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.