By Yves Engler
The McGill administration and Israel lobby have waged a multiyear campaign against student democracy and Palestinian solidarity and recently threatened the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) financial arrangement after students voted overwhelmingly for the “Palestine Solidarity Policy”.
A month ago, 71% of 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 B’rith 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 nationality.
The administration’s bid to portray their student body as anti-Jewish is not new. As students have sought to express support for the long-oppressed Palestinians, they’ve repeatedly made similar claims.
Between 2014 and 2016 there were three votes inspired by the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement at biannual SSMU general assemblies. Fearing students at the prestigious institution would support BDS, the Israel lobby went into overdrive. Among a slew of pressure tactics, they got Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau to tweet that “the BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses. As a McGill alum, I’m disappointed. Enough is Enough.”
In February 2016 a motion mandating the student union support some BDS demands passed the union’s largest ever general assembly. But after the McGill administration, Montreal’s English media and pro-Israel Jewish groups blitzed students the online confirmation vote failed. The resolution’s constitutionality was subsequently challenged by Zionists who sought to have SSMU’s Judicial Board outlaw any motion that expressed support for BDS.
Students challenged the effort to block their ability to collectively challenge Israeli apartheid. An October 2017 challenge of the SSMU Judicial Board’s decision to declare a BDS resolution unconstitutional prompted Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee activist Noah Lew to smear other students. After failing to be re-elected to the Board of Directors Lew claimed he was “blocked from participating in student government because of my Jewish identity and my affiliations with Jewish organizations.” Lew’s claim received international coverage and McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier sent out two emails to all students and faculty concerning the matter.
But an investigation by the administration found no basis for Lew’s claim.
The principal form of racism on display on this subject is the university power structure’s deep-seated anti-Palestinianism. As I previously detailed, McGill administrators openly associated with the Jewish National Fund, an explicitly racist organization that excludes Palestinian citizens of Israel from living on land stolen from Palestinians.
Fortunately, students have persevered in campaigning for Palestinian rights despite the smears, underhanded moves and outside attacks. The large margin that voted for the recent Palestine Solidarity Policy suggests that support for Palestinian rights is growing.
But Israel lobby and administration pressure led SSMU’s unelected judicial board to reject the constitutionality of the Palestine Solidarity Policy. They also impeached the elected president of the student union, Darshan Daryanan, in part due to his sympathy toward student democracy and Palestinian rights.
Happily, there’s some pushback. Students have organized rallies and outside groups have petitioned the administration. Rock legend Roger Waters, author Yann Martel, former MP Libby Davies, author Chris Hedges and 200 others signed a recent public letter criticizing the administration’s threats as anti-democratic and anti-Palestinian. Signed by 40 organizations, the letter also applauds McGill students for pushing their union to fulfill its stated commitment to leadership in “matters of human rights and social justice.”
It’s important for outside forces to publicly embarrass McGill’s administration, pressure wobbly student representatives and embolden the student organizers driving the struggle on campus. As the Israel lobby fully understands, the struggle for Palestinian rights runs through student activism.