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Gertler says U of T “alarmed” by SCSU motions on BDS

Jewish student leaders say motions are discriminatory
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U of T President Meric Gertler publicly condemned two Scarborough Campus Students’ Union motions. CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY
U of T President Meric Gertler publicly condemned two Scarborough Campus Students’ Union motions. CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY

U of T President Meric Gertler has publicly condemned two motions that passed at the recent Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) Annual General Meeting (AGM) held on November 24. 

The SCSU voted in favour of a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) policy which once again reaffirmed the union’s commitment to the BDS movement, a movement that economically sanctions Israel due to its occupation of the Palestinian territories. The policy mandates that the SCSU only work with companies that do not profit off of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. In his statement, Gertler also raised concerns about the removal of language that protected academic freedom for Jewish students from another motion. 

The motions passed despite opposition by Jewish student leaders, who said that the policies attempt to control Jewish students’ views and will normalize microaggressions and discrimination against Jewish students. 

BDS policy

SCSU Vice-President Equity Isaiah Murray introduced the policy, explaining that a policy from the 2020 AGM required the union to create a policy reaffirming its commitment to BDS. 

The policy mandates that the union “Refrain from engaging with organizations, services, or participating in events that further normalize Israeli apartheid,” including inviting speakers representing the Israeli Defence Force or that otherwise support Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The policy mandates that the union try to avoid working with companies “that profit from the violation of Palestinian human rights.” It further requires that, when possible, the SCSU “terminate contracts with companies that are found to profit from the occupation of Palestine.”

While the policy does recognize that Kosher food products may need to come from sources that aren’t BDS-compliant, it requests that “Efforts should be made to source Kosher food from organizations that do not normalize Israeli apartheid.”

SCSU President Sarah Abdillahi defended the motion, saying that “there’s room for interpretation, and [we made sure] that there’s space for students to still be able to access resources.” In an email to The Varsity, Abdillahi wrote, “In accordance with our mandate, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) is opposed to all acts of discrimination and harassment.”

Jewish Student Life (JSL) Vice-President Internal Gabriela Rosenblum spoke against the motion. “This motion imposes inequitable barriers to Jewish student life,” Rosenblum said. “This motion dictates what is acceptable for Jews to believe… So Jews have to prove that they are good Jews in the eyes of the student government.” 

Yardena Rosenblum, the JSL’s president, also spoke against the motion at the meeting. “We stand against this motion because we are scared that it will only normalize the microaggressions that we already face.”

Speaking in favour of the motion, Director of Biological Science Gautham Krishna said that the policy is “a stance against a government that has been and is currently oppressing thousands of Palestinian individuals in their own land” and that it isn’t antisemitic. 

Amendments to Jewish students’ rights motion 

A motion to reaffirm the rights of Jewish students at UTSC, written by SCSU Physical and Environmental Sciences Director Max Fine, was also presented at the meeting. However, the SCSU Policy and By-law Committee made a number of amendments to the motion, mostly removing language that reaffirmed Jewish students’ rights to organize and advertise events in support of Israel and Zionism. 

The committee removed a resolution mandating that the “SCSU re-affirm its commitment to ensuring that Jewish students are unencumbered by discriminatory policies or actions by the union or its officers, as promised by the union’s equity statement, and the Ontario Human Rights Code.”

Furthermore, the committee removed language that demanded the SCSU “[recognize] the right of Jewish students, like all students, to organize & advertise events to express their political, cultural and/or religious views.” The amendments also removed resolutions that ensured the SCSU would continue to recognize Jewish student groups that associate with outside organizations.

Abdillahi said that the resolutions were removed because they were redundant, as the SCSU already recognizes these groups. However, she added that the original motion is too broad in its wording and may allow for student groups to be recognized outside of the scope of the SCSU. She said, “It’s going to be out of our scope, it’s not going to be possible for us to do.” 

Gabriela Rosenblum spoke against the amendments and stressed the importance of adopting the wording in Fine’s original motion. Despite the opposition, the motion was passed with the cuts made by the Policy and By-law Committee.

In an email to The Varsity, Fine wrote, “The decision by the executives of the SCSU to amend the Jewish student rights motion behind closed doors in a meeting of the Policy and Bylaws Committee showed the executive’s intention to strike specific protections and freedoms that Jewish student groups enjoy.”

Response from U of T

In Gertler’s statement about the motions, he wrote, “The motions are specifically focused on Israel in a way that is troubling to many members of the community.”

“It is not acceptable to impose political tests on the recognition of Jewish student groups on any of the University of Toronto campuses,” wrote Gertler. He confirmed the university’s intention to follow up with the SCSU directly to address this issue. 

U of T has not previously commented directly on unions’ BDS activities, but it has taken an anti-BDS stance. In a 2016 interview with The Varsity, Gertler said that “We feel that it makes little sense to support the idea of boycotting interaction with an entire nation.”

In February, a ruling by the Complaint and Resolution Council for Student Societies on the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union found that the union had broken its own policies on the grounds of discrimination based on nationality by mandating that graduate students pay a BDS caucus levy fee. The UTGSU ignored the ruling, despite the possible risk of losing its funding. 

A complimentary statement from UTSC Vice-President and Principal,Wisdom Tettey and Vice-President, People Strategy, Equity & Culture Kelly Hannah-Moffat expressed similar discontent to Gertler’s statement. 

“In passing these motions, SCSU has not represented the best interests of all students at U of T Scarborough and has set a dangerous precedent for future U of T Scarborough student union decisions,” wrote Tettey and Hannah-Moffat.

In the statement, they shared that UTSC has been working with the JSL throughout the year to increase Kosher offerings and to “determine how to further support Jewish students.” They also announced a plan to offer antisemitism training to all student leaders in January. 

Response from the SCSU and the JSL

In a statement to The Varsity, President Yardena Rosenblum thanked Gertler, Hannah-Moffat, and Tettey for acknowledging the “reprehensible, bigoted actions” taken by SCSU at the 2021 AGM. She continued, “The passing of these motions is an act of blatant antisemitism and must be addressed as such.”

Rosenblum hopes that the SCSU will reverse the motions after it has witnessed the response to them, and that any conversations between the university and the SCSU will include representation for Jewish students. The official statements from university representatives give the JSL hope, but, in order for the university to again be considered a “positive learning environment for Jewish students,” the JSL says that it is necessary that the university respond with actions. 

In an email to The Varsity, Yardena Rosenblum wrote, “At the AGM, the SCSU took deliberate steps to differentiate between Jews whose political views they approve of, and Jews whose views they oppose… We will not exclude students whose political views may differ from those of SCSU, and we hope we will continue to program events with community sponsors who support Israel.”

Fine, who wrote the motion to reaffirm Jewish students’ rights, shared Yardena Rosenblum’s frustration. He affirmed his support for peace in Palestine, but maintained his disapproval of the SCSU’s BDS policy, as it “blacklists organizations that fight for peace, but don’t share the SCSU executives preferred tactic (BDS).” 

Abdillahi highlighted that the BDS policy and the motion to affirm Jewish students’ rights were passed by the union’s membership at the AGM, which she described as “the highest decision making body within the SCSU.” She added, “The policies and bylaws implemented by our membership are the guidelines we must follow to direct us in this work.”

She also mentioned that the BDS motion was passed by SCSU membership at the 2020 AGM. Following this commitment, “the SCSU spent the last year researching, developing and consulting with stakeholders on- and off- campus to develop a policy that would satisfy the will of the membership.” Abdillahi highlighted the language used in the policy as being “intentional” in providing guidelines without restricting students from “receiving necessary accommodations.”