After the Montreal’s McGill University’s pro- Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement vote, Jewish and pro-Israel students are facing a new reality on campus one full of fear, bullying and anti-Semitism, where one free speech movement silences another. The “No” side still has one week to prevent the motion’s ratification. They need all the students to vote no online and make their voice heard. Voting to ratify the motion commenced on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, on the Student Society of McGill University’s website. Jewish students still have options to combat and even revoke the BDS motion even if it passes.
The day before on Monday evening, Feb. 22, the SSMU decided to join the BDS Movement. The motion passed on its third attempt in 18 months with a vote of 512 to 357 with 14 abstentions at their Winter General Assembly (GA) representing only 3 percent of McGill’s 27,000 undergraduate students. BDS is not only an anti-Israel movement but also a symbol of anti-Semitism. The vote contrasted with what happening in the Canadian Parliament just a few hours the earlier where Liberals and conservative joined forces and voted 229 to 51 for a motion to “condemn all Canadian organizations groups and individuals that promote the BDS movement.”
The BDS Movement on campuses marginalizes its Jewish students. Students at McGill are feeling and experiencing the bullying and anti-Semitism that comes with allowing this movement to grow on university campuses. At the nearly two-hour debate before the vote “Vote NO” organizer and political science student Rayna Lew argued that the if motion passed that it would affect “general campus atmosphere by deteriorating the safe space” for students. Continuing she expressed, “I don’t believe that students who disagree with this motion felt safe beforehand. I believe they will now feel even more silenced and afraid to express their culture, beliefs, and opinions on campus.”
The problems on campus were happening long before the Tuesday vote and were getting worse in the aftermath. In an email interview, I spoke with Lew, who recounted about the “hostile” environment on campus. She described, “The atmosphere took a sharp turn towards hostile and unsafe after Monday’s vote. Lew explained that had been “anti-Semitic incidents occurring leading up to and directly following the General Assembly indicative of the tense and scary atmosphere on campus.”
The debate at the GA on the motion was hardly a civil dialogue, with BDS supporters looking to silence the Jewish students who spoke out against the motion. Lew described the antagonistic atmosphere: “Even at the GA, I (and many others speaking against the motion) were heckled while speaking – something I found very shocking and upsetting, especially as many people had said that this (BDS) was the first step to opening up a dialogue on campus.” BDS supporters want a one-sided discussion, where the only conversation on Israel would demonize, and criticize it while praising the Palestinians.
It would be difficult to understand the highly anti-Semitic environment the BDS issue has made the McGill campus without hearing the details of continued attacks on the campuses’ Jewish community. The heightened tension began with the BDS coming up in GA votes; the first attempt was in fall 2014, but the motion did make it to a vote. Lew commented, “Suffice to say our campus was not safe to anti-BDS students before the vote.” It only became worse last winter in March 2015 with when the motion failed on its first vote when “one of McGill’s student reporters made an extremely anti-Semitic tweet.”
This year pro-BDS supporters were more confident that the motion could pass and with that, confidence came a wave of anti-Semitic incidents most have been cyber-harassment. Lew recounted “Relating to this year’s vote – we have had a variety of instances of anti-Semitism. Prior to the vote, the President of Israel on Campus’ Facebook account was attempted to be hacked into using an anti-Semitic email address making fun of his family who fled Europe.”
Pro- BDS supporters are using social media particularly Twitter and the app Yik Yak as their primary methods to harass. The YiK Yak app is perfect for bullying as it is anonymous, CBC News noted about the app, “In some cases, the app has been linked to problems such as threats, pranks and cyberbullying.” Lew described the harassment as “A barrage of anti-Semitic messages on both Yik Yak (anonymous) and Twitter (posted by the Black Students’ Network of McGill, among many) illustrate the unfortunate consequences of this motion passing on campus.”
The Yik Yak posts included stereotypical anti-Semitic derogatory remarks, this is criticizing Israel’s policies this racism pure and simple. Lew said The Yik Yaks read, “go bomb more children you colonizing Zionist f***” and “little Zionist jewboys not happy that McGill students don’t support their genocide,” she said they “were shocking, to say the least.”
Of all of McGill’s club’s that are supporting the BDS motion, it’s the Black Students’ Network more than the Palestinian students on campus that harassing Jewish students the most. Lew shared screencaps of the BSN’s Twitter posts written during the GA mocking Jewish students who spoke against the motion. One tweet said, “Just realized talking about racism might alienate white people on campus. Time to pack up the bags folks! #SSMUGA — 4:39 PM – 22 Feb 2016 and an earlier tweet was deleted which read, “Breaking news: Safe space in jeopardy #SSMUGA — 4:37 PM – 22 Feb 2016.”
Lew explained the context: “BSN’s tweet about “white racism” was in reference to students expressing concerns of anti-Semitism on campus as a result of BDS and their tweet about “safe space” was in response to a student’s concern that the passing of this motion would eliminate safe spaces for Jewish/Zionist/Israeli students on campus.”
The Black students’ support for BDS because as the movement does, they equate Israel with South African apartheid of the 1990s movement against it. As another student noted on Twitter chloé @smashedbananaz Feb 23 “@bsnmcgill ironic how this group is built on your oppression and yet you’re one of the most oppressive groups on campus?? — 5:44 AM – 23 Feb 2016.”
Law student Simon Paranski spoke to CTV News, telling them about the barrage of anti-Jewish insults after the vote. Paranski said, “People reached out to us that they were personally harassed, verbally harassed on the street after the votes. Some people were on the phone with their parents that they were upset, and people hurled insults at them.” The symbolism of the vote seemed to empower BDS supporters, “It was really scary because it happened so quickly, and it was such a huge escalation.”
For anyone who claims the BDS movement is not anti-Semitic, the incidents at McGill are a classic example of hatred of Jews and anti-Semitism. American Jewish historian and Brandeis University Jonathan Sarna commented, “Criticism of Israel has really morphed into old-fashioned anti-Semitism.” He describes “old-fashioned anti-Semitism as “The idea that Jews are an all-powerful subversive group, conspiring behind the scenes to shape the destiny of nations, and that they should therefore be restricted and boycotted – unless they publicly renounce their guilt and denounce Zionism and the State of Israel.” Lew feels that pro-Israel and Jewish students now have more to fear while at McGill, “I don’t believe that students who disagree with this motion felt safe beforehand, and I believe that they now feel even more silenced.”
Even some of McGill’s professors are taking sides. When the SSMU BDS motion failed in March 2015, Political Science professor Rex Brynen took to Twitter in support of the BDs movement. Brynen wrote, “…and I’m disappointed that McGill alum @JustinTrudeau apparently opposes free speech rights of Canadian students #israel #palestine”
McGill’s administration is not doing enough to keep their students safe and free of discrimination. The anti-Semitism students are experiencing betrays the university handbook’s promise to go to school and learn free of discrimination and harassment. SSMU’s constitution also guarantees freedom from discrimination for all their members. The constitution says, “All Students’ Society endeavours shall be undertaken with full respect for human dignity and bodily sovereignty and without discrimination on the basis of irrelevant personal characteristics that include but are not limited to race, national or ethnic origin…religion….”
The Canadian Charter of Rights, Freedoms, the Quebec Charter of Human Rights, and Freedoms all guarantee freedom from discrimination. One of the fundamental freedoms in Quebec includes “Every person is the possessor of the fundamental freedoms, including freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.”
BDS supporters and Professor Brynen argue freedom of speech, but there are exceptions especially when that freedom of speech causes discrimination. The charter guarantees “Every person has a right to full and equal recognition and exercise of his human rights and freedoms, without distinction, exclusion or preference based on race… religion, political convictions… ethnic or national origin….” Additionally, “No one may distribute, publish or publicly exhibit a notice, symbol or sign involving discrimination, or authorize anyone to do so.” Sarna said of the BDS movement’s version of free speech, “Freedom of speech does not include the freedom to create a chilling and hostile atmosphere that stifles all freedom.”
The harassment, discrimination, in other words, anti-Semitism Jewish students are experiencing are grounds for a complaint to the university or better to Quebec’s human rights commission, the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunnesse. Some of the most publicized cases have been filed against McGill mostly related to racial discrimination. The McGill Daily, BDS supporters have reported on these complaints in detail.
A legal fight is one way that might turn the tables as it questions the legitimacy of the BDS movement and its fighters for oppressed as they like to pride themselves. Last year there were rumors that former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party considered amending legislation to allow existing hate crime laws to apply to the BDS Movement’s online hate speech in an attempt for zero tolerance of the movement.
BDS votes are spreading throughout university campuses all over the country, and their Jewish students are sharing similar experiences. With the student unions’ votes for the BDS movement appear the anti-Semitic incidents, which are becoming the new normal for Jewish students on campuses all over Canada and also the United States.
Fellow Montreal English-language university Concordia has a longer history with anti-Israel and Zionist activity on campus with pro-Palestinians. In the fall of 2014, the undergraduate student union followed the graduate students in supporting BDS. Jewish students face the brunt of harassment and hate speech during Israel Apartheid week and BDS support activities. Students at York University in Ontario have felt the full force of the anti-Semitism on campus a student wrote in the Canadian Jewish News that York is “a breeding ground for violence, hate and discrimination against Israel and its student supporters.”
“BDS votes, even if they don’t pass, can generate a hostile environment on campus” according to Leonard Saxe, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Brandeis University. Earlier this year he co-author a report examining this very problem entitled, “Anti-Semitism and the College Campus: Perceptions and Realities.” Saxes notes that in Canadian universities there are the “highest levels of hostility toward Israel,” with one-third of Jewish students being “verbally harassed” simply because of their religion but Saxe noted it could be as high as 45 percent. Students with “higher levels of identification” with Israel and being Jewish experienced this more though Saxe is uncertain if it is because they are easier “targets” or “perceiving” anti-Semitism “more intensely.” Saxe concluded, the anti-Semitism creates “a hostile environment for Jewish students who support Israel’s right to exist.”
For now, McGill’s “NO” side, Hillel, Israel on Campus and other Jewish and pro-Israel students are hoping the motion will not be ratified and are trying to mobilize students to vote against the motion. The “No” side has been trying to reach students and mobilize them to vote throughout the campaign on their Facebook page, “Vote No McGill” and across all social media platforms with the hashtag #EnoughIsEnough.” Most of all they are relying on old fashion word of mouth method. Vote “NO” organizer Rayna Lew discussed their plan of action, “All I can do is implore students to mobilize for the online vote – I hope that people consider all of the terrible, hateful things that have happened solely in the 48 hours since the vote and vote against it.”
Voting for the ratification is online: Vote No McGill posted instructions for all undergraduate students to follow:
“Please note that online ratification for the General Assembly motions has opened online. This is our opportunity to put this motion to rest. Simply go to https://ssmu.simplyvoting.com/, click “Login” and enter your McGill username/password. Once you’ve logged in, click on “2016 Winter General Assembly Ratification.” There will be a list of motions to vote on, so make sure you mark “NO” on the “Motion Regarding Support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement”. Double-check your answer before submitting. Please share this post, and encourage all of your friends to vote. It takes a few seconds and will help us stop this motion in its tracks. ?#?EnoughIsEnough?”
To ratify the BDS motion, there needs to be a quorum of at least 10 percent of the undergraduate student population voting. If there is a quorum the motion can pass with a “simple majority,” without a quorum the vote for the motion becomes “null and void.” Jewish and pro-Israel students cannot just take a chance hoping that the vote taking place into spring break week is enough to ensure a quorum is not reached, they need to mobilize enough votes to ensure defeat.
Lew does not want to think about the new reality if the motion is ratified, saying she rather “think positively and take things as they come.” It might not be all doom and gloom as two Canadian universities were able to reverse support for BDS with successful campaigns to revoke their student union’s motions. Both the University of Regina and Trent University were able to pass motions to reverse BDS policies. Jewish students at McGill and across the country can learn the most from Trent’s four-point strategy to “effectively counter BDS.” Judy Zelikovitz the vice-president, university and local partner services, at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) explained the key to a successful campaign in a Canadian Jewish News article.
First, students have to “build a highly motivated coalition of allies to take unified action,” by gaining support of not only Jewish students but non-Jewish ones as well to show being against BDS is not only a Jewish issue but one that concerns the campus community. Second, there needs to be an “intensive get-out-the-vote effort,” which includes “brilliant messages, online ads, eye-catching posters, and persuasive flyers,” and most importantly “in-person outreach.” Third, students need to engage and “work with supportive faculty members,” who can also help ensure the university’s administration denounces the student’s BDS support. The fourth and final ingredient is students need to “work with the broader Jewish community” and gain the support of community Jewish and Israel advocacy organizations that can give professional advice.
If McGill’s Jewish students cannot persuasively change their peers’ minds, more approaches that are drastic might be necessary. They might look for inspiration from McGill donors, who are now reconsidering their financial support to the university after the vote. Donors are bothered by the vote regardless if ends up being ratified. Marc Weinstein, the Vice Principal of University Advancement, tried to reassure alumni and financial backers. Weinstein wrote in one email to a supporter, “McGill’s current and past administrations have consistently taken a strong stand against the premise underlying the BDS movement, and this motion will not change that.” Donors at other universities with student unions supporting BDS have also withheld their donations as a pressure tactic.
In a similar mindset, Jewish students should consider withholding funding the SSMU. They should refuse to pay the approximately $120 fees undergraduate students are required as part of the fees to fund SSMU and their associated clubs. Jewish students do not have to pay to be harassed every day and live in fear of anti-Semitic harassment. Considering McGill has the third largest Jewish student population in the country with 2500 students strong, SSMU will be missing the $300,000 collected each year from their Jewish members. SSMU funds clubs and students events, including the Black Student Network.
If all students stand firm, the administration will find it difficult to punish students for the amount unpaid on their tuition bills. The financial pressure could be enough to make SSMU and its clubs supporting BDS change their minds. If not with a formal vote, informally without the money pro-BDS students will find it difficult to fund Israel Apartheid week and its associated activities. Students struggle enough if they have to pay for the movement itself, all of a sudden the devotion will become more difficult and could wither.
Whatever the strategy McGill’s Jewish population decides on they must remain united, and never let the BDS movement silence their voice. If so, Tuesday’s vote will not be BDS’s greatest victory it’s the Jewish population giving into the fear that will be the movement most victorious occasion. Just as modern Israel’s founders fought for their own country and independence, and Israelis continue to do during the modern nation’s 68 years through each war, intifada and terror attack. Jewish student’s need stand firm with the same resolve that they will not leave and never be silenced and will keep on fighting for Israel and what they believe.