Manitoba student union defunds anti-Israel group

University of Manitoba, Administration Building [Wikimedia Commons photo]

The University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) voted to strip funding and official club status from an anti-Israel group on campus last week.

The move came a day after the University of Regina Students’ Union (URSU), which represents both graduate and undergraduate students, repealed its support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, 14 months after becoming the first university student union in Canada to endorse it.

The UMSU vote on April 11 went against legal advice and bucked the trend among other student councils at other universities across the country, which in recent months have voted to divest from Israel, most recently at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus earlier this month.

The UMSU motion, which passed by a vote of 19 to 15, prohibits Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) from receiving funding from the student union or using student union facilities for club activities.

The resolution references the Manitoba Human Rights Code and accuses the club of “discrimination” and “harassment.”

Prior to the vote, the undergraduate student union’s attorney issued an opinion reading, in part, that “the actions of SAIA were well within the grounds of legally protected and acceptable political discourse.” The legal opinion warned that barring the group could expose the student union to legal liability, the National Post reported.

SAIA has branches on most major campuses in the country and organizes the annual Israeli Apartheid Week. Supporters of SAIA have said they’ll fight the decision.

“We are shocked that UMSU would ban Students Against Israeli Apartheid without any evidence or basis for the accusations brought forward in the motion,” spokesperson Liz Carlyle said in a statement released by the Winnipeg Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid.

Judy Zelikovitz, vice-president of university and local partner services for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, commended and congratulated the local student activists who led the initiative in Winnipeg.

B’nai B’rith Canada hailed the vote as “precedent setting” and called on other universities to follow suit.

Not all Canadian backers of Israel supported the move. Ezra Levant, a conservative television commentator and outspoken supporter of Israel, condemned SAIA, but warned that the vote set a dangerous censorship precedent on campuses and made the anti-Israel group look like the victim.

However, Zelikovitz said the resolution does not harm free speech on campus.

“It in no way infringes the right of students to organize or voice their opinions in open spaces on campus. Rather, the motion ensures that student union fees and resources are not misused to promote divisive and discriminatory agendas,” she said in a statement to The CJN.

The resolution barring SAIA was the brainchild of student council member Josh Morry, who said SAIA’s events were making Jewish students feel uncomfortable, although there haven’t been any incidents of violence during its five-year run on campus.

“I didn’t have to prove that Israeli Apartheid Week has actually incited hatred, but that it is likely to undermine the dignity or self-esteem of students on campus who are Zionists,” Morry told the Winnipeg Jewish Review.

The University of Manitoba has approximately 28,000 students, and Avi Posen, director of Hillel Winnipeg, said the number of Jewish students is “in the hundreds.”

The UMSU decision comes after several student unions across the country endorsed the boycott movement against Israel recently, including at York University and U of T’s Scarborough and Mississauga campuses.

Meanwhile, the University of Regina Students’ Union repealed its endorsement of the BDS movement at a general meeting of the group on April 10.

Although there was no official vote count, Sean Wilson, a student representative who spearheaded the campaign, estimated about 130 people voted to withdraw support of the motion, while around 70 voted against the idea.

“I knew that when people were faced with what [BDS] actually was, they’d vote in favour of repealing it,” Wilson said. “The fact of the matter is, us adopting BDS doesn't change anything overseas but it makes our Jewish students feel extremely uncomfortable and alienated.”

With files from Cara Stern