The Ryerson Students’ Union hosted its first Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) event on Wednesday — an effort stemming from the union’s new mandate of promoting the movement, a global campaign to stop Israel from occupying what it says is Palestinian land.
The event was part of the RSU’s annual DisOrientation week, and featured a three-guest panel, who detailed the ways the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank affects Palestinians’ daily life in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.
They also talked about how and why the BDS approach is effective, and the historical importance of student activism in bringing forth social justice.
First to speak was Nadi Saadeh, a University of Toronto student who moved from the West Bank to Canada when he was 18 for school.
Saadeh recounted his experience with the occupation, calling it “completely dehumanizing,” and talked about the problems it causes for Palestinian students.
Palestinian schools are frequent targets of raids by the Israeli military he said, and many Palestinian students are stripped of their rights to education and other basic freedoms.
“You can’t speak what you think. You can only speak what they want you to think,” he said, “sometimes Palestinians don’t even realize this isn’t normal.”
“The main point of this panel is to open this issue up for discussion and understand the role that students can play,” said panellist Hind Awwad, a member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid and former co-ordinator for the Palestine BDS National Committee.
She said BDS is a non-violent yet punitive approach and was a key element in successfully toppling apartheid in South Africa.
The panel continued without interruption despite there being differences of opinion present.
“I didn’t think it was fair to have an event that was dedicated specifically to blasting Israel and talking about why Israel was wrong,” said Shannon Riley, a fourth-year student and former president of Hillel Ryerson, a Jewish group.
“I wanted to challenge some of the more problematic assumptions that were being made. I’m disappointed that this is occurring on my campus.”
“Of course everyone is entitled individually to their opinion…and I am not anti-Palestine,” Riley said. “I think it’s wrong for the RSU to take sides and host this event that’s very alienating and divisive and marginalizing to Jewish students on campus.”
“Obviously people were going to come in with preconceptions, but hopefully, (they would) be able to open their minds and look at something from a different perspective and I think that’s what happened,” said RSU vice-president of equity Pascale Diverlus. “People were very respectful.”
Diverlus said the RSU has no formal plans as of yet for another event in support of the BDS campaign, but maintains the focus of the Union will be to educate students.
She said in the future the RSU will work in partnership with the Ryerson Students for Justice in Palestine.