Is the BDS movement losing steam?

McGill BDS students demonstrate on campus MCGILL DAILY PHOTO
McGill BDS students demonstrate on campus MCGILL DAILY PHOTO

There was palpable sense of relief within the greater Canadian Jewish community late last week when the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) voted to nullify a motion that would have seen the Montreal university’s undergraduate association join the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

As reporter Janice Arnold explains in The CJN, the motion passed its first test earlier in the week at the SSMU’s general assembly, but ultimately failed when it was put to a ratification vote among the entire undergraduate population (for more on this story, see
page 14).

Adding salt to the wounds of the defeated pro-BDS camp at McGill, after the final tally was made public, the university’s principal and vice-chancellor, Suzanne Fortier, issued a public statement asserting that BDS “flies in the face of the tolerance and respect we cherish as values fundamental to a university. It proposes actions that are contrary to the principles of academic freedom, equity, inclusiveness and the exchange of views and ideas in responsible, open discourse.”

The latest defeat of BDS at McGill, the third in a year and a half, and the fifth since 2010, follows two other major recent victories for the anti-BDS movement in Canada.

In late January, University of Waterloo students voted against a BDS motion, and less than two weeks ago, a Conservative-sponsored motion rejecting BDS passed in the House of Commons by a margin of 229 to 51. (The governing Liberal party and Prime Minster Justin Trudeau overwhelmingly supported the motion, though some Liberal members of Parliament voted against it, while others were not present for the vote. The New Democratic Party, meanwhile, voted against the motion, arguing it would infringe on Canadians’ freedom of speech, a move that left many wondering what exactly NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair meant when he told The CJN during last year’s election campaign, “I think [the BDS movement is] absurd, and I disagree with it.”)

It appears BDS has been losing some steam of late, and not only in Canada. A number of American states have passed anti-BDS measures in recent months, while the British Parliament has made public plans to outlaw the boycott movement, and Paris’ City Council recently adopted a pair of anti-BDS resolutions.

True, BDS remains a concern on many university campuses, including York University in Toronto, where the York Federation of Students passed a resolution endorsing BDS three years ago this month. But even at York, pro-BDS students have recently taken to couching their movement within the effort to force the university to divest from arms manufacturers, perhaps indicating that BDSers are being forced to resort to even sneakier efforts to target Israel. Or maybe it’s a tacit admission that the greater student body is simply not buying the anti-Israel message they are selling.

Even so, it seems unlikely that BDS will go away any time soon. Hardworking pro-Israel organizations and indefatigable student groups can still expect to battle for the hearts and minds of students at McGill and York, among other Canadian universities. It’s a fight they would surely rather not have to wage. But if they must, recent trends – on campus, in Ottawa and beyond – should at the very least buoy their spirits.

Photo: McGill Daily Flickr