Why we need a legal response to BDS

Pro-BDS McGill students on campus MCGILL DAILY FLICKR PHOTO

On Feb. 22, McGill University’s undergraduate student union endorsed the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel at its annual general meeting, before failing to ratify it online by a 60 to 40 per cent margin. About a month ago, a similar initiative was rejected in a student referendum at the University of Waterloo by 55 to 45 per cent.

Waterloo is widely considered one of Canada’s most apolitical universities, hardly conducive to the sort of far-left activism that typically drives BDS offensives. And yet, almost half of student voters supported an initiative to sever exchange and research ties between Waterloo and Israeli tech giants such as the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, which would have directly harmed Waterloo students.

Meanwhile, last week’s events at McGill marked the third time in 18 months that anti-Israel fanatics tried to pass a BDS motion. All these efforts failed by narrow margins, due to the heroic efforts of Jewish student organizers. But in such an atmosphere, it seemed inevitable that BDS devotees would eke out a victory. Most worryingly, the McGill branch of the NDP joined other so-called progressive student groups in backing BDS. (Last week, the NDP caucus in the House of Commons voted against a motion to condemn BDS.)


Of course, there are other problematic Canadian universities, including York, Concordia and McMaster, where the fight over Israel has already been lost, triggering a struggle to safeguard Jewish campus life in any form. At York, in particular, the situation has deteriorated to the point where at least one Jewish donor felt compelled to withdraw his support, and blatantly anti-Semitic claims of a “Jewish conspiracy” are part and parcel of student politics.

So in the face of these threats, what can we do as a Jewish community?

We should take a hint from Britain, where the government recently announced its intention to ban public bodies such as student unions, labour unions and municipalities from boycotting Israel. After all, similar legislation is already on the books here in Canada. Ontario and Manitoba both have a Discriminatory Business Practices Act, which makes it illegal for any person or corporation to refuse to do business with a second person or corporation on account of race, creed, nationality or even geographical location.

In fact, this legislation was enacted in Ontario in 1971 specifically to combat the Arab League boycott of Israel, the spiritual predecessor of the modern BDS movement. The act applies both to wholesale boycotts of Israel as well as more limited efforts aimed at Israelis living in the West Bank, and describes fines of up to $25,000 against individual violators and $100,000 against offending corporations.

Further, most Canadian student and labour unions incorporate broad anti-discrimination clauses into their by-laws or constitutions. Often, these clauses include prohibitions against discrimination by nationality, which is practically the definition of BDS. They serve both to illustrate the hypocrisy of these Israel-boycotting groups and expose them to legal liability stemming from their own governing documents. Indeed, the constitution of McGill’s undergraduate student union contains just such an anti-discrimination clause.


It’s puzzling that no Canadian Jewish organization has chosen to sue labour unions and student groups engaging in anti-Israel discrimination. While opponents will claim legal action undermines democratic endorsements of BDS, it should be noted that neither labour nor student unions are typically shining examples of democracy in action, as their members will tell you.

But more importantly, litigation by minority groups is not in principle anti-democratic – on the contrary, it is the hallmark of a properly calibrated liberal democracy. Just as other minorities such as African-Canadians, the LGBTQ community and First Nations have used the courts to make their voices heard, Canadian Jews must take full advantage of legal opportunities to rescue our youth from the deteriorating atmosphere of harassment and discrimination on campus.

Aidan Fishman is a first-year law student at the University of Toronto.

Photo: McGill Daily Flickr