On February 23, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) hosted a panel entitled “Boycotting Apartheid States.” Organized in collaboration with McGill Students in Solidarity with Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), the event was moderated by SSMU VP External Amina Moustaqim-Barrette.
The panelists – Michelle Hartman, associate professor of Arabic literature; Jon Soske, assistant professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies; and Samia Botmeh, a professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank – drew links between the apartheid regime in South Africa and Israeli apartheid practices in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They connected campaigns against the South African apartheid regime from the late 1950s until the 1990s to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005 to pressure the Israeli government into ending its occupation of the West Bank and its ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Soske, who specializes in modern African history, opened the panel by asserting that the apartheid analogy between Israel and South Africa is uncontroversial in South Africa, and drew similarities between the conditions that Israel enforces on Palestinians and the conditions enforced by white South Africans on the black community under the apartheid regime.
Soske noted that sanctions came in the form of economic pressure on the apartheid South African government, which greatly affected the livelihoods of white South Africans, and emphasized the integral role of universities in kickstarting the movement through boycotts and divestment.
“For universities as institutions to take an early stance and say, ‘We will no longer be complicit with apartheid,’ was key to starting to push broader sections of society in [Canada and the U.S.] against apartheid,” said Soske.
“One of the most important things said here is that there’s no neutrality on an issue like this.”
Botmeh, a member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel, stated that the BDS movement was a response to the asymmetric nature of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1980s and 1990s, notably in negotiating the 1995 Oslo Accords.
“You cannot make peace […] assuming symmetry of power, because there is no symmetry of power between the oppressor and the oppressed,” said Botmeh.
Botmeh also took issue with the international community’s response to the situation in Palestine, claiming that it is treated like a humanitarian issue rather than a political one. “Dealing with Palestinians as if the creation of the state of Israel led to a natural catastrophe has meant that the intervention was very charity-like,” said Botmeh. “So [they] feed the Palestinians, [they] provide them with all forms of charity, and that neutralized the political factor. What the BDS movement tries to do is hold the international community responsible.”
Hartman maintained that it is the duty of professionals, academics, and students alike to respond to the call for BDS, which comes from their colleagues who live under occupation in Palestine. She called on the audience to reflect on why, for example, some might choose to boycott Israeli academic institutions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
“[The] Hebrew University [of Jerusalem] is built on confiscated land, it is built over a Palestinian village,” said Hartman. “As Canadians, and people studying at Canadian educational institutions [built in Indigenous land], I think we need to take that very seriously, and take that into account, and look [at] where the calls [for solidarity] are coming from. When we have a call like [BDS], it is our duty to respond to it.”
“It is very empowering to know that people stand in solidarity with us, and that enables us to resist and move forward on the path of liberation,” Botmeh declared.
‘Neutrality’ and representation
The fact that the panel was organized by SSMU drew opposition from some students. An online petition expressing concern with the event began circulating a few days before the panel, and gathered 220 signatures.
“SSMU should ensure that there is open and balanced dialogue on such contentious topics,” the petition reads. “We are upset that SSMU, which we expect to represent the entire student body of McGill, has chosen to host an event that offers only one perspective on such a divisive issue.”
Moustaqim-Barrette explained to The Daily that the panel was a result of students’ calls for forums for such debates, made during the discussion of a Palestine solidarity motion at the Fall SSMU General Assembly (GA). SSMU was also mandated to “support campaigns that mobilize in solidarity with the people affected by the use of military technology” at the GA.
An anonymous U2 Science student, who attended the event, found the petition expressing concern about the event “hypocritical.”
“Facilitating those debates is what they were asking for at the GA to begin with, so in that sense I think it does fall under SSMU’s mandate and it is SSMU’s responsibility to facilitate,” they told The Daily.
U0 Arts student Jonah Winer told The Daily that the panel had brought about personal reflection. “In general I’m not a huge fan of the BDS movement, but I also realize that I’ve only heard really negative portrayals of it,” he said. “I think to hear people who [participate] in forming [the movement], and also people who are really [in] favour of it, gives it a lot of nuance and gives me a lot to think about.”
U3 Arts student Ameya Pendse expressed concern about the selection of panelists. “I was, to be honest, disgusted that SSMU was hosting an event on such a divisive issue on campus,” he said. “I think that it was very sad that there wasn’t a single person or academic to counter what these three panelists were saying. […] I think SSMU should focus on issues that are actually affecting students. […] They should not be taking foreign affairs decisions, that is not why we elected them.”
Asked whether SSMU should remain neutral on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Moustaqim-Barrette said that this was impossible. “There is no way to be neutral in these kinds of affairs, I think that’s just a way of silencing dissent and just another form of censorship,” she said. “I think it’s important that SSMU talks about these things and has events like these where people can come talk about these things.”
“I think one of the most important things said here is that there’s no neutrality on an issue like this,” noted Winer. “You’re either for or against, and to try to remain neutral is disingenuous.”