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Faculty at Prestigious Canadian Universities Join Students in Resisting Parliament's Suppression of BDS

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 10/03/2016 David Palumbo-Liu

Upon taking office as Canada's Prime Minister, one of the first things Justin Trudeau did was to condemn the pro-Palestinian, pro-human rights movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against the state of Israel until it grants Palestinians full rights. Among various pronouncements, his criticism of BDS came out a year ago in the form of a tweet that explicitly tied BDS to university campuses. It read, "The BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses. As a @McGillU alum, I'm disappointed." Now Trudeau has crossed the aisle to back a conservative motion condemning BDS as well as any Canadians who support the movement. Once again, currying favor with the State of Israel has created a set of strange bedfellows. The Liberal party, upon which many voters pinned their hopes for a supposedly post-Harper era, quickly caved in before the motion:

About a dozen Liberal MPs refused to vote on the motion, which passed by a vote of 229-51; only two Liberals voted against it. The near total Liberal consensus prompted NDP Leader Tom Mulcair to charge that the prime minister is once again aligning himself with the Tories to suppress the civil liberties of advocacy groups... '[T]o call upon the government to condemn someone for having that opinion, that's unheard of,' Mulcair said, adding that motion 'makes it a thought crime to express an opinion....Since when do we allow that in a free and democratic society?'

As Canadian politicians bend over backwards to accommodate Israel's stifling of criticism, it is crucial to recognize that Canadians themselves are almost evenly split on support for Israel. Hence in their decision to back the motion, these politicians are not reflecting the will of a sizeable proportion of the people they supposedly represent. Interesting choice.
It is precisely on college campuses that we find a counterbalance to Canada's suppression of rights; it is here that we find the expression of dissent, and a call for action for social justice. Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill (SPHR McGill) responded to Trudeau's 2015 statement thus: "The only way that we will be able to remove the intentional suppression of discussion around Palestine that scares spineless politicians such as Trudeau and others is to refuse to be sidelined by their attempts to harass students at one of Canada's foremost universities."
Today we find the fight for Palestinian rights to be even stronger, and this strength helps to explain the recent motion passed by Parliament. Critically, the backlash against this repressive motion now includes not just student activists, but also a significant and growing number of faculty in Canada.
At McGill, a group of faculty has begun a petition, circulating widely by email, protesting their administration's endorsement of the Parliament's motion. Entitled "Not in Our Name: A response by McGill Professors to Principal Suzanne Fortier's condemnation of BDS," the statement reads in part:
As McGill professors committed to justice and equity, we strongly disagree with Principal Suzanne Fortier's official response on behalf of the university administration to the recent Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU) motion in support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel and the subsequent on-line process which failed to ratify this vote. Her email response, sent to all McGill students and faculty, came moments after the results of the on-line process were announced, and echoed the disappointing and ill-informed motion passed by the Canadian Parliament in condemning the growing BDS movement. For Principal Fortier to denounce a movement defending the rights of Palestinians against those who are oppressing them is in fact what 'flies in the face of tolerance and respect' -- not the BDS movement itself. The call for BDS, drawing upon lessons learned from earlier international movements against apartheid South Africa, indeed urges universities to end institutional ties with institutions funded and sponsored by the Israeli state, and which are complicit in the Occupation and violations of international law. The BDS movement is a measured, non-violent and principled civil society response to life under occupation and colonialism when a people's basic rights are violated and denied.

Meanwhile, at another of Canada's premier institutions of higher education, the University of Toronto, a large number of faculty have declared their support of the student divestment initiative. Omar Sirri, one of the graduate student organizers of the divestment campaign, asserts:
The recent declaration of support from more than 130 faculty and librarians is hugely significant for the divestment campaign at the University of Toronto.
BDS student activists are working to educate our campus community about the plight of the Palestinian people, and the need for divestment from companies that profit from violations of international law and war crimes. Our work is constantly under attack, most recently from the Canadian government, which was elected just months ago on a platform that called for an end to the politics of fear and censorship. To have such strong faculty support at a critical moment like this wonderful news for our campaign.

A press release accompanying the faculty statement reads as follows:
In a powerful endorsement of the Campaign for Divestment from the Israeli Occupation organized by University of Toronto's Graduate Student Union, a group of over 130 faculty and librarians have signed a public declaration calling for the University of Toronto to divest from its holdings in companies
profiting from the ongoing Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories. The signatories come from all three campuses of the university and from over 38 different departments across all faculties. Their statement points out that the near total failure of international diplomacy to hold Israel accountable for the growing humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem requires, at a minimum, the need to "identify the injustices, speak out against them, and support the Palestinian appeal for solidarity." The declaration urges the University administration to divest from Northrop Grumman, Hewlett Packard, and Lockheed Martin, in order to send an important signal to the global military industrial complex that it takes very seriously its own stated ethical principles and that it refuses to be complicit in the escalating violations of human rights in Israel-Palestine.

Rebecca Comay, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, comments on the significance of this faculty initiative in the current political climate.
The public rallying of faculty and students around this issue is noteworthy at this critical moment. Just two weeks ago a parliamentary motion was passed (by an overwhelming margin) condemning the BDS movement on the grounds that it impinged on the 'friendship' between Israel and Canada and 'promoted the demonization and delegitimation of the State of Israel.' The contradictions are utterly stupefying: the official position of the Canadian government is that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories (including East Jerusalem) is illegal. Meanwhile this same government is trying to stifle non-violent efforts to end this illegal occupation.

The central role universities play in giving moral and ethical leadership where politicians fail is highlighted in this statement from Jens Hanssen, an associate professor in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto: "Imagine that: the governing party and the previous governing party are asking Canadians to disregard both international law and official state policy when making decisions about where to invest--Yes, the constantly expanding Israeli occupation is illegal, our government acknowledges, but no, you must not say this out loud or take this into account when making ethical investment decisions."

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