Published On: Thu, Feb 25th, 2016

CANADA: BDS vote stirs up hostilities on McGill campus

Some students on the “No” side of the controversial Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) vote at McGill University this week say the suddenly hostile climate on campus has become unbearable for them.


Since the contentious vote on Monday in support of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel, many students are saying they have been targeted for their opposition and that social media is now chock-full of anti-Semitic remarks that make them very uncomfortable.

“Little Zionist jewboys not happy that McGill students don’t support their genocide, ” reads one post on messaging site Yik Yak,  to which users centred around a geographic area can post anonymously.

“No” side campaigner Miled Hill said he knows of at least 10 students who sought counselling to help with intolerable situations. One student was going to police on Wednesday after there was an attempt to hack his Facebook page. One student speaking about the vote after the results were announced was later followed home and verbally harassed.

“There has been name-calling and intimidation, ” said Harvey Levine, executive director of the Quebec region of B’nai Brith Canada. “These votes inevitably lead to anti-Semitic events … It’s disgraceful that 500 students can hold an entire university hostage.”

However, the McGill BDS Action Network, which brought forward the motion, issued a strong statement Wednesday about the BDS vote having “emboldened anti-Semitism” on campus, saying they condemn it: “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.”

Still, Jewish students said their concerns about safety have been mocked and local Jewish leaders say they are alarmed by the situation.

“It is very upsetting and disturbing, ” said Myriam Azogui, who oversees universities for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a public policy advocacy group for the Jewish community. “We are very concerned about the environment on campus.”

Political science student Rayna Lew said that fear and frustration compelled her to post a Facebook message lamenting that “these tweets literally insinuate that I am not entitled to a safe space as a Jew and zionist.”

McGill, however, is refusing to comment on the situation until after the ratification vote is completed, which could change the outcome. Results should be known by Saturday morning at the earliest. The university has said that student votes don’t directly affect policy.

Levine says that’s not good enough.

“I think McGill should intervene, ” he said in an interview.

Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, said in a statement issued on Wednesday that the vote — which represents less than two per cent of the student population — was disappointing and that “McGill University should acknowledge that the presence of anti-Israel boycotts on campus make many Jewish and pro-Israel students feel targeted and unsafe.”

On Monday, students voted 512 to 357 in support of BDS, which stems from a declaration in July 2005 — signed by about 100 Palestininan organizations — calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel that mirror those levied against South Africa for apartheid in the 1980s. The margin was surprising to those on both sides of the debate.

But it won’t be official until there is online ratification, and that requires 2, 200 votes for a quorum, according to Kareem Ibrahim, president of the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU). It was the third vote on the issue in 18 months’ time.

Those supporting BDS, like Action Network member Laura Khoury, say there is “a moral obligation” to fight for an oppressed people.

But it is a very polarizing movement about an inextricable issue —  the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — that has frustrated and divided world leaders and intellectuals for decades. On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals overwhelmingly supported a Conservative motion to condemn the promotion of the BDS movement.

When asked, Ibrahim said that students feeling targeted was “absolutely” a concern to SSMU. However, he replied in an email in very vague terms about what the student union is doing about it: “We are always thinking of ways to ensure that our campus community is as cohesive and welcoming as possible.”

Calming tensions among students won’t be McGill’s only problem. Levine said many disgruntled alumni have expressed their dissatisfaction to his organization, and on social media, and are threatening to pull their financial support from McGill in light of the controversial vote.

But to hear some of the students from the “No” side describe it, they are feeling very persecuted on campus.

“This has gone so far beyond tension on campus, ” said Hill. “Tension was last week. Today is scary. It is harrowing to feel unsafe on your own campus.”

Lew said everywhere she has looked on social media, there have been blatantly anti-Semitic remarks and then all kinds of support and “likes” for those remarks.

“The situation is really frightening, ” she said. “Stressful doesn’t begin to cover it.”



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