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The SSMU Board’s BDS decision is a disgrace

Why this vote was unconstitutional, non-transparent, and ill-informed

On Sunday night, the SSMU Board of Directors unanimously decided that the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement violates SSMU’s constitution. More precisely, they voted to approve a reference (“legal opinion”) from the SSMU Judicial Board (or JBoard) which concluded that a motion mandating SSMU to support BDS would be unconstitutional.

This vote was, in a word, bullshit. It was founded on factual inaccuracies, it was conducted in an non-transparent and unaccountable way, and it will have a lasting negative impact on McGill students. But before we get into all that, let’s take a second to examine how we got here and why any of this matters.

How did we get here?

Back in 2005, a broad coalition of over 170 Palestinian organizations came together to launch what would quickly become an intensely controversial campaign: the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Hailing from unions and refugee networks, political parties and feminist groups, the founders of BDS sought a nonviolent way to fight the systemic discrimination they faced every day at the hands of the Israeli government. Their solution, inspired by the movement that helped bring down South Africa’s Apartheid regime, was an economic one: they would advocate for boycotts of, divestment from, and sanctions against the state of Israel, along with any corporations complicit in its oppressive policies.

These pressure tactics will continue until the Israeli government complies with BDS’s three core goals. First, the illegal West Bank barrier must be dismantled, and Israel must end its violent occupation of the Palestinian Territories. Second, over 50 discriminatory laws must be amended so that Palestinian citizens of Israel (who account for roughly a fifth of the country’s population) are no longer subject to systemic ethnic discrimination. And finally, the world’s nearly 7.5 million Palestinian refugees must be granted the right to return to their homeland.

This, in brief, is BDS. In the 12 years since its inception, it has gained the support of communities, institutions, and even some governments. More to the point, several student societies have also joined the movement, including our neighbours at Concordia. And for a few heady days in February 2016, it looked like SSMU might be next on the list.

At the 2016 Winter General Assembly (GA), students from McGill’s BDS Action Network brought forward a motion that would have mandated SSMU to support BDS through the VP External portfolio, and obliged the President to advocate divestment from companies profiting from the occupation of Palestine to the university administration. So far, so standard – two other motions in support of Palestine had failed at GAs in the previous 18 months, albeit after protracted debate. But this time, in an upset that shocked both sides, the motion passed.

At another school, that would have been the end of the story, but SSMU has an unusual two-step ratification process. Despite getting the majority of votes at the GA, the BDS motion failed the school-wide online vote later that week, rendering it void. This was still not the end of the story, however, as an unknown student subsequently put forward a JBoard petition inquiring into the constitutionality of the BDS motion.

After much deliberation, the JBoard – including current SSMU President Muna Tojiboeva, then one of three justices assigned to the case – abruptly announced in May that the motion did indeed violate the SSMU constitution. But because the JBoard is a body of the BoD, that decision still had to be ratified or rejected by the BoD. The trouble was, last year’s Directors were neatly split on the issue, and without the required majority in either direction, the reference remained in legal limbo for over a year. It was not until last Sunday, at the first full meeting of the new BoD, that the question was finally settled, as 11 of the 12 Directors voted in favour of ratification.

The reference they approved is 13 pages long, but its conclusion reads as follows: “The reality remains that if SSMU were to adopt the BDS Motion, it would adopt an anti-Israel platform. Israeli students would be placed at a disadvantage – SSMU, despite being their representative, would be openly hostile towards their country. This places them at a structural disadvantage vis-à-vis others and denies them access to the “safer spaces” that SSMU holds so dear. This breaches the fundamental Constitutional values which permeate SSMU, as well as the Equity Policy. We therefore conclude that the BDS Motion, much like similar motions to the BDS Motion which compel SSMU to take positions against specific countries, is unconstitutional.”

Let’s break that down, shall we?

BDS isn’t “anti-Israel”

There is an important distinction to be made between a country’s national identity and the policies of its government, let alone the actions of international corporations complicit in those policies. BDS does not oppose Israel in and of itself, any more than the now-famous campaign to boycott South Africa’s Apartheid regime opposed South Africa – it opposed Apartheid, a set of discriminatory policies.

In fact, BDS simply advocates for economic pressure against the Israeli government until it ends its ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people. When the movement’s three conditions are met – when Israel respects the 1967 Green Line, upholds equal rights for its Palestinian citizens, and allows Palestinians the right to return to their homeland – there will be no more need for BDS. Far from opposing Israel, in fact, BDS simply opposes colonialism and systemic ethnic violence. Would the movement’s detractors argue that these things are effectively the same? I very much doubt it.

Far from opposing Israel, in fact, BDS simply opposes colonialism and systemic ethnic violence.

Not only does this fallacy mischaracterize the goals of BDS, but it also allows the JBoard to set up an alarming precedent. You see, in addition to the BDS motion itself, the initial petition also asked the JBoard to consider the constitutionality of “similar motions,” without specifying what exactly this meant. This presented a challenge: how to gauge a motion’s similarity to BDS?

One could make a compelling argument that the “Conflict-Free Campus” motion passed and ratified at the very same Winter 2016 GA would qualify as similar: it mandates SSMU to divest from mining corporations implicated in violent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, effectively using economic pressure to achieve humanitarian goals and influence policy within a specific nation. SSMU’s policy of divestment from fossil fuels could also be considered similar to BDS, given that it too seeks to use economic tactics in the cause of social (and, of course, environmental) sustainability.

The JBoard came to a very different conclusion, however. “In this case,” reads the reference, “we can readily define ‘similar’ motions to mean motions which compel SSMU to campaign against specific nations.” Can we really? It’s not as though that’s the single obvious definition. Moreover, as previously established, BDS does not oppose Israel in any intrinsic way – it would only oblige SSMU to campaign against specific Israeli policies. But if the JBoard conflates a nation with the policies of that nation’s government, the logic of this reference dictates that it would be unconstitutional for SSMU to campaign against the policies of any national government.

The implications of this are disturbing to say the least. Want SSMU to support organizations campaigning against the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people? Nope, that would “oppose” Myanmar. Or maybe you’d like SSMU to allocate some resources to Indigenous land defenders here in Canada, as they fight the environmental racism of the Trudeau government’s pipeline policies? Sorry, not an option.

By ratifying this reference, the Board of Directors has created a precedent that effectively prevents SSMU from taking a stance against systemic oppression, whether in Palestine, in Canada, or anywhere else.

BDS doesn’t target Israelis

Campaigning against specific government policies does not imply opposition to the nation governed, nor does it imply the targeting of that nation’s citizens. In fact, BDS is firmly and explicitly not concerned with ordinary Israelis – it takes issue with the actions of politicians, corporations, and institutions. There is absolutely no reason to believe that aligning SSMU with the movement would place Israeli students at a “structural disadvantage,” and indeed this argument trivializes the very concept of structural oppression.

Consider that right now, McGill’s Palestinian students pay fees to a school that literally profits from the ongoing ethnic cleansing of their homeland and the dispossession of their people. Our university invests in the Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank, which finances the construction of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, and in Re/Max, which sells real estate in those settlements. Affiliation with BDS wouldn’t target, discriminate against, or in any way oppress Israeli students, but it would absolutely be a crucial first step in redressing the structural disadvantage at which Palestinian students already find themselves.

Now, the JBoard supports their claim about the supposed harmful potential of BDS by describing the tense atmosphere that prevailed on campus in the days surrounding the crucial GA. “The BDS Motion,” reads the reference, “resulted in palpable tension throughout campus. Students – on both sides – were left yearning for the ‘safer spaces’ that SSMU is designed to provide. Instead, what they got was harassment and open discrimination, particularly through social media outlets.”

Consider that right now, McGill’s Palestinian students pay fees to a school that literally profits from the ongoing ethnic cleansing of their homeland and the dispossession of their people.

This is perfectly accurate: students on either side of the issue reported harassment and abuse, and I’m in no position to claim that one community was targeted more than another. What I do know, however, is that suppressing political debate on the question of BDS is emphatically not the solution – on the contrary, it is misguided, cowardly, and deeply unethical.

This issue is “divisive,” just like many of the most important social and political issues of our time, but divisiveness isn’t an inherently negative quality. In this case, BDS is divisive because powerful structural forces – the Canadian and Israeli governments, the mainstream Western media, the military-industrial complex, global corporate interests – are stacked against it, and it represents a radical disruption of the status quo. As such, banning BDS constitutes a craven embrace of the status quo, and the oppressive forces that profit from it.

So yes, BDS makes some people uncomfortable, and yes, the tensions surrounding it gave rise to some ugliness on campus last year – but it isn’t the source of that ugliness. The way to end harassment is to campaign against racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, and instead of shying away from BDS, SSMU should be making such campaigns a funding priority.  

The Board’s lack of transparency

While the unconstitutionality of BDS is doubtful to say the least, there is no doubt whatsoever that the BoD’s current composition violates SSMU’s constitution. Instead of the requisite four executives, four councillors, and four members-at-large, the BoD contains only three executives – Muna Tojiboeva, Maya Koparkar, and Arisha Khan. The fourth executive seat is being filled by an extra member-at-large, appointed by a committee of the BoD through a non-transparent nomination process. The other members consist of eight more members-at-large, including only one current councillor.

Still more egregious is the fact that Tojiboeva, current SSMU President and Chair of the BoD, ran for office on a platform of accountability and transparency. Why, then, was the student press not notified in advance of Sunday’s Board meeting? Why have the minutes from that meeting not yet been made available to the public, let alone the minutes from the past two years? Why was the first order of business at that meeting to approve a legal reference which Tojiboeva herself had given last year, when she was still a member of the JBoard? And why was there no student consultation ahead of what would clearly prove to be a highly controversial decision?

Why have the minutes from that meeting not yet been made available to the public, let alone the minutes from the past two years?

Rather than ushering in a period of measured, responsible governance, Tojiboeva has done the opposite. Today, the BoD wields more unchecked power than ever, and they have chosen to wield it in a way that has already done lasting damage to student activism, and to whatever fragile trust remains between SSMU and its membership.

In summary: fuck this

So here we are: the BoD, an unelected and non-transparent body, just upheld a reference from the JBoard, another unelected and non-transparent body (whose members the Board itself helped to select). This reference is founded on half-truths and blatant lies. It manipulates anti-oppressive language in the service of oppression. And most disturbingly of all, it creates a precedent which will continue to stifle progressive change on campus for years to come.

This article was updated at 2a.m. on September 24 to clarify that there are currently 12 Directors, not 11 as initially stated.