File photo: University of Toronto Students' Union board meeting. Iris Robin/THE VARSITY

Three students have filed grievances against the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) vice president, equity Sania Khan relating to her work in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The complaints were filed after the Social Justice & Equity (SJE) Commission hosted an event that discussed ways to build solidarity with Palestine during eXpression Against Oppression (XAO) week in 2015. 

“Throughout the course of this past year, it has become growingly evident that students and faculty members on the U of T campus are no longer choosing to remain inactive toward U of T’s complicity of human rights and international law violations in Palestine,” Khan said of the reasoning for holding such events. 

Khan highlighted the numerous faculty signatures endorsing the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union’s BDS efforts, the popularity of the XAO event, and the unanimous vote in favour of signing a letter of support for Al Quds University students at a recent SJE commission meeting, as evidence for this support.

“As students whose tuition money is consequently being invested in Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, we have a moral responsibility to hold the university administration accountable until they fully divest from the companies sustaining the occupation,” Khan said.

According to Khan, BDS is a campaign rooted in upholding human rights and international law. “People of conscience from all religious and non-religious affiliations have chosen to support BDS because of its focus on securing Palestinian human rights, and this is something we here in Canada have a responsibility to work toward,” Khan said, adding that Independent Jewish Voices at U of T has endorsed the BDS movement.

XAO event grievances

First-year law student Aidan Fishman and fourth-year Victoria College student Mitchell Gould filed two separate grievances against Khan in November 2015. Both were filed in response to an XAO event called Solidarity with Palestine — Building the Student Movement. 

Gould told The Varsity he posted on the Facebook event page requesting that UTSU release a statement acknowledging incidents of violence against Israeli civilians. He also alleged that he was blocked from posting on the Facebook page.

“As a Jewish student, I felt that I didn’t want to protest the event at all or in any way. I just thought… considering the equity of the fact that this sponsored in part by the UTSU that they say something about the fact that there were incitements of violence against Israelis and Jews in Israel at the time of this event and which are still [ongoing] in the country,” said Gould. “I wasn’t asking for the event to be cancelled or anything.”

The event included a screening of the documentary Roadmap to Apartheid and an open discussion. In his grievance, Fishman stated that he wanted the event to be cancelled or that the UTSU stop funding or sponsoring it. He also requested a letter of apology from Khan.

Fishman claimed that the film was anti-Semitic and alleged that the event violated the union’s by-laws on the grounds that it was not discussed at a meeting of the SJE commission. He further claimed that an endorsement of BDS in and of itself is a violation of the UTSU’s by-laws, as well as its mission statement, which includes a commitment to safeguarding the rights of all students, regardless of nationality.

“Whether people like BDS or not, there is not dispute that this is discrimination based on nationality,” Fishman argued. “That’s the whole point. It boycotts things coming from Israel. Israeli is a nationality.”

The UTSU’s Executive Review Committee addressed Fishman’s grievance at a meeting on November 11. The committee recommended that the SJE commission discuss and approve any and all events run by the vice president, equity. This recommendation was forwarded to the UTSU’s Board of Directors, which defeated the motion. 

Khan told The Varsity that she finds the tactics that anti-BDS groups deploy to be highly problematic. Anti-BDS groups often interrupt BDS events; members of the Jewish Defence League disrupted a panel in January that focused on how students could show solidarity with Palestine. Khan believes that the disruptions are an attempt to shut down debate and discussion about the topic.

“This tactic… fails to engage BDS on its merits, and the demands the movement makes, namely calling on Israel to meet its obligations under international law,” Khan said. “While convenient for some, this tactic further highlights the strength of BDS and the empty rhetoric of its critics. BDS is evermore important as our tuition dollars continue to fund violations of international law and the human rights of Palestinians.”

“‘Feelings’ of discomfort about BDS are used as a way to deliberately shift the conversation away from the facts on the ground, namely the violations of human rights and international law committed by Israel against Palestinians,” she said.

Khan stated that BDS campaigns oppose anti-Semitism, which is covered in its anti-oppression mandate. “[When] this tactic is exposed as deliberately misleading in order to dismiss Palestinian human rights claims, BDS organizers are accused of being anti-Semitic — even though the BDS movement opposes all forms of discrimination, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.”

Demand to end engagement with BDS

Reut Cohen, a first-year Trinity College student, filed a grievance in late December regarding a letter published by U of T Divest and Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) supporting Palestinian popular resistance. Among the 28 signatories of the letter is the UTSU Social Justice & Equity Commission.

The letter expresses support for Palestinian resistance, which Cohen believes indicates support for violence against Israeli civilians.

“I have no problem with people expressing a [non-violent] form of resistance,” Cohen said. “When you factor in the current political climate in Israel and the express support for those actions, that’s very disturbing to me.”

Khan said that reading BDS as an endorsement of violence against Israeli people is a misrepresentation intended to discredit the movement by avoiding the demands of BDS: to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, grant equal rights to all Palestinians inside Israel, and to respect the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

“These demands are powerful because they are all guaranteed under international law. To accuse BDS as something else is a deliberate attempt to avoid the key demands on which BDS is built,” Khan said.

Cohen’s grievance also demands that Khan discontinue engaging with BDS without the approval of the Board of Directors. 

In response to the demand that Khan cease her work on promoting BDS on campus, Khan told The Varsity that the mandate of the vice president, equity “includes a commitment toward anti-oppression, anti-discrimination, and anti-racism work,” and that supporting Palestinian resistance against Israeli apartheid fulfils that mandate.

Khan stated that she would not discontinue work that is required by her position.

A lack of response

Fishman, Gould, and Cohen have not received a response from Khan and have not had a meeting with her and the grievance officer, which is required under UTSU’s by-laws.

The resolutions suggested in the grievances include a public apology for the work Khan has done and continues to do in support of Palestinian resistance and the withdrawal of funds from collaborative efforts with student organizers committed to Palestinian resistance work.

In light of these demands, Khan said that her refusal to acknowledge the grievances was intentional. “I will not entertain any ‘proposals,’ ‘meetings,’ or ‘resolutions’ put forward by any student who suggests that I stop the work being done against Israeli apartheid. The position of vice president equity in fact requires that I continue this work,” Khan said.

All three grievances are expected to be addressed at a board meeting later this month.

Disclosure: Reut Cohen is an associate arts and culture editor for The Varsity.

With files from Iris Robin.

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