U of T Scarborough student union endorses BDS

Adryan Bergstrom-Borins

A resolution to endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel passed by a bare majority at an April 5 undergraduate student union meeting at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus.

The vote came after the group Toronto Students for Justice in Palestine (TSJP) claimed to have 1,200 student signatures on a petition calling for the vote.

The endorsement brings the Scarborough Campus Student Union (SCSU) in line with the undergraduate students union at U of T’s Mississauga campus, as well as the graduate student union at the school’s downtown campus, which have both passed motions in favour of boycotting Israel.

As well, last month, the York Federation of Students at York University, the country’s largest undergraduate student association, passed a similar resolution.

The Scarborough motion – which passed with eight votes in favour, three against, three abstentions and one spoiled ballot – asks that the “SCSU commit to and demand that the University of Toronto administration also commit to identifying and divesting from companies that invest into and profit from Israel’s war crimes, occupation and oppression as defined by the BDS campaign.”

The 15-member SCSU represents 10,000 undergraduate students at U of T Scarborough.

“The University of Toronto Scarborough Campus [UTSC] is now proudly a part of the Palestinian-led global resistance movement to end the illegal Israeli occupation,” TSJP co-president Sabrina Azraq told The CJN. “The UTSC community is now united in the global movement to non-violently pressure Israel to comply with international law and Palestinian human rights.”

U of T spokesperson Laurie Stephens said the school’s administration has received many complaints about the resolution. She said it has referred complainants to the SCSU while reminding them that while the council can endorse the BDS campaign, it can’t force its members to pursue a particular course of action.

She added that the endorsement does not limit freedom of expression on campus and that the university will continue to protect the right of students to debate controversial topics.

But Adryan Bergstrom-Borins, president and founder of the Scarborough campus’ Hillel, which fought against the motion, said she’s concerned the vote will hinder the chance of dialogue taking place on campus.

Compared to last month’s “secretive” BDS motion at U of T’s Mississauga campus, this one was a lot fairer, in that TSJP spread the word about the vote, she said.

“It allowed a much greater dialogue to happen,” she said, explaining that both sides were given equal time to make their case at the meeting.

However, in light of the endorsement, “whether this will continue in the same form of dialogue, probably not.”

In the past, Hillel members have been invited to TSJP events, Bergstrom-Borins said. However, one event featured anti-Zionist activist Miko Peled, in which Bergstrom-Borins said he described Jewish history as a myth, and blamed “Israeli and Jewish values” for the ongoing conflict. When questioned, she said he responded that he does not talk to Zionists.

“I brought that up in my speech [at the council meeting],” she said. “I think BDS is definitely going to bring and legitimize that kind of dialogue that’s really one-sided and not really open.”

Azraq disagreed with the idea the vote will limit dialogue on campus.

“Joining in boycotting companies that profit off Israel’s occupation will not hinder dialogue,” she told The CJN. “In contrary, the BDS movement has brought forward great discussions and debates to our campus. We have always encouraged discussion on campus and will continue to do so. It is safe to say that we are all united in a desire for peace in the region.”

SCSU president Abdalla Al-Baalawy, president also said he hopes debate won’t end.

“I hope the debate that occurred on that day of the vote continues on our campus as we all strive for a more peaceful world and an end to all injustices being done by anyone or group on this earth,” he told The CJN.

When Bergstrom-Borins heard about the vote about a month before it was originally scheduled to take place, she worked with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) to send letters to council members arguing against a boycott motion.

The vote had been postponed several times, but finally took place April 5. Although the meeting was on a Friday, Bergstrom-Borins said, the vote was scheduled for early in the agenda so it would occur before Shabbat and allow observant Jewish students to attend.

She said the council meeting room was filled to capacity for the vote, mostly with supporters of the motion, and that the vote even attracted a crowd outside the room. Although pro-Israel students were given equal time to speak, she described the atmosphere as somewhat hostile and “disturbing.”

At one point, as Hillel representatives spoke, someone from outside the room screamed for them to “shut the f— up,” she said.

Hillel students took the position that the student union should support peace in the region, while BDS would simply cast blame on Israel.

She said she was also upset the SCSU didn’t notify her directly once the vote was scheduled, and that she only heard about it from others about a week in advance. She added that she only had a few days to prepare after seeing the actual wording of the motion.

Despite the fact the motion was passed, Bergstrom-Borins said she was proud of the efforts of pro-Israel students for fighting against it, especially since there are only about 20 students on campus involved with Hillel, compared to the “huge” Muslim and Arab population.

David Borzykowski, CIJA’s campus advocacy co-ordinator, said Hillel’s efforts were partially successful, in that the motion needed a simple majority to be adopted, meaning at least eight votes, and therefore only barely passed.

Although several student unions at U of T have endorsed the BDS campaign, Borzykowski said that the vote “means next to nothing.

“The student union can pat themselves on the back, but they’re not going to change the policies at the University of Toronto,” he added.

“Passing a motion isn’t going to change where the university puts its investments.”