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Calling All Students of Conscience: Vote YES on Israel Divestment

An abridged version of this op-ed first appeared in The Ubyssey.

In a recent op-ed in The Ubyssey by Koby Michaels, the case against adopting Boycott Divest and Sanctions (BDS) at UBC was made using the oft-repeated claim that the movement is anti-Semitic. Grossly selective and imprecise in its analysis, the author, and those others opposing BDS for the many reasons outlined, fail to consider several things. The call to push for boycotting some Israeli products by the AMS at UBC, made by Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights UBC, is an important one and should be supported by all those committed to issues of social justice and anti-oppression.

BDS is a global movement calling for the boycott of, sanctions against, and divestment from Israel “until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights,” as it states on their website. The claim made by Michaels that “Palestinians don’t like the BDS movement” is inaccurate: BDS is an initiative of Palestinian civil society. Coordinated by the Palestinian BDS National Committee, the initial call had the endorsement of more than 170 Palestinian organizations. Its signatories include those that are from all three components of Palestinian people: refugees in exile, those under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza strip, and marginalized citizens living within the Israeli state. Called on by the majority of Palestinian civil society a year after the International Criminal Court’s monumental advisory opinion that Israel’s Wall in the Occupied Territories is illegal, BDS calls upon the global community to boycott Israel in a myriad of ways until it:

  1. Ends its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantles the Wall.
  2. Recognizes the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.
  3. Respects, protects and promotes the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

As Lamis Deek, a Palestinian human rights attorney and activist, explained recently in   an online discussion hosted by Law at the Margins, BDS does not request affirmative action. For those who are in solidarity with Palestinians, abiding by BDS is the least one can do, as it asks for people to dissuade away from supporting those structures and institutions that both directly and indirectly subjugate Palestinians. She recounts how the movement has created a space for non-violent Palestinian resistance like never before and has also been instrumental in shaping Palestinian resistance narratives.

The claim made throughout Michael’s piece and often by those others opposed to BDS is that it spreads anti-Semitism. Michaels gives one example to substantiate this claim: that at the University of California, Davis, just hours after the student government had passed a BDS resolution, swastikas were spraypainted on a Jewish fraternity. This attempt at connecting BDS to this incident is speculative at best, and wholly slandering at worst. There is no proof that Palestinians did this, nor is there proof that this incident has any connection to BDS. This is especially the case after UC Davis’ chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine condemned the graffiti as a hate crime.

Not only do claims of BDS being anti-Semitic do a great disservice to Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid, but they also homogenize all Jewish people as supporters of Israeli policy. There has been a recent rise in Jewish criticism of Israel. It has also transformed from “a ‘not in my name’ individual opposition to and withdrawal of support from Israel, to ‘not in our name’ – a collective attempt to withdraw legitimacy from Israel’s claim to represent Jews, and to forge a specifically Jewish collectivity whose aim is to oppose Israel’s policies”, as David Landy recounts in his book “Jewish Identity & Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Jewish Opposition to Israel.” Groups such as Independent Jewish Voices (which has a Vancouver chapter), to the larger U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace, to transnational ones such as the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, all support BDS. To deem the movement as anti-Semitic, then, is to contribute to the erasure of these groups.

In another recent letter sent to The Ubyssey, the authour Ariela Karmel writes that conflict can only end through dialogue and that “BDS succeeds in shutting down dialogue.” Karmel goes on to say that it is easy to “reduce this deeply complex and emotionally triggering conflict to a victim-aggressor binary”, but it is precisely for the reason of unequal relations of power between Israel and Palestinians that so-called “dialogue” initiatives are harmful. Too often the Palestine-Israel conflict is portrayed as one of equal “sides” and as a misunderstanding between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims. As such, this dominant narrative implies that with the implementation of “dialogue” between these groups, the situation would come closer to a resolve. In fact, as Ben Saifer writes in his article, ““Shalom-Salaam?: Campus Israel advocacy and the politics of ‘dialogue’”, these “‘dialogue initiatives’ have become central pillars of Israel advocacy on university campuses.” The most recent example is the new Open Dialogue initiative at UBC, sponsored by the Jewish Student’s Association and Hillel BC.

These dialogues often address only personal narratives rather than systemic relations of power. They also reduce all Arab, Muslim, and Jewish thought into a static binary, where political positions are not based on critical thinking or personal values, but on identity categories. Instead of addressing the structural dynamics of the conflict – colonialism, occupation and apartheid, they appeal to dominant myths and simultaneously marginalize Palestine solidarity activists as ‘extremists’.

Michael’s piece also argues that “the AMS should absolutely take a stand on complicated international issues in a fashion that is based on Canadian and UBC’s values.” But as UBC and Canada itself stand on stolen Indigenous land, where this settler colonial state emerged from genocidal conquest and which continues to dispossess its Indigenous population, what values would these be and how would they aid in our understanding of this conflict? With Israel’s foundation too as a settler colonial state, that is ethnically cleansing its Indigenous Palestinian population, should there be any reason to approach this conflict in this way?

With more and more student unions across Turtle Island (North America) shifting in the direction of supporting BDS, with at least nine of them in Canada, it is time UBC too moved in this direction. As Anuja Bose, a graduate student activist from UCLA recounted in the same discussion hosted by Law at the Margins, student and labour organizing in the States has recently been making connections with incidents of police brutality against Black people in the U.S. to the repression of Palestinians in Gaza. It’s clear that more and more groups are aligning with the Palestinian cause, indicating a broad-based movement against state violence.

Here at UBC, the AMS referendum question, “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 not constitute a country-wide boycott. It will be at the prerogative of the AMS to check what items are on the BDS list and divest from those, and is intended to be implemented once the new SUB opens.

It is now even more imperative that students learn the importance of BDS given the disappointing results from last night’s emergency AMS Council meeting. Due to negligence on part of the AMS executive in calling the referendum question in time, as well as double-counted signatures on the SPHR petition that called for this referendum question (which resulted in there being only 994 out of the 1000 required signatures), the question will not be appearing on the election ballot next week.

The AMS then resolved that it will officially oppose the BDS referendum question by taking a “anything but a yes” stance. Given this position and the fate of BDS at UBC in the hands of just an independent referendum question, it will be much harder to get students out to vote and to meet quorum. It is disappointing that our student union does not function like ones out East — where student unions work provincially and are able to call for legitimate action on social issues concerning students.

Still yet, in 2009, 300 Canadian academics supported sanctions against Israel, including many professors right here at UBC. It is time we, the students of UBC, in the concern for social justice, also look towards adopting BDS on our campus. Let us act differently than in 1987, when the majority of UBC students voted not to divest from apartheid South Africa.

BDS at UBC would mean more than just shifting away from things like Motorola phones and Unilever bath products. It would mean the chance to shift from complicity in the oppression of Palestinians and towards partaking in a global solidarity movement that is committed to justice.

Please be on the lookout for more information in the coming weeks and come out to vote YES to divest!

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