Pro-Israel students criticize BDS endorsement

Hart House at the University of Toronto

TORONTO — Pro-Israel students are criticizing the process that led the University of Toronto Graduate Student Union (GSU) to officially endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

The motion was passed at a Dec. 10 council meeting that included an annual general meeting (AGM), in which all graduate students who attended were allowed vote.

The move follows three other university student councils that officially adopted the campaign in the past year – Carleton University, the University of Regina and, most recently, York University.

When the motion was brought up at a council meeting last year with due notice and fair representation of the graduate student population, it failed, said Jason Dumelie, academic and funding commissioner for the GSU.

This time, there was no advance notice of the motion, so nobody except the people pushing for the endorsement knew about it, said Israela Stein, a political science graduate student and Hillel spokesperson. “Obviously, that changed the balance of the vote.”

Dumelie said the success of the motion demonstrates the passion and conviction of the people who organized graduate students to come and vote on the motion.

“However, it is not at all clear that it represents the views of a majority of graduate students at the University of Toronto, since no notice of the motion was provided prior to the meeting,” he said.

Stein said it’s this lack of transparency that leads to arbitrary and illegitimate decisions. And “every student should be bothered by arbitrary decisions.”

The AGM is open to all graduate students, where anybody can bring forward any motion, said Erin Oldynski, the GSU’s external commissioner. The membership then decides whether to discuss a motion.

According to the union’s website, a general meeting “is an opportunity to discuss and guide the work of the students’ union, along with approving and scrutinizing audited statements and bylaw amendments.”

Therefore, this issue was not suitable for the AGM, Stein said.

At the meeting, Dumelie said he raised a point of order with this concern. Additionally, he said some students questioned the lack of due notification. However, the chair allowed the motion based on the fact it was voted onto the agenda.

Dumelie said it isn’t clear people understood the motion had to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when they voted for it and that some thought it had to do with anti-corporatization. Even with a clear description, it was impossible for the vote to be defeated due to the sheer number of people in attendance in support of the motion, as all graduate students who attend have voting rights during an AGM, he said.

Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) is reporting, on, that 97 per cent of students and councillors present at the meeting voted in favour of the motion, and Oldynski said of the roughly 150 people present, no more than 10 voted against it. Typically, 80 to 100 people attend council meetings, she noted.

SAIA representatives did not respond to The CJN by deadline.

Shirin Ezekiel, associate executive director for Hillel of Greater Toronto, said Hillel has been in contact with university administration and is confident the university is taking the matter seriously and will “deal with the GSU in the appropriate manner to ensure procedures are followed.”

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is examining the GSU’s bylaws and is determining what recommendations it can make to Hillel in “pursuing the apparent violation of bylaws,” said Howard English, CIJA’s senior vice-president.

Ultimately, the problem with this kind of campaign is that it doesn’t challenge Israeli policies, but rather denies Israel’s right to self-determination, said Stein. “It’s beyond radical.”

In response, Oldynski said the motion calls for the university to divest from all companies worldwide that violate human rights – not just Israel. However, the resolution specifically urges the university to “refrain from investing in all companies complicit in the violations of international law,” singling out companies that it says “profits from the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, directly benefits from the construction of the wall [security barrier] and Israeli settlements, is economically active in settlements, and profits from the collective punishment of Palestinians.”

Now that the motion has passed, the GSU membership will decide the direction it will take, Oldynski said, adding that it may involve lobbying the university administration to divest from companies that violate human rights, organizing discussions on the topic and working with other organizations dedicated to promoting human rights.

The university’s statement to The CJN said that although the GSU resolution has endorsed the BDS campaign, “the GSU has no authority to bind its members to any particular course of action at all regarding Israel and Israeli products or academic interchanges or international companies doing business with Israel.”

The statement added that the university has a responsible investing committee that advises the university on such matters, and that members of the university community may submit a “convincing and thorough brief” to try to add the issue to the committee’s annual agenda.

More than five years ago, university president David Naylor called academic boycotts “antithetical to academic freedom, counter-productive, and likely to do more harm than good as regards any issue of human rights and political or military conflict.” In its most recent statement on the endorsement, the university reiterated that it stands by that assertion.

The GSU’s endorsement focuses on economic boycotts. However, the larger BDS campaign includes both economic and academic boycotts, Stein said.

Although these endorsements have been called symbolic, since student unions themselves tend not to have actual investments in Israel, Stein said students should still care about what it could lead in the future.

“This is a fight on public opinion and on slander,” she said, adding that they are trying to stop it before it leads to action. “Every U of T student should be deeply concerned that this is what is done with their money and, most importantly, in their name.”