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: 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.