Commentary | Letters: profs, alumni, Noam Chomsky on Fortier’s BDS statement


Not in our name: profs respond to Fortier on BDS

As McGill professors committed to justice and equity, we strongly disagree with Principal Suzanne Fortier’s official response on behalf of the administration to the recent Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) motion in support of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, and to the online process that failed to ratify this vote. Her email response, sent to all McGill students, faculty, and alumni association members, came moments after the results of the online process were announced, and echoed the disappointing and ill-informed motion passed by the Canadian Parliament in condemning the growing BDS movement.

For Principal Fortier to denounce a movement defending the rights of Palestinians against those who are oppressing them is in fact what “flies in the face of tolerance and respect” – not the BDS movement itself. The call for BDS, drawing upon lessons learned from earlier international movements against apartheid South Africa, indeed urges universities to end institutional ties with institutions funded and sponsored by the Israeli state, and which are complicit in the occupation and violations of international law. The BDS movement is a measured, non-violent, and principled civil society response to life under occupation and colonialism when a people’s basic rights are violated and denied.

The BDS call demands “tolerance and respect” for Palestinians – something that they have been denied by the state of Israel. It is precisely because Palestinians are not afforded the same rights as other peoples that BDS is necessary. Palestinians do not have equal rights to education, and are regularly denied their academic freedom. But they are also denied freedom of movement, freedom of association, and even their lives. “Freedom, equity, inclusiveness and the exchange of views and ideas in responsible, open discourse,” which are the core principles of McGill University as stated by Fortier, are precisely what Palestinians are asking for with this call.

If these core principles do indeed guide the McGill community, it is our responsibility to support a grassroots movement initiated by the vast majority of Palestinian civil society. The demands of the BDS movement are simple. Israel should comply with international law by ending its occupation and colonization of Arab lands and dismantling the wall, recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, and respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated by UN resolution 194. When Israel complies with international law in these ways, there will be no more need for BDS.

Our mission as educators is to advance learning and to create and disseminate knowledge by offering our students the best possible education. We believe that upholding the highest international standards in teaching, research, and scholarship, as well as service to local and international communities, means standing up for what is right when called upon to do so – locally, by supporting students who are working for justice for Palestine, and internationally, by responding to the call made by Palestinian civil society.

While we respect the freedom of expression of all members of our community, including the right of Principal Fortier to publicly condemn the BDS movement, we resolve to steadfastly continue to support BDS and the work of our students at McGill who will carry on and continue to build this struggle. In this case, the McGill administration, like the Canadian government, is on the wrong side of history. The Canadian Parliament’s motion on BDS does not act in our name. As McGill professors, we also declare now and will continue to state that if this is the McGill administration’s response to the BDS movement, it also does not act in our name.

—Malek Abisaab, Associate Professor, Department of History and Classical Studies
Rula Jurdi Abisaab, Associate Professor, Institute of Islamic Studies
Diana Allan, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology and the Institute for the Study of International Development
Alia Al-Saji, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy
Isabelle Arseneau, professeure agrégée, département de langue et littérature françaises
Jodie Beck, Course Lecturer, Department of East Asian Studies
Arnaud Bernadet, professeur agrégé, département de langue et littérature françaises
Lara Braitstein, Associate Professor, Faculty of Religious Studies
Brian Bergstrom, Visiting Professor, Department of East Asian Studies
Curtis Brown, Faculty Lecturer, Department of English
Mary Bunch, Faculty Lecturer, Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies
Michelle Cho, Korea Foundation Assistant Professor, Department of East Asian Studies
Aziz Choudry, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Social Movement Learning and Knowledge Production, Department of Integrated Studies in Education
Barry Eidlin, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology
Shanon Fitzpatrick, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Classical Studies
Allan Greer, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Colonial North America,
Department of History and Classical Studies
Sumi Hasegawa, Retired Faculty Lecturer, Department of East Asian Studies
Jill Hanley, Associate Professor, McGill School of Social Work
Michelle Hartman, Associate Professor, Institute of Islamic Studies
Adrienne Hurley, Associate Professor, Department of East Asian Studies
Sandra Teresa Hyde, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology
Ahmed F. Ibrahim, Assistant Professor, Institute of Islamic Studies
Steven Jordan, Associate Professor, Department of Integrated Studies in Education
Pasha M. Khan, Assistant Professor, Institute of Islamic Studies
Thomas Lamarre, James McGill Professor in East Asian Studies and Associate in Communications Studies
Catherine Leclerc, professeure agrégée, département de langue et littérature françaises
Andrée Lévesque, Professor Emerita, History Department
Abby Lippman, Professor Emerita – Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health
Margaret Lock, Marjorie Bronfman Professor Emerita, Department of Social Studies of Medicine
Laura Madokoro, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Classical Studies
Setrag Manoukian, Associate Professor, Institute of Islamic Studies and Department of Anthropology
Gregory M. Mikkelson, Associate professor, Department of Philosophy
Khalid Medani, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and Institute of Islamic Studies
Charmaine A. Nelson, Associate Professor of Art History, Department of Art History and Communication Studies
Naomi Nichols, Assistant Professor, Department of Integrated Studies in Education
Máire Noonan, Course Lecturer & Research Assistant, Department of Linguistics
Kristin Norget, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology
Anthony Paré, Professor Emeritus, Department of Integrated Studies in Education
Laila Parsons, Associate Professor, Department of History and Classical Studies
Glyne Piggott, Emeritus Professor, Department of Linguistics
Bruce Reed, Professor, School of Computer Science
Jarrett Rudy, Associate Professor, Department of History and Classical Studies
Jessica Ruglis, Assistant Professor, Department of Educational & Counselling Psychology
Mela Sarkar, Associate Professor, Department of Integrated Studies in Education
Colin Scott, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology
Richard Shearmur, Professor, McGill School of Urban Planning
Jon Soske, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Classical Studies
Maria Theresia Starzmann, Assistant Professor, Anthropology Department
Gavin Walker, Assistant Professor, History & Classical Studies and East Asian Studies
William C. Wees, Professor Emeritus, Department of English
Robert Wisnovsky, Professor and James McGill Chair, Institute of Islamic Studies
Brian J. Young, Professor Emeritus, Department of History

Rectify the misrepresentation of BDS

Dear Professor Fortier,

We feel compelled to express concerns regarding the wording of and an important omission from the statement you released after the recent General Assembly (GA) vote for BDS and its subsequent failure to be ratified by SSMU.

BDS was called for by Palestinian civil society in 2005 as an appeal to the international society to exert pressure on Israel to end its military occupation of Palestinian territories, provide full equality to Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and protect the right of return of refugees in accordance with UN resolution 194. The movement has been gathering growing support worldwide, including among Jewish individuals and Israelis. Not all who actively advocate for human rights for Palestinians subscribe to BDS in its original formulation, and this includes some Palestinian groups. The argument, however, is not whether or not BDS is a legitimate strategy, but whether it is a constructive strategy in the given situation. Your assertion that the BDS movement “flies in the face of the tolerance and respect” presupposes, and reinforces, a dangerous misconception that this movement targets or is intolerant toward particular groups – ethnic, national, or political. This plays into the hands of those who wilfully equate criticism of Israel’s policies with anti-Semitism. BDS explicitly does not target individuals. Its representation as being intolerant or in any way targeting Jewish or Israeli students on campus is a misrepresentation that potentially does much harm by falsely victimizing particular ethnic groups. The BDS movement is not intolerant; rather it demands tolerance toward Palestinians through peaceful globalized means.

You furthermore write that BDS represents “actions that are contrary to the principles of academic freedom, equity, inclusiveness and the exchange of views and ideas in responsible, open discourse.” We agree that such principles should absolutely guide McGill University. We hope, however, that you would agree that the University should uphold these principles in a universal fashion. Therefore, while it is the University’s right to reject BDS, we strongly believe that its statement in this context needs to critically address the well-documented infringements of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as non-Jewish Arab citizens of Israel. Failure to do so lends the University an appearance of applying double standards with respect to these rights, and of perpetuating the unforgivably biased nature of media reporting, focusing almost exclusively on the rights and security needs of Israelis while neglecting to apply the same to Palestinians.

In 2012, we visited Gaza to attend a conference and were able to experience the terrible effects of Israel’s siege on academic life in Gaza. During this visit, we met with students, faculty members, and civil society organizers, and we witnessed first hand how the population suffers from the ongoing Israeli blockade and repeated military assaults. The population also suffers from the repressive Hamas government. However, until political conditions are normalized for Palestinians and sovereignty and freedom of movement are granted to them, this internal repression will likely not be resolved for Palestinians in Gaza, of whom many do not favour living under a repressive Islamic government. Another relevant personal experience occurred in 2010, when Noam Chomsky was invited to Birzeit University in the West Bank, but was refused entry by Israel for no good reason.

In conclusion, whether or not one supports BDS, we commend the students who voted in its favour for standing up against repression in the face of increasing attempts by governments and other organisations to spread vilifying misinformation about the movement. Any statement about academic freedom in the context of Israel-Palestine must absolutely take into account that academic freedom is blatantly violated for Palestinian faculty and students. We hope to persuade you to rectify these omissions and publish an amended statement.

—Máire Noonan, Course Lecturer and Research Assistant, Department of Linguistics, McGill University (McGill alumna)
Hagit Borer, Professor of Linguistics, Queen Mary University of London, London
Antoine Bustros, Composer, film composer and writer, Montréal (McGill alumnus)
Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus), Massachusetts Institute of Technology
David Heap, Associate Professor, French Studies Department and Linguistics Program, University of Western Ontario
Stephanie Kelly, Assistant Professor, French Studies Department and Linguistics Program, University of Western Ontario
Philippe Prévost, Professor, François Rabelais University Tours, Tours, France (McGill alumnus)
Verena Stresing, PhD, biochemist
Laurie Tuller, Professor, Linguistics, François Rabelais University Tours, Tours, France

McGill alumni support BDS

To our friends at McGill:

We congratulate and celebrate with all of you whose tireless work these past weeks – and over the last ten years – successfully mobilized more than 2,100 undergraduate students to endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people. This is a major victory, and one accomplished in the face of massive anti-Palestinian mobilization by off-campus organizations. The motion’s defeat does nothing to shake our faith in what has by now become clear: the tide is turning against Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its people.

Launched in 2005, BDS is an important tool in the struggle for Palestinian liberation. Around the world, students, academic associations, labour unions, community groups, and individuals are joining in support of the movement’s three demands: the end of the portion of the occupation that began in 1967 and the dismantling of its walls, the equal rights of Arab citizens of Israel, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands.

At McGill, the motion’s endorsement by groups like KANATA (the Journal of McGill’s Indigenous Studies Community), Queer McGill, the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE), the Black Students’ Network of McGill, the Women of Colour Collective of McGill Law, and McGill Against Austerity is a reminder that to stand with the Palestinians in their struggle also means actively fighting against racial, patriarchal, economic, and settler-colonial oppression in all its forms.

In light of this, we are disgusted – yet unsurprised – by an email sent by McGill principal Suzanne Fortier to students and alumni immediately after the results of the online ratification were announced condemning the BDS movement in the name of “the tolerance and respect we cherish as values fundamental to a university.” We reject the principal’s unilateral adoption of a political position in the university’s name without democratically consulting students and other workers.

We are also curious to hear what McGill finds tolerant or respectful about its continued investment in the surveillance corporation L-3 Communications, the Israeli bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, and RE/MAX – all of which actively support and profit from the occupation, incarceration, and murder of Palestinians. All this while the university for years resisted the creation of an Indigenous Studies Program, and while it continues to oppose fossil fuel divestment and an end to its military research collaboration.

The fight goes on, but we will not be discouraged: from the principal’s office, to the government of Justin Trudeau, to the Israeli Knesset, the reactionary response to BDS is increasingly desperate. This is the direct result of the Palestinian-led movement and the work of all of you who offer your time, energy, and resources in support of their cause and the cause of oppressed and occupied people everywhere.

With enormous love,

Over 300 former students and alumni

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