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Boycott, Define, Specify

A targeted boycott is the way forward for pro-Palestine advocates at McGill

Israel’s recent assault on Gaza is one of the most brutal and indiscriminate urban military campaigns in recent history, killing nearly 30,000 people at the time of writing according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Starvation and disease tear through the Palestinian refugee population as the Israeli state restricts access to food and other supplies. Meanwhile, settler militias in the occupied West Bank escalate an ethnic cleansing campaign with the support of the Israeli military. Leading Israeli politicians have reiterated their opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state and plan for the indefinite occupation of the Gaza Strip.

With all of this unfolding, international pressure is more needed than ever, and boycotts are a tool accessible to civil society and students. In 2022, for example, the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) forced the baked goods company Pillsbury to divest from a factory located in occupied East Jerusalem. At the same time, Michael Bueckert, vice-president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, highlights the need to be “very clear about our objectives.”

Important efforts to advance a boycott at McGill have run aground on avoidable errors. Both the 2021 Palestine Solidarity Policy and the 2023 Policy Against Genocide in Palestine passed with strong majorities through a student vote only to face legal and administrative opposition. The 2023 Policy is now caught up in litigation. A major roadblock, rarely discussed in student media, was raised a few years ago by SSMU’s Judicial Board. As is emphasized in the Board’s 2021 clarification on the legality of policies against the actions of a particular country, SSMU’s Constitution “favours specificity and precision over broad undefined policies that may or may not contravene equity concerns.” This poses a problem for the policy, which proposes a blanket boycott against “corporations, institutions, or individuals complicit in genocide, settler-colonialism, or ethnic cleansing against Palestinians.” The meaning of “complicit” is not defined.

As mentioned by Bueckert, vague policy risks unintended consequences. In 2019, for example, the University of Toronto Graduate Student Union refused to support a campus kosher food initiative, claiming it was “pro-Israel” and against “the will of the membership.” A student union is of course entitled to criticize a state and pursue policies accordingly. But in this application, BDS policy slipped into restricting and marginalizing basic Jewish community functions, and confusing Jewishness with pro-Israel sentiment. The union soon recanted under legal and public pressure, but this antisemitic incident is not anomalous to the history of student campaigns against Israel. The commonplace that “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism” obscures the rather more complicated facts of Jewish life as it exists. Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, but the two are not mutually exclusive. Israel is a demographic, cultural, and religious center of modern Jewry. It is not hard to discover evidence of association if you look for it –– and for many, association means complicity in state violence. Boycotts that pay no mind to these complexities too often place the onus on Jews to prove their “innocence”. So, kosher food is too “complicit”, same with multi-faith chicken soup charity initiatives, Yiddish cultural centers, and so on. Such unforced errors are political and legal liabilities, damaging to both Jewish communities and Palestine solidarity activism.

These problems speak to the double-edged legacy of the historical boycotts against Israel. Many activists take inspiration from the well-known divestment campaign against apartheid South Africa — a landmark of collective civic action in which McGill students played a proud role. And Palestinian civil society has long organized its resistance around boycotts. At the same time, Middle Eastern writers have discussed the role of anti-normalization policy, which aims to isolate Israel and those who associate with the state, in the construction of autocracy and the liquidation of Jewish populations in Arab states. Leila Ahmed, noted Egyptian American scholar of Islam, argues in her memoir A Border Passage that the anti-Zionist campaigns of her childhood justified the expansion of the Egyptian secret police and “proclaimed implicitly our opposition to the ‘Zionists’ in our midst, Egyptian Jews.” Tunisian President Kais Saied recently proposed an anti-NGO law that protects his increasingly autocratic presidency under the cover of anti-normalization. The ancient Jewish communities in both Egypt and Tunisia have been reduced to shadows of their former selves.

At heart, the situation challenges McGill students to negotiate differences on a diverse campus. Similar challenges would arise should students decide on a stricter campaign against the Chinese state (for its treatment of Uyghur Muslims), the Moroccan state (for the occupation of the Western Sahara), or indeed any other state that persecutes specific marginalized groups. Ensuring the wellness and safety of Jewish communities is especially important given recent attacks against Jewish schools and synagogues in this city.

Yet there need not be any conflict between preserving Jewish communities and advocating for Palestine at McGill. Pro-Palestinian and divestment advocates have documented some institutions in McGill’s investment portfolio which are most complicit in human rights violations against Palestinians. Notable examples include Re/Max, which sells real estate on illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank; Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank, which helps finance illegal settlement building; and Motorola Solutions, which provides extensive support to Israeli military operations and surveillance. By proposing a boycott policy against specific targets, advocates for Palestine at McGill can bypass legal barriers and push forward an urgently needed divestment.