropriety.”

Four days later, the SSMU board of directors refused to certify the Palestine proposal, overturning the referendum outcome. According to an April 22 statement, the policy violated the society’s constitution and Quebec law. Still, considering that all referendum questions are vetted before they appear on the ballot, the proposal should not have been approved in the first place.

As a result, the referendum—filled with unrestrained anti-Israel prejudice—was a profound waste of time. The campaign also re-energized a debunked, antisemitic conspiracy that Zionist students are “surveilling” Palestinian peers in collaboration with McGill staff. Although the university administration responded with an “initiative to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia,” the problem is not the current policies themselves: it is that they are not enforced.

McGill has repeatedly threatened to terminate its Memorandum of Agreement with the student union for its anti-Israel actions, but the school has never followed through. And it has the right to do that—discrimination against Zionist Jewish students is unconstitutional.

In 2017, the SSMU judicial committee outlawed the boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) campaign. The following year, the society adopted the Fundamental Rights Agency working definition of antisemitism.

These proved to be empty words.

Despite a SSMU Judicial Board injunction against the March 2022 Palestine question, the elections officials resumed voting after anti-Zionists complained.

Students in Solidarity with Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) then circulated campaign materials that were not approved for use—allegedly including a massive poster on the McGill Arts Building. Their supporters also harassed Jewish students on social media, telling them to “return to Long Island.” 

Jewish students complained about such electoral bylaw violations, to no avail. In many cases, elections coordinators did not respond for more than 48 hours. The policy was unconstitutional, yet students were directed to vote on it. Democracy requires that the rules be followed, and students are justifiably angry because they were urged to vote on a policy that was liable to be overturned. 

If SSMU cannot uphold its own constitution, who will? Although more than one hundred McGill staff signed a letter condemning the administration’s “undemocratic” sanction, they are missing the point.

Modern democracies work precisely because their structures protect citizens from oppressive majorities and tyrannical minorities. That is the basis of civil rights law. Laws that protect Jews, Black people, and other marginalized groups have rarely been popular. For example, many Southern whites resisted the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools. When the Little Rock, Ark., school board refused to enforce the policy, President Eisenhower sent soldiers to execute it.

In the McGill student union’s case, democratic theory undergirds equity policies, electoral bylaws, and institutions like the Judicial Board. McGill’s letter of default was not arbitrary. It was the nuclear option, and it was necessary because SSMU does not have its own enforcement mechanism. If it did, SPHR—which is now calling the student union a dictatorship—would be sanctioned as well. On April 25, the club condemned executives for bowing to “Zionist donors,” even ostracizing former supporters. 

This rhetoric, which normalizes extreme claims about Israel, contributes to physical violence. Only a week after the Palestine policy scandal, a middle-aged man was assaulted on May 5 near Dawson College, another Montreal secondary institution, after leaving an Israel Independence Day rally.

Meanwhile, the McGill chapter of SPHR has published statements purporting that Israeli civilians are a “myth,” suggesting that all Jewish citizens of Israel—including some of their peers—are affiliated with the “occupation,” and therefore legitimate targets for terrorism. 

Jonah Fried is a fourth-year history student at McGill University, a former SSMU Representative, and a 2022-2023 CAMERA Fellow.