Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Enduring Silence of UBC’s ‘Hunting Ground’

Several months ago, a UBC student who had been sexually harassed told me that while university administrators publicly insist that we should openly confront and discuss such incidents, the real message they habitually, directly deliver to those who have been assaulted is, “Shh.” The student laughed and her eyes widened as she drew her index finger to her lips to repeat and illustrate the point: “Shh.”

My admiration for this student is immense, and I know that she will be okay – better than okay – but her sense of humour belied her ongoing ordeals: the act of harassment itself; the isolation arising from our collective refusal to publicly acknowledge this transgression; and the burdensome weight of endless meetings and interviews on her, and not on her assailant. These are some of the themes of The Hunting Ground, a recently released movie that explores the problem of sexual violence, and various non-efforts to assault it, on university campuses in the USA. My sense is that UBC has engaged in similar non-efforts for a long, long time. One story from my past illustrates this, I think. I share it not to get even, but to cast light on a problem.

About twenty years ago in the wake of a crisis in the Political Science Department that received international attention, I addressed one of my classes about professorial sexual harassment of students. Our discussion turned to what are allegedly consensual relations between professors and students. I told the students that this is a line that should never be crossed, as it invariably issues from power inequities and violates trust. Nonetheless, I said, in the recent past a female student had killed herself after an affair with a professor had gone woefully, tragically wrong.

How did I know this? A high-ranking university administrator with responsibilities in our counseling services had told me. There was no reason for this person to deceive me about the story or any of its details – one of which was that the professor involved was not a member of the Political Science Department.

Months later, I received a furious call from the dean of arts, who demanded that I appear that day in her office to answer charges of professional misconduct. I had no clue what I might have done. When I arrived in the dean’s office, she told me that she had learned that I had identified a specific professor as having been implicated in the suicide, and had told my students that the woman’s nude body, along with a journal that named names, had been found on Wreck Beach. In the Dean’s office were two other faculty members, men, also dismissive of my denial, who were known to have had a close relationship with at least one of their women students. The dean, for her part, had been a colleague of the professor who was involved with the deceased woman.

Needless to say, I felt as though I had fallen into the proverbial good old boys club. No one in the club, I knew, would want the story of the suicide to come out, as I had in fact told my students it should.

The dean told me that my job was at stake: in her view, I had “slandered” colleagues and moreover was “guilty of spreading rumors.” I quickly hired an attorney and private investigator, who interviewed my students. To the chagrin of the dean and other university administrators, the students told the truth: I had drawn no link between the deceased student and the Political Science Department and had not mentioned any details about her death. The cost of proving this? A cool ten grand.

But the real cost was larger. Though I thwarted the dean, and my own department head, and though there would be no official record of the incident, I was compelled to apologize – not surprising, given that UBC’s lawyer, in finest Stalinist form, had asked me to rat out the colleague who had told me of the suicide. I declined.

But I am not proud to say that, in the end, the combined efforts of UBC’s administrators largely worked: for many years, I shut up about this incident, lost my voice, and became a more timid teacher, sometimes manoeuvring as carefully in my classrooms as I had manoeuvred in newsrooms where I had been a reporter for the mainstream press. I spoke to students, from time to time, about male proprietorship and predatory violence and, often quoting the writer James Baldwin, about how an intimate relationship between unequals always is “perverse.” More recently, I have included a section on sexual harassment and assault in my undergraduate, and graduate, syllabi, and have pointed to the lingering effects of my encounter with the dean as an example of enforced, complicitous silence. That a tenured, male faculty member could be intimidated for speaking out, one wise student explained to me, only underscores the far greater difficulties facing women students who may be considering an attack on UBC’s culture of “shh-ing.”

The experiences of the student who identified the ubiquitous “shh-ing” virus, UBC’s well-documented under-reporting of sexual violence against women, and multiple instances of rape and harassment here and at many other North American universities plainly have demonstrated that the male predation and misogyny which shape our academic lives awaits full unsilencing. But the reputation of the university’s brand always is at stake – at Dalhousie, at Harvard, at Florida State, at Stanford – and often administrators and faculty worry more about their corporate careers than about their students.

So, the history of silence at UBC, too, is a long one.

It is time – past time – to engage in the unsilencing of all of this – and to change it. We all need to be immunized against “shh-ing.” What possible risks could an inoculation bring?

This question might well be directed, in the first instance, to the editors of The Ubyssey. They refused to publish this essay. How many others have engaged in acts of silencing? Why?

–     Paul Krause, Associate Professor, UBC Department of History

Special thanks to many anonymous editors and readers, and the editorial collective of The Talon.


Homelessness is Not a Choice

I am deeply indebted to the Coast Salish people, the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam nations on whose unceded lands I think, teach, learn, and write. With my heartfelt gratitude.

It is springtime again and the Five Days for the Homeless Campaign has recently concluded at UBC. The campaign’s website states that student participants had to make five days of “personal sacrifices for the betterment of their community,” and suspend any sense of comfort to raise awareness on the issues of homelessness in Vancouver. The students camped outside of the Irving K. Barber library with their accoutrements – sleeping bags, pillows, cardboard signs asking for donations for the homeless.

While I applaud these student’s well meaning intentions, I am appalled at this misguided attempt to raise awareness. It trivializes homelessness, removes it from the larger systemic context of social inequality (aka capitalism), and invisibilizes the effects of settler colonialism and racism of which homelessness is a by product and a symptom. For example, there was no mention that the campaign was taking place on unceded Musqueam territory. This silence is indicative of, and complicit with, a settler colonial project that is premised upon ongoing displacement of Indigenous peoples, here the Musqueam people. This fact is completely erased by a campaign that prizes itself to support the displaced. To me, the campaign is indicative of self-indulgent white saviourism and white privilege, and promotes the misconception that capitalism can actually be an activist force.

A little history about how this project is first and foremost linked to the business community is in order. This charity was first conceived at the University of Alberta’s School of Business in 2005 and spread to other universities including UBC. The students participating in the campaign were to “give up creature comforts and basic necessities for five days to raise money and awareness for…a local charity.” The campaign received further support from local businesses and banks. At UBC, it purports to raise awareness about homelessness and provide funds for the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. It further invites corporate sponsors “to show…[their] support for the local community by promoting…[their] company to the general public.” Yes, you heard it right: this is benevolent capitalism at its finest.

The pseudo-altruism and irony of this charitable enterprise is worth noting here: the homeless and their plight become commodities that help the sponsors self-promote their so-called ‘service’ to the community and become visible to the general public. Homelessness is not the problem – but rather capitalism is – and the irony of corporate sponsorship indicates that indeed, capitalism will stop at nothing. Not only does this campaign obscure the fact that capitalism is the root cause of social inequality, but it enables corporations to commodify the homeless as a cultural capital to reap more profit. And how cool is that? Next time that we hear that 98 CORPORATE GROUP RESOURCES LTD, or DESJARDINS, or CACHE CREEK NATURAL BEEF Co have sponsored Five Days For the Homeless at UBC, we will know that capitalism cares. And isn’t that great: we can then proceed to consume more stuff because, you know, these people “give back” to the community. But let me be clear: activist capitalism is just as ludicrous an oxymoron as green capitalism is a contradiction in terms. As Slavoj Zizek might say, this is how capitalism gives with one hand while destroying with the other.

While the intentions of the students are heartfelt, Five Days for the Homeless – particularly in the way it is tied to the business world – is nothing but a “band aid” campaign. It bears similarities to the ways Bill Gates, George Soros and other corporate moguls “help” the so-called Third-World, or how privileged celebrities such as Madonna, Angelina Jolie, and Bono “help” Africa. As critics such as Dambisa Mayo, Claudette Carr, and Teju Cole remind us, this type of charity is “in dire need…[of] shift[ing] from patronising the ‘poor’, to deprogramming the truly impoverished” (Carr). This points to the necessity of sustainable solutions such as creating more accessible social housing and jobs, and finding ways to halt gentrification. It also entails that the spokespeople for help/charity/support should be the homeless and displaced themselves, not privileged students who temporarily suspend their comforts. I’d like to quote Carr’s words in referring to the “wise Nigerian elder, Chinua Achebe, who reminds us that, ‘While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary’” (Carr, emphasis in the original). In other words, the real solution does not lie on “band aid” projects, but on the eradication of the root problem of homelessness: capitalism, colonialism, and racism, to name a few.

Furthermore the campaign erases the everyday struggles and traumatic experiences – such as mental illness, addiction and abuse – that the homeless face and survive on a daily basis. For most of these people living in the streets is the only “choice” that they have – and as such, it is not really a choice. By pretending to embody the experiences of houseless folks and those bodies/minds of the displaced, the students disempower and victimize the homeless. Moreover, they usurp the voice of folks living in the streets. In other words, not only do these students speak for the homeless, but they do so without enabling dialogue with those they advocate for. By extension, the displaced become the pitied other, the utterly silent victim of the students’ campaign.

Thus, the student participants in this charity project become the ventriloquists of the homeless; they become saviors, the “altruistic” persons who make the sacrifices. But by day 5 they are able to pack up the props of the homeless soap opera, go back home, and hop into a warm shower with their consciences pacified: they’ve done their bit; they’ve raised money; they’ve “helped” the homeless. But in truth, their campaign has violently silenced and victimized the homeless, used them as props to assuage their guilt of privilege, removed the social context of the reasons for their homelessness, and robbed them of any dignity. In this social melodrama, there are no resilient or resisting folks, but only eternal, pitiful homeless “victims”.

Let me be clear: I do not have a problem with the students’ genuinely caring intentions; what I am opposed to is the ineffectiveness of the campaign’s tactics. I take issue with how the five days “ordeal” gives the wrong message rather than raising awareness: ultimately, it trivializes homelessness. Let’s face it: pretending that we are homeless for five days while knowing that we can return back to comforts of our homes and privileged lives does not make us homeless and never will.

The term ‘homeless’ has essentialist implications based on class, race, and ability. It is a derogatory generalization that homogenizes all experiences of homelessness and all houseless people. It casts doubt on the work ethic of many houseless folks while absolving the capitalist system of its role in unemployment or in lack of housing. In other words, it decontextualizes the problem of homelessness and puts the onus on countless of people without shelter whose lives have been determined and destroyed by the social policies of the capitalist state. For example, many people with mental health issues are forced into homelessness because they are denied access to housing.

The problem has become so pervasive that now there is a trend to evict people living in the streets from the streets themselves. An episode on CBC’s The Current called By Design explores how cities are designed for the privileged few and how streets have become hostile for the homeless by relying on “defensive, anti-homeless architecture” that keeps people living in the streets out of public spaces. Some of these architectural “miracles” of rampant capitalism are managed by privately owned companies called POPS. “Defensive architecture” ranges from putting gates into parks where homeless often try to find respite, designing benches that are uncomfortable to sleep in, installing spikes in front of buildings to prevent homeless from sleeping in front of them and so on. I doubt that a real displaced person, who happened to seek shelter in front of the library, would have had the same welcoming fate by UBC and its security as did the campaigners of Five Days for the Homeless.

Many of the homeless in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside (DTES) are Indigenous people and more specifically Indigenous women; this is not coincidental at all, for Canada’s genocidal policies continue to dispossess Indigenous communities from their land through coerced relocation, removal and the institution of residential schools and the reserve system. As Indigenous feminists Andrea Smith and Leanne Simpson argue, racialized sexual violence against Indigenous women is a common means of consolidating Canada’s colonial project. Colonialism’s violent attempts “to disappear the Indian” in Smith’s words, forcibly displaces Indigenous peoples and converts them into perpetual homeless victims par excellence. Today, this very process has morphed into Indigenous homelessness in Vancouver DTES and other sites of displacement across Canada, as well as prisons filled to the brim with Indigenous people. Meanwhile, euphemisms for the colonial settler obscure the reality of violence that we (settlers) perpetuate. 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women is a fact that attests to the colonial acts of displacing and disappearing them and refusing to do anything about it. As Melissa Herman, a resilient ex-homeless Indigenous woman, reminds us: they are constantly “being written off [read: being erased] as high-risk aboriginal women.” The Five Days For the Homeless campaign surreptitiously isolates homelessness from this context, makes it seem like an individual choice, places it in a social vacuum, and transforms it into an adventure that a few students with homes undertake for a few guilt-free days.

However, there are countless stories of resilient displaced folks who can never be defined as powerless victims. Consider, for example, the story of “The Artist Formerly Known As Homeless Dave,” who in March 2013 “began a hunger strike in support of housing rights and social justice in the Downtown Eastside. The strike was announced in front of the controversial Sequel 138 development site at Main and Hastings, where a developer is planning to build unaffordable market condos using a financial subsidy from the BC Liberal government.” His demands were “that the city decline the development permit for Sequel 138; that the former Main Street police station be used for social housing; and that the Downtown Eastside be declared a ‘social justice zone.” “We’re not about smashing windows,” he stated, “we’re about smashing the old broken paradigms and building new paradigms that are more just and equal.” Dave’s strike gained the support of First Nations leaders while other residents of the DTES have been active in successful Social Housing Coalitions.

Forgive me, then, if I say that I’m not interested in this campaign at all. In fact, I find it offensive, abhorrent, narcissistic and disempowering to those it purports to help. Homelessness. Is. Not. A. Choice. In contrast, it is inextricably linked to the inequalities produced by white privilege, capitalism and settler colonialism of which the campaign is a part of. Homelessness can only be eradicated when capitalism and settler colonialism cease to exist altogether.

Postscript: On March 12 2015 just after my class I dropped by the I.K Barber library and chatted with some of the participants in this campaign. I pointed out to them some of the above concerns although admittedly our conversation was very brief. They invited me to give them feedback on their campaign. Here is my feedback and a list of suggestions. I also invite my readers to please feel free to add to this tentative list any other suggestions that address the above ethical concerns about their project.

  1. Stop NOW this misguided campaign in its current format: the soap opera of privileged kids pretending to be homeless for five days gives the wrong message to students and the UBC community; it trafficks on the misery of others, trivializes and commodifies homelessness.
  2. Find other ethical and rather humble ways to raise awareness that do not appropriate the voice and experiences of people living in the streets.
  3. Reflect on your own race, ability, and class privilege, on your location and social context. Reflect genuinely and sincerely on the land you occupy and on your status as a settler.
  4. Opt for forms of helping by becoming “unsung heroes,” or by refusing entirely the role of the self-sacrificing hero and the white saviour. Work from the margins: most of all never put on a show that highlights YOU and how much YOU care by acting out and appropriating the experiences of extremely vulnerable people.
  5. Refuse to include corporations and big businesses in your campaign particularly when they do this to self-promote. Misery is not a commodity. Misery is not for sale.
  6. In your campaign find ways to contextualize homelessness as an issue of systemic inequality (of capitalism, settler colonialism, ableism, misogyny, and racism).
  7. However you choose to raise awareness and funds, always remember to take great care to not victimize marginalized communities. Find resilient voices that resist the social circumstances they were forced to inhabit; be deeply aware of how your campaign may intentionally or unintentionally disempower and remove agency from those it aims at empowering.
  8. No person of privilege should speak on behalf of the homeless. No superficial or tokenizing advocacy for the homeless can be a solution to the problem of homelessness. As the story of “The Artist Formerly Known as Homeless Dave” implies, the spokespeople for the homeless can only be those that have experienced and understand homelessness. They can only advocate for those living in the streets in a meaningful manner that demands real and radical solutions.
  9.  “Help the homeless” by opting not for “Band Aid” campaigns but for projects that fight for radical social change and undermine the very systems that create disposable and displaced people.

Litsa Chatzivasileiou has a PhD in Hispanic Studies with a specialization in feminist philosophy and cultural theory, in particular post-structuralism and post-colonial studies. She has worked as an assistant professor at the Hispanic Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is currently a sessional instructor at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice and teaches critical race, Indigenous, diaspora and gender studies.

Dedicated to my wonderful students in GRSJ 328/2015: Kim, Erin, Sarah V. W., Susan, Haneen, Ciara, Sierra, Emma, Samir, Kay, Kelly, Cecilia, Tania, Donna, Jillian, Laura, Teresa, Natasha, Allison, Alyssa, Sarah J., Alison, Krista, Zoe A., Becca, Zoe D., Jason, Suzi, Sherry, Anita, Amanda, Ghada, Giselle, Sarah B., Shoukia, Marlee, Anna, Celeste. You are my inspiration.

Many thanks to the editors of The Talon for their thoughtful comments and suggestions on this piece.

Pièce de Résistance – Art as Revolution

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

At an open mic evening called Spoken Works III: Centring Black Voices, some of those stories were released. Held on March 4th at Heartwood Community Café, non-black organizer Jane Shi explained that the vision for this event was multifaceted: to form an inclusive and anti-oppressive space; to honour the process of sharing through spoken word, poetry, and music; and to extend February as Black History Month and centre black voices. She clarified: “competitive poetry can often be intimidating, and dominated by an inaccessible aesthetic. Centring voices amplifies voices.” As a non-black person of colour as well, I strive to avoid any appropriation of voices and experiences that are not my own. I do hope, however, to  situate the performances within a larger concept of art and expression as a form of revolution.

“Humans are capable of seeing themselves in the act of seeing, of thinking their emotions, of being moved by their thoughts.”

– Augustus Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed

Augustus Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed sheds light on the possibility of social and political change, made concrete when spectators feel empowered to participate. Boal began this participatory theatre movement in late 1960s Latin America, in which he suggested that the theatre becomes the literal stage to act out the ways that marginalized people have been repressed and the forces that repress them, bringing it to the forefront of their consciousness. I find that any type of artistic expression has the same profound effect. As “spect-actors,” artists are capable of exploring and transforming the dramatic reality they live in as a ‘rehearsal for revolution.’ The importance of creating a space for people to share rough drafts, old works, and deepest reflections was highlighted at Spoken Works. In the words of artists and audience alike, crucial dialogue came into the spotlight that would otherwise be difficult to engage with in public.

One of the poets, Wendy-Akosua Addo, gave context for her semi auto-ethnographic piece ‘Voices on my African Canadian Ears’: “Everyone has stories, and they should be able to share them more. It’s really empowering, you realise connections you didn’t know existed.” Performer Anoushka Ratnarajah’s reflection on “amalgamations of racism” while growing up mixed-race in the English town of Ladner was born because “these stories are usually pushed to the side. But in an audience of peers, it has the opportunity to be healing. You get to process trauma, good feelings, and memories because anybody is welcome, everyone is warm and supportive, and you absorb that energy. There’s not a lot of that in traditional art.” These are just a few examples of poetry that started out in catharsis that turned into unifying symbols of specific experience. Words are powerfully inspiring tools, once you absorb the rich imagery. Because art transgresses.

“The personal is political.”

– Carol Hanisch, in a 1969 Essay of the same title

The element of theatre that’s built into art empowers people whose voices are marginalized in society. Artists subvert the overarching structures by reclaiming power through their creations, regardless of medium or skill level. As described by Aly Dee, a visual artist at Spoken Works: “Making art is medicine.” She emphasised the significance of any art made by racialized people, as “essential to survival” and crucial to their story. The resistance that comes with performance and participation can have meaningful implications even as a spectator. Urooba Jamal shared that her first introduction into social justice was through slam poetry, because “sharing a common space with radical people…is where the revolution starts.” Cicely Blain clarified: “Especially if your voice is not generally represented or heard, art is your outlet, and in a space [like Spoken Works], it is safe.” More importantly, she emphasised the personal impact that comes with disclosure as helpful to counter the self-censorship that marginalized persons live with constantly. In learning to be honest with yourself and unlearning internalised oppression, “the revolution can be as much as loving yourself.”

[Spoken Works III: Centring Black Voices – event page]


Social Justice Synonyms #20: “You guys”

Welcome back to Social Justice Synonyms, a column at The Talon that discusses the power of language and why we should unlearn the words that maintain the status quo. For more insight, check out our past segments here.

This week’s segment looks at needlessly gendered terms, specifically the phrase “guys/you guys.”

Greeting a group of friends with “Hey, guys!” has become so embedded in our everyday speech that most of us likely don’t notice what we’re saying. Regardless of our gender identities and the identities of the folks around us, “guys” is often used as a plural noun to address a group of people. While this term is relatively informal and most used to address close friends or people who we’ve gotten to know, it still has the power to marginalize and erase many different identities within your group settings. If phrases like “you guys” are meant to be inclusive and neutral, why is masculinity covering up so many other identities?

Saying “guys” when addressing a group of people of different genders has become so common that almost any dictionary definition will make note of it1. It doesn’t just happen in English – for example, if my grade school French class memory serves me right, the pronoun “ils” (meaning masculine plural “they”) is used for a group of people if a minimum of one person identifies as male or masculine, regardless of how many folks in the group identify otherwise. When thinking about how languages gender their nouns, masculinity is often positioned as the default, all-encompassing standard.

In many ways, masculinity may be seen as “gender-neutral” or “androgynous” – for example, this occurs in the realm of gender presentation. Speaking from my experience as a non-binary person (I do not identify as either of, or between, the two Western binary genders of man and woman2), there’s a common notion that non-binary folks, and particularly those who are AFAB (assigned “female” at birth by a doctor, often based on genitalia), must incorporate “menswear” into their presentation in order to be “truly” non-binary or androgynous. This narrative erases femme identities, as well as folks who do not wish to be associated with masculinity or “maleness.” While gender identity and gender expression/presentation are two different things, masculinity is still framed as a norm or requisite for gender-neutrality, and phrases like “you guys,” “mankind,” and “he” (used as a gender-neutral pronoun from the early-18th to mid-20th centuries) work in the same way.

This inherent masculinity-as-standard concept is one of the main reasons why using “guys” as a greeting for a multi-gender group is harmful. By imposing “maleness” as the default, all other genders are pushed to subordinate status, reinforcing patriarchal, (cis)sexist power structures that privilege men. It fails to acknowledge the multitude of gender identities and expressions that may exist within a group and uses a very gendered, masculinized term as a catch-all to describe these identities.

Additionally, using “guys” to address a group of people assumes that everyone in the group is comfortable with being called a “guy.” This creates an especially unsafe space for non-binary folks, two-spirit people, and other identities that do not fall within the two Western colonial binary genders, as well as trans women and AMAB (assigned “male” at birth) transfeminine folks who experience the overlapping oppressions of sexism and transmisogyny (the common punchline of trans women as men/guys in dresses being an example of this).

In short, needlessly gendered terms such as “you guys” reinforce male structural dominance over other gender identities and assumes a person’s comfort with being labelled as a “guy.” Consider the ways in which gendered terms create unsafe spaces for many folks, and the positive impact of de-gendering your language to create inclusive spaces for everyone in your group settings.

“Hey, guys!” “Hey, folks, friends, pals, comrades, all, y’all, everyone!”
“What are you guys up to today?” “What are your plans for today?”
“I love you guys!” “I have so much love for all of you! I couldn’t ask for better people to smash the white supremacist colonial capitalist cisheteropatriarchy with.”

Marlee is a second-year GRSJ and sociology double major at UBC who is passionate about queer and trans activism, radical care, and petting dogs.

UBC SPHR Press Release: UBC’s AMS Officially Opposes Campus Boycott and Divest Campaign

Vancouver, BC – On March 4, 2015, the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) student union, the AMS, voted to officially oppose the boycott and divestment campaign put forth by on-campus student group Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR). The campaign seeks to implement the BDS movement at the student union level at the university that would boycott products and support divestment from companies that are complicit in Israeli war crimes and illegal occupation of Palestinian land. After months of labour by SPHR members to elicit student and faculty support for the campaign and following the submission of over 1,000 student signatures supporting the referendum question on BDS, the AMS called an emergency meeting where it voted to take a stance against the campaign, endorsing an “anything but a Yes” position.  As a result, the AMS has advised the student population at UBC to either abstain from voting or to vote against the BDS referendum proposed by SPHR. This position was adopted despite the fact that the AMS itself had established that the referendum question, namely “Do you support your student union (the AMS), in boycotting products and divesting from companies that support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation, and the oppression of Palestinians?”, was a binary question.  What is clearly evident from this statement is that a binary question does not allow for a third option – meaning “anything but a Yes” in this case, means a No. The decision made by the AMS to oppose a referendum question put forth by members of the student body that they are elected to represent is of great concern to SPHR and our allies, and should be to all those who are committed to democratic practice, student rights, and social justice issues on and off campus.

In justifying their position, members of the AMS expressed concern that the campaign has allegedly caused discomfort and unease for some students on campus, and stated that their stance aims only to encourage the student body to be critical of voting Yes. To this, SPHR  asks two questions: Firstly, why doesn’t our student union want students to be equally critical of voting No? Given that Israel repeatedly acts in contempt of international law, continues to violate the human rights of Palestinians, maintains a rigid apartheid system complete with checkpoints and an illegal wall, has repeatedly been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and whose military was responsible for the killing of over 2,100 Palestinians, including almost 500 children in Gaza in July and August 2014, it seems evidently clear to us that our student union should also be concerned about what it would mean for students to vote No. Does the AMS believe that students should support the perpetration of such destructive violence? Our second question concerns the very assumptions underlying the justifications for taking such a stance, namely that the AMS is concerned that students may vote Yes without having thought critically about the issue at hand. To this we ask, does the AMS believe UBC students are incapable of informed decision-making? The AMS did not take a stance on student-run campaigns last year, including the referendums on advocating for lower tuition and on divesting from fossil fuels, further demonstrating that their position is a poor excuse for shutting down a campaign that has not only garnered significant support on campus thus far, but has also generated discussion, debate, and dialogue on a critical issue in international and Canadian politics. There is something to be said here about the ways in which the AMS has made it seem as though students cannot do their own research, investigate the different points of views concerning the BDS movement, and to reach out to SPHR and/or other groups on campus to come to an educated decision when voting Yes or No. We find this excuse to be not only disingenuous and unfair, but also one that will inevitably inhibit critical thought and much-needed discussion concerning an important social justice issue.

UBC students have every right to demand that their student union boycott and divest from companies that cause social injury, and students should not be marginalized in the process. SPHR’s Boycott and Divestment campaign is rooted in a commitment to dismantle systems of domination such as settler colonialism, imperialism, apartheid, and occupation, and work towards a future where all people can live free of oppression and have their basic human rights and dignity respected. It has been disheartening to see such virulent opposition and hatred directed at SPHR and its members over the past few months from certain groups and factions of the student body for raising awareness and working hard on an important campaign as part of a global solidarity movement committed to justice.

The stance taken by the AMS not only delegitimizes the concerns and well-being of a segment of the student body that it is mandated to represent, but also fails to live up to its ethical obligations by opposing a student-run campaign that advocates for Palestinian human rights. By voicing their concern regarding the tensions that have resulted from this campaign, the AMS has chosen to ignore the ways in which the violence of the occupation extends to our campus and affects the lives of many students, and has instead opted to favour complacency over critical engagement. To quote from a statement published by the Northeastern University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine following their ban in March 2014: ”It should not make anyone comfortable to know that Israel acts in contempt of international law. I would hope that no one feels comfortable or good or even indifferent when forced to contemplate, if only for a few moments, the violent reality facing Palestinians every day.”  It should also not make anyone comfortable to know that we are complicit in this violence. Given that UBC claims to be a ‘place of mind’, should the student population not be encouraged to engage and discuss an issue as important as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  Instead, the AMS now officially oppose the referendum and recommends that students abstain or vote No, presumably on the assumption that students deserve to be kept ignorant about this vital issue. This blatant disregard for the hundreds of students who spent months working and building support for the BDS campaign at UBC is unacceptable.

The AMS decision, coupled with the aggressive and hateful counter-campaign launched by Hillel House, is a reminder of our university’s own investment in settler colonialism on this land. Indeed, the colonial reality of Canada’s violent establishment through the dispossession, genocide, neglect, abuse, and forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples, the understanding that UBC itself stands on stolen xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam) land, remain constant reminders of the ongoing settler colonial violence that Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island (North America) continue to face and to resist. SPHR’s commitment to anti-colonial politics is central to the ways in which we understand our work as taking place on unceded and occupied lands, and that the struggle for Palestinians’ rights and freedom from occupation is intimately tied to the struggles for self-determination and sovereignty of Indigenous people on this land. Our campaign to get the AMS to boycott products and divest from companies that are complicit in Israeli war crimes and violations of international and human rights law is not an unreasonable demand- indeed, it is a necessary one. The events that have occurred across campus over the last few weeks show that there has in fact been a dialogue concerning the BDS movement on our campus, and the AMS should foster rather than inhibit these critical moments of learning. The AMS is responsible for representing the diversity of opinions and experiences reflected in the student population, not to legitimize some perspectives and actively seek to marginalize others. It is neither their mandate, nor their right, to do so.

Binary decisions force us to take positions on issues that are nuanced and complicated. However, there are causes where it becomes important to identify clearly where you stand with regards to the inalienable rights of others, and whether you support justice or oppression. Voting to dissociate yourself from products and companies that profit from the misery and marginalization of an entire peoples is one of them.

Zionists are not your enemy
How divestment activists at UBC can win over Jewish students and fight oppression more effectively

One needs to repeat that what in Zionism served the no doubt fully justified ends of Jewish tradition, saving the Jews as a people from homelessness and anti-Semitism, and restoring them to nationhood, also collaborated with those aspects of the dominant Western culture (in which Zionism exclusively and institutionally lived) making it possible for Europeans to view non-Europeans as inferior, marginal, and irrelevant. For the Palestinian Arab, therefor, it is the collaboration that has counted, not by any means the fulfillment of Jewish nationalism.

– Edward Said, Zionism From the Standpoint of Its Victims, 1979

Part I: Off the bus

The bus rocks back and forth in stop and go traffic. I look out the window. Limestone and concrete housing developments hug the hills west of Jerusalem, towering over Bedouin camps below, marked by goat herds and tattered tarps. I walk down the aisle to where our trip leader is.

“I’m not going to Ma’ale Adumim,” I tell my teacher.

Watching the tour bus lurch on toward one of the most problematic West Bank settlements, I realized something was wrong. My high school classmates were progressive and politically active, yet only three of us stood together on the sidewalk.


The Ubyssey covers the protests against former Israeli general and defense minister Moshe Dayan’s visit to campus in 1975.

Palestinian activism has crystallized around the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, with dozens of student councils across North America, nine in Canada, passing divestment resolutions targeting Israel. I have followed these BDS debates both as a correspondent for a Jewish news service and as a Jewish student with friends on many of the campuses. I have noticed that while Jews have long held prominent roles in left movements and continue to identify with marginalized groups, Palestinian solidarity activism features a bipolarity that alienates many progressive Jewish students.

With the divestment debate at UBC, I am arguing for a broader Palestinian movement capable of attracting progressive Jewish students. By illustrating Jewish students’ fear of Palestinian activism and contextualizing their support for Zionism and Israel, I hope activists can erode the needless causes of Jewish alienation present in the movement. Mainstream Jewish and Palestinian groups joining forces to support Palestinian human rights and end the systemic oppression behind the conflict would make impossible for rightist groups to paint such activism as anti-Semitic and divisive.

When anti-Zionists attacks feature anti-Jewish stereotypes, such devious snakes unduly influencing foreign governments, even Jews ambivalent about supporting Israel feel the BDS movement is no place for them.

When anti-Zionists attacks feature anti-Jewish stereotypes, such devious snakes unduly influencing foreign governments, even Jews ambivalent about supporting Israel feel the BDS movement is no place for them.

Activists concerned about alienation primarily focus on separating Jews and Judaism from Zionists and Zionism, yet most Jews are sympathetic to Zionism and eroding Jewish alienation from the Palestinian cause requires ending the demonization of the ideology. Accepting Zionism may be a hard for those embedded in the Palestinian struggle or raised in Arab or Muslim communities. But Zionism, like Israel, means different things to different people.

Palestinian blogger Abir Kopty explains how many Palestinian activists, especially those personally impacted by Israeli actions, see Zionism:

Zionists are part of a colonialist ideology and movement that operates through institutions. Make no mistake. It’s not a vague term. It’s an ideology that has committed crimes against Palestinians and continues to inherently give Jews elite privileges over Palestinians, whether inside Israel, or in the West Bank — including East Jerusalem — and Gaza. Even in Exile.

While Kopty’s Zionism describes the lived experience of millions of Palestinians, it is entirely divorced from the Zionism embraced by diaspora Jewish students who are largely unaware of the detrimental effect of the Israeli state on Palestinians. Whereas British imperialism involved a “civilizing” mission and Afrikaner nationalism had anti-black racism baked into its core, the vast majority of Jewish nationalists – people who had no role in the founding of the state – seek only security and national redemption. Zionists are not “impossible to coexist with,” as a student senator at the University of California, Davis declared at a January BDS debate. Writing in 1978, Palestinian scholar Edward Said explained that it wasn’t the desire for self-determination – what attracts most Jews to Zionism – but rather the ideology’s collaboration with European racism, that drives the violence and dispossession many associate with Zionism, the implementation of which did not require significant dispossession. “For the Palestinian Arab, therefore, it is the collaboration that has counted, not by any means the fulfillment of Jewish nationalism.” In fact, Said robustly defended Jewish attraction to their brand of nationalism – writing that Zionism “served the no doubt fully justified ends of Jewish tradition, saving the Jews as a people from homelessness and anti-Semitism, and restoring them to nationhood.” But thirty-seven years after Said wrote that article, with Israel having grown in strength and the occupation becoming more deeply entrenched, it is easy to conflate attraction to Zionism for its virtuous features with support for its collaboration with an oppressive Western ideology, a union that most Jews are entirely ignorant of. But overlooking contrasting perceptions of Zionism, not based on different values but often on entirely different facts, leads to a binary framework wherein Zionism is all bad and its adherents best shunned.

My goal in explaining mainstream Jewish perceptions of Zionism is to challenge the assumptions those on the Left have about “Zionists” with the hope that doing so will make progressive Jewish students more receptive to Palestinian activism at UBC and elsewhere. “Zionists” should be part of the Palestinian struggle and allowing them in would not only attract many more Jewish students but also neutral observers at UBC and elsewhere scared off by the issue’s divisiveness.

Part II: Liberation Zionism

Israeli paratroopers at the Western Wall following the fall of Jerusalem during the Six Day War of 1967. Photo: IDF Archives

Israeli paratroopers at the Western Wall following the fall of Jerusalem during the Six Day War of 1967. Photo: IDF Archives


Zionism bases itself on three claims: (1) that the ancient Hebrews possessed ancient Palestine and nobody else lived there; (2) that modern descendants of European converts to Judaism are the direct descendants of the Hebrews; and (3) that, based on these two claims, modern European Jews have the right to take Palestine from the Palestinians.


Religious and secular Zionists use the Jewish scriptures to assert that God promised the ancient Hebrews the land of Palestine and that the Hebrews went there and killed the native Canaanites and took their country. They add that this gives modern European Jews the right to repeat that very same crime today by killing the native Palestinians and by taking away their country.

These excerpts from Joseph Massad’s “Theses on Zionism” outline a standard anti-Zionist understanding of Zionism. But most Jewish UBC student don’t use Massad’s reasoning to defend their attachment to Israel. For Jews, Zionism is a political liberation movement and the expression of Jewish consciousness. Understanding this is essential to garnering widespread Jewish support for divestment at UBC and for the Palestinian cause generally.

Decolonial scholars led by Walter Mignolo argue the advent of Western imperialism led to the “the idea of ‘race,’ a supposedly different biological structure that placed some in a natural situation of inferiority to the others.” Taken with the emerging bourgeoisie’s replacement of Europe’s kingdoms with nation-states, this reordering of humanity transformed Jews from inferior in religion to inferior in humanity. Starting in the sixteenth-century, Jews became Europe’s internal colonial subject and were oppressed accordingly.

Theodor Herzl’s most enthusiastic supporters, the earliest Jewish settlers in Ottoman Palestine, came from Eastern Europe where Jewish communities faced regular violence and taxation intended to keep them in a destitute state, much like hut taxes in African colonies. By the time Herzl began peddling his message, European Jews had spent centuries living under discriminatory laws, violent pogroms and dehumanizing public rhetoric. Shut out from many industries, some Jews turned to professional fields like medicine, law and finance leaving the impoverished Jewish majority vulnerable to mass killings and rape by the resentful European masses. Zionism offered not just physical sanctuary but a chance to be proudly Jewish.

Max Nordau’s term “Jewry of muscle” captures the Jewish attraction to settling in Ottoman Palestine. A project of national redemption in the ancient Jewish homeland, embedded in Jewish culture for millennia, Zionism offered a new conception of Jewish peoplehood – a break from the internalized anti-Jewish racism embedded in the communal identity of European Jewry.

In 1942, early Hebrew novelist Haim Hazaz captured this concept in story where the protagonist, living on pre-state kibbutz, declares his “opposition to Jewish history,” demonstrating both the internalized racism of European Jews settling in Palestine and their attempts to move beyond it:

Jewish history is dull, uninteresting. It has no glory or action, no heroes and conquerors, no rulers and masters of their fate, just a collection of wounded, hunted, groaning and wailing wretches, always begging for mercy… I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about their ancestors’ shame? I would just say to them: ‘Boys, from the day we were driven out from our land we’ve been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football….’

Right: An anti-Semitic pamphlet shows the tradition European view of Jews as physically diminutive and repulsive. Left: A propaganda poster illustrates the image of the new Jew offered by Zionism.

Right: An anti-Semitic pamphlet shows the tradition European view of Jews as physically diminutive and repulsive. Left: A propaganda poster illustrates the image of the new Jew offered by Zionism.

In 1948, the foundation of Israel juxtaposed with the greatest tragedy in Jewish history turned Zionism from a divisive issue among Jews to a point of pride. The 1967 war gave form to the new communal identity when Jews realized that for the first time in modern history they were essentially secure on par with other powerful nations.

Palestinian refugees stream out of Ramle, expelled by Israeli forces during the 1948 war. Photo: Government Press Office

Palestinian refugees stream out of Ramle, expelled by Israeli forces during the 1948 war. Photo: Government Press Office

That this narrative entirely ignores the damage wrought by liberation Zionism, the abstract idea that invigorated Jews around the world, once it morphed into applied Zionism is precisely my point.

Jews identify with liberation Zionism, not Kopty or Massad’s versions. Consciously or not, many Jews see Palestinian activism as an attempt to force them back to Hazaz’s era of Jewish “wailing wretches, always begging for mercy.” For the left to legitimize liberation Zionism by accepting that most young diaspora Jews – who often perceive a rosier vision of the Israeli state than even right-wing Israelis do – take pride in the new Jewish identity and security offered by Israel, and that this attraction is not inherently racist, is enough to open many progressive Jews on campus to the Palestinian cause.

Part III: In targeting Jewish liberation, missing Western oppression

A narrow focus on Israel can lead to progressive activists targeting Jewish liberation and nationalism while missing the broader Western forces of oppression that have become embedded in Israeli state actions. Here, JP Morgan Chase CEO James Dimon looks on as Israeli prime minister speaks at the 2009 World Economic Forum. Photo: WEF/Creative Commons License

A narrow focus on Israel can lead to progressive activists targeting Jewish liberation and nationalism while missing the broader Western forces of oppression that have become embedded in Israeli state actions. Here, JP Morgan Chase CEO James Dimon looks on as Israeli prime minister speaks at the 2009 World Economic Forum. Photo: WEF/Creative Commons License

The political environment in which Zionism emerged led it to reproduce the same oppression Europe visited on populations around the world in Palestine. While early Zionists answered to to no physical metropole, they were beholden to an ideological one.

Zionism used settler-colonial tactics to craft a modern nation-state, a recklessly exported European invention. In a blistering critique of the model, Mignolo offers a convincing explanation for Israeli oppression by arguing the premise of national sovereignty leads to dehumanization.

“Dehumanization is irrelevant in modern/colonial international relations: first comes state interest, second, the benefit of the citizens of the state who enact the dispossession [of non-nationals] and, third, the non-nationals being dispossessed,” he writes.

Israeli soldiers committed over a dozen massacres in Arab villages during the 1948 war, precipitating the exodus of many more. Since 1967, Israeli policies like the matrix of control in West Bank and Gaza indicate the absolute prioritization of Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinian rights, leading to the cavalier attitudes toward, for example, the killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Gaza during military campaigns against Hamas.

But Israel is not exceptional. The logic behind its oppression is the same underlying all forms Western oppression – essentially prioritizing one class of nationals to better meet liberal economic interests. Zionism is not inherently problematic. Simply, generating progressive liberation movements within oppressive societies, as nineteenth-century Europe was, is hard; contemporary scholarship has skewered early twentieth-century African-American nationalism for likewise adhering to the European imperialism it was intended to overcome.

Israeli state oppression does not primarily benefit the Jews who identify with Zionism. As James Baldwin wrote, “the state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the salvation of the Western interests.” Spotlighting it as a nation apart distracts from the systems of oppression governing Israel’s actions. It is “very overt, obvious colonialism,” UBC sociologist Rima Wilkes said of Israel in a 2013 interview. “Other cases are less overt, less obvious. Why isn’t there an American Empire Week?” Given Jews’ historical role as scapegoats, many Jewish college students question the emphasis on Israel. Jews have long been used to carry out the dirty work of oppressors; Western interests and colonial legacy drive Israeli state oppression, not Jewish nationalism – defined as the quest for Jewish self-determination – or its adherents. An orientation toward that distinction – for one, Israel should not be only state targeted with an AMS boycott – would both broaden the activism and allay Jewish fears (UC Berkeley recently passed a resolution calling for divestment from nine countries including Israel). It would clarify that it is the abuses of the Western worldview being targeted.

Part IV: Beyond the River to the Sea

Despite occasional violence, pronounced, competing nationalisms coexisted in relative harmony under the British Mandate. Here Jews and Arabs wait for the bus in Jaffa. Photo: Government Press Office

Despite occasional violence, pronounced, competing nationalisms coexisted in relative harmony under the British Mandate. Here Jews and Arabs wait for the bus in Jaffa. Photo: Government Press Office

A visible shift at UBC away from attacking Israel and Zionism as unique and toward undoing the systemic oppression they express will allow a more inclusive struggle, avoiding the pitfalls of such activism elsewhere. For example, the accusations of dual-loyalty at UCLA – “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” a student councillor asked a Jewish nominee to the judicial board – came just weeks after a swastika was drawn on a Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis following a BDS vote. The more Jews and Palestinians, two oppressed and marginalized groups – granted, not in the Israeli context but throughout the world – fight each other, the safer are the forces of Western imperialism that lie behind those abuses. Acceptance of Jewish identification with liberation Zionism will encourage identity to fade into the periphery, draw in more Jewish supporters and allow a clear focus on the systemic forces of oppression at hand.

The BDS movement demands an end to Israeli occupation of “Arab lands,” equal rights for Arab-Israeli citizens and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. BDS’ support on the left suggests its goals figure centrally in the worldwide fight against oppression. But there is a feeling among Jews who identify with Israel and Zionism that the divestment movement and Palestinian activism in the diaspora is oriented first toward attacking Israel and promoting, intentionally or not, the interests of Arab nationalist and Islamist political groups which often contradict the progressive values of Palestinian solidarity activists in the diaspora. Unless one believes Israel is the only oppressive actor in the conflict, the narrow focus of the Palestinian struggle on Jewish nationalism is hard to explain. If instead the argument is that given the immense suffering of Palestinians, practical concerns prevail, the narrow focus on the Israeli state is likewise hard to explain and especially glaring for Jewish observers.

Predicated on a supposed dichotomy between Israeli/Zionist oppressors and oppressed Palestinians, this alienating binary is reinforced by the anti-normalization stance of most Palestinian solidarity student groups whereby they often refuse to work with any organization that does not accept the BDS demands. The policy leads to an erasure of nuance and ambiguity in the oppression Palestinian activists seek to fight, with former SPHR-UBC president Shaban describing it to me as akin to the refusal of Jews to meet with the Nazis during World War II.

Palestinians have been one of the most politically manipulated groups in modern history. Their tragedy largely stems from Israeli and Western actions but has been compounded by Arab states’ reliance on the propaganda power offered by the festering conflict. While groups like the Popular Liberation Front for Palestine call for overthrowing of Arab regimes and most Palestinian activists recognize the role of actors besides Israel, when the Jewish state is the sole target in campus activism like BDS it presents a distorted view to those unfamiliar with the struggle. Shifting away from a binary that primarily or exclusively condemns Israel and Jewish nationalism will draw more supporters to the fight against oppression of the Palestinians and the other modes of oppression in the conflict.

Intersectionality demands of feminism that it acknowledge the wider spectrum of societal oppression besides that due to gender. Likewise, one can fight Israel for its abuse of the Palestinians living under its control, regional Arab states for their mistreatment of Palestinian refugees, Palestinian leadership for their abuse of populations they control, Palestinian and Arab militants for their attacks aimed at Jewish and Israeli civilians and violent Western foreign policy driven by selfish interests, without equating these modes of oppression or minimizing the centrality of Israel and the West’s role.

A broader struggle would also allow, for example, the incorporation of groups like the Mizrahim, Arab Jews who have faced decades discrimination by the Ashkenazi elite in Israel and, earlier, Arab governments. Arab-Jewish activist Loolwa Khazoom, writes, “I feel anyone who is pro-Arab out of the positive spirit of defending justice will embrace the Mizrahi reality. After all, the two are not in competition; and in fact, there are a number of places where they overlap.” Jamal Zahalka, chairman of the Israeli Arab nationalist Balad party, acknowledged as much, saying, “We totally miss the Jewish public, and this is one of Balad’s failures. We did not build enough bridges with the Jewish public that is open, at least partially, to the things we are saying.”

A move away from the current binary would clarify for Jewish students how Palestinian activists decide where to expend energy. For example, one can agree the Palestinian leadership in Gaza’s declaration that Jews cannot remain anywhere in Israel/Palestine is unacceptable. However, aiding a Palestinian population that cannot move freely, that is not treated as first-class citizens at home or in many places abroad due both to nation of origin, ethnicity and skin color, and whom the Israeli state is dedicated to keeping under tight control through violent and unjust measures is a higher priority than the theoretical plans of a weak Gazan government.

But if we stick with a binary that resists condemnation of non-Israeli or non-Zionist actors the popular notion among Jewish students that this is a debate about who should get to control the region, not a fight for justice, will persist. A visible shift from solely attacking the Israeli state and its supporters to include more forms of oppression in the conflict will make it clear the movement is not just focused on tearing down Israel, opening Jews to accepting the ways in which they are contextually privileged in the conflict.

Moving away from the binary would allow a restoration of humanity across traditional conflict lines, something that anti-normalization policies explicitly block and which Frantz Fanon argued in Black Skin, White Masks should be a key goal of decolonial movements:

Superiority? Inferiority?

Why not the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself?

The occupation needs to end. The settlers need to leave the West bank; some need to be jailed. Anti-Arab racism and violence in Israel needs to end. Israeli leaders need to engage the Palestinians from a place of honesty. The fight against Hamas and other security threats needs to go beyond violent shows of force. Mainstream Jewish organizations need to direct more resources toward ending Israeli human rights abuses. These issues are the priority, not Palestinian acceptance of liberation Zionism, not an end to racist rhetoric by Palestinian leadership, not calls for boycotting, say, Jordan or Lebanon.

But to the extent Palestinian and left activism addresses the conflict’s ideological framework, like Israel’s settler-colonial roots, much can be achieved by legitimizing Jewish attraction to liberation Zionism. If liberation Zionists join the struggle, they are likely to see the problems inherent in a sovereign Jewish state. Perhaps they will find an anti-Zionist ideology that ensures a secure Jewish future or perhaps their Zionism will remain intact and when the time comes to negotiate the right of return or a binational state you will have comrades who can bridge the gap between hardline Israeli and Palestinian nationalists.

In 1945 the labor Zionist movement Hashomer Hatzair called for a binational Palestine. Perhaps their call can still resonate with those fighting for change:

[A binational solution] cannot hope to be carried into effect if Jews, Arabs and British alike each persist in maintaining that they have always been right while only the others were in the wrong. A thorough heart-searching on the part of all concerned is what is needed. Previous mistakes should be acknowledged… We hope that faith in humanity, in the better qualities of mankind, in progress and the victory of the masses will be the inspiring force in the solution of this grave problem.

By pitting two strictly defined national groups against one another in the tiny sliver of land that is Israel/Palestine we continue to operate in the European nation-state framework that dehumanizes populations and enables violent conflict. Solely targeting Israel and its Zionist supporters seems like an easy way to fight colonialism and earn liberation for an oppressed population, but it alienates progressive Jews and masks the deeper issues. By joining Jews and Palestinians together, not in supposed parity between the Israeli state and its Palestinian victims, but more broadly in the fight against systems of oppression that continue to affect both groups, the movement at UBC and elsewhere will not only be able to attract young progressive Jews – in other words, get the rest of my class of the bus – but will be far more likely to achieve true liberation for the Palestinians and other marginalized communities.

While the opinions expressed in this article are mine alone, I would like to thank those who challenged, questioned and helped clarify my arguments. Talia Gilbert, Elijah Jatovsky, Gordon Katic, Roshak Momtahen, Jude Al-Mukhalalaty, Talon editor Eviatar Bach and other members of the Talon editorial collective generously gave their time to make this article what it is and I am sincerely grateful to them and all others who assisted me.

How BDS Won at Concordia University

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement is not about hate, although that hasn’t stopped UBC Hillel from spending more than $4000 on posters and incessant Facebook ads. BDS is about the human rights of Palestinians, and about stopping the companies which participate in the oppression of Palestinians – those which provide “security” services, armaments, and assistance in the occupation of Palestine and operate in the Occupied Territories.

BDS is about addressing war crimes and our complicity in those crimes, so in that sense, no, it’s not about “Open Dialogue,” although there is plenty of space provided for dialogue and for voting. Indeed, Javier and Rami (whose last names have been withheld), organizers at Concordia University in Montreal, spent a great deal of time engaging in dialogue during the successful BDS campaign at that university.

After obtaining the 500 signatures necessary to put the referendum question on the ballot (originally reading: “Do you approve of the CSU endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel’s occupation of Palestine until Israel complies with International Law and Universal Principles of Human Rights?”), a heated campaign began, with both sides claiming campaign violations against the other.

In a last minute decision, the a CSU Judicial review watered down the wording of the question. The final question posed on the ballot read: “Do you approve of the CSU endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel?” The referendum passed with a margin of 9%. 2500 students voted.

I sat down with Hoyos and Yahia to talk about the campaign and what this means for Concordia. Part of that interview is transcribed here. Near the end of the interview, Hoyos and Yahia mentioned Discordia, a documentary about the 2002 protests against Benjamin Netanyahu, that contextualizes the history of pro-Palestinian activism at Concordia.

Can you start by explaining to me the timeline of events – how did things unfold?

R: I’m on [CSU] council, and over the summer there was major conflict in Gaza, right? So the people at SPHR [Concordia’s Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights group]–I didn’t know them too well but I thought we needed to do something–we came together, and decided to put up a motion for our position. There’s a positions book. We change executives every year, so we need a book that will guide CSU positions. As of today, we support accessible education all over the world and we’re against the pipelines, so every year our executive has to hold a stance against the pipelines. It [the positions guide] holds them accountable.

We prepared a motion to say that we condemn Israel for the excessive use of violence, the settlements, the occupation, the chemical weapons and everything. That passed at Council, and we decided that the next step would be BDS.

For BDS it was a little strange. There are two ways of getting a question on the ballot: either by getting 500 signatures, or you get it passed through council. But it’s not clear what the by-laws and standing regulations are for the signatures. it’s really hard to know when the CEO [of CSU] is going to call by-elections. Based on our calculations, we think we were a little late. We gathered around 750 signatures in two or three days, but we thought we were a little late, so we passed it through Council as well just to be sure.

J: I had joined SPHR maybe a month before the start of the semester, so I wasn’t there for all that action, but our BDS position is more legitimate because we brought it through a referendum, which called up 2500 people–which is, I think, the largest turnout for an election in it’s history.

Of course mainstream media completely bashed us over the turnout, because it was 2500 people in a university of 46 000–like “how could 2500 people decide the fate of 46 000 students!” And our response was: well, this is the highest turnout ever!” It’s funny how they use anything against you.

We did so much campaigning. People were really informed. We did so much tabling. I think the people that did vote ‘Yes’ really knew what they were supporting. And we were able to mobilize people. We got a lot of endorsements from other groups too.

The only groups that supported the ‘No’ side, I think, were Conservative Concordia and  Hillel. The number of groups that endorsed our campaign was ridiculous

R: QPIRG [Quebec Public Interest Research Group at Concordia], [and] The Centre for Gender Advocacy, they endorsed us. Already we knew everything was going to go well.

J: Outside support, too —Independent Jewish Voices, [and] PAJU (Palestinian and Jewish Unity)

R: We really wanted to stop the whole idea that this is by Arabs for Arabs only. We really wanted to show people that it doesn’t matter if you’re Israeli or Jewish or Palestinian or Muslim or whatever.

There are Israelis who are pro-BDS. An ex-Israeli soldier [Eran Efrati] joined the national BDS movement and is clearly one of the biggest advocates of boycotting. During this campaign I learnt so much. There’s even a group in Israel called “Boycott from Within.

This is not being anti-Israel, it’s being pro-Human Rights. That’s how we saw it

J: That was our campaign. We wanted to concentrate on human rights and International law. That’s worked in our favour. We had many ways of tackling this. How do we use the law? We had tons of reports.

R: He gathered everything. He gathered all the reports [gesturing to Javier]

J: [Smiling] We’d have people come to our table and say: “Where are you getting this, where are you getting this info” and we’d say, well this is according to the 2014 Human Rights Council Report by Richard-Falk, and you could physically go to section 69 to section 71– Apartheid, or at least fall within the UN definition of Apartheid–segregation across racial lines, creation of separate reserves for Palestinians, land grabs and everything there.

Then you grab other issues, issues people can relate with: water, water is a basic right, so if you start showing people that Palestinians are deprived of their right to their own water–that for instance the IDF destroys water tanks so that Palestinians cannot collect rainwater, that they actually have full access to the aquifers in the West Bank, so if you show this, the 2009 Amnesty report, we even had quotations, and the page numbers, so you could show it to them. because all this information is available online for free.

The official BDS campaign seeks to boycott all Israeli products, although their focus has been on companies complicit in the occupation. When you say boycott, what’s the scope for Concordia?

J: What’s interesting about BDS is that it’s a tactic you can adapt and shape within your own needs and institutional framework. You cannot boycott every single product, it makes no sense, and is perhaps not even applicable. So you choose certain brands, certain products. And you don’t want to punish a company that’s behaving properly. We don’t want to punish a company that isn’t complicit at all, that’s what we’re trying to encourage!

That’s the first thing, we only want to target companies that are complicit. With institutions as well, if we have bilateral ties with institutions, we want to cut the ties. But we still don’t know how were going to apply it.

There are many ways and many blueprints because there are so many universities that have adopted BDS.

UCLA, for instance, didn’t want to call it BDS. They called it divest. It’s still BDS, but its less shocking to the campus, and it worked–they passed it. We’re still in discussion. It’s CSU mandate. They have the final say on this.

At first we wanted to have a committee that wanted to prove our ties to companies through empirical research. That’s the best way to gain the trust of the students: to show them it’s not going to be arbitrary.

R: Just look at the comments on the CSU’s Facebook page: “Oh you’re going to throw out your cell phones now.”

Right. That old argument…

J: A lot of people are like: if you’re going to give up on Israeli products, say goodbye to your tablets. I find that a bit…well, I wanted to answer to that, but there’s no point in getting into it. Basically you’re telling me I should prefer my tablets or gadgets over human rights.  That’s what you’re telling me with that point. There was no use though, there were so many people commenting. You go to the Montreal gazette site–oh forget about it!

There were a lot of controversy with the tactics used during the campaign this year. Can I ask you first about some of the tactics used by the No side?

J: Well ya. It was to create panic during the campaign.

They were walking around with signs saying “I’m being singled out” and people would come up to them and say: “What’s going on why are you being singled out?” [They would reply with] “Well it’s clearly an act against my religion, Israelis are not going to be able to attend or go to this university, they’re going to ban Kosher food so what am I going to have to eat” –stuff like this. Of course, empathetic students are like “oh my god, this is terrible.” But the thing is, that was never going to take place. As a matter of fact, Hillel and Israel On Campus are still running They’re not going to be shut down.

R: Basically, the CEO [of the CSU] would never allow us to put a question up on the ballot that would be discriminatory in any way.

J: Our platform was about human rights [laughs] we would never do that

R: Exactly. We’re about human rights, they were trying to steal our platform. They were the ones claiming to fight for human rights.

What kind of tactics were you using in terms of organizing – how were you approaching this to get votes. You said you were tabling, handing out leaflets…

J: The “No” side decided to have their headquarters in JMSB [Concordia’s John Molson School of Business] One thing that they claimed, and that we have in one of our [post-referendum] reports, was: “JMSB” students will not be able to get hired by JP Morgan anymore, because JP Morgan has an office in Israel and they’re going to hold a grudge against Concordia or whatever.” They tried to play that card!

We decided to go to Hall [a Concordia building] because in past elections, turnout at JMSB has always been the lowest. I think they have around 10 000 students and they have one of the lowest turnouts.

Hall has [the faculty of] Engineering, a little bit of JMSB, Arts and Science, a little bit of Fine Arts, so we figured it was the safest bet to stay there. We talked to everyone, we had small flyers, on one side it was a picture of “Vote Yes BDS” and on the other side it was like, “what is BDS, why BDS, how BDS…”

R: In our Facebook group we wanted to keep things extremely clear. We wanted to show people we weren’t going to be the trolls. Extremely clear, very clear. When you have the law on your side, and the facts, just use that to your advantage.

Their argument was that it was too controversial. We’re actually showing pictures of a home being demolished, and the data.How many houses have been demolished? Or show them the water crisis. We’re showing people this is actually happening. And you know what? Our university has bilateral ties with the Technion Israeli Institute of Technology. You want to know what they do, well here it is: they do research for Elbit [Systems] and Rafael [Advanced Systems] – two of the largest weapons developers in Israel. First you show the crimes. Second, you show how you are complicit. We were trying to keep it clean.

Some folks have raised issues about re-deploying tactics used against the South African Apartheid state. How much did the campaign at Concordia model itself after tactics used during the anti-apartheid movement?

J: A lot of people told us: “What you’re doing, comparing israel to South African apartheid is disrespectful towards South Africans.”

It isn’t. We can agree that if someone knows about apartheid, its South Africans, right? There’s no question about that. So how come the ANC, the African National Congress, adopted BDS in 2012, in solidarity with the Palestinian people?

Why did they adopt it? They saw what was happening on the ground and they said: “Yup, that’s pretty much it.”

R: I think what’s really good to absorb from what happened in South Africa is that it’s an effective tool. BDS was an effective tool back then, and its effective now. I really think that if there’s one thing that Netanyahu, or the Zionist government, is scared of right now, is the BDS movement gaining so much momentum everywhere. Every week there’s a new school adopting BDS, and this just shows they’re losing support.

J: That’s really important. This was stressed during the end of our campaign. People were saying, “oh its just BDS, boycott, divestment, sanction,” and we were saying, no, no no, there’s three demands, and the importance of these three demands is that they create awareness. So BDS, its part of your mandate, but now these three demands are part of your didactic goal, you really need to get it out there that the student union really needs the end of occupation, that it really needs Palestinian citizens of Israel, Arab Israelis, to have full equality before the law, and the right of return.

A Guide to BDS for the Rest of Us

There’s a lot of buzz around campus about BDS, but if you’re like me, you’ve tuned it out a bit. You know it’s got something to do with Israel and Palestine, and lots of people are really worked up about it, so that’s a hornet’s nest you don’t really want to disturb without being a little bit more educated and up to speed.

So here’s a guide to BDS at UBC for the rest of us.

What is BDS? Sounds vaguely kinky?

BDS stands for Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (hover for definitions). It’s a campaign that was started by a group of Palestinians who want to hold Israel accountable for “ethnic cleansing, colonization, racial discrimination, and military occupation.”

BDS has been applied in a bunch of different ways by a bunch of different institutions (schools and unions mostly). It should be noted that the upcoming AMS referendum question modifies the general BDS approach. The referendum question is:

“Do you support your student union (AMS) in boycotting products and divesting from companies that support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians?”

Does BDS have an end goal? Is it legit?

There are three overall main goals of BDS:

1. End the occupation that began in 1967.
2. Recognize the rights of Palestinian citizens in Israel
3. Enable Palestinian refugees to return to their homes

And yes: BDS might seem divisive, but it does have the full support of international law behind it. If you’re just looking at by-the-book laws, the Israeli occupation is illegal [1] [2] [3]. Things get complicated when you look at “legitimacy” in different lights.

What does this have to do with UBC?

BDS supporters wanted UBC to join the movement, and the boycott of products made by companies complicit in occupation seemed like the most realistic approach. It’s not exactly feasible for the AMS to challenge the Israeli government on the world stage after all. Supporters, with the knowledge that this may just be a symbolic move, want UBC to do it’s part.

In line with with the BDS movement, but not explicit support of BDS?

Essentially. Hover over those definitions again, and you’ll notice that the referendum question doesn’t call for a boycott of ALL Israeli made goods and it doesn’t mention sanctions.

Ok, got it. So who’s involved at UBC?

Lots of different groups, but the loudest ones are the UBC SPHR (Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights) and the Hillel House at UBC (a centre for Jewish students).

SPHR (among others) wants you to vote YES on the referendum, and Hillel (among others) wants you to vote NO.

Wait, does this apply to the whole school?

SPHR called for UBC to support BDS by approaching the AMS. So many acronyms. Still with me?
SPHR wanted a referendum question that asked if students would support boycotting certain goods and companies. If we voted yes, the AMS would have to comply. It wouldn’t bind UBC as a whole to anything, just the AMS. If we voted no, well, business as usual.

What did the AMS do?

It took them an all-night meeting, with presentations from Hillel, SPHR, and the Social Justice Centre, but the AMS Council voted to endorse, “Anything but a yes vote”. So we still have a referendum, and the referendum question will still be YES or NO, but the AMS officially suggests that you vote no or abstain.

As it turns out, the AMS currently has no investments in companies, nor do they purchase any products from companies which fall within the bounds of the BDS proposal. This was revealed by the AMS at that same, all-night meeting. So the referendum is largely symbolic and would be laying the framework for the AMS’s future actions.

This is obviously a messy debate. What are the bare-bones arguments on each side?

You’ve likely seen the “It’s about Hate” campaign around campus. Hillel calls BDS antithetical to freedom of speech, and counter-productive to goals of peace in the region. They raise concern with the idea that BDS support would undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel, contribute to anti-Semitism, and undermine Jewish people’s rights in their homeland.

SPHR and other BDS supporters want you to vote to support it because they say BDS stands for challenging and confronting settler colonialism, military occupation and apartheid, and falls in line with values of social justice and anti-oppression.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t a binary debate. There are Palestinians who see BDS supporters as trouble-makers who aren’t interested in peace. Independent Jewish Voices, a group of Canadian Jews supports BDS, saying that it doesn’t threaten Israel’s right to exist, just challenges its system of oppression against Palestinians. Like I said, messy. To make a really informed decision, it’s a good idea to read up as much as you can.

When can I vote?

Voting takes place this week from March 23–27.  Log in on the UBC AMS website here with your CWL information, and click on “2015 – March – AMS Referendum” to vote!

But wait, I need more information!

The Talon has published tons of good stuff on BDS so far. Here are our links:

Calling All Students of Conscience: Vote YES on Israel Divestment

The Talon’s Statement in Support of BDS at UBC

Independent Jewish Voices: UBC students should support BDS

To Exist is to Resist: a look at Palestine solidarity activism at UBC

For other campus viewpoints, you might want to check the opinion section of the Ubyssey.



[1] Roberts, Adam. “Prolonged Military Occupation: The Israeli-Occupied Territories Since 1967.” The American Journal of International Law . Vol. 84, No. 1 (Jan., 1990). pp. 44-103. American Society of International Law. Web. 24 March 2015.

[2] Barak-Erez, Daphne. “Israel: The security barrier—between international law, constitutional law, and domestic judicial review”. Int J Constitutional Law. (July 2006) 4 (3): 540-552

[3] Benveniśtî, Eyāl. The international law of occupation. Princeton University Press. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004. p. xvii.

Thanks very much to the collective for their help on this piece, especially Urooba, Josh, and Eviatar. 

Event Preview: Breaking Out Of Boxes

Gender assumptions and misconceptions affect each and every one of us every day. Breaking Out Of Boxes is an interactive performance which utilizes audience engagement and open discussion to address gender discrimination and feminism. This event seeks to reduce stigma associated with diverting from the societal expectations of gender identity.

Changing the Lens is a forum theatre project supported by the UBC Players Club. Forum theatre is an interactive form of performance that entails improvisation and audience engagement, and it often tackles issues of oppression. For instance, the group has explored cultural assumptions and indigeneity in the past. This year, Changing the Lens will be focusing on gender discrimination and misconceptions of feminism. The group will examine the consequences of living in a world where socially constructed preconceptions of gender dictate the way we think, feel and act. The project aims to deconstruct the pre-existing ideologies formed by social expectations of gender identity by changing the lens on the ways we view gender. How are our ideas of femininity and masculinity affected by societal constraints? Is gender identity merely a performance? What happens when one steps outside of pre-set gender roles? What does it mean to be a feminist?

The way forum theatre works is that our actors will perform a short skit based on a script that they’ve developed together during the workshops. The story plot always ends at the point of maximal conflict. Upon a first-viewing of the skit, the audience will gain a understanding of the dynamics of the situation. They can then reflect on what they would’ve done to change the course of the story. The actors will then perform the skit for the second time, and this time, audience members will be invited on stage to act out one of the characters to solve the conflict in an anti-oppressive manner.

Through forum theatre, the group hopes to invite people to think in others’ shoes and to examine social justice issues from a new perspective — to change the lens with which they’re accustomed to view things.

For more information about forum theatre, feel free to check out the website of Theatre for the Living.

The performance takes place on March 24 and 26 from 7-10pm in Neville Scarfe 100 on UBC campus. This event is wheelchair accessible and gender inclusive washrooms are available. Alcohol will not be served and the event is not scent free. Refreshments will be provided, and entry is by donation.

You can find out more about the event on their Facebook page here.

Call for editors!

Can you believe we’ve only been around since September? It’s been an amazing year.

Unfortunately, about half of the folks who made that amazingness happen will be graduating next year, so we are looking to welcome some new editors and writers to The Talon team to continue the work we’ve been doing thus far.

First and foremost, we’re looking for folks to join the editorial collective who can help us continue to publish at least 2-3 articles per week by committing to some combination of the following:

  • Editing around 3-4 articles per month;
  • Writing or liaising on 1-2 article(s)/month;
  • Attending bi-weekly editorial meetings;
  • Event planning;
  • Taking lead on administrative tasks (e.g. responding to emails, coordinating the publishing schedule, etc.);
  • Helping with social media;
  • Bringing unique skills, interests, and experiences to the table.

Those joining the editorial collective should be prepared for a time commitment of approximately 8-10 hours per week.

If you’re interested in joining the editorial collective, please apply by either filling out this google form or preparing your responses in a word/google doc and submitting via email by April 30th. We especially encourage Indigenous people, people of colour, queer and trans folk, neurodiverse and/or folks with disabilities to apply.

Second, we are continuing to look for folks to contribute their skills and interests from outside the collective; that can mean writing articles, taking photos, or anything else you can imagine. We’d love for you to either get in touch via email or facebook, or to also submit the google form.

We’ll then be in touch with interested folks for future meetings, by approximately the first week of May!

If you have any questions, concerns, or feedback about this process, please contact us via email. We also encourage you to bring your questions to our Open Meeting this Tuesday, 6:30pm at room 214 at the SUB, where we’ll be talking in-person about the love and labour that went into The Talon this year, and what things might look like next year. The agenda for the event is available on the event page.