On February 4, U of T’s Complaint and Resolution Council for Student Societies (CRCSS) ruled that the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) should stop giving mandatory student fees to its Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Caucus, recommending that the fee be made refundable. 

The BDS movement aims to apply economic pressure on Israel to change its policies toward Palestine, including the occupation of its territories. Critics of the movement characterize it as anti-Semitic, though the movement disputes that characterization. The UTGSU is the only student union in Canada that requires all students to pay membership fees to a BDS caucus.

Following a review of the caucus, the CRCSS panel found that the BDS Caucus had broken the UTGSU’s own Anti-Discrimination Policy on the grounds of discrimination based on nationality.

The CRCSS panel outlined five recommendations for the UTGSU regarding its BDS Caucus, one of them being that graduate students should no longer be required to pay a compulsory fee to the BDS Caucus. The UTGSU must provide a summary of how it intends to implement these recommendations by March 1. If the union does not comply, its fees could be withheld. 

The UTGSU executive wrote in an email to The Varsity, “We are in receipt of the CRCSS letter and we are reviewing their decision. The UTGSU General Council will discuss this issue at our meeting on February 16, 2021.”

The BDS Caucus began as an ad hoc committee and was endorsed by over 125 faculty members in 2016. In 2019, the UTGSU voted to make the committee permanent. BDS has also found support from other student unions at U of T, such as the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, which recently voted to reaffirm its support for the movement. 

History of complaints about BDS

According to the CRCSS ruling, several complaints about the UTGSU’s BDS Committee and subsequent caucus have been made over the past few years. Complaints regarding the BDS Caucus were seen before the UTGSU Board of Appeal in March 2017, January 2018, November 2018, and May 2019 — some of which were made by Chaim Katz, a fourth-year biomedical engineering PhD student.

Katz wrote to The Varsity, “I have been fortunate to work with many dedicated and committed students to address this problem internally within the GSU over the years. However, since the GSU Board of Appeal refused to engage with the issue of discrimination, I was eventually forced to bring this issue to the CRCSS.”

A complaint is taken to the CRCSS when the student society’s internal complaint process is exhausted. In the case of Katz’s complaint, the CRCSS panel ruled that the UTGSU complaint process had been exhausted.

Much recent backlash against the UTGSU’s BDS Caucus has been predicated on the allegation that the caucus is anti-Semitic. The CRCSS ruling comes at a time when U of T and the UTGSU are under scrutiny over alleged anti-Semitism, which led to U of T recently implementing a working group to combat anti-Semitism.

This ruling also closely follows an impeachment attempt against a UTGSU executive amid allegations of anti-Semitism.

Original complaint

The complaint against the BDS Caucus was put forward in February 2020 by Katz. He presented the following question to the CRCSS panel: “Can a student society at the University of Toronto embark on a campaign of economic and academic warfare against people of a certain nationality, and forcibly conscript its members to the campaign by way of their membership fees?”

According to the letter from the CRCSS, Katz alleged that the BDS Caucus “discriminates based on nationality and fosters anti-Semitism.” His complaint drew attention to the BDS Caucus’ history of boycotting Israeli universities, companies, and cultural institutions on the basis of nationality.

However, the UTGSU executive team denied the allegation that BDS boycotts were based on nationality, writing that “BDS only advocates for divestment from companies, organisations and institutions that are directly complicit, or profit from, violations of Palestinian human rights.”

The team added, “Individuals cannot, and should not, be targeted due to their nationality.”

After deliberation, the panel concluded that some BDS activities and events were discriminatory against Israeli nationality. The ruling cited one such event, called “The Politics of the Academic Boycott,” in which the BDS called for a boycott of Israeli universities. 

Katz wrote in an email to The Varsity that “Jewish students have felt excluded from the GSU for a variety of reasons, one of them being the BDS Caucus.”

“All graduate students benefit when the union is held accountable, stays true to its own rules and ceases discriminating against a segment of its membership,” he added. 

Findings of the panel

The panel was composed of three student members drawn from a pool selected by U of T student societies and one student member from a campus affairs committee. Two students on the panel were replaced due to a conflict of interest. Another quit due to pandemic-related delays in the investigative process as well as changes to the UTGSU executive. 

The panel recommended that the UTGSU revise Policy G5.7, which outlines the mandate of the BDS Caucus, within the year so that it aligns with UTGSU bylaws and policy, including its discrimination policy. Other recommendations include making the BDS Caucus fee refundable for graduate students and revising the UTGSU anti-discrimination policy in accordance with the Ontario Human Rights Code.

The CRCSS panel clarifies that this ruling is not meant to suggest that the UTGSU dissolve the BDS Caucus, but rather that the union revise its mandate.

The CRCSS panel also took issues with the UTGSU’s policies G5.7.2 and G5.7.2.1, which respectively state that the BDS caucus is “open to all graduate students who identify as supportive of the mandate of the Caucus” and that “the Caucus may reserve the right to restrict attendance at their meetings or events to any other member of the Union, as decided by the will of the constituent members of the Caucus.” 

The panel found that these clauses were inconsistent with U of T policy, which states that all student societies that charge non-academic incidental fees must be “open, accessible, and democratic.” The panel recommended that the policy be revised so that all UTGSU members can participate in the caucus.

“For years, Hillel UofT has proudly supported voices within the UTGSU trying to bring about systemic change,” Rob Nagus, Senior Director of Hillel UofT, a Jewish student organization, wrote to The Varsity.

“We encourage the UTGSU to work with us and to undertake crucial training on antisemitism, which Hillel has offered to provide,” he added.

The UTGSU BDS Caucus did not respond to The Varsitys request for comment.