Since members of the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) voted in favour of joining the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) motion last Wednesday, the Ryerson community has been divided on the controversial and polarizing movement.
More than 100 students gathered at RSU’s annual general meeting (AGM) to vote on the motion proposed by the student group Students for Justice in Palestine. The motion mandates that the RSU persuade Ryerson to cut ties with companies that do business with Israel.
Though Ryerson president Sheldon Levy avoided saying how the university would respond to student union encouragement, he was firm that Ryerson does not support the BDS movement.
“Ryerson doesn’t support it. It doesn’t play any role at all because the RSU is a separate entity, so we don’t interfere on their business and I’ve never told them what to do and I don’t plan on it with this,” said Levy. He said he doesn’t see the motion successfully becoming a Ryerson boycott.
“I would say more generally if you listen to some much of what (Ryerson says), we say EDI, we say equity, diversity and inclusion. I think these types of motions are going to (make) some people feel not included, but excluded,” said Levy. “And so it’s not a pulling together motion at all.”
Eitan Gilboord, the president of the Israeli Students Association, said the very concept of the BDS movement is problematic.
“I disagree with the characterizations of Israel as an apartheid state, as a state that’s trying to murder, commit genocide and ethnic cleansing,” said Gilboord. “The premise that Israel is a bad place that we should boycott is just a fallacy.”
Mohammad Horreya, the president of Students for Justice in Palestine, proposed the BDS movement. He added the motion to the RSU agenda three weeks ago and said he has collected more than 1,500 signatures in support of it. To him, the movement is about the state of Israel and is not targeting the Jewish community at Ryerson.
“We are against the state of Israel and how they exist today,” Horreya said.
There were motions to defer the vote until the next year’s AGM and to put it to a student-wide referendum, but both motions were defeated. The discussion was cut short when members voted to go directly into a vote, making some students feel that the numbers in favour of the vote hindered discussion.
“The side promoting the passing of the BDS is specifically targeting Israel and putting down the Jewish people on campus and the Israeli students of Ryerson,” said Jessie Saunders-Drutz, a first-year radio and television arts student. “Our say was not heard and any option to have a referendum or postpone it a year was defeated instantly because the numbers were so uneven.”
Alan Sears, a professor of sociology at Ryerson, supports the movement and said people should feel free to discuss their views in an open debate.
“(Opinions) can’t stop people like student unions or faculty unions or whoever else from taking stands for justice even if that is somewhat in dispute,” said Sears.
The Ryerson Students’ Union vice-president equity and next year’s incoming president, Rajean Hoilett, said, “I think that we gave a space for students to be able to engage in these conversations respectfully.” Though the motion is passed, RSU execs will decide how to proceed in the new school year.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs condemned Ryerson’s BDS vote last Thursday.
When the BDS motion oiginally passed on Wednesday, some people protested against it by yelling into the microphone and displayed signs condemning the vote.
One person screamed, “this is f–cking bullshit.” Another yelled, “this is unfair.”
Ryerson joins 10 other universities in Canada, including York University and the University of Toronto, that have voted in favour of the motion.
If the boycott was adopted by Ryerson, Costco, Sears, Canadian Tire and Home Depot would be banned from campus. Products such as Sabra hummus, found in Ryerson’s Hub cafeteria, would be boycotted as well.
Students for Justice in Palestine will hold a celebratory rally on Gould Street on Thursday at 4 p.m.
With files from Samantha Lui and Harlan Nemers
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on April 9, 2014.