B’nai Brith’s Lawsuit Attacks Campus Free Speech, Student Democracy

B’nai Brith has been campaigning aggressively to defund student unions and associated organizations. (Photo: via B’nai Brith Canada website)

By Yves Engler

On Wednesday B’nai Brith announced a lawsuit against McGill University, Student Society of McGill University (SSMU) and student group Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR).

The apartheid lobby group is angry that undergraduate students were asked to vote in March on whether they supported Palestinian rights. Their press release openly states their objective is to deter student democracy across the country. “These types of referendums are not restricted to McGill, this is a problem in universities across Canada, and we hope other universities are paying attention,” said Sam Goldstein, B’nai Brith’s Director of Legal Affairs.

B’nai Brith has been campaigning aggressively to defund student unions and associated organizations. In 2019, B’nai Brith created a coalition of anti-Palestinian groups that called on Ontario students to take up “a unique opportunity to deny funding to” student associations. They pressed the University of Toronto’s administration to withhold its graduate students’ union funding. B’nai Brith was also granted intervener status on the side of the Doug Ford Conservatives in a court case between the Canadian Federation of Students/York Federation of Students and Ontario regarding the government’s move to force universities to grant opt-outs for various student fees.

The immediate background to the announced lawsuit is 71% of McGill undergraduate students voted for a resolution that commits SSMU to take a stand against Israel’s system of racial discrimination. The resolution called for a host of measures including SSMU divesting from and boycotting “corporations and institutions complicit in settler-colonial apartheid against Palestinians.”

In response, B’nai Brith released a statement labeling “SSMU’s behavior…antisemitic”. It “called on McGill University to immediately cease funding SSMU until it rescinds this bogus referendum result.”

The administration responded by threatening to terminate its Memorandum of Agreement with SSMU, which regulates fees, use of name, and other matters between the university and student union. The administration claimed the Palestine Solidarity Policy encourages “a culture of ostracization and disrespect due to students’ identity, religious or political beliefs.” But the resolution does not mention any ethnicity or religion.

Israel lobby and administration pressure led SSMU’s unelected judicial board to reject the constitutionality of the Palestine Solidarity Policy. Subsequently the student union president that defended students’ democratic vote was impeached and SPHR’s club status was suspended.

In response students have organized rallies and a public letter was signed by rock legend Roger Waters, former MP Libby Davies, authors Yann Martel and Chris Hedges as well as 200 academics and artists and 40 organizations, criticizing the administration’s threats against SSMU. On the eve of his July 15 performance at Montreal’s Bell Centre, Waters participated in an online rally in support of McGill SPHR. The rally was covered by La Presse, Globe and Mail, Canadian Dimension, Rabble, Le Soleil, Pivot, Jewish News Syndicate, La Voix de l’Est, Palestine Chronicle and Le Journal de Montréal.

The event elicited a strong response from the apartheid lobby. Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, B’nai Brith, Honest Reporting Canada and Hasbara Fellowships Canada all published statements denouncing the event. Many other prominent Israel lobbyists denounced it on Twitter. “Roger Waters blasted for speaking at Montreal event tied to PFLP”, noted the headline of an Israel National News story.

In their press release announcing their lawsuit B’nai Brith attacked Waters for standing with McGill students. It noted, “Rock star Roger Waters recently spoke at a virtual SPHR McGill forum, where his usual anti-Israel venom found a welcome audience.”

In response to the suit against McGill students Waters published an open letter “On Human Rights, McGill University, Students, and Free Speech” in which he denounced B’nai B’rith’s bid to extinguish “the global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.” The founder of Pink Floyd concludes, “all your huffing and puffing and baring of teeth signifies nothing, because your cause is morally bankrupt, your Emperor has no clothes.”

B’nai Brith’s recent suit is probably partly a response to the success of the Waters event. It’s odd to sue a university and student groups in the middle of summer for a vote that took place four months earlier.

On its face, the suit is ridiculous. Will B’nai Brith argue that university students don’t have the right to hold referendums on political questions?

SPHR and Palestinian students at McGill have a far stronger ground to sue the administration and student union. The discrimination they’ve faced has been overt.

By repeatedly conceding to B’nai Brith’s bullying, McGill’s administration has emboldened the apartheid lobby group to create a climate of intimidation regarding the discussion of Palestinian oppression.

B’nai Brith’s lawsuit is clearly an attempt to create “a culture of ostracization and disrespect due to students’ identity, religious or political beliefs.” The McGill administration must defend its pro-Palestinian, anti-apartheid students from B’nai Brith.

More generally, the Palestine solidarity movement needs to directly confront B’nai Brith’s anti-Palestinian racism. It’s time for a political and legal campaign to revoke that organization’s charitable status.

 – Yves Engler is the author of Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid and a number of other books. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle. Visit his website: yvesengler.com.

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