McGill SSMU outlaws BDS after professors release letter 3 months too late

A couple of months too late, McGill University professors are taking a stand against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement days before the Student Society of McGill University’s Judicial Board decided to outlaw any further BDS votes. Three months after undergraduates at the Student Society of McGill University failed to ratify a BDS motion, McGill professors finally spoke against the movement. On Friday, May 27, 2016, over 150 McGill professors released a letter they signed against the BDS movement at the University. Days later on May 30, the SSMU nullified the ratification vote, and a day later on May 31, the Judicial Board issued a report preventing further BDS motions coming up for a vote.

The SSMU voted to join the BDS Movement on Monday evening, Feb. 22. The motion introduced by the McGill BDS Action Network passed on its third attempt in 18 months with a vote of 512 to 357 with 14 abstentions at their Winter General Assembly (GA) representing only 3 percent of McGill’s 27,000 undergraduate students. BDS is not only an anti-Israel movement but also a symbol of anti-Semitism.

The motion sought the SSMU‘s support for “BDS campaigns through the office of the VP External, and that the President lobby the McGill Board of Governors for ‘divestment from companies profiting from violations of Palestinian human rights’ by bringing the issue up at every meeting.

The vote needed to be ratified; students voted for three days online either for or against the motion. By the end of the week on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, the students voted down the BDS motion. The No side won by a large margin 57 percent (2,819 students) voted against the motion while 43 percent (2,119 students) voted in for the motion. In total, 5,286 undergraduate students voted.

February’s vote was the third BDS vote in 18 months that McGill students defeated. The second vote on BDS at McGill was in March 2015, and it was defeated by a close vote of 276 to 212. In fall 2014, the first vote was postponed without a vote. This time, supporters created the McGill BDS Action Network, launching it in beginning of the month for the purpose of ensuring their motion passed. After the ratification vote had failed the BDS Action Network promised to attempt to pass the motion in the next academic year.

On May 30, SSMU questioned the validity of the ratification vote that defeated the BDS motion. The SSMU press release claimed that “During the online ratification of the Motion Regarding Support for the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Movement, the use of phone and email lists, paid advertisements, social media campaigning, and the use of polling booths by groups within and outside of the Society were used, in violation of the Internal Regulations of Elections and Referenda.” SSMU concluded, however, “the motion will not be brought back for an online vote due to logistical constraints,” and “because a new online ratification is not possible, the motion will not be adopted as a position of the SSMU.”

Ultimately, SSMU’s Judicial Board decided they will not allow any more future votes on BDS motions. They issued their decision on May 31, in a report entitled, “Reference re Legality of the BDS Motion and Similar Motions.” The Judicial Board determined “all motions which compel SSMU to campaign actively against specific countries are unconstitutional. Doing so would place one group (nationals of that country) at a structural disadvantage vis-à-vis the majority and is thus discriminatory.” The board found the BDS motion passed in February and “Similar motions to the BDS that compel SSMU to adopt a platform against specific nations are “unconstitutional” and “breaches” SSMU’s “Equity Policy.”

The professors’ letter was supposed to be an endorsement of university’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier’s statement against the movement after the ratification failed at the end of February. The letter was also addressed to Principal Fortier. Most of the professors who signed the letter remained silent throughout the voting process in February, letting Jewish students suffer through anti-Semitic harassment and only deciding to speak out when the semester was over and only days before winter convocation ceremonies.

A total of 155 professors signed the letter, the majority, 63 came from the Faculty of Medicine, 38 professors from the Faculty of Science, 25 from the Faculty of Arts, 12, from Engineering, 10 from Management, only four from the Faculty of Education, and three from the Faculty of Music. Surprisingly only one law professor signed the letter, possibly implying law professors either support the BDS movement or want to remain neutral on the issue they might consider a matter of freedom of speech.

The number of professors that signed the letter represents a minority of McGill’s faculty since the university currently has 1,684 “tenured and tenure-stream faculty.” A Canadian Jewish News article excused the over 1,500 professors that did not sign the letter by saying amassing the signatures was done through an “improvised approach.” Ironically, some of the faculty signing the letter have not taught at the university for years and do not even know the students currently attending or the climate of the campus in the two years since the BDS movement took over at McGill prompting the first introduction of a BDS motion in 2014.

In the letter condemning the BDS movement, the professors wrote, “As academics who represent a wide range of political views and methodologies, we all know that open discourse is essential to the pursuit of truth. Boycotts and intellectual bullying have no place at McGill or at any other institution of higher learning.”

The professors also praised Principal Fortier. They wrote, “As faculty members, past and present, who have devoted much of our professional lives to McGill, we are writing to tell you how proud we are of your courageous stance against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement and for what you identified as ‘academic freedom, equity, inclusiveness and the exchange of views and ideas in responsible, open discourse.'”

Only after the motion was defeated did McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier issued an official statement, “Now that the online vote is complete, I wish to explain why the University’s administration continues to oppose steadfastly the BDS movement, of which this motion is a part. The BDS movement, which among other things, calls for universities to cut ties with Israeli universities, flies in the face of the tolerance and respect we cherish as values fundamental to a university.”

Fortier continued, BDS “proposes actions that are contrary to the principles of academic freedom, equity, inclusiveness and the exchange of views and ideas in responsible, open discourse. These are the core principles of McGill University, as affirmed by its Senate and Board, which should always guide the McGill community.” After the SSMU GA vote, the administration did not make any official statement only commenting that the student union vote was not indicative of the administration’s position.

The professors called the movement an effort to “squelch speech and intimidate those who support Israel’s right to exist.” Continuing they explained, “The BDS Movement repeatedly jumps from criticizing particular Israeli policies to delegitimizing the State of Israel. The July 2005 Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS quickly shifts from fighting ‘the occupation’ to demonizing Israel to rejecting Israel’s existence.”

The professors condemned the “tone and tactics of the BDS Movement echo traditional anti-Semitic obsessions and tropes.” They expressed, “As educators, we are distressed when we hear our students telling us how uncomfortable they have been made to feel by an increasingly aggressive pursuit of the anti-Israel boycott, reflected by the repeated attempts to vote it in, no matter how many times the supporters fail.”

The professors also addressed the rising anti-Semitism on campus, saying, “We all need to affirm our commitment to fighting bigotry of all kinds, even when masked behind human rights rhetoric or even if allied with political positions we might support. We fail when our students don’t feel genuinely safe in our university – and the BDS movement has made McGill students feel unsafe, unsupported, and unwelcome in their and our academic home.”

The BDS Movement that is running rampant on college campuses marginalizes its Jewish students. Students at McGill were feeling and experiencing the bullying and anti-Semitism that comes with allowing this movement to grow on university campuses. Most of the harassment was happening online through Twitter, and the online app Yik Yak. The problems on campus were happening long before the BDS vote and were getting worse in the aftermath.

The students experiencing the harassment, however, did not file any formal complaints with the university. At the time, Provost Christopher Manfredi spoke out against the harassment, stating, the “inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated and will be taken seriously.” One student the president of Israel on Campus was considering, however, filing a criminal complaint with the police after their Facebook account was hacked.

The professors concluded the letter by thanking Principal Fortier. They expressed, “for affirming ‘the core principles of McGill’ and reminding us that our ‘mission’ remains ‘to advance learning and create and disseminate knowledge by offering the best possible education, by carrying out research and scholarly activities judged to be excellent by the highest international standards, and by providing service to society.'” The professors also said they “share” the “commitment to those goals and undertake to be vigilant in preserving the openness, tolerance, and civility.”

Although the thought of the professors’ letter is noble, it was more than a couple of months too late. The problem is how long it took the professors to write and then accumulate the 150 plus signatures from the end of February to exactly three months later at the end of May. The fact that it took so long maybe says more than the words of the letter. A Canadian Jewish News article publishing the letter and accompanied by a note from one of the professors Gil Troy, who signed the letter claimed it was “recently” put together by an “informal network” of professors who “quickly” signed it; further strengthening the question why did they not speak out sooner.

In contrast, McGill professors that opposed Principal Fortier’s condemnation of the BDS movement and supported the BDS vote issued a letter that was published a week later on March 7. The professors chose not to wait and published it without all the signatures asking other faculty members to add their name.

In their letter pro-BDS professors wrote, “While we respect the freedom of expression of all members of our community, including the right of Principal Suzanne Fortier to publicly condemn the BDS movement, we resolve to steadfastly continue to support BDS and the work of our students at McGill who will carry on and continue to build this struggle. In this case, the McGill administration, like the Canadian government, is on the wrong side of history.” It is not surprising the BDS motion passed at first, the students had more support from the faculty than the students opposing the measure.

McGill students needed their professors to take a position against the movement before the motion was even brought up for a vote. Other universities who were successful in voting down or overturning BDS votes had the help of supportive faculty members. Neither did these professors individually that a position or speak out against the vote during the campaign over the motion after it passed or even immediately after the ratification vote. There were no op-eds, comments to the media or statements attempting to sway the vote during the campaign period or even show support for the students.

Maybe a few professors have made their opinions known about the BDS movement before or in general, but when the students needed help, they were busy. No supporters and Jewish students faced harassment on campus and off, mostly online, with anti-Semitic slurs becoming the new reality for students. Where were the professors than to speak out against the rising anti-Semitism on campus?

The professors seemed to have believed distancing themselves during the hot point was the best for their careers and popularity among students; they did not want to alienate their pro-BDS students during the semester while they were teaching. Instead, they waited until the semester was entirely over, days before convocation ceremonies to release the letter, when media impact was and would be minimal. It is easier to speak when the threat is lifted when there are no immediate ramifications, no concern about students causing problems during the semester.

It is easier for the professors to have a hands-off approach. At the time the letter was released students either went home or were graduating, the letter and the professors signing it was minor news at the least covered by a minimal amount of press. When students will return in the fall the letter and who signed it will all but be forgotten and will only become a footnote in the whole debacle.

The McGill professors are patting themselves on their back for signing and publishing the letter as if it is a great accomplishment ignoring how long they took to do so, and without any explanation why it took until now to say something. The professors believe the introduction of the letter now is a major accomplishment; it is a little too late to have any effect for the students that suffered through anti-Semitic harassment this past semester.

Very few McGill administrators spoke out against the BDS motion immediately after the SSMU’s vote. The exception when it had to do with McGill’s monetary interests. After the vote, McGill donors and alumni were reconsidering their financial support to the university. Donors were bothered by the vote regardless if it was ratified or not. Marc Weinstein, the Vice Principal of University Advancement, tried to reassure alumni and financial backers throughout.

McGill Dean of Students Andre Costopoulos also made it clear that SSMU’s vote will not reflect McGill’s opinion. In a short statement, Costopoulos said, “Their discussions, motions, and votes do not directly affect university policy.”

During the students’ time of crisis, the local news media in Montreal were doing what they could to help McGill students giving the story and the resulting anti-Semitic harassment full coverage to the community. The media gave the students free publicity, speaking to students and local leaders giving a full picture of the harassment pro-Israel students experienced during the height of the vote.

As one of the journalists who covered the story and spoke to the students, I can attest none of the professors that signed the letter spoke out against the motion during that critical time in February. As an alumna of McGill University with two degrees, I wanted to do whatever I could to get the message out, and help the no voters make sure the BDS motion failed to ratify. I used the platforms I could to publicize what was happening on campus, as any dedicated journalist would. Almost any of the professors, however, that signed the letter would have had more influence by the sheer fact that they are faculty, and could have swayed the vote especially during the campaign possibly preventing the vote from passing the first place.

Local community leaders such as Rabbi Reuben Poupko, Co-Chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs-Quebec (CIJA-Quebec) and Harvey Levine, executive director of the Quebec region of B’nai Brith Canada did more than the professors. They made statements and wrote op-eds denouncing the movement and the resulting anti-Semitism than any of the professors that signed the letter.

In fact, the Canadian government in Ottawa was sending a clearer message at the time than McGill’s professors. In Ottawa at Parliament, just a few hours before McGill’s BDS vote the Liberal majority and Conservative minority joined forces and voted 229 to 51 for a motion to “condemn all Canadian organizations groups and individuals that promote the BDS movement.” Local political leaders also spoke and campaigned for the BDS motion in Parliament and against the one at McGill, including Federal Mount Royal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather and provincial D’Arcy McGee MNA David Birnbaum.

The McGill professors that signed the letter condemning the BDS movement somehow believed they changed the course of SSMU’s policy on future BDS votes but they did not. The principal and the administration did. McGill is falling fast in world rankings. In the Times Higher Education recent World Reputation Rankings McGill took a hit, dropping four points from 35 to 39 and placing third among Canadian universities. THE’s ranking rates prestige, and McGill is having problems in that department.

When the BDS vote first passed in February donors were threatening to bail, McGill has enough funding issues as well without losing donors. The combination was a public relations disaster; the only way to curb it all is to prevent further BDS votes. The McGill professors got their secret wish not to make waves with their letter. Now that there will be no further BDS motions coming up next year, and as with everything from one academic year to another the professors and their “noble” stand will, unfortunately, be mostly forgotten.

About the Author
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a journalist, librarian, editor, & historian. She has a BA in History & Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies. She wrote regularly about politics, news, universities, and Judaism for Examiner.com until the publication closed in July 2016. She was also the former Editor/Features Editor for the History News Network (HNN) and had worked for HNN from 2004-2010. Her specializations are the North American Jewish community, US, Canadian & Israeli politics, Jewish history, religion and cultural issues. She currently blogs at Medium.com.
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