Last Sunday, September 17, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Board of Directors (BoD) voted to ratify the Judicial Board’s reference on the legality of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) motion brought to the General Assembly (GA) last winter. The reference, issued in May 2016, ruled that BDS was discriminatory in nature and violated SSMU’s Constitution and Equity Policy.
The reference was the result of tensions on campus following the Winter 2016 GA voting in favor of ratifying a motion in support of BDS. The BDS movement advocates for economic pressure against the state of Israel, in order to bring about a nonviolent end to the occupation of the Palestinian territories. While the GA vote was overturned, the BDS motion failed the school-wide online ratification process.
A dangerous precedent
According to SSMU President Muna Tojiboeva, the BoD’s ratification vote was not facilitated in a confidential session. Eleven out of twelve Directors voted in favor of ratification, with only one abstention. While the decision was nearly unanimous in procedure, many on campus remain unconvinced of the reference’s validity.
The JBoard reference concluded that “SSMU’s commitment against discrimination in favour of creating ‘safer spaces’ renders motions similar to the BDS Motion, which specifically compel SSMU to adopt a platform against a particular nation, unconstitutional.”
However, Sydney Lang, a member of RadLaw, a social justice-oriented group of law students at McGill, has specific objections to section 33 of the reference.
“Their end reasoning,” Lang explained to The Daily, “is that yes, SSMU can take positions against nations but under certain circumstances, if it’s phrased in certain ways, and only in extreme cases. […] What I’m most concerned with is that they’re giving the Judicial Board in the future the ability to determine what’s an extreme case. They’re technically saying that we could hypothetically do this if it was a really extreme case and we would do it in a certain way. That’s not based in the Constitution. The Constitution doesn’t set that out. They’re creating this idea that they’re the ones who get to gauge the extremity of an issue before SSMU can take a stance on it.”
“What I’m most concerned with is that they’re giving the Judicial Board in the future the ability to determine what’s an extreme case. […] That’s not based in the Constitution. The Constitution doesn’t set that out.”
“They’re making decisions about what’s an extreme international conflict,” continued Lang, “or what’s extreme for the lives of Palestinians or other people around the world who are facing occupation, but how are they the ones to determine what’s extreme?”
Conflating the state and its citizens
“By adopting official positions against certain nations,” reads part of section 33, “as the BDS Motion aims to do with Israel, SSMU would be placing Members from those nations at a structural disadvantage within McGill’s community […] In essence, SSMU signals to those Members from the very beginning that it is hostile towards their country thus, indirectly, them. Motions which compel SSMU to do so threaten the fragile bonds which hold McGill’s international community together.”
“They’re conflating the political state of Israel with individual Israelis citizens,” said Lang in response. “They’re making this connection between the two that isn’t factually grounded. Look at any other [case] in history; McGill took a stand against South African apartheid, but weren’t against South Africans. Similar examples are when students in HK protested against the Chinese government or Indigenous peoples challenge the state of Canada. You are critiquing a system of governance, oppression, or occupation, not individual citizens”
“In essence, SSMU signals to those Members from the very beginning that it is hostile towards their country thus, indirectly, them. Motions which compel SSMU to do so threaten the fragile bonds which hold McGill’s international community together.”
BDS has yet to put out a statement following the Board’s ratification vote, but in an interview with The Daily, BDS member Maia Salameh gave some insight into how members of McGill’s BDS Action Network are feeling.
“We’re gonna fight it, but it is a huge blow obviously and a disappointment,” said Salameh. “That doesn’t mean it’s over. […] the whole problem stems from the structural nature of SSMU,” said Salameh. “To fight this, we need to […] reform [the structure] because right now there are unelected members that are making these huge decisions without any accountability or transparency.”
Currently, the JBoard, a body of the BoD, is composed of seven SSMU members appointed by the Nominating Committee. JBoard decisions are then ratified or rejected by the BoD, with decisions never being reviewed by an elected SSMU body.
“We are forming a new campaign called Democratize SSMU,” explained Salameh. “It’s going to be a coalition not just of BDS members because we don’t think this decision just affects BDS. We want to mobilize student groups and student activists in general because we want institutional change. We’re going to go through Equity complaints because [we] think there’s been a gross injustice here and we will be staging protests just to make people aware of this decision and why it affects them.”
“Right now there are unelected members that are making these huge decisions without any accountability or transparency.”
Many questions left unanswered
The minutes from the September 17 BoD meeting have yet to be released. As of publication, none of the BoD’s members-at-large have responded to comment regarding the ratification vote.