The undergraduate student union at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, passed a motion on 22 February to support the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign. The vote passed with a 58 percent majority.
This comes as BDS has gained national attention with a recent vote by the Canadian parliament to condemn the campaign, which aims to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian rights.
Israel-aligned groups are mobilizing to defeat the McGill motion, however, which is set for a ratification vote in the student government on Saturday. Student boycott campaigners say that they have been smeared and accused of anti-Semitism for urging the administration to pull its investments in companies that profit from Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights. Some university donors have threatened to pull their donations if the administration doesn’t clamp down on BDS activism.
“There have also been a lot of accusations of anti-Semitism targeted at our group and at other groups that have endorsed the motion,” Melis Cagan, a McGill student and organizer with the McGill BDS Action Network, told The Electronic Intifada. “[Our group] is based on anti-oppression — we are against any form of oppression for any people.”
Meanwhile, in the US, as more and more scholarly associations and individual professors pledge to refuse to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions as part of the growing academic boycott campaign, members of faculty face similar kinds of repression aimed at their jobs and reputations.
But a new national organization — Faculty for Justice in Palestine — has emerged. The group seeks to build upon the work in which student Palestine rights campaigners have engaged while supporting professors and members of the academy to help grow this global movement to hold Israel accountable for its human rights violations.
“We cannot trust our governments”
The pro-boycott motion at McGill was authored by the McGill BDS Action Network, a coalition of nearly 20 campus groups. According to a statement from the coalition, the motion calls on the students’ society to “lobby the McGill administration to divest from companies that are complicit in Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories, as well as support for other BDS campaigns on campus.”
Recently, the Canadian parliament, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, voted to condemn the global BDS campaign. The motion was put forward by the opposition Conservative Party but backed by most members of Trudeau’s governing Liberals.
The Canadian Press agency reported that the parliamentary motion “calls upon the government to condemn any and all attempts by Canadian groups or individuals to promote the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which it describes as promoting the ‘demonization and delegitimization’ of Israel.”
In response, McGill students say in their statement that the parliamentary vote against BDS “has once again shown that we cannot trust our governments to reliably uphold principles of human rights and justice.”
In an interview with The Electronic Intifada on Thursday, Cagan and fellow McGill BDS Action Network member Yasmine Mosimann said that no matter the outcome of the ratification vote, students at McGill are determined to grow their campaign.
“Our primary goal is to push the university itself to divest from three companies” — Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank, L-3 Communications and international real estate agency RE/MAX — in which the university currently invests and which profit from Israel’s occupation, Mosimann said.
“Each of these companies are directly creating harm on the ground in Palestine and we don’t think our tuition dollars should go to this.”
Nearly 1,000 solidarity activists have already signed a petition in support of McGill’s BDS motion.
Faculty mobilize on US campuses
In the US, students have established at least 150 chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine in the face of concerted efforts at silencing, censorship, slander and intimidation by Israel-aligned organizations on and off campus.
Professors from at least seven universities across the US have started chapters of a new national group intended to support these student activists as well as their own academic colleagues who face repressive actions and smear campaigns by anti-Palestinian groups.
In an interview with The Electronic Intifada, professors Bill V. Mullen and Cynthia Franklin say that the idea for Faculty for Justice in Palestine was conceived in the wake of the 2013 American Studies Association vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
“We wanted to not stop there, but to build on the energy of that victory,” explained Franklin, an English professor at the University of Hawai’i and a member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).
“I’ve seen the kinds of repression and double standards that [Students for Justice in Palestine chapters] are held to,” added Mullen, who teaches American studies at Purdue University in Indiana and is also a member of USACBI.
“Over the past two years, as the BDS movement has gathered strength, this repression has come down especially hard,” he explained. “So I felt that it would be really good to have a group of faculty on my campus that I could call on … to help provide moral and material support to the Purdue SJP chapter.”
Franklin and Mullen noted that the stakes are high for professors who speak out against Israeli policies. They cite the example of Steven Salaita, who was fired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for his tweets criticizing Israel’s attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014.
“We all know that Palestine remains a third-rail issue on a lot of campuses,” said Mullen. “I think we all know the vulnerability remains higher than perhaps any political issue on campuses.”
“We saw in the case of Steven Salaita that universities are willing to cave into donor pressure in order to make sure that pro-Palestinian voices are squashed,” he added. “The Salaita case was a pivotal moment, for me, also in thinking about the need for FJP — because the kinds of repression that students were facing was now coming home in a very immediate way.”
He noted that some of the more than 5,000 faculty around the world who stood in solidarity with Salaita and pledged to boycott the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are now part of Faculty for Justice in Palestine chapters in the US.
Franklin said that FJP chapters are “a networked way for us to respond quickly” when faculty members are experiencing repression as well as an avenue to expand conversations and curricula related to Palestine inside classrooms.
She added that a central objective is to connect with local struggles and issues. For example, as a professor in Hawai’i, Franklin said that “there’s an interest in Palestine as a site of settler-colonialism and occupation in relation to Hawai’i, which is also a site of settler-colonialism and occupation.”
Listen to The Electronic Intifada podcast featuring interviews with Franklin, Mullen, Cagan and Mossiman via the media player above.
Music: “Boycott Israel”
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