Content warning: This article mentions an instance of Islamophobia.
During the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) February 16 Special General Meeting (SGM), the union passed a motion that mandates that it divest from “[all] firms complicit in the occupation of Palestinian Territory.”
The agenda for the meeting was not approved until nearly two hours into the meeting, due to debate on the inclusion of the motion on Israel and Palestine.
During the meeting, there was strong representation both for and against the motion, with more than 300 participants joining in for the heated conversation.
BDS at U of T
The motion relates to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is an effort to economically pressure Israel to halt its occupation of the Palestinian territories by boycotting companies that profit off the occupation.
BDS has long been a hot topic among student unions at U of T. In November, the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) approved a motion that was similarly controversial, which reaffirmed the union’s commitment to the BDS movement and set guidelines for how members should participate in the movement. The motion included a section mandating that members should seek alternate sources for kosher food products in favour of ones that do not “normalize Israeli apartheid.”
Another motion approved at the same SCSU meeting reaffirmed the rights of Jewish students within the union, but it was amended to remove language affirming Jewish students’ right to “organize & advertise events to express their political, cultural and/or religious views.”
A number of students spoke out about the motion, describing it as antisemetic and a barrier for students looking to access kosher food on campus. A letter from U of T President Meric Gertler criticized both motions as well. One week after its initial approval, the union amended the motion to remove the portion about kosher foods, but declined to establish any alternative protections for kosher food at UTSC.
The UTSU has come under fire because of issues relating to Israel and Palestine before. In August, the union’s executive committee signed an open letter written by the Muslim Students’ Association and addressed to U of T, which demanded that the university release a statement “condemning the human rights violations in Palestine” and provide supports for Palestinian students. The union later voted to rescind its signature, but subsequently voted to re-sign the letter three weeks later.
Debate at the meeting
The motion to divest was submitted to the SGM by a member of the UTSU, Kaamil Hassan. The SGM allows students outside of the board of directors to submit motions, which is why the submission was allowed.
During the general meeting, students discussed the motion. Many were worried that this was not the UTSU’s place to make such a large decision on behalf of the entire UTSG undergraduate community. Others felt that the situation in Israel and Palestine was an important topic to discuss, feeling that it was related to similar problems, such as issues surrounding Indigenous peoples.
One student said that “being silent to the occupation of Palestinian territory makes us also complicit in settler colonialism in our time, as well, by approving and giving consent to the oppression of Indigenous people around the world.”
Another student suggested that this motion be completely taken off the agenda since, they said, “It’s not for a student union to take a position on this issue on behalf of all of its members [and] to divide students into these lines.” The student further explained that the UTSU is meant to represent every single student on campus and to provide services to them, but that the union is not in the business of doing foreign policy in the Middle East, nor should it be dividing students on highly controversial and highly divisive issues.
Another student disagreed, saying, “[The UTSU needs] to make a concrete statement exactly on what our stance is when it comes to Israel [and] Palestine. That’s exactly why it’s so important that we vote on this motion.”
Hassan, the first-year student who submitted the motion, spoke about the motion and why he originally submitted it in an interview with The Varsity. “U of T has been focusing on protecting human rights, such as [rights for] the Indigenous peoples of Canada,” he said. This inspired him to take action on other issues pertaining to human rights. He pointed out that Amnesty International had declared that Israel’s actions are a human rights violation against the Palestinian people. He said that although he understands there is backlash against the motion he submitted, he is glad that there is a conversation happening around the topic.
He also claimed that misinformation about the motion has been spreading, including rumours that the motion banned kosher food, even though kosher food is not mentioned in the motion. “I hope that the widespread misinformation online about what happened at Wednesday’s meeting will be addressed,” he said.
He and other people involved in pro-Palestine advocacy at U of T have also been the target of Islamophobic harassment online. “There are tweets calling us jihadists and animals… and there needs to be a change and resolve such issues to prevent further harrassment,” he said. One tweet directed at an announcement of the motion reads, “Jihadis are taking over Canada with @JustinTrudeau Wake up Canada, stop it.”
Community reacts to the motion
In a statement on Instagram following the meeting, the UTSU wrote about the motion. It shared that it is the union’s legal responsibility under the Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act to place and vote on member-submitted motions.
During the meeting, members were not able to discuss the specific terms of the motion. Therefore, the UTSU will meet with its board of directors “to discuss in detail what this motion means practically for the Union.” The UTSU encourages students who have any questions or concerns to contact the union.
Members of the Anti-Semitism Working Group (ASWG) also shared a statement after the motion passed. The ASWG had previously released a report on recommendations for addressing and discussing antisemitism on campus. The members stated that they had been informed that, at the meeting, an “Equity Officer” from the UTSU said that the ASWG had concluded that “anti-Zionism is never anti-Semitic.”
“We understand that this substantially swayed comments and opinions at the UTSU meeting and on social media,” reads the statement.
In response, ASWG members wrote that the assertion made by this officer was incorrect, and that “none of us agree with the statements reported to have been made about our position or report at the UTSU meeting on 16 February.”
“The ASWG did not conclude that criticism of Israel is never anti-Semitic,” reads the statement. It also clarifies that the ASWG concluded that “one contemporary form of anti-Semitism consists of hate speech related to Israel, Israelis, and Jews based on the actions (real or imagined) of the Israeli government.”
Many different student organizations took to Instagram to express their concerns or remarks on the situation. The Palestine Forum, a student group at U of T that supports discussion and awareness around Israel’s occupation of Palestine wrote a congratulatory post on the motion and a number of suggestions for how to implement divestment.
Independent Jewish Voices, a group that describes itself as advocating for “justice and peace for all in Israel-Palestine,” also tweeted a congratulations, writing that the motion was a big win for BDS at U of T. “Mazel tov to all the students who worked hard to make this happen,” reads the tweet.
On the other hand, Hillel UofT, the center for Jewish life on campus at U of T, expressed concern about the motion in a recent Instagram post. The post included comments by Naena Drazman, East Coast assistant campus coordinator for StandWithUs Canada and the president of Students Supporting Israel at the University of Toronto, who wrote, “Discriminatory motions of this nature are unacceptable. Boycotting the Jewish state does nothing to foster peace between Israeli and Palestinians and ultimately denies Jews rights to self-determination.”
There was also concern about the motion’s language. Evan Kanter, a student member of the U of T governing council, wrote in an email to The Varsity that the motion that passed was too vague to interpret how exactly it will affect the U of T community. Specifically, he questioned what the UTSU meant by a “firm” in this motion, and what it means to be “complicit with the occupation of Palestinian Territory.” He felt as though there were too many unanswered questions within the motion, and he hopes that “the UTSU will apply straightforward dictionary definitions of these terms when interpreting this motion.”