After a chaotic Annual General Meeting that left many items on the agenda unaddressed due to a room-booking issue, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) voted to reaffirm its support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel at its January Board of Directors meeting on January 22.
The BDS movement lobbies corporations, universities, and local governments to sanction the Israeli government and boycott Israel’s private sector in protest of its occupation of Palestinian territory. Critics of BDS argue that it aims to delegitimize Israeli sovereignty, while others characterize the BDS movement and its leadership as anti-Semitic.
The scope of the motion extended beyond Israel, as it also asked the SCSU to call on the university to divest from fossil fuels, and included a general call to support Indigenous movements. The motion names other organizations that its movers hope to support, including “the Unist’ot’en Camp, Tiny House Warriors, and Protect Mauna Kea—with an emphasis on human rights, anti-racism, climate justice, ending settler colonialism and challenging heteropatriarchy.”
Director of Human Geography Kandeel Imran, who moved the motion, called attention to the greater implications of supporting BDS, saying that it was a cause for concern that websites such as the Canary Mission at times publish photographs and information about people involved in BDS activities on university campuses. According to its website, this is done in an effort to “[document] people and groups that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses.” The website has been criticized of intimidation tactics against pro-BDS activists while the website’s operators remain anonymous.
The website for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) similarly has a function that allows people to report BDS activities at their school, “Which I believe is a form of surveillance and can put students at risk,” said Imran. SPME writes on its website that it “[employs] academic means to address [anti-Semitic] issues.”
Imran said that she moved the motion because of an invitation the SCSU sent to Asaf Romirowsky, Executive Director for the SPME, to speak at the campus. Romirowsky called to defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal. The UNRWA is an agency created in 1949 to provide relief for Palestinian refugees, but has faced allegations ranging from ineffectiveness, to nepotism, to sexual misconduct among top officials.
Rayyan Alibux, SCSU Vice President Operations, brought up a concern from a member of the UTSC Student Jewish Life club. He read from the club’s constitution, “UTSC Jewish Student Life supports Israel’s right to exist, the connection the Jewish people have to their Indigenous homeland, [and] the right for the Jewish people to dwell in their homeland,” and asked if the motion would mean that the club would “no longer be allowed to exist.”
Vice-President External Chaman Bukhari responded, “[The motion is] repression [of free speech], plain and simple… It has actual ramifications for the student body.” Bukhari also criticized Imran’s assertion that it was wrong to invite Romirowsky on principle, instead advocating for neutrality: “We should not be representing any specific political stance… we should stick to representing all students and remain as apolitical as we can be.”
Imran again defended her position on refusing to invite scholars such as Rowmirowsky, adding that “I don’t think that dialogue can happen across an apartheid wall.”
An amendment to strike the second clause, moved by Bukhari, did not pass. The second clause stated that the SCSU will “refrain from engaging with organizations or participating in events that further normalize Israeli apartheid.”
After an hour of debate, including an attempt to bring the motion to the special Annual General Meeting, the motion to support BDS passed with 11 votes in favour and two votes against.