This past academic year, students at five Canadian universities passed resolutions supporting elements of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. They join nearly two dozen student associations that have already endorsed the Palestinian civil society’s call.
When students organize to stand with Palestinians, they are often attacked by Canada’s network of anti-Palestinian organizations, but the backlash at McGill has been particularly fierce.
In March, 71 per cent of students voted for a Palestine Solidarity Policy committing the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) to standing against Israel’s system of racial discrimination. Among a host of measures, the resolution called on SSMU to divest from and boycott “corporations and institutions complicit in settler-colonial apartheid against Palestinians.”
The resolution aligns with the growing consensus among human rights researchers – from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem to the UN Special Rapporteur – that have found Israel to be guilty of the crime of apartheid.
In response to the student vote, B’nai B’rith called on the administration to sever SSMU’s funding. Shortly after, McGill’s administration threatened to terminate its Memorandum of Agreement with the student union, which regulates fees and other matters between the university and SSMU. The administration claimed the Palestine Solidarity Policy created “a culture of ostracization and disrespect due to students’ identity, religious or political beliefs.” The resolution however, does not mention religion or ethnicity.
Following this, SSMU’s Board of Directors concluded the Palestine Solidarity Policy didn’t conform with the union’s constitution and equity policy. Additionally, McGill’s chapter of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights had their club status suspended.
The administration and outside groups’ response to the Palestine Solidarity Policy is the latest in a string of interventions that has impacted Palestine solidarity at McGill. After a BDS vote passed the initial stage in 2015, the administration sent students a flurry of messages on the issue. At the same time, pro-Israel groups made numerous interventions while the Montréal Gazette published a slew of articles critical of Palestine solidarity at McGill. A few days before a BDS vote in 2015 soon to be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau interceded by tweeting, “The BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses. As a McGill University alum, I’m disappointed. Enough Is Enough.”
It is critical to support students facing backlash for standing up for Palestine. In May, a public letter signed by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, author Yann Martel, former MP Libby Davies, author Chris Hedges and 200 academics, artists and authors, as well as 40 organizations, was sent to McGill principal Suzanne Fortier. It criticized the administration for threatening to suspend its fee agreement with SSMU in response to the Palestine Solidarity Policy.
In an important act of solidarity Waters will be rallying in support of the McGill student activists the day before his upcoming show at Montreal’s Bell Centre. Alongside a representative of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill, the rock legend will discuss the importance of supporting the Palestinian struggle.
A decade ago when I was involved in student activism I witnessed Israel’s brutal occupation of the West Bank. During a trip to the 2010 World Education Forum I saw the immense separation wall, segregated roads and checkpoints with their parapets and machine guns. I talked to Palestinians whose olive trees had been uprooted and homes razed by the Israeli army. Since then Israeli violence and racism has only increased.
Many students at McGill and campuses across the country are working hard to advance the Palestinian cause. They need our support to end Canadian complicity in Israeli apartheid.
To view the Palestine solidarity event featuring Roger Waters, please register via this Zoom link.