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UBC’s Second Chance to Stand for Justice: the 2017 BDS Referendum


Two years have passed.

In the past two years the world has been marked by attacks, peace deals, attempted and successful coups, tragic diasporas, referendums and elections. Often times change has been for the worse, yet sometimes for the better.

Those who have been following the Middle Eastern vicissitudes may agree with me that the recent developments between Palestinians and the State of Israel taste bittersweet much like the past two years. While there are reasons for hope, the call for action remains urgent.

The generational displacement of over 7 million Palestinian refugees [1] is stagnant in its status of ‘permanent emergency’.

The Gaza Strip is still what Noam Chomsky famously called “the world’s largest open-air prison” [2], whose people have been collectively punished by a brutal blockade since 2007.

Amnesty International continues to report arbitrary arrests, unfair trials and extrajudicial murders of Palestinians, often involving children. [3]

While over 5000 more houses have been demolished in the West Bank, evicting countless Palestinian families, the population of Israelis living in the illegal settlements has been increasing by 4.1% annually, more than double the rate of the rest of the country. [4]

Furthermore, the Israeli parliament recently approved a bill to legalize the Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank, which runs contrary to international law. [5]

If Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to have no intention to stop them, someone else, finally, might.

On the bright side, in the past two years Palestine has formally become a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) [6] and its first embassy as a state has been inaugurated in Vatican City.

Recently, the United States abstained on a United Nations Security Council vote, allowing a landmark resolution to pass calling for an end to the illegal Israeli settlements. Despite the Israeli administration’s history of ignoring hundreds of resolutions (223 just in the past 10 years), the abstention of the US ambassador has reignited world attention regarding the settlements and their ongoing violations of international law. The Security Council has demanded to “completely cease” the settlements in the occupied territories as they “have no legal validity and are dangerously imperilling the viability of the two-state solution”. [7]

But the Obama administration, who supported the abstention (though not much else during the past 8 years), has passed the baton to a government whose hardline position has already been set forward since the campaign. Trump has loudly announced his support for  right-wing Zionist lobbies, such as American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and condemned Obama’s abstention vote as shameful. His appointment of David Friedman as the new American ambassador to Israel is even more worrisome.  On the Israeli political spectrum, Mr. Friedman stands on the far right. He believes the settlements are legitimate, dismisses the two-state solution, and  pledged that Trump “will order his UN ambassador to veto every resolution hostile to Israel” [8].

Lastly, and perhaps most devastatingly, Mr. Friedman supported Trump’s campaign promise “to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – and thereby formally recognize the city as Israel’s capital” [9].

If Trump’s inauguration has kept you up at night, his approach to this issue will be unlikely to ease our nightmares.

What may have the power to do so, however, is the response of global civil society, communities of citizens, including our own.

Two years ago, UBC students were called upon to voice their opinions and give justice a chance through a simple important act: a YES vote in the BDS referendum presented to the AMS by the SPHR. Too many acronyms in one sentence? Worry not: plenty of material has been written and published that will quickly bring you up-to-date or refresh your memory on what happened to the 2015 referendum at UBC (see links in the end of the article).

BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

What you should know right now is that BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) is a civil society–based, Palestinian-led movement that uses economic boycotts as a non-violent political tool to pressure the Israeli government and achieve three goals:

  1. An end to the illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza including a dismantling of the Apartheid Wall
  2. Full equality to Arab-Palestinian citizens in the state of Israel
  3. The right of return for Palestinian refugees

Founded in 2005, BDS has now spread across the world, with endorsements that ranges from governmental bodies to academia, including hundreds of universities and student unions.

In Canada, major student associations such as those at the University of Toronto, McMaster, York, Carleton, University of Regina, Trent, Ryerson and more, have already endorsed BDS through student referendums.

When UBC students were called to vote, in 2015, too many of them did not answer. With 3493 “yes” votes against 2223 “no”, the referendum did not meet the quorum of 4130 votes (8% of total electors) [10], and BDS did not pass. Whether too few people cared or too few people knew, the 2015 results have not discouraged those who do care, now more than ever.

Our Second Chance: the 2017 Referendum

Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) at UBC is preparing to give students another chance to take action by calling them to vote on what is, for now, the same referendum question asked in 2015: “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?”

The question has been officially submitted to the AMS with the support of over 1000 signatures on February 10, 2017. We will keep you informed as the process of signature counting and question validation unfolds.

As the SPHR Vice-President explained to us, the implications are to be understood clearly:

  1. The request is non-binding and does not ask UBC as an institution to divest, but it is addressing the Alma Mater Society (AMS), which currently does not actually engage in business with Israeli companies that are involved in the occupation and exploitation of Palestinian territories. It would thus be a guarantee for future purchases, meaning that there would not be any changes for the students in the services offered by the AMS. Moreover, the endorsement of the BDS by our Alma Mater Society would be a direct expression of the student body’s opinion, making us stand united, however symbolically, in solidarity with the human rights of Palestinians.
  1. A “yes” victory would entail a “holistic recognition.” Endorsing BDS is an anti-oppressive choice that goes beyond the struggle of Palestinians but embraces higher values of justice and decolonization that could make Palestinians, Indigenous people and visible minorities on campus feel more supported and comfortable in an environment of students that care for each other and for the world. It would be the first exemplar step of solidarity to give hope for other struggling groups, making it evident that, if we want, we do have some power in our hands to use for the best of our community.

Because it is true: in a world where power so often equates money, BDS is powerful, as much as the boycotts against the apartheid regime in South Africa were. This is why the Israeli government has been actively working against the BDS campaign, to the point of setting up a specific “task force” in August 2016 [11]. Besides its power, BDS has another point of comparison with the struggle against South African apartheid which holds particular relevance to the UBC community. In 1987, like in 2015, UBC students failed to participate in a vote to “ban the sale of South-African linked products in SUB”  [12], and a referendum that would have expressed the student body’s solidarity and active commitment to justice did not pass.

It is imperative to underline the importance of this vote on unceded Coast Salish Territories, where many of us are settlers on stolen lands. We have a responsibility to understand the consequences of colonialism and to embrace concrete acts of solidarity to join the political, cultural and human journey of decolonization. We must listen to the  voices of the Indigenous peoples as guidance along this path. Many parallels can be drawn between the struggles people face on occupied Turtle Island and the occupied Palestinian Territories; I here gladly announce that separate articles will follow to delve more deeply into understanding those similarities and differences, and what we can learn from both to stand in solidarity with their peoples’ resistance.  

In such an unpredictable transition phase for world politics, it is the most urgent time for our generation. We must raise a strong voice of consciousness and resilience and listen carefully to those whose voices have been systematically oppressed.  

Two years have passed, but we have a second chance to embrace justice. Let’s not waste it.

Stay human…and stay tuned, more is to come.

I warmly thank the Vice-President of SPHR for their availability and the Talon’s editorial collective for their valuable contributions to editing this article.

Special thanks to Chuka, Eviatar, Laura and Scott for their time and inputs.

Here is more info on BDS from the 2015 campaign:

A Guide to BDS for the Rest of Us

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


[1] Institute for Middle East Understanding. “How many Palestinian refugees are there?” last modified December 11, 2005.

[2] Chomsky, Noam. “My Visit to Gaza: The World’s Largest Open-Air Prison”,Truthout,  November 9, 2012.

[3] Amnesty International. Report 2015/2016: Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories.

[4] Lazaroff, Tovah. “Settler Population was 385,000 by end of 2015”, Jerusalem Post, October 6, 2016.
[5] Democracy Now!, “Israel Approves Bill to Retroactively Approve Settlements”. Democracy Now!, February 7, 2017.

[6] AFP, “Palestine formally joins International Criminal Court”. Al Jazeera, April 1, 2015.

[7] Beaumont, Peter. “US abstention allows UN to demand end to Israeli settlements”. The Guardian, December 23, 2016.

[8] Maltz, Judy. “What do we know about David Friedman, Trump’s pick for Ambassador to Israel?”. Haaretz, December 16, 2016.

[9] Ibid.

[10] AMS. “2015 Referendum Results.” March 27, 2015.

[11] Peter Beaumont, “Israel to crack down further on foreign pro-Palestinian activists”, The Guardian,  August 8, 2016.

[12] Jacob, Evelyn. “Students defeat proposal”. The Ubyssey. Vol LXIX; N. 34.  February 3, 1987.