Students and alumni of York University in Toronto are organizing against what they say are increasing efforts by the administration to curb Palestine solidarity activism.
York University administration recently revoked the official club status of an on-campus group that has been instrumental in passing boycott, divestment and sanctions resolutions at both the York University Graduate Students’ Association and the York Federation of Students — the undergraduate student union — over the past year.
The resolutions call upon the university administration to pull its investments in companies which sell weapons and military equipment to Israel.
York University’s chapter of Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) was punished in May because of what the administration called a “disruption of academic activities” during a demonstration in March. SAIA and supporting groups gathered to celebrate recent victories at the university and elsewhere in Ontario, and called on the university to abide by the resolutions calling for divestment.
Revoking SAIA’s student group status cuts the organization off from university funding and resources, and prevents the group from holding meetings or doing student outreach on York’s campus.
In addition to York sanctioning the group, Hammam Farah, an alumnus of York University and a member of SAIA, has been given a trespassing order by the university. According to the administration’s order, he took part in on-campus demonstrations and used an “amplification device” to “express [his] views to a gathering of students and others,” according to a letter from the administration.
The York administration says it will not allow him to set foot on his alma mater campus until the end of April 2014.
Farah says that this is only the latest in a years-long series of administrative efforts to silence Palestine solidarity activists at York and other Canadian universities.
Farah had been working for several years with SAIA to research York’s ties to Israeli institutions and corporations. In 2012, SAIA drafted a petition to the student union in support of boycott, divestment and sanctions measures. Inspired by the actions of students in other academic institutions furthering the boycott of Israel, Farah said that he wanted to use the momentum of previous victories to take it a step further at York.
He told The Electronic Intifada that activists wanted to get the student unions to pass “full BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] resolutions.” Rather than just divesting from certain corporations, Farah advocated that students should back the entire call for BDS made by an array of Palestinian organizations in 2005.
SAIA activists started gathering the 5,000 signatures — 10 percent of the student body — needed to push the demands for boycott into the student government’s election agenda. And as they gathered signatures in November 2012, during Israel’s eight days of attacks on Gaza, the graduate student body asked SAIA to give a presentation about the boycott movement at its membership meeting.
“They passed BDS right there on the spot,” Farah said. “They didn’t even need a petition.” He added, “We [then] started to see a domino effect across Ontario,” Canada’s most populous province.
In December, University of Toronto’s graduate student union passed their own resolution in support of boycott, divestment and sanctions and called on their administration to divest from companies which profit from Israel’s occupation. Ninety-seven percent of the members present voted in favor of the resolution.
As Charlotte Kates wrote for The Electronic Intifada in March, seven Canadian student unions in total voted to support the boycott call in the 2012-2013 school year alone. The Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903, which represents teachers’ assistants and contract faculty, also passed a motion in support of the call in 2009.
On 21 March, after gathering enough signatures and seeing the precedent being set for boycott resolutions across Canada, the undergraduate student union at York University passed a broad-based boycott resolution. It demanded that the university administration “abide by the BDS call” and that York “withdraw its investments from Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, Amphenol and other companies that are selling weapons and military equipment to Israel.”
Six days later, on 27 March, SAIA members and Palestine solidarity activists gathered inside Vari Hall, a long-time meeting place and student center on campus, to celebrate the passage of the boycott resolutions. They also called on the administration to act on the students’ demands.
In recent years, students say that the administration has taken measures to ban protests and political actions inside Vari Hall, including placing a large structure inside the middle of the hall to discourage public assembly.
Farah said the demonstration on 27 March was held specifically in Vari Hall “to challenge the administration’s policies which restrict our rights to freedom of speech and academic freedom.”
About a month after the rally, York University’s administration sent several letters to Farah, SAIA group leaders and current York students, informing them that because of their participation in the protest, the university was taking — or warning that it could take — punitive action.
A letter dated 30 April, seen by The Electronic Intifada, was sent to Hammam Farah by York’s vice-president of finance and administration. The letter explains that because of his participation in demonstrations, and the university’s prior documentations of his “disruptions” of students and staff during earlier political protests, Farah was prohibited from “trespassing” on York University “property” until April 2014.
Another letter, dated a few days later, was sent to a York student, Arshia Lakhani, with an explicit warning by Dr. Janet Morrison, the vice-provost of students. Morrison stated that because Lakhani participated in the March rally and used an “amplification device” that “disrupted students during their class time,” the university could invoke disciplinary action if such demonstrations were to take place again.
The same letter was also sent to members of the Middle Eastern Students’ Association, the York University Black Students’ Alliance and a member of Filipino Canadian Youth Alliance, according to Farah.
Yet another letter was sent to Students Against Israeli Apartheid on 3 May, noting that the university had officially revoked SAIA’s group status. SAIA was told it is also prevented from re-registering for official group status until 1 January 2014.
Students push back
In response, Students Against Israeli Apartheid released a statement saying that “the draconian and punitive measures of the York University administration will not stop students from organizing and participating in actions designed to educate the York University community about the unethical investments of university funds. We refuse to be silenced and we refuse to be complicit.”
This week, SAIA and dozens of Palestine solidarity groups and student associations in Canada, the US and Palestine sent a formal letter to Vice-Provost Morrison saying that “the student movement is giving you notice that you have failed to comply with basic democratic values.”
The letter calls on the university administration to rescind its trespass order against Hammam Farah, “to reinstate SAIA as an official student club, and to make a firm commitment to work with students to ensure that freedom of speech and freedom of association are upheld.”
SAIA members say that they believe York University has singled them out for their protest actions. Farah pointed to a number of other student organizations who have led similar demonstrations and used megaphones. Although some groups were warned, and some were even slapped with sanctions and fines in the past — including SAIA and Israel-aligned groups for a heated protest in 2009 — none had their student group status formally revoked.
The punishment meted out by York after the 27 March rally was not an isolated incident. Farah said that the administration has consistently attempted to thwart Palestine-related events and activities on campus.
“In past years, SAIA was asked to pay substantial and unnecessary security fees to hold an Israeli Apartheid Week event, and the rooms we booked under the administration were canceled last minute,” Farah explained. Israeli Apartheid Week is a series of awareness-raising activities held each year in universities throughout the world, and which got its start in Canada.
For example, in 2006, Concordia University in Montreal blocked events related to Israeli Apartheid Week. And last year, the student union at the University of Manitoba voted to strip the local Students Against Israeli Apartheid of official group status.
Sending a message
When asked by The Electronic Intifada to respond to SAIA’s claims that it had been singled out, Joanne Rider, a York spokesperson, stated that SAIA was “reminded of the York University Senate policy on disruptive behavior in academic situations” in November 2012.
Rider added that the York administration “warned [SAIA] — in writing — not to disrupt classes or other academic activity. They were reminded and warned again prior to the event on 27 March 2013. All registered student organizations at York University are required to comply with university policies. The consequence for failing to do so is clearly articulated in the ‘rights and responsibilities’ document signed by SAIA members on 27 September 2012.”
Rider also stated that “There are no plans for the university to reconsider the current status of either the individual [Hammam Farah] or SAIA.”
Civil liberties concerns
However, some civil liberties groups have a different opinion than that of the administration.
Cara Zwibel, director of Fundamental Freedoms Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), told The Electronic Intifada that “any time a group is prevented from speaking out on an issue that matters to them, it sends the message that this isn’t a venue where freedom of expression is respected and tolerated. And it’s not a place to engage in heated dialogue and debate.”
Zwibel said that the CCLA sent two separate letters to the York officials — the most recent one to York’s Vice-Provost of Students, Janet Morrison, in June.
The June letter expresses concerns over York’s response to alleged violations of the code of student rights and responsibilities.
“It is notable that under York’s policies, almost any form of loud, expressive activity could be considered a breach of the code,” the CCLA letter states. It adds that these punishments “effectively neutralize” the intent of freedom of expression and the right to assembly.
The Ontario Civil Liberties Association also sent a letter of concern to the York administration.
In mid-July, Morrison sent a response to the CCLA. Zwibel told The Electronic Intifada that the university claimed that repeated attempts were made to engage SAIA members in dialogue prior to revoking the group’s status.
Farah noted that before SAIA’s group status was revoked, the York administration made them aware of a noise complaint that was filed by one student after the SAIA rally. The group sought legal advice and decided to apologize personally to the student. “We said that we hoped [the student] received our message of peace and justice at a better time,” Farah said.
A local adjudicator assigned to the case verbally determined that SAIA’s protest caused no disruption. In addition, the adjudicator told SAIA members that the student accepted the apology, and that the case was closed. But the university pushed forward with punitive measures anyway, Farah said.
Meanwhile, students say it is difficult to take Morrison’s remarks about exhausting attempts at dialogue seriously when the administration has walked out on students’ concerns.
In June, members of SAIA attended a meeting of York University’s board of governors. The students voiced their concerns over the administration’s charging Farah with trespassing, the revocation of SAIA’s club status, and demanded that the administration abide by the recently-passed boycott, divestment and sanctions resolutions.
A video recently published by SAIA shows that the entire board of governors stood up and walked out of that meeting.
SAIA stated to The Electronic Intifada via email that “the significance of this [walk-out] must not be underestimated. On York’s board of governors sit some of the university’s biggest donors, and simultaneously, some of Canada’s most affluent economic elites. York’s board of governors is, at the same time, the administrative body that has substantial influence on the university’s tuition fee levels, budget allocations and investment patterns.”
Even though the York administration says it is unwilling to reinstate Students Against Israeli Apartheid before January 2014, or rescind its trespass order against Hammam Farah, student groups and activists are keeping up the pressure.
The York Federation of Students, York’s Graduate Student Union and the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903 have all recently passed motions publicly condemning York’s punishments against SAIA and Farah.
And a new petition is being circulated calling on York to revoke its ban against Farah and reinstate SAIA as a student organization. Approximately 1,300 signatures have been collected as of 9 August.
However, Farah said that throughout this debacle, Students Against Israeli Apartheid has become more popular than ever. “We’ve had statements of solidarity coming in; our membership is growing,” he said. “Even the faculty is alert and more supportive.”
Nora Barrows-Friedman is an associate editor for The Electronic Intifada.