Last week, the Judicial Board of SSMU, the Students’ Society of McGill University, unanimously declared the “proposed” anti-Israel “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] motion,” which has disrupted the campus for 18 months, unfair and unconstitutional. This thoughtful, creative opinion emerged as the fourth pillar of a broad campus repudiation of BDS – Bullying, Demonization and Slander – uniting student activism, administration leadership, professorial involvement and judicial statesmanship. This McGill model for fighting BDS should be replicated on campuses globally.
The Judicial Board decision was a most novel – and pathbreaking – counterattack. Three McGill law students constituting the board framed the question as the “important” one of “who may belong in a community, and on what terms.” The board found that BDS violated SSMU’s polices against discrimination, undermining its aspirations to create a safe, inclusive, civil community.
Sidestepping the more complicated question of how Jews and pro-Israel students feel when their student society boycotts Israel, the board cleverly focused on the BDS movement’s actual target, Israel.
Given McGill’s status as an international university, the board reasoned that “any motion that specifically targets one nation and compels SSMU to actively campaign against that country, such as the BDS Motion, is unconstitutional,” violating SSMU’s “Equity Policy.”
Appreciating the importance of student democracy, yet fearing “the tyranny of the majority,” the decision pivoted on McGill’s central mission, building a learning community.
“SSMU is dedicated to providing a unique ‘Service’ in its preamble: ‘facilitating communication and interaction between all students from all McGill communities.’ By adopting positions against individual nations SSMU takes an indirect position against students from those nations. While in theory this is problematic, in practice the BDS Motion has revealed this to be a very real concern with disastrous consequence.”
The board is correct. BDS has stirred campus Jew hatred. I have seen screenshots of ugly, stupid tweets from the time of the debate: “Little Zionist jewboys not happy that McGill students don’t support their genocide... go bomb more children you colonizing Zionist f$%@s....” And a longer rant that Israel’s “Jewish-Zionist empire” aims to “take over the world.” The board warned about motions which “threaten the fragile bonds which hold McGill’s international community together.”
The board decision put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in proportion, as “one example” of conflict, writing: “Unfortunately, not all nations get along, and the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict is but one example. By picking a side in such conflicts SSMU does not promote interactions between the various factions of students, but rather champions one’s cause over another.” As a result, it “inhibits SSMU’s ability to create an open, inviting atmosphere for students of ‘Israeli origins’.” This finding wisely rejects the anti-Semitic obsession exaggerating that one conflict’s importance, centrality, or “injustice.”
This board opinion expressing McGill students’ resistance to BDS in judicial terms – which the BDS forces will undoubtedly try to circumvent – is the fourth blow McGill’s BDSers suffered. In February, on their third try in 18 months, BDSers pushed the SSMU to approve a BDS resolution. But Strike 1 – students rejected the BDS slanders in a required online ratification vote. Israeli-born, Camp Kinneret- trained Simon Paransky, co-president of Israel on Campus at McGill, said students rallied around the notion that “Affiliating the student union with BDS would shut out already-marginalized students and impose a singular narrative on 20,000 students of diverse backgrounds and opinions.”
Strike 2: the principal, Suzanne Fortier, wrote a stinging open letter denouncing this assault on academic freedom.
Strike 3: 158 McGill professors signed a letter supporting Fortier. Many of us now are inviting a thousand Canadian professors to sign similar letters championing academic freedom and a democratic Israel, while abhorring the bigotry implicit in BDS’s anti-Israel obsession and expressed by the anti-Semitism that BDS stirs.
Paransky explains that the “Vote No McGill” forces mobilized via social media, attracting over one thousand “likes” on a page with “‘myth and fact” posts, in an attempt to inform the campus about the dangers of BDS. Their most effective argument discussed “safer spaces on campus and how this notion essentially did not extend toward Jewish students.
For years Jewish students had felt that there was sustained hostility aimed at them from their anti-Zionist and pro-BDS classmates.”
When these heartfelt arguments “were treated with varying levels of disdain,” students “came to vote with us because they saw the toll that the aggressive and at times personal attacks took on their friends.”
The McGill model teaches important lessons.
First, make the fight personal, because it is. BDS scapegoats Israel, Israeli students, Jewish students, pro-Israel students and harms the campus environment.
Students mobilized to support their friends.
Second, make the fight about fairness, about treating Jewish and pro-Israel students with the dignity all students deserve. And third, don’t just say no. Turn the negative into a positive. Celebrate the open, tolerant pro-Israel, pro-democracy campus the McGill students and professors cherish, the provocative, civil academic values the principal champions, the fair, equitable, civil learning community the Judicial Board endorses, and what Paransky proudly calls “the strong Jewish and Zionist values” he learned from camp and his family.
Finally, be proactive. Other campuses shouldn’t wait for BDS ugliness to strike; celebrate fairness and openness by articulating what you believe now, affirming that your campus has zero tolerance for BDS intolerance.
The author, professor of history at McGill University, is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, published by St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.