York U grad students endorse BDS movement

Hillel is criticizing York University’s Graduate Students’ Association (YUGSA) for endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel in a vote that passed 29 in favour and seven against.

The association released a statement Nov. 16, the day after the measure passed, calling it a “momentous vote.” It commits YUGSA to press the university to withdraw its investments from companies profiting from “Israeli human rights violations, war crimes and oppression.”

YUGSA is the third Canadian university student union to pass a motion in favour of BDS this year, following the University of Regina Students’ Union last February and Carleton University’s Graduate Students’ Association in March.

Wangui Kimari, YUGSA vice-president of campaigns, said pro-Palestinian groups at York have long backed the BDS movement, but this is the first time the issue has been brought before the council, which comprises representatives from each department at the university.

The reason it passed now, she said, might have to do with the recent violence between Israel and Gaza.

The council meeting where the vote passed took place Nov. 15, one day after Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defence, although the motion was submitted for the agenda before the war began.

“It’s our tuition fees that’s contributing to companies that profit from occupation,” Kimari said, adding that she personally supported the resolution. “It’s tied to human rights, and students have always been at the forefront of human rights issues.”

Hillel at York released a statement condemning the motion.

“BDS only serves to promote a toxic and divisive atmosphere on campus. It does nothing to promote civil discourse and will never lead to any true learning or education about the Middle East,” Rochelle Derlick, Hillel’s vice-president internal said, adding that this type of campaign only intends “to isolate and delegitimize Israel.”

Hillel also alleged that the vote did not follow proper procedure, as outlined in YUGSA’s constitution, making the motion illegitimate.

“In the [YUGSA] constitution, it requires at least seven days’ notice before the meeting of what’s going to take place in the meeting,” said Tamara Caplan, director of Hillel at York. “That’s where we think there might be a violation.”

She said Jewish graduate students told Hillel they had not heard about the agenda until the day before the meeting.

However, Kimari said all councillors were given seven days’ notice about the agenda, as they are for all meetings. Councillors can then decide whether to send the agenda to the rest of their departments, she said.

But Caplan said she doesn’t think the responsibility should fall solely on councillors to publicize YUGSA’s meeting agenda to fellow students, especially when such a contentious issue is involved.

“The problem is a lot of these councillors are apathetic and also ignorant of an issue like BDS,” she said. “Not even all the councillors showed up to this meeting, and not all of them understood this vote was taking place, so they didn’t have the opportunity to vote on behalf of [their] department.”

YUGSA president Carolyn Hibbs said her group followed the same process it always uses.

“We’ve had other types of controversial motions in the past as well, and we don’t privilege certain types of motions over others,” she said. “We don’t decide beforehand what is or is not a controversial motion.”

She said that if anybody disagrees with the motion, they can submit another motion to be voted on. However, a two-thirds majority – a supermajority – would be required to reconsider a resolution that has already passed.

At the Nov. 15 meeting, a group of students gave a 30-minute presentation in favour of the motion.

Caplan said she was disappointed that pro-Israel students were denied the chance to give a presentation against the motion, but Hibbs, who chaired the meeting, said they never formally asked for one, and if they had, she would have let council vote on whether to allow them onto the agenda.

Meanwhile, campus anti-Israel groups praised the motion.

“It is important for organizations to not pretend to be neutral while profiting from human rights violations,” Mona Ayyoub, a member of Students Against Israeli Apartheid, said in a statement.

Kimari said YUGSA leaders will try to schedule a meeting with York University president Mamdouh Shoukri to let him know that a majority of councillors representing a majority of the departments at York voted for the motion.

In a statement to The CJN on YUGSA’s motion, York’s administration said that “freedom of expression is one of York University’s guiding principles. Members of the York University community have the right to express their views and to test and challenge ideas, provided they do so within the law.”

It also said that it uses “best practices” in developing its policy on investments.

“The ‘best practice’ is built on advice from major investment consulting firms and does not recommend the use of ‘negative screening’ or divesting from particular companies.”