The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) voted to make its Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Committee a permanent, long-term standing committee at its Special General Meeting (SGM) on February 26, after a long and heated discussion.

According to the motion that created the committee in 2012, the committee’s mandate is to advocate for U of T “to refrain from investing in all companies complicit in violation of international law.” This includes firms that “[profit] from the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, directly [benefit] from the construction of the Wall and Israeli settlements, [are] economically active in settlements, and [profit] from the collective punishment of Palestinians.”

The committee was inspired by the wider 2005 BDS movement, which urged corporations, universities, and local governments to boycott Israel in protest of its treatment of Palestinians and occupation of Palestinian territory, which is illegal under international law. BDS has been criticized by opponents who view it as a bid to delegitimize the Israeli state and hurt its economy. Some people characterize the BDS movement and its leadership as antisemitic, though the movement rejects this interpretation.

The motion brought to the SGM sought to make the body a standing committee, which would be created by the General Council but led by the Executive Committee. Initial discussion was cut off by a motion to “call the question,” which would automatically end debate and move the motion to a vote.

The motion to call the question caused around two dozen members to walk out of the room in an apparent bid to force an end to the meeting by causing it to lose quorum. Quorum for the SGM was set at 150 members, which the meeting maintained by a small margin after the walkout.

Opposition members who left the SGM did a headcount in the hallway outside the meeting room. Realizing that the bid to end the meeting failed, most members re-entered the room, though some left the premises entirely. The bylaw ultimately passed, elevating the BDS Committee to the status of a permanent standing committee.

In an interview with The Varsity, Adam Hill, an Ontario Institute for Studies in Education course union representative to the General Council and a candidate for Internal Commissioner, explained his opposition to the motion, but noted that he declined to participate in the walkout.

He stayed in the room because he “wanted to continue to debate,” said Hill, by trying to “speak against calling to question while [the motion to end debate] was still being discussed.”

Explaining his stance against the bylaw, Hill said that he doesn’t “fully believe that [BDS] should be a standing committee.” He did say that he believes that it “should be a representative part of the organization because I’m extremely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.”

Hill continued by saying that the structure of UTGSU committees would make the causes of the BDS Standing Committee reflective of the “organization mandate [and] intention” of the UTGSU as a whole. According to Hill, this could make the union liable to “undue litigiousness in the future” by plaintiffs who may sue the UTGSU on the basis of “discrimination.”

In response, BDS Committee Chair Robert Prazeres wrote to The Varsity that “there is no basis on which to refer to divesting from unethical companies as ‘discrimination.’”

“The BDS campaign advocates for severing ties with companies and institutions complicit in human rights abuses against Palestinian civilians, on the basis of their complicity in those human rights abuses only. Advocating for this sort of action is a tried-and-true strategy of many human rights movements and, needless to say, is a protected form of political expression in every free democracy,” said Prazeres.

Dean Lavi, a first-year Master of Global Affairs student, said that he opposed the motion on principle.

“I don’t want my money and the reputation of my school being attached to something that is divisive, that encourages hate, and that furthermore, at the end of the day, pushes ultimately for the death and destruction of the Jews,” said Lavi.

He said that many advocates for BDS argue for the establishment of “one Palestinian state that requires, by its definition, the removal of civilians, and the murder and the genocide and the ethnic cleansing of what is essentially five million people.”

In response to Lavi’s statement to The Varsity, Prazeres wrote, “This is flatly false, and parts of that ring of a conspiracy theory with racist undertones. The ultimate demands of the BDS campaign, which are repeated over and over again in almost every explanation of the campaign that organizers have ever given, are that the Israeli government — and any complicit organisations — cease their violations of international law and respect universally-recognized human rights as they pertain to Palestinians. No more, no less.”

Explaining his support for the bylaw, Prazeres wrote that the amendment “does not change the way the UTGSU operates, [because] it was only about changing the status of the existing BDS committee from a temporary committee to a long-term committee that can build on ongoing work.”

“To continue its work, it had to be renewed by a vote of the UTGSU General Council every year, and that process took away even more of our members’ time,” wrote Prazeres. “As a standing committee, the volunteers who take time out of their studies to do this human rights-based work can now use that time to focus on the actual divestment campaign.”

Long debate on whether to allow media presence passes with conditions

At the very beginning of the SGM, members spent over an hour debating whether to allow members of the media to stay in the room. The Varsity was the only media outlet in attendance.

At the January General Council meeting, members had voted to pursue a policy of unconditional access for members of the media at this SGM. However, it was subsequently ruled out of order after it was discovered that the member who had moved the motion was not authorized to do so at the meeting.

Therefore, the SGM was not covered by any media policy and members had to separately debate whether to allow media access.

The majority of the debate was spent on procedural discussions.

In the end, the members voted to seat the media but disallowed photography, live-tweeting, and live-streaming.