UMSU spoke out and voted against a motion supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and condemning the illegal occupation of Palestine by Israel according to international law during the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) annual general meeting Monday night.
The motion, which passed after several amendments, also included support for Palestine-Solidarity organizing nationally and moved to “support locals in launching weapons divestment campaigns targeted towards their individual administrations.”
CFS is an organization representing over 500,000 students at 64 student unions across Canada.
UMSU president Jakob Sanderson called the motion “divisive” and “ill-considered.”
“My problem is not necessarily as much with the BDS movement, my problem is with this motion and with the idea of a student federation getting involved in this,” he said.
“So it’s sort of my view that a student union, especially a Canadian federation of students […] should be trying to focus on issues that will unite as many students as possible. And I don’t think that this motion does that.”
The BDS movement calls for non-violent activism to, according to the movement’s official website, “end international support for Israeli violations of international law by forcing companies, institutions and governments to change their policies.”
Sanderson said choosing to abstain from the motion entirely would have been unproductive.
“I would say that essentially by voting against this, it’s the idea that we should essentially, as a student union, be abstaining from this issue,” he said.
“But to just abstain from the vote is to succumb to the will of the majority in the room, and I don’t think that was the right thing to do.”
UMSU’s bi-weekly board meeting will be held today but Sanderson said there would be no motions on the issue advanced by the executive.
“I have talked with students who want to see […] UMSU take a stance on this,” he said, “so I would not be surprised if there was a motion brought forward, and we’ll treat that accordingly.”
Given the motion does not involve bylaw changes, any motions brought forward by students will be referred to the executive committee. The committee would then, according to Sanderson, “consult with stakeholders and communities at that time on campus and try to determine an appropriate way to move forward.”
Groups across Canada have spoken out on both sides of the motion from CFS.
Independent Jewish Voices Canada, a “grassroots organization grounded in Jewish tradition” that has eight student chapters across the country released a statement supporting the CFS motion.
Hillel Canada, a nationwide group which provides programming to Jewish college or university students, swiftly condemned the motion, calling it an “obsessive campaign against exclusively one country” and “anti-academic, fuelled by hatred [and] counterproductive to peace.”
Ariel Glikman, a third-year science student and member of the U of M’s Hillel Winnipeg branch, called the motion an act of anti-Semitism.
“It’s either that the CFS is ignorant as to what BDS stands for, or that they are blatantly anti-Semitic,” he said.
The BDS movement has been the topic of contentious debate since its formation in 2005. While supporters say the movement seeks to solely confront Israel’s policies, critics — including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — associate it with anti-Semitism.
“Essentially, their demands call for the destruction of a Jewish state, which isn’t called for to any other country in the world, and that’s what makes it anti-Semitic,” Glikman said.
He added that he believed the motion’s existence is indicative of a wider failure within the federation.
“I feel like I’ve been disrespected by a federation that’s mission is to represent students,” he said.
“So I feel like they’re not doing their job.”
Sanderson said his position was not a matter of determining whether or not BDS is based in anti-Semitism, and instead said he believed the CFS motion “clearly picks one side” and “makes the other side feel unwelcome on campus.”
“I’ve come up with many Jewish students that feel with this motion that they are not represented by the CFS, an organization that they pay fees to and that UMSU is a member in,” he said.
“This is of great concern to me.”
Co-VP external for the Arab Students’ Association and external relations manager for the Muslim Student Association Qudus Abusaleh, who previously worked as a reporter for the Manitoban, said calling the BDS movement anti-Semitic disregards its historical context.
“I strongly believe that calling BDS an anti-Semitic movement really shows that the essence of the movement is not understood,” he said.
He added he believed this because the movement “aims to basically revoke or work against illegal Israeli settlement on Palestinian territory as outlined by several U.N. resolutions,” “aims to ensure full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel,” and “aims to uphold and ensure the rights of Palestinian refugees are upheld.”
In 2013, UMSU passed a motion de-recognizing a Students Against Israeli Apartheid group as a student group on campus, which was later criticized as an infringement of freedom of speech.
Sanderson said he would not support a similar motion to remove BDS groups from campus should it come to a vote today, as long as they followed UMSU student group policies.
“What I would not do is support a motion on UMSU’s board, or CFS or any other organization for that matter, that goes out and says that a BDS group is entirely unwelcome on our campus, because I don’t think that’s right,” he said.
“I think that we have to, as a student union, respect a great variance of different beliefs on our campus and try and be a place where we can support those two beliefs in as neutral of a way as possible.”
Abusaleh said the response to the motion by UMSU has made it more difficult to open up a discussion on the subject.
“The union going against the motion sort of decreases, or narrows, the discourse,” he said.
He added that UMSU should take a closer look at where it stands on the CFS motion.
“The union should consider changing its position on it,” he said.
“They should consider how strongly they want to oppose the motion, and they should strongly consider whether they are against the motion because they’re going against [the movement], or because they’re unhappy with the way CFS mandated some of the things that they’ve mandated.”
Sanderson said he was concerned for students who may feel “othered” by the motion’s passing.
“I am troubled that the CFS would come in and introduce a motion that quite clearly alienates many students that pay their membership fees to the Canadian Federation of Students,” he said.
“And when students have come forward and put that opinion to me, I definitely am sympathetic [to] that.”