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University of British Columbia Rejects BDS Movement, Urges ‘Respectful’ Discourse on Mideast

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

Irving K Barber Library at University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Photo: CJ Dakin/Flickr.

The University of British Columbia (UBC) has condemned a recent student union vote to divest from several companies with business in Israel, rejecting the movement to boycott the Jewish state as at odds with the school’s values.

Passed on March 24 by the Alma Mater Society (AMS), a student union representing over 50,000 UBC undergraduates, the measure demanded that the university divest from nine companies doing business with the Jewish state over its “system of apartheid and its occupation of Palestine.”

At the time, the UBC Hillel chapter noted that the motion exclusively called out companies connected with Israel, from hundreds of businesses in which the school invests. “The harmful double standard that this motion is based upon excludes Jewish and Israeli students from feeling supported, advocated for, and safe while on campus,” Hillel said in March, adding that similar motions previously pursued by the union had given way to incidents of antisemitism.

On Tuesday, UBC President and Vice-Chancellor Santa J. Ono affirmed that the university “cannot support the AMS motion.”

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“Positions on complex geo-political issues that protect human rights are best made by guarding academic freedom and freedom of expression in an environment that supports constructive and respectful debate. But constructive and respectful debate cannot occur when members of one group are made to feel personally attacked for their identity or where tolerance and inclusiveness are not fostered in productive discourse,” Ono said in a statement.

“We work to avoid polarization on the basis of student identity, religion, or political beliefs so that students are safe and free from harassment,” she continued. “For these reasons, the university does not support BDS and, therefore, cannot support the AMS motion to urge UBC and the Board of Governors to divest.”

“Through productive discourse and through teaching, learning and research, we will continue to contribute to diplomacy and the ongoing efforts to find peaceful paths forward in the Middle East,” Ono added.

Launched in 2005, the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation-state, and seeks to isolate the country comprehensively with economic, political, and cultural boycotts.

On Thursday, Hasbara Fellowships, a group that organizes student trips to Israel, applauded the UBC’s announcement, thanking Ono for “standing against, discrimination, and the targeting of Jewish students on campus.”

“Now more than ever, students of all nationalities, religions, and ethnicities must unite in the fight against BDS-related intimidation and harassment and work towards an inclusive society where we are all treated equally, Jews and Israelis included,” the group said.

With Tuesday’s statement, Ono became the latest Canadian university official to rebuke a BDS-inspired effort by a governing student body. In March, McGill University Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier pledged to intervene if the Students’ Society of McGill University did not reverse a BDS referendum that was objected to by the body’s own judicial board. Earlier in the month, University of Toronto withheld $10, 918 in student fees earmarked for the graduate student union, assessed as the annual amount spent by the union to promote its BDS campaign.

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