The event was held at a theatre in the OISE building. DENIS OSIPOV/THE VARSITY

On October 27, the Graduate Students’ Union’s (GSU) Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) ad hoc committee hosted U of T Divest, a launch event for their Divestment Campaign. The campaign protests the university’s investment in certain military and weapons manufacturing companies.

The event, which was held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) building, was almost cut short due to an unforeseen disruption by the Jewish Defence League (JDL), an off-campus group with no official affiliation on campus.

The Divestment Campaign petitions U of T to stop investing money in companies they believe to be complicit in international war crimes, specifically in the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

According to the campaign, the university invests $3,777,326 in three allegedly complicit companies: Hewlett Packard, Northrup Grumman, and Lockheed Martin. 

In December 2012, the GSU voted to endorse Palestinian civil society’s 2005 call for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, which included these three companies.

Protesting the petition

Midway through the event, protestors began to rebel against the panel, cutting speakers off and refusing to peacefully vacate the premises.  

Campus police were called, and the event was recessed while they attempted to settle the disruption.

After much negotiation, the event coordinators managed to secure a new room at OISE — albeit a smaller one.

When the disruptors refused to leave, campus police officially cancelled the event, citing orders from the Office of the Vice-Provost.  

This sparked a major outcry from students and faculty alike. 

“This is really shameful… This is a block of freedom of speech,” said Rand Askalan, assistant professor in the Department of Paediatrics, at the event.

Meir Weinstein, a spokesperson for the JDL, said there is an ongoing campaign to challenge the administration of many campuses to stop the BDS movement, a campaign that attempts to place economic and political pressure on Israel to comply with certain goals, including the end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

“The BDS movement is one of the most vile, anti-semitic movements around today. The JDL and the Jewish community, I may say, is very concerned of their presence on campus. It leads to hostility against Jews, and that’s the reason we were there,” said Weinstein.

Controversy

The event last Monday marked the launch of the Divest petition, and was focused on creating financial pressures to curb the allegedly immoral activities of certain companies. 

Sam Spady, a PhD student at OISE, spoke on behalf of U of T Divest. 

“We want to talk about how our tuition dollars are complicit in war crimes that we think are not ethical or just. These are war crimes by international standards. We’re trying to pressure [the companies] financially to encourage them to not participate in these crimes,” said Spady. 

The event featured academic speakers who encouraged the audience to help push the movement forward.

Shourideh Molavi, a PhD candidate at York University; Hazem Jamjoum, a doctoral student at New York University; and Dr Nahida Gordon, professor emeritus at Case Western Reserve University, all spoke at the event.  

Haider Eid, an associate professor at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza, sent a video of his presentation as he receives only intermittent power in Gaza. The video was not shown due to the disruption by protestors.

In her address to the audience via Skype, Molavi said that it is important for this movement to take root in universities. This is especially true of U of T, she said, as it is one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the country and, in many ways, the face of Canada.

Throughout the panel, disruptors in the audience continued to shout over speakers.  Halfway through the second presentation by Jamjoum, the audience became unruly and a crowd of protestors loudly interrupted the event.

Around 8:00 pm, attendees were asked to wait outside while the event co-ordinators tried to work with campus police to remove the disruptors.  

It was around 9:00 pm before the event was able to continue. Although officially cancelled, the event continued after moving upstairs. 

Representatives of Israel on Campus, a student group dedicated to celebrating Israeli culture and history, were also present at the event. Members stated that the JDL is largely shunned within the greater Jewish community.  

Questions asked in aftermath of disruption

Over the last week, the main focus of many within the U of T community has been addressing U of T policy with regards to how the disruption was handled.

Around 30 faculty and staff have signed a letter sent to Angela Hildyard, vice-president, human resources & equity, demanding answers and accountability for how Monday’s disruption was handled.

The letter requested that the JDL  be officially banned from campus.

As of press time, the vice-president’s office has not responded to the letter.

In a press release sent out on Friday, U of T Divest condemned the acts of the JDL and demanded an immediate response from the university.  

Monday’s event was not the first time such a problem has arisen.  

Jens Hanssen, associate professor of history and near and Middle Eastern civilizations, said that this sort of activity has been a recurring pattern in her career at U of T since 2002. “I have witnessed a growing depoliticization of campus,” he said. 

Hanssen also said that faculty were upset by the presence of campus police and by the fact that some students were denied the opportunity to speak.

“All these tactics are contrary to the spirit of what our university should encourage,”  Hanssen added.

Weinstein said that the event was a one-sided conversation. “These people are not interested in free conversation. Their starting point is to make an accusation against Jews and Israel that is abominable, and to assume that anyone there — or everyone — should agree with their definition, and they can’t move beyond that,” he said.

U of T Divest has said it will continue its campaign while it awaits an official response from the university.

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