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University of Toronto Graduate Union Vote for Permanent BDS Committee Facing Appeals, Objections From Jewish Community

avatar by Shiri Moshe

A vote by the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) last week to ratify its Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Committee as a permanent body has been condemned by Jewish campus and advocacy groups, and faces two appeals previously lodged by Jewish students.

The BDS Committee was confirmed as a standing fixture at a special members meeting held by UTGSU on February 26, ensuring “the continuity of the Divest campaign at UofT,” according to the campaign’s organizers. “It is the culmination of many years’ activism and efforts to build the BDS movement on our campus.”

Earlier attempts to ratify the committee have run into challenges, with the latest in December being postponed over a procedural issue raised by students affiliated with the Jewish club Hillel UofT.

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Supporters hailed the vote for furthering the committee’s mandate to urge the administration to divest from companies that benefit from violations of international law, though critics have accused it of advancing a campaign that many major Jewish communal groups in Canada and globally have denounced for utilizing antisemitic tactics and rejecting the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.

Hillel UofT condemned the measure’s passage in a statement last Wednesday, saying it “will only let more student dollars to be wasted on a divisive and discriminatory movement that does nothing to further peace in the Middle East.”

“We will continue to stand firmly against BDS and other efforts on campus that create hostile environments for Jewish students,” Hillel added. “Much of that hostility was felt at last night’s meeting.”

The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center also launched a petition calling on UofT administration to speak out against BDS, which it said has gained more than 800 signatures to date. “The work of the BDS Committee includes supporting and promoting the antisemitic BDS movement against Israel, including through Israeli Apartheid Week — which brings biased anti-Israel propaganda and stokes division among students on campus every year,” the group noted.

UofT has in the past expressed its opposition to academic boycotts, with former president David Naylor explicitly rejecting the targeting of Israeli universities in 2007.

The vote ratification was likewise criticized by Ran Ukashi, national director of B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights, who described BDS as an “antisemitic” and “discriminatory” effort that negatively impacts Jewish and Israeli students.

Ukashi told The Algemeiner on Wednesday that the committee’s future status was subject to two pending appeals that were originally filed towards the end of 2018, one with the UTGSU and another directly with the university.

“B’nai Brith has been providing assistance to Jewish graduate students with both appeals, and is confident that the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union’s discriminatory, antisemitic conduct will ultimately be overturned,” Ukashi said.

The BDS Committee was first formed by the UTGSU following the passage of a motion at its December 2012 Annual General Meeting, which endorsed the Palestinian-led BDS campaign and called on “the University of Toronto to refrain from investing in all companies complicit in violations of international law.”

Some students criticized the process leading up to the 2012 vote, observing that a similar motion failed when it was brought up the previous year with due notice, meaning all parties had time to ensure fair representation.

Israela Stein, then a graduate student at U of T and Hillel spokesperson, told Canadian Jewish News (CJN) that only campaign organizers and their supporters were aware of the 2012 vote in advance.

Jason Dumelie, then academic and funding commissioner for the GSU, likewise told CJN, “It is not at all clear that [the vote] represents the views of a majority of graduate students at the University of Toronto, since no notice of the motion was provided prior to the meeting.”

The BDS Committee was ultimately established on an ad hoc basis in September 2013 and renewed annually. A November 2016 proposal to transform the committee into a permanent body failed to obtain the necessary 2/3 majority, following opposition by local students assisted by B’nai Brith.

Months earlier, the BDS committee hosted an event with a speaker — later repudiated by the university — who according to B’nai Brith told audience members that “Zios” control the Brooklyn real estate market and prevent non-Jews from buying homes, and repeatedly referred to Ashkenazi Jews as “Ashke-NAZIs.”

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