University and college student unions across Ontario now formally support Israel boycott efforts after the Ontario branch of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS-O) voted in favour of the decision this August.
The motion to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign provincewide was tabled by the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) this summer in response to the new military campaign in Gaza.
In response to Israel’s ongoing military action in Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinian trade unions started the BDS movement in 2005. Its purpose is to pressure Israel until Palestinian rights are recognized and are in compliance with international law through the boycott of academic institutions and companies that do business in Israel.
Ryerson students submitted the motion to the students’ union with 2,500 petition signatures. The vote at last April’s general meeting sparked a chaotic protest, but the motion still passed.
“We got mandated to take on this motion and we thought it was also really important to make sure that students provincially were also engaged in this,” says RSU president Rajean Hoilett, who along with the RSU, brought the motion forward to the CFS-O. “It was passed unanimously with a lot of discussion.”
Ryerson’s decision to support BDS has received criticism from Jewish and Israeli members of the community, who view the move as belittling and hateful.
“Anyone who tries to boycott the only national home of the Jewish people is targeting Jews wherever they are, as the BDS movement in itself is not only anti-Israel, but is clearly anti-Semitic,” said
Hadas Hait, president of Students Supporting Israel at Ryerson, in an email. “Those actions are appalling and will not be successful on our campus.”
She added, “Israel is an international hub of high-tech and advanced technology and its economy will continue to grow and develop regardless of BDS.”
Shortly after the motion passed on campus, the president’s office released a statement stating that the decision “has no standing” at the university. On Monday, president Sheldon Levy said the school’s position has not changed in light of the CFS-O’s decision.
Hoilett contended that: “As a students’ union and an organization that is autonomous from the university, it is important for our advocacy work for students to be able to put pressure and represent students so that the university is accountable to them.”
“BDS is in response to Israeli state policies and not in response to Jewish people in particular,” he says. “It is important to recognize that what we’re having this conversation about is criticism of a state and state actions, and those two things are very distinct and separate.”
Anna Goldfinch, a CFS national executive representative, said students have long been at the forefront of movements against war and occupation. She said that the BDS movement is in support of peace.
“As a Jewish student, I think it’s problematic to conflate criticism of the state with criticism of Jewish people and the Jewish faith. Students across the province are going to continue to oppose all forms of oppression including anti-Semitism,” says Goldfinch.
Hoilett said the RSU is in the process of identifying investments and ties to Israel within the university, but the RSU itself does not have any.
Ryerson has stated relationships with some institutions that are “complicit in Israeli war crimes,” says Hoilett, including Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa.
Each university student union will decide individually how it chooses to support BDS on its campus. At Ryerson, the main focus of the campaign will be to educate students on the situation in Israel and Gaza through workshops, panel discussions and films.
The first event, called “Understanding Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions,” will take place at noon today at the Thomas Lounge in Oakham House.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Sept. 10, 2014.