The BDS campaign to stop Jews from serving on McGill student council

McGill University (Credit: Viola Ng )

At the end of of the last school year, my second as an undergraduate student at McGill University in Montreal, I applied to serve as a director of the Students Society of McGill University (SSMU). I did so because I was tired of the SSMU not serving the best interests of McGill students, and because I was upset by the repeated scandals that have plagued the organization.

When I applied, an older Jewish student with a great deal of knowledge about the SSMU told me that I needed to remove everything related to Judaism and Jewish organizations from my resume, or else I would have no chance of even being considered for the position. The idea that I needed to hide my Jewish identity and affiliations, in order to have a chance of being accepted into McGill’s student government, was deeply upsetting to me. Nevertheless, I complied, as I knew that the best way for me to facilitate positive change was by getting involved and gaining a platform from which to speak.

The SSMU board of directors is the student union’s highest governing body and has the final say on all legal, operational, human resources and financial matters. Due to my previous experience in student government, especially in dealing with legal and financial matters, and because I serve as the elected vice-president finance of the Arts Undergraduate Society of McGill, the largest faculty association at the university, I was chosen to serve on the board of directors in June.

At the beginning of this school year, the SSMU’s judicial board asked the board of directors to take a second look at a decision that it had previously made, but which had been ignored by the board of directors for 15 months. The decision asserted that boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) motions violate the SSMU constitution, because they are discriminatory in nature. At our board meeting, I vocalized my support for ratifying the decision and voted in favour of it.

The backlash from the McGill BDS Action Network was swift. Shortly after the vote, members of the pro-BDS group held public meetings, where they outlined their planned response. Their plan was a campaign called Democratize SSMU, which intended to remove all Jewish and anti-BDS students from SSMU’s leadership. On the Democratize SSMU Facebook, they page specifically targeted me and two of my fellow directors, simply because we are Jewish and/or having connections to a Jewish organization. My Jewish identity was now public, and a target was placed squarely on my back by the McGill BDS movement.


Democratize SSMU later removed my name from the description of the campaign and admitted that it had been “insensitive to anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish people as corrupt and politically powerful.” Yet despite removing the names, the description on the page remained almost identical – it called upon students to attend the SSMU general assembly and to take action against us.

The SSMU general assembly ratifies the board members, once they have been chosen from a pool of applicants. Historically, all 12 board members have been ratified as a bloc. Yet in an unprecedented move this time around, the pro-BDS Democratize SSMU campaign supporters who had shown up to the general assembly forced a division of the motion to ratify the directors into 12 individual votes. My name was the sixth one. The first five directors were ratified with not enough opposition to even warrant counting the votes. When my name came up, over 100 students raised their placards in opposition to my ratification, and I was not ratified as a director.

I was blocked from participating in student government because of my Jewish identity and my affiliations with Jewish organizations.

A leader of the McGill BDS movement claimed her rationale for dividing the votes had to do with the fact that she did not like a few of the “names” on the list of nominations. There was not one word of discussion or debate about my qualifications for the position. I was simply voted down. And as soon as it was apparent that I was voted out of the position, the room irrupted in applause.

I have no doubt from the information circulated about me, and the campaign run against me prior to the vote, that this was about my Jewish identity, and nothing more. I was blocked from being able to participate in my student government because I am Jewish, because I have been affiliated with Jewish organizations and because I believe in the right to Jewish self-determination.

Students walk past the Milton Gates at McGill University in Montreal. GENE.ARBOIT/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS PHOTO

The BDS supporters had accomplished their mission: they had succeeded in barring a Jewish student from participating in McGill’s student government. After me, two other directors were voted down, as well, because they also opposed the BDS movement and because they had attempted to support McGill’s Jewish students.

Time and time again, we have heard people say that “BDS is not anti-Semitic.” Yet if this were true, why did a BDS-led campaign name and shame me for my affiliation with a Jewish organization and call on students to remove me from student government for this reason? If BDS is not anti-Semitic, why was I barred from participating in student government because of my Jewish identity?

This experience was incredibly upsetting. Yet, as horrible as it has been, I remain positive. I am optimistic because of all the amazing support I have received from Jews and non-Jews, friends and acquaintances alike, telling me that they stand with me against this anti-Semitism. And more than anything, I am happy that McGill’s BDS supporters have finally come out of the shadows and proven that they will stop at nothing to impose their agenda on the rest of the student body. I am happy that the discriminatory agenda of McGill BDS that has been swept under the rug for years, is finally out in the open, so that we may all come together to defeat it.

More than anything, I am hopeful that McGill can learn a lesson from these events. I can only hope that I am the last Jewish student at McGill who will be barred from our student government for nothing more than their name and their Jewish identity.

Noah Lew is a third year undergraduate student at McGill University.