Pro-Israel groups vs. student democracy at McGill

Originally published: Mondoweiss on May 1, 2024 (more by Mondoweiss)  |

On Saturday afternoon students set up two dozen tents on the main lawn of Montreal’s McGill University. Soon after the first student divestment encampment in the country went up, liberal MP Anthony Housefather posted to X,

Encampments are a violation of university policy. City police are municipal & universities fall under provincial jurisdiction. I call upon university administrators, police (and if needed provincial governments) to act. We can’t allow what is happening in the U.S. to happen here.

A few hours later, at 10:20 PM on a Saturday night, Housefather repeated his call for repression through a video message. On Monday morning Housefather reiterated his demand for state repression, calling on McGill leadership to take “swift action.”

Housefather’s clamoring for the violent suppression of McGill students protesting Israel’s genocide in Gaza marked an odious escalation in the Zionist movement’s bid to suppress democracy. B’nai Brith and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre soon echoed the MP’s message. This should not come as a surprise. Housefather and the apartheid lobby groups have long sought to suppress student voices and democracy at McGill.

In November McGill students voted for the Policy Against Genocide in Palestine. In the largest referendum turnout in Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) history, 78.7% of undergraduates called on the university administration to denounce Israel’s “genocidal bombing campaign” against Gaza. The resolution also called on McGill to sever ties with “any corporations, institutions or individuals complicit in genocide, settler-colonialism, apartheid, or ethnic cleansing against Palestinians.”

Before the election was completed the genocide lobby had already demanded the student’s vote be ignored. Simultaneously, they pressed McGill’s administration to condemn the resolution and demand SSMU jettison the results. If the student society ratified the results, the administration announced that it would terminate its Memorandum of Agreement with SSMU, which regulates fees, use of name, and other matters between the university and student union.

The day after the voting results were announced, but before SSMU had a chance to ratify the resolution, B’nai B’rith brought a legal case to the Quebec Superior Court against it. An unnamed student claimed the resolution was discriminatory and the judge agreed to consider the case. As such, SSMU was restricted from ratifying or implementing the policy until after March 24 when the court was supposed to adjudicate the matter. Backed by a well-resourced outside organization, a single individual was allowed to suppress the overwhelming will of students.

The Israel lobby followed a similar playbook 18 months ago when 71% of McGill undergraduates supported a Palestine Solidarity Policy, which called for boycotting “corporations and institutions complicit in settler-colonial apartheid against Palestinians.”

Before students voted on the Palestine Solidarity Policy Israel activists sought an injunction from SSMU’s Judicial Board to block the vote. After the policy was supported the administration, under Zionist lobby group pressure, threatened to terminate its Memorandum of Agreement with SSMU. This led SSMU’s unelected judicial board to reject the constitutionality of the Palestine Solidarity Policy.

Not satisfied with their victory over democracy, B’nai B’rith backed a lawsuit against SSMU, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), and McGill’s administration. The Jewish advocacy organization sponsored Jonathan Fried’s bid to have the provincial court block McGill students from being able to collectively take action in support of Palestinian rights. A New York transplant, Fried sought to have Québec’s Superior Court prevent McGill students from exercising their democratic rights in the hopes it would protect a violent, colonial, system in the Middle East.

Zionist group’s bid to suppress student democracy has been roiling the campus for a decade. Between 2014 and 2016 there were three votes inspired by the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement at biannual SSMU general assemblies. Fearing students at the prestigious institution would support BDS, the Israel lobby went into overdrive. Among a slew of pressure tactics, they got then Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau to tweet that “the BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses. As a McGill alum, I’m disappointed. Enough is Enough.” In February 2016, a motion mandating the student union support some BDS demands passed the union’s largest-ever general assembly. But after the McGill administration, Montreal’s English media and pro-Israel Jewish groups blitzed students the online confirmation vote failed.

An important part of the apartheid lobby’s power is the administration’s obsession with fundraising and pro-Israel individuals have contributed far more money to the university than pro-Palestinian voices. In 2022 Canadian-Israeli billionaire Sylvan Adams put up $29 million to establish the Sylvan Adams Sports Science Institute as part of a project that partners McGill with Tel Aviv University. That year Charles Bronfman gave $5 million for a speaker series in his name at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, which his money helped establish three decades ago. The arch-Zionist Bronfman family has funded various buildings and initiatives at the university, and McGill’s new chancellor, Pierre Boivin, is Vice-Chair of the Board of Stephen Bronfman’s private investment firm Claridge Inc.

The divergent position of donors and students has become increasingly stark, as protesters regularly highlight. In recent months, there have been multiple large-scale rallies at McGill calling for divestment, and last month 1,200 students, alumni, and professors signed a statement calling for divestment. Two months ago, students blocked the DeSautels management building for a day calling for the end of its exchange programs with Hebrew University, and two weeks ago, activists renamed some 30 edifices on campus for Palestinian villages erased by Zionism. Since February multiple students have been on indefinite or rotating hunger strikes calling for divestment. Two students were hospitalized as a result, but the administration has refused to even meet the hunger strikers.

Those who have taken over parts of the university’s lower field are saying they won’t leave until McGill divests its holdings in multiple firms complicit in Israeli violence. They also want an end to a series of exchange programs with Israeli universities.

During its first 36 hours the encampment has grown substantially and has become far better organized. There was a Passover celebration Sunday evening and multiple workshops and film screenings. Amidst the rain, at least 500 rallied on campus Sunday afternoon.

The movement is also spreading. An encampment began Monday morning at the University of British Columbia and another is planned for later in the day at the University of Ottawa.

Students across the country are siding with the people of Gaza.

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