A Response to Sheri Oz’s “Much Ado About Nothing at York University”

On Thursday, February 4th, York University in Toronto, Canada hosted a protest. The protest in question was organized by the YUDivest Coalition, formed chiefly by Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), Amnesty International at York (AIY) and the undergraduate student’s autonomous student union, the York Federation of Students (YFS).

According to the organizers, the rally was meant to highlight the wrongdoings of York University holding investments in companies that have to do with war. As a result of these investments, the YUDivest coalition called on the school to “divest” from “war crimes”.

As a student advocating on the ground-level at York, I have a front and center seat for all the drama that unfolded in the weeks prior to the 4th. I may have not been present (I don’t have class on Thursdays, and I needed to avoid it, mostly due to the fact security has threatened to sanction my club, Hasbara at York), but based on the first-hand reports, the videos and the social media aftermath, I have a pretty good idea of what took place.

In my time at York I have watched annual Israel Apartheid Weeks (IAW) culminate in the YFS’ adoption of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Now BDS has metamorphosed into YUDivest. They are almost all the same people, with all the same motives. Simply put, YUDivest is the new way for BDS to market itself, and they cleverly aligned themselves with an issue that is student friendly. Anti-war appeals to everyone, but especially to students. Precisely that is what YUDivest has done. They have reworked their stated goals and given the anti-Israel cause a broader appeal by giving unsuspecting, even good intentioned students, the old “bait & switch”. The bait is anti-war, which is switched for anti-Israel venom.

Much Ado About Nothing at York University, Toronto” by Sheri Oz, in my opinion, lacks this crucial element of and accurate understanding of the anti-Zionist forces that underpinned the protest, and the greater political dynamic on campus all together.

I met with Sheri a month ago when she visited York to investigate the controversy caused by reignited attention to the mural hanging in the student center. It wasn’t long after we began conversing before I figured she was she is an ardent Zionist. Last week she returned to cover the YUDivest event, and I have to respectfully disagree with some of the conclusions she expressed in her article.

But before I do, here is one of her key points which her and I agree upon. The presence of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), a Toronto-based action group with a reputation of disorderly conduct, irrespective of how pro-Israel and well-meaning it may be, is/was indeed detrimental.

I had met with representatives of the JDL two weeks prior to the protest to try to convince them that their counter protest on campus would not only be unhelpful, but counter-productive, and reiterate Hasbara at York’s position that we did not want them on campus.

The on-campus pro-Israel groups, Hasbara at York, The Israel Student Association (ISA), as well as Hillel York, all distanced themselves from the JDL in the campus media. SAIA likes to try to associate Hasbara at York with the JDL, due to the latter’s tainted reputation in and out of the Jewish community, on and off campus, and it’s a strategy they use to de-legitimize our advocacy efforts. In having to distance ourselves from the JDL in the student press, there was no more room to express exactly what I am expressing in this article. My key point is that YUDivest is a duplicitous proxy for BDS. Sheri Oz argued that the YUDivest protest was simply an anti-war protest, and the presence of the JDL made the event into something that it wasn’t.

I am not sure how the order of operations actually played out behind the scenes on SAIA’s side. Did they plan originally to overtly make this anti-Israel like the last rally, or did they change course when they learned that the JDL would be attempting to make themselves present? Did they anticipate that the JDL would appear carrying signs unrelated to the nuanced YUDivest movement, and would come with Israeli flags and retroactively out of place “free Gaza from Hamas” signs? Did they change their strategy to keep the Israel-bashing to an absolute minimum in order to seem more moderate by comparison? I can’t answer any of these questions, but either way, that’s how the optics of it all played out to the unknowing student. A very far distance from anything a reasonable person would call “getting the job done”. To their credit, the JDL did understand that the YUDivest protest was just a duplicitous way to present the anti-Israel cause.

It would be inaccurate to portray the YUDivest cause as simply a present-day incarnation of the anti-war movement sparked in the 1960s and 1970s. That movement was about organizing for an authentic peace, and an admirable disgust for violence and war, oceans removed from the BDS activists who selectively choose which acts of war to protest, and who take nothing but thinly veiled delight in the daily violence against Jewish citizens of Israel.

It begs the question then, to counter Oz’s point, why SAIA? Why does it have to be Students Against Israeli Apartheid who organize YUDivest rallies, and who’s membership forms the bulk of the movement’s parishioners? Why not the half-dozen socialist or communist clubs (each not without their own anti-Israel bend) to organize the anti-war protests of the 21st century? It is precisely the connection between the deceptively vague calls for weapons divestiture and BDS that is there by design. It is because the two are complimentary forces.

It is not just serendipity that the host of this event on Facebook was the leader of SAIA, and it’s most virulent provocateur. It is no accident that the club’s supporting it have in some way already demonstrated either sympathy or outright political support to SAIA and BDS, or the leaders of the YFS which are heavily backed by SAIA.

Even the very language used at these YUDivest rallies, and yes, “rallies” is plural because this has become something of a regular occurrence, bears resemblance to that used by SAIA. “Divest” itself is the second word in BDS! Any attendee of these events would ad nauseum hear the phrase “war crimes”, which is what York is supposed to be divesting from according to this movement. In fact the words are so overused in the BDS movement to refer to what they maliciously and ignorantly believe are Israel’s actions that the connection is palpable. The fact that any information about any other war contexts from which’s crimes we are to divest from is basically absent from YUDivest literature, and the fact that only Israel is regularly highlighted demonstrates that this is not about anything other than Israel.

It goes even further: one of the chants heard in the videos, as well as a hashtag seen in social media posts related to the rally, was “drop books not bombs”. The similar “drop [tuition] fees not bombs” was frequently used by SAIA in the early 2010s, most notably three years ago when they ruined Red & White day (York U’s spirit day) by noisily dropping anti-Israel banners from the floors above, one of the adorned with this phrase. This was a turning point for SAIA, realizing they could pretty much disrupt and destroy York University sanctioned celebrations without consequence. And the “drop fees not bombs” mantra stuck, even making it the primary motif of the union’s agenda books a couple years ago.

To her credit, Oz reported later online that there were in fact students that were chanting “free Palestine”. I see it as fairly obvious that chants of “Free Palestine” just don’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in a highly politicized anti-Israel context. Need more? Go look at the SAIA page on Facebook. Their profile picture is the YUDivest logo. Whenever Saia tables at York they hang a YUDivest banner in front of their table.

What more do we need to establish the clear connection between BDS and YUDivest, and negate the notion that what occurred on the 4th was merely an anti-war demonstration and that these particular calls for military divestiture are not the logical 21st century extension of what Oz witnessed in the 1970s?

As the saying goes, two Jews, three opinions. Having in my time at York witnessed the creation of the new propaganda of YUDivest, it just simply cannot be argued that YUDivest is anything but an extension of the BDS movement.

I argue that York University is a good case study for campus anti-Semitism. It’s where the oligarchical anti-Israel echelon is most cemented on campuses in the province of Ontario. It was one of the first to host IAW, one of the first to pass BDS, the first to charter a chapter of Independent Jewish Voices, and the first campus to see rise to a YUDivest strategy. The general community, particularly advocates at other universities, should take note of the fact that movements like YUDivest are the third stage of the campus anti-Israel movement, and begin countering it preemptively.

About the Author
Willem Hart is a social science and Jewish studies student at York University in Toronto. He is an active member in the pro-Israel scene, and a lifelong disabilities service worker and advocate.