The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) is planning to hold a special general meeting to discuss, among other things, officially supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
In her latest executive report, vice president equity Sania Khan outlined that the union plans to have the meeting in late November. Students will have the opportunity to vote on whether or not the union should support the movement. The motion will require a two-thirds majority in order to pass.
The union plans to hold two separate general meetings in the fall; one will be dedicated to discussing proposals for a new structure for the union’s board of directors, and another will focus on the BDS movement and other motions.
“We decided to focus on board structure and proposals alone during the AGM and we decided to put forward any motions that any students had in mind for the special general meeting,” stated Khan. She stressed that the purpose of the special meeting is not for the topic of BDS alone, but instead it is “for any motion that any student wants to put forward and it includes the motions that the executives want to put forward.”
What is BDS?
The BDS movement is a controversial effort that, according to Khan’s report, calls for “ …various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its human rights obligations under international law…”
Khan’s report lists U of T as having over five million dollars in investments that, “supported occupation in Palestine and financially contribute to it.”
The BDS movement is one that has faced significant criticism. Rachel Glowinsky and Deborah Benhamu are among several Jewish students who oppose BDS and have expressed concerns over the proposed motion.
“The ultimate goal [of the BDS movement] is to establish an independent Palestinian state, not alongside Israel, but to eliminate Israel entirely,” said Glowinsky.
Glowinsky also pointed to the many countries around the world that have human rights records worse than Israel’s. She explained, “By not boycotting all these other countries, you’re singling out Israel, the only Jewish state. Especially when many other countries have massively worse human rights records and that suggests that Israelis and Jews are to be held to a different moral standard.”
Khan said that she feels strongly about this issue due to her personal experiences from visiting Israel and Palestine two years ago.
“Once I got [to Israel] and once I faced personally the kind of discrimination that Palestinians face, because a lot of people did think that I was Palestinian, because of the fact that my name is an Islamic name, because of the fact that I am visibly South Asian, I had to endure a lot of the discrimination myself,” she explained. “I visited the West Bank, I visited Gaza, I visited Sderot — I visited all of these cities. I visited Hebron, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and I saw with my own two eyes what the Palestinians go through on a day-to-day basis. I came back traumatized and I knew that if I was going to remain neutral, I would be allowing the oppressor to continue apartheid.”
Concerns on campus
Many student governments across Ontario, including the York Federation of Students (YFS), McMaster Students Union (MSU), the University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU), as well as their Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) have officially endorsed the BDS movement.
Glowinsky and Benhamu stated that they are worried that this could create a campus environment that is unfriendly towards Jewish students. “At York, you have Vari Hall [the main building at York], packed with a thousand students, just yelling at each other about this issue. As Jewish students, we are just so scared to have that become our reality on campus,” Glowinsky explained. “We have friends that go to York. It has become a reason why Jewish students think twice before they decide to go to York. We really feel that commencing BDS would make the UTSU unintentionally complicit in bringing anti-Semitism to campus.”
At the last UTSU Board of Directors’ meeting on June 20, Glowinsky and Benhamu presented their concerns to Khan. However, Khan declined to comment at the meeting, as the meeting fell on the Shabbat. Kahn told The Varsity, “When BDS activists asked if they could join the conversation, I had said no. I said ‘out of respect for Jewish students observing Shabbat, we need to maintain equal and fair access to the room and to the meeting. So in this way, I would ask for you BDS activists to please refrain in partaking in this discussion, otherwise it’s not going to be fair to these Jewish students.’”
Khan explained further, “[Glowinsky and Benhamu] still demanded those answers and I was very uncomfortable and I did not appreciate the fact that these were the students that I was trying to respect and they couldn’t reciprocate that respect to me and make sure that we had a separate discussion, so they tried to catch me off guard, which I did not appreciate.”
Khan also stated that she has worked hard to make sure Jewish students do not feel targeted and has had discussions on BDS with various groups such as Hillel and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal. “I don’t ever want for Jewish folks to feel like this is an attack on them and I will do everything in my capabilities to make sure they have the platform to speak.”
Despite their differences, Khan and the two Jewish students still ended the Board of Directors’ meeting on a positive note, and believe that they can still work together.
“After the meeting, we went outside and we gave each other a hug,” said Glowinsky, “We’re really happy that she’s willing to work with us. We know her intention is to promote equity on campus and we were just happy to work with her and hopeful that she will understands our concerns and BDS won’t pass as a result.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article bore the headline “Controversial BDS motion on agenda for UTSU AGM”; the meeting in question is slated to be one of two general meetings for the 2015-2016 year, and is therefore more accurately referred to as an “SGM”. The Varsity regrets the error.