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SCSU AGM 2020: Motion to reaffirm commitment to BDS passes after contentious debate

Meeting left 11 items unaddressed due to time constraints
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The SCSU annual general meeting took place on November 26.MAISHA ISLAM/THE VARSITY
The SCSU annual general meeting took place on November 26.MAISHA ISLAM/THE VARSITY

On November 26, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) held its first ever virtual annual general meeting (AGM) on Zoom. The meeting was called to order at 5:15 pm. 

The main item that was debated was a motion for the SCSU to reaffirm its commitment to the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which passed after a lengthy discussion.

Although there were 13 member-submitted items on the agenda, relating to a variety of issues ranging from transparency to online voting, the SCSU only passed two in total due to time constraints.

Discussion of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions motion

UTSC student Ghaith Hanbali put forward a motion that the SCSU “reaffirm its commitment” to the BDS movement against Israel by “actively [supporting] initiatives that raise awareness about the state of Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine and war crimes against Palestinian peoples.” 

At a board meeting last January, the union passed a similar motion to reaffirm the union’s commitment to BDS.

The BDS movement, through boycotts, divestments, and sanctions, seeks to pressure Israel to amend its policies toward Palestine and Palestinians, including an end to its occupation of Palestinian territories. Critics of the movement characterize it as anti-Semitic and claim that it attempts to delegitimize the state of Israel.

Hanbali claimed that executives had undermined the union’s commitment to the BDS movement, alleging, for example, that posters from Toronto Students for Justice in Palestine were removed from the student centre.

The motion also further proposed that the SCSU “refrain from engaging with organizations or participating in events that further [normalize] Israeli apartheid” and that the SCSU Board of Directors (BOD) draft a policy “to ensure that future elected representatives and staff of the Students’ Union uphold our collective commitment to justice in Palestine.”

“It is crucial to understand that this motion in no way is to limit the freedoms of our student community, but rather to impose pressure on the Israeli government to conform with international law,” Hanbali said when introducing the item. 

Hanbali added, “The opposition and criticism of the State of Israel and Zionism are not active anti-Semitism, and [I] stand [strongly] against all forms of discrimination toward Jewish [people] and all individuals based on religion, place of origin, and your ethnicity or any of the other guaranteed human rights.”

SCSU President Sarah Mohamed spoke in favour of the motion. “We’re not targeting or discriminating against students who believe in Judaism [and] who are Jewish. If you’re Jewish, you can be pro-Palestine [or] you can be pro-Israel,” she added. 

However, in response to the part of the motion that asked the SCSU to ensure that future executives uphold a commitment to BDS, Mohamed added that, “We can’t really control future executives or future staff within the organization. We can only do what’s pertinent to the 2020–2021 academic year.”

Yardena Rosenblum and Maxwell Fine, co-presidents of Jewish Life at UTSC, both urged members to vote against the motion. Fine clarified in his speech that, although he is specifically against BDS, he supports other boycotts of Israel. 

In part of their speech, Rosenblum said, “The BDS motion is rooted in fallacy and misinformation. Passing this motion would mean endorsing the narrative of one group of students while silencing the voices of another group and blatantly ignoring critical facts and context.”

“[U of T] student unions have an abhorrent track record when deciding who and who isn’t participating in the normalization of Israel apartheid, which is the key phrase in the motion,” Fine added. As an example, Fine cited an occurrence last year in which Hillel U of T, a Jewish organization on campus, was not given support for a Kosher food petition by the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union “on the account that Hillel [was] ‘pro-Israel.’ ”

The motion to reaffirm the union’s commitment to BDS was approved after the lengthy discussion. 

In a November 27 press release after the meeting, Rob Nagus, Senior Director of Hillel U of T, responded to the meeting’s vote by claiming that “Last night’s conduct by the SCSU violated [U of T’s] Statement on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination and harassment based on creed, ethnic origin, and citizenship.”

Hillel also called on U of T to “[issue] a condemnation and rejection of the SCSU’s motion and [take] the necessary steps required to ensure Jewish student life is protected on campus.”

Unaddressed motions

The AGM was scheduled to finish at 8:00 pm. A member motioned to end the meeting at 8:09 pm, and it adjourned with 11 items unresolved.

Other than the BDS motion, one other motion passed quickly without debate, which proposed that the SCSU’s bylaws include a subsection to allow the BOD to appoint directors to vacancies should a circumstance beyond control of the BOD, such as a pandemic, prevent an in-person election, as the SCSU has yet to approve online voting. 

Among the motions that weren’t addressed were the creation of an SCSU sustainability committee, the development of a universal SCSU accessibility policy, and a motion proposing that the number of credits in which an SCSU director is allowed to be enrolled be raised from one to 1.5.

Annie Sahagian, a student and an unsuccessful candidate in the SCSU’s 2020 executive elections, was scheduled to move two motions, both of which Sahagian previously submitted to the 2019 AGM. When asked what she thought about these motions being left unaddressed at the 2020 AGM, Sahagian wrote to The Varsity that she was “not surprised at the [SCSU’s] actions and the lack of democracy of the current team.”

Following the meeting, SCSU Vice-President External Eesha Chaudhry addressed the unresolved motions through an Instagram story, writing, “It’s unfortunate we couldn’t have gotten through all the motions submitted by students, but it was an honour [and] privilege to be in that space with you all to share the work I’ve done… to better the student experience at UTSC.”

SCSU Vice-President Operations Bruce Chan also took to Instagram to share his thoughts on the meeting. “Although it ends with regrets, we believe we can do it better in the winter,” he wrote.

Editor’s note (December 1): A previous version of this article claimed that the AGM started late as a result of technical difficulties. The article has been updated to correct this error.