By Marion Kawas
We are entering a new and ramped-up phase in the war on BDS activism by both the Israeli government and its lobby groups in other countries. One aspect of the escalation is the aggressive use of Israeli legislation, but also whatever legal options can be manipulated to delay, deny and silence all discussion of global BDS campaigns. There are many examples of such Israeli legislation, especially the recent new law to forbid entry to Israel of any foreign national who supports BDS, even if its only limited to boycott of settlement products.
And the Zionist lobby here in Canada has also been working overtime to try and suppress student groups that are introducing debate on campus around Palestinian rights and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. But without success. Just 2 weeks ago, after a long and vigorous debate, students at King’s University College in London, Ontario, voted 76 per cent in favour of boycotting and divesting from companies complicit in the Israeli occupation.
At the University of British Columbia, the outcome of the actual vote is still in question, but the battle to even bring the referendum question on BDS to the student body faced unprecedented legal challenges. After being unsuccessful in getting the student union (known as the AMS Student Society) to refer the issue to a student court to decide on the “legality” of the referendum question, pro-Israel advocates then took the issue to the BC Supreme Court. There were several factors at play here, both timing and of course the zeal to keep the BDS issue away from the arena of public debate. The timing factor was this – the BDS referendum question was set to be part of the general election ballot for the AMS, something that would ensure that quorum was met and any results would be valid. Two years ago, in 2015, a similar scenario played out but the BDS referendum was delayed to a separate vote, and although the question passed it did not meet the necessary quorum requirements. This time around, a positive vote would have been valid. So, in a heavy-handed move, the whole matter was hauled to the BC Supreme Court at the eleventh hour, which produced the result of at least delaying the BDS referendum and de-coupling it from the election balloting.
Thankfully, just hours ago and after several days of earlier hearings, the judge brought down his ruling and dismissed the whole case and the petitioner’s challenge. This court decision is an important and landmark victory and stops a dangerous precedent from being set. However, the initial move was still chilling, especially in its ramifications on the due process of democratic student government. What is the message here, that any student with sufficient funding, resources and backing, can usurp the democratic decisions of student bodies? And that student unions should be prepared to pay a “price tag” for even considering the idea of BDS?
The referendum had been spearheaded by Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights UBC who met the requirements to have this question put to the student body: Do you support your student union (AMS) in boycotting products and divesting from companies that support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians? In fact, this was the identical question posed in the 2015 referendum.
According to observers in the court, the lawyer representing SPHR highlighted the political motivations behind the legal challenge and noted that the courts should be reluctant to intervene and undermine AMS authority. He also pointed out that the supposed ambiguity of the question was not an issue in 2015, but simply another excuse to stall and keep the referendum from going forward.
And now to the other factor of these desperate moves to keep any discussion of BDS campaigns out of the public arena, and especially off university campuses. A recent EKOS poll done in February of this year revealed that most Canadians view the Israeli government negatively and that they see Canada’s government as pro-Israel. It also found that over 90% of Canadians think that criticism of the Israeli government is not anti-Semitic. The second part of the poll showed that Canadians overwhelmingly view sanctions and boycotts as “reasonable” means to pressure Israel to adhere to international law. This was actually in line with a BBC survey done in 2012, that also concluded 59% of Canadians viewed Israel negatively.
Shockingly (or perhaps not so), the Canadian government and for the most part, the establishment media, do not reflect this popular sentiment and are even actively involved in the opposite direction, trying to demonize and marginalize the BDS movement as a whole and Canadians’ participation and activism in particular. We need only to mention the motion passed in the Canadian House of Commons just over a year ago, condemning not just BDS but also even individuals who support it.
Just a month ago, the Israeli government unveiled a new plan to “help students fight BDS on campus”. Although short on details, a media report stated this: “Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan said he sees the struggle again delegitimization of Israel of campuses as paramount. ‘Therefore, the ministry under my leadership initiated this new program together with the Jewish Agency’…”.
Despite all these massive efforts at intimidation, support for the goals of the BDS movement and public discussion around it, are on the increase. Perhaps people resent the attacks on freedom of speech, or the insistence that any criticism of Israel is “anti-Semitic”, or the almost unbelievable lengths to which the Zionist lobby is willing to go to suppress this debate. Or perhaps people can see who is the occupied and who is the aggressor, and that the struggle for Palestinian national and human rights is an integral part of the struggle for a better world for all.
– Marion Kawas is a long-time pro-Palestinian activist, a member of BDS Vancouver-Coast Salish and co-host of Voice of Palestine. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.