Palestinians in university student unions up against tide of industry support

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University student unions across the country are coming under fire after votes on Palestine at university student unions in Scarborough and Toronto, Ontario.

The University of Toronto Scarborough banned a motion “unacceptable and misguided” from its student union because of its implicit support for a state of Palestine, and Scarborough’s pro-Palestinian advocacy group Legal Aid Toronto voted down motions regarding its divestment from companies it said were complicit in Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

All data shows pro-Israel groups outnumbered pro-Palestine groups in Scarborough.

But Pro-Palestine student groups at other universities saw no revolt at their student unions after votes such as these.

Students at Western University, York University and the University of Winnipeg were awarded victory on Tuesday evening after protests from both student unions and students, with one student blocking a student union-backed hall. The Canadian government has expressed concern over boycotts against Jewish students and universities.

Pro-Palestine groups say the efforts of students, academic workers and students of colour seeking fair representation in international and national discussions on Palestine and Israel are an effective means of strengthening Palestine’s case.

Students at York University in Toronto were angered by an amendment to a motion calling for divestment from companies that “provide [Israel] with significant financial and political support”.

The motion sought $3m in fund raising in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. The motion was approved with the amendments, which simply removed the word “divestment”.

“Not only are there all sorts of optics and moral outrage regarding the BDS legislation, but when the clauses are stripped out the [passage] is questionable,” said Bill McMullen, the Ontario representative for the Palestinian Solidarity Coalition.

“But from an academic perspective and for the sake of engagement in international law, international human rights law and international development, the BDS legislation is completely consistent and sustainable, it’s just a repackaging, it’s a lipstick application.

“In the end, it doesn’t mean any less to us. To the contrary, it’s just another layer of representation.”

Tom McDonald, the president of York University Students’ Federation, called the amendments a “clear indication of racism and anti-Semitism” and said York was known as the city of “resistance and refusing to be bullied”.

Murad Kara, the president of Canadian Palestinian Students Association, which had been subjected to “hermetic lockdown” when the vote was initially announced, said university student unions should not join the “knee-jerk responses to [this] controversy”.

“Students here should continue to be global citizens and we must stand by the Palestinians in their struggle for freedom and justice. However, the resolution was flawed as it weakened students’ ability to understand and work with students of colour and students from different faiths.”

McMaster University students were left with no political victory after a mock motion was cancelled when its description, as a “declaration of independence from Zionism”, was deemed “divisive”, so that those supporting BDS were not pitted against those opposed to it.

Over at Dalhousie University in Halifax, a symbolic vote by students to divest from companies it said profited from apartheid in South Africa was quickly condemned by the university.

Students attempting to speak at the motion were shoved out of the room, but video footage shows that one then gave voice to concerns over the supposed prosecution of Israel, stating, “what people need to remember is that what [Israel] is doing is apartheid and we know that”.

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