Pro-Israel students at McGill University in Montreal prevailed in overturning Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement motion on Saturday morning, Feb. 27, 2016. Earlier in the week, the McGill University Student Society passed the motion at their Winter General Assembly. The “No” side defeated the motion by a ratification vote that commenced on Wednesday, Feb. 24 and ended Saturday morning, Feb. 26.
The No side won by a large margin 57 percent (2,819 students) voted against the motion while 43 percent (2,119 students) voted in for the motion. In total, 5,286 undergraduate students voted while 6.6 were abstentions. In order to have ratified the BDS motion, a quorum of at least 10 percent of the undergraduate student population or 2,200 votes was needed. If there is quorum the motion can pass with a “simple majority,” without a quorum the vote for the motion becomes “null and void.” The No side was successful through a social media campaign but mostly relied on word of mouth to mobilize the students.
On Monday evening, Feb. 22, the SSMU decided to join the BDS Movement. The motion introduced by the McGill BDS Action Network 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 at McGill 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.”
On Saturday, McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier issued a statement after the motion was defeated, “Now that the online vote is complete, I wish to explain why the University’s administration continues to steadfastly oppose the BDS movement, of which this motion is a part. The BDS movement, which among other things, calls for universities to cut ties with Israeli universities, flies in the face of the tolerance and respect we cherish as values fundamental to a university.”
Fortier continued, BDS “proposes actions that are contrary to the principles of academic freedom, equity, inclusiveness and the exchange of views and ideas in responsible, open discourse. These are the core principles of McGill University, as affirmed by its Senate and Board, which should always guide the McGill community.” After the SSMU GA vote, the administration did not make any official statement only commenting that the student union vote was not indicative of the administration’s position.
Rabbi Reuben Poupko, Co-Chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec (CIJA-Quebec) issued a statement praising the No side’s victory. Rabbi Poupko said, “Today’s vote is a victory of reason over hatred and another in a long list of setbacks for the divisive and ineffective BDS campaign. The defeat of the anti-Israel motion demonstrates that McGill students reject BDS and value intellectual freedom and the right to healthy and constructive debate. McGill students have clearly indicated, for the third time in 18 months, that BDS is unwelcome on their campus because it stigmatizes people for holding a different point of view. The hateful nature of BDS was on full display this week in the form of deeply concerning antisemitic rhetoric that emerged in the context of the debate. Enough is enough.”
The BDS Movement on campuses marginalizes its Jewish students. Students at McGill were feeling and experiencing the bullying and anti-Semitism that comes with allowing this movement to grow on university campuses. Most of the harassment were happening online through Twitter, and the online app Yik Yak. The problems on campus were happening long before the Tuesday vote and were getting worse in the aftermath.
The incidents at McGill are a classic example of hatred of Jews and anti-Semitism. Students were left scared on campus and afraid to express their opinions and support for in such a hostile environment. The voting results, however, show that despite the anti-Semitic harassment pro-Israel students were not going to let the BDS supporters taking away their voice supporting Israel or their campus. Hopefully, after the tremendous failure, a BDS motion will not be brought up at McGill again in the near future.
Harvey Levine, executive director of the Quebec region of B’nai Brith Canada, commented on the level of anti-Semitism on the campus after the vote. Levine recounted, “There has been name-calling and intimidation. These votes inevitably lead to anti-Semitic events … It’s disgraceful that 500 students can hold an entire university hostage.” Levin also believes, “I think McGill should intervene.”
The university administration did not intervene neither did the SSMU. SSMU President Kareem Ibrahim only commented, “We are always thinking of ways to ensure that our campus community is as cohesive and welcoming as possible.”
McGill BDS Action Network, who initiated the motion, said that anti-Semitism was not the goal of the motion. They issued a statement saying, “No student should feel unsafe because of their identity or political stance … We must hold the entire McGill community accountable to combat this hatred. Supporting our Jewish peers and standing up for Palestinians’ agency and safety are not mutually exclusive.”
The students experiencing the harassment, however, did file any formal complaints with the university. Provost Christopher Manfredi said, the “inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated and will be taken seriously.” One student the president of Israel on Campus was considering, however, filing a criminal complaint with the police after their Facebook account was hacked.
After the vote, McGill donors and alumni were reconsidering their financial support to the university. Donors are bothered by the vote regardless if it was ratified or not. Marc Weinstein, the Vice Principal of University Advancement, tried to reassure alumni and financial backers. After the failed ratification vote the university is still trying to convince donors not to abandon the university.
This is the third BDS vote in 18 months that McGill students defeated. The last vote on BDS at McGill was in March 2015, and it was defeated by a close vote of 276 to 212. In the first vote in fall 2014 was postponed without a vote. This time, supporters created the McGill BDS Action Network, launching it in beginning of the month for the purpose of ensuring their motion passed.
The motion sought the SSMU’s support for “BDS campaigns through the office of the VP External, and that the President lobby the McGill Board of Governors for ‘divestment from companies profiting from violations of Palestinian human rights’ by bringing the issue up at every meeting.
The motion also read, “This call for BDS states that such campaigns are to remain in place until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination, and fully complies with the precepts of international law.” McGill has investments in three Israeli companies that “have activities” in West Bank and East Jerusalem, L-3 Communications, Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank, and RE/MAX.
Canadian universities are radicalizing, like their American counterparts, and in the past couple of years have voted on resolutions to support the BDS movement. At Montreal’s other English language university Concordia their Student Union (CSU) voted to join BDS in November 2014. The Concordia Graduate Student Association had already voted in January 2013 to support the BDS movement.
Some of the other Canadian universities who voted for BDS include Toronto’s York University, and Ontario’s McMaster University, Windsor University, and Wilfred Laurier University. Both the University of Regina and Trent University were able to pass motions to reverse BDS policies. Last year the University of British Columbia defeated a BDS motion.
Leonard Saxe, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Brandeis University found “BDS votes, even if they don’t pass, can generate a hostile environment on campus.” Last year Saxe co-authored 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. Pro-Israel and Jewish students at Concordia and York faced the worse incidents of anti-Semitism on campus. There were even anti-Semitic incidents at UBC despite the vote failing.
The BDS movement formed in 2005 with the mission to “impose boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against the State of Israel ‘until [it] meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law.'”
McGill is a major destination for Jewish students from not only Quebec and the rest of Canada but also increasingly the United States. McGill has the third largest Jewish population in all universities and colleges in Canada with 2,500 undergraduate students representing nine percent of the undergrad population. The university also includes over 1000 Jewish graduate students that represent 11 percent of the total graduate student population. In Hillel’s Fall edition of their semi-annual list of “Top 60 Schools Jewish Choose,” McGill ranked in 24th place in their public universities lists of American and Canadian schools.