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February 7, 2018 4:27 pm

McGill University Finds Antisemitism Not a Factor in Removal of Jewish Student From Leadership Position

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The Arts Building at McGill University. Photo: Guilhermeduartegarcia.

An investigation launched by McGill University in Montreal, Canada has determined that a student who claimed to have been voted out of a leadership position due to his Jewish identity was not the target of antisemitism.

The probe’s findings — released by the university on Tuesday — sought to shed light on the controversy stemming from the failed ratification of three directors of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) during a General Assembly (GA) meeting in October.

One of these directors, Noah Lew, wrote following the vote that he was “blocked from participating in student government because of my Jewish identity and my affiliations with Jewish organizations.” He added that Alexander Scheffel and Josephine Wright O’Manique — two non-Jewish directors who also were not ratified by the SSMU — were targeted “because they opposed the [boycott, divestment, and sanctions] movement and because they had attempted to support McGill’s Jewish students.”

While the GA vote was later voided due to constitutional violations — resulting in an online referendum that led to Lew and the other directors’ ratification — McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier ordered an investigation in November to determine whether the allegations of antisemitism could be substantiated. The task was undertaken by Spencer Boudreau, a retired McGill professor of education and ombudsperson who was previously recognized by the Canadian Jewish Congress for his work promoting interfaith dialogue.

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In a report sharing his findings, Boudreau observed that a “key element” in the controversy was an SSMU 2016 motion supportive of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which was rejected by McGill undergraduates. It was the third time a BDS effort failed at the university in 18 months.

Following that vote, the SSMU Judicial Board determined that BDS campaigns violate the student government’s constitution and equity policy by endorsing discrimination based on national origin. “Picking a side” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by supporting BDS would inhibit “SSMU’s ability to create an open, inviting atmosphere for students of Israeli origins, and [undermine] SSMU’s ability to serve them without bias,” the Judicial Board explained. In September, the ruling was ratified in a unanimous vote (with one abstention) by the SSMU Board of Directors, which Lew was serving on.

When he was up for re-election, Lew became a target for the pro-BDS group Democratize SSMU. Ahead of the GA vote, the group reportedly accused Lew — who is involved with the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee – as well as Scheffel and O’Manique — who opposed BDS — of having a “conflict of interest.” Democratize SSMU later apologized “for the way in which our original version of this section was insensitive to anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish people as corrupt and politically powerful.”

“This situation justified a negative reaction from the Jewish community of McGill, including Jewish students who support the BDS Movement,” Boudreau noted in his report. He also alluded to “fallout” that remained on campus following a February 2017 tweet by Igor Sadikov, then an SSMU representative, who wrote, “punch a Zionist today.”

Yet ultimately, Boudreau concluded that his investigation “does not substantiate the notion that the vote was motivated by anti-Semitism.” Rather, students who he interviewed “unequivocally stated that their vote was motivated by politics.”

“I can state however that Noah Lew’s affiliation with Jewish organizations that are clearly supportive of the State of Israel, in addition to his approval of the SSMU Judicial Board decision regarding the illegitimacy of support for the BDS Movement … was the reason for his vote of nonapproval,” Boudreau continued.

He nonetheless emphasized “that Noah Lew’s belief that he was not ratified because he was Jewish was an honest and even understandable reaction to the vote.”

Some Canadian Jewish communal organizations have questioned the report’s conclusion, arguing that the GA vote was indeed discriminatory.

Rabbi Reuben Poupko, co-chair of the Québec branch of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, welcomed Fortier’s response to “incidents of antisemitism and discrimination at McGill,” including the launch of a Task Force on Respect and Inclusion in Campus Life, which is set to provide the university with recommendations by April 2018.

“In launching the investigation and the task force, she has contributed to creating a positive environment on campus,” Poupko said.

Yet he argued that the GA vote was, in fact, “discriminatory to Jews and pro-Israel students.”

“While the investigation failed to determine antisemitic intent, it is clear to us that the targeting of those students was antisemitic in effect,” Poupko said.

These concerns were shared by the Jewish civil rights group B’nai Brith Canada, which said the “report is lacking in many respects.”

“Contrary to the mandate that he received, Boudreau did not explicitly consider previous threats of violence against Jewish and pro-Israel students at McGill,” B’nai Brith asserted. “The report also ignored the fact that The McGill Daily, a student-funded campus newspaper, maintains a boycott of all content which promotes ‘a Zionist worldview.’”

“Most importantly, Boudreau’s report mischaracterized the discriminatory treatment of Lew as the product of ‘protests about Israel’s policies,’” the group contended, pointing out that the BDS campaign does not merely critique Israeli policies, but “is opposed to the Jewish State’s very existence.”

“The Ottawa Protocol on Combating Antisemitism, to which Canada is a signatory, defines denial of Israel’s right to exist or seeking its destruction as a form of antisemitism,” B’nai Brith noted.

Similar criticisms were aired by Robert Walker, national director of the campus advocacy group Hasbara Fellowships Canada, who emphasized that by “demonizing and delegitimizing the world’s only Jewish state, [BDS] is an exercise in anti-Semitism.”

“It’s incumbent upon McGill and every Canadian university to recognize this reality and to treat BDS for what it is: a hateful attack on Israel and Israel alone that runs counter to every academic principle of truth and accuracy,” he argued.

Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center likewise objected to the report’s conclusions, with president and CEO Avi Benlolo warning that it “may well serve to deepen the divisive and poisoned atmosphere on campus — where antisemitism is interwoven into anti-Israel campaigns.”

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