On March 21, 2013 I was waiting outside the campus restaurant's dance hall at York University. It had been converted into a York Federation of Students meeting room when the originally planned room in the Students Centre reached full capacity. There were at least a few hundred York University undergraduate students attending the meeting on a windy, snowy day at the Keele Campus.
I'm not an undergrad student which is why I had to wait outside the enormous makeshift meeting room, only able to see two large crowds sitting across from one another with Israeli flags and red and white keffiyahs.
When the flag bearers clapped you knew someone against the motion had just spoken, and when the keffiyah wearers clapped you knew it was someone for the motion was had just spoken. After about two hours those of us outside the meeting heard clapping spliced with shouts of "shame!" We knew the student representatives had voted and the motion had passed. The York Federation of Students, the largest undergraduate union in Canada, had just passed a divestment motion on Israel.
This motion is purely symbolic; the York Federation of Students does not have direct investments with Israel or any weapons manufacturers to cut ties with. The York University Administration, on the other hand, is heavily invested in companies involved in weapons manufacturing, including weapons that are used by the Israeli military.
York University's Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) released a report in March 2011 that found that York University has investments with corporations like BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, all arms manufacturers that do business with the Israeli military. The motion was purely symbolic but, at the same time, arguably very powerful.
Student unions from across Canada have put forth similar resolutions, all condemning administration ties to weapon manufacturers that do sell to Israel. The York University undergrads union's counterpart, the York Graduate Students Association, passed the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction) resolution back in January. The University of Toronto's Graduate Students Association (GSA) has done the same, as has the Concordia GSA, as well as the undergrad student unions of U of T Mississauga, and other universities including Trent, Carleton and Regina. The voices of condemnation for Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is growing.
As we left the basement restaurant space, the pro-Israel supporters started a singing circle at the base of the spiraling staircase up to the upper floors of the student's centre. The pro-boycott crowd made their way up the stairs, some hanging Palestinian flags over the sides of the stair railings. Within ten minutes the students who came out to support the motion were assembled all along the winding staircase, some on the third floor, others on the fourth, and many others spread out between the building's levels. On the staircase a single drumbeat started up and within seconds the whole crowd was chanting and cheering. By the time I got to the top of the stairs an all-out party was in motion. The pro-Israel crowd made their way up the stairs.
Sometime later a bunch of the pro-Israel students came out and started chanting aggressively outside of the York Federation of Students office. They banged on the wooden rails and shouted 'Drop YFS! Drop YFS!' for a good twenty minutes or so. If there were more than six of them they might've been considered intimidating. These individuals form a fringe group, not representing anyone but themselves.
There was talk amongst the crowd of pro-Palestinian students about whether to directly engage them in a chant contest. They decided not to and after about another fifteen minutes the building's noise resumed back to normal levels. The tension that underlies York University, between those who support what over 160 Palestinian civil society organizations have called for (BDS against Israel), and those who insist on business as usual when it comes to the University and administration's ties to weapons makers, faded back underneath the surface, perhaps to rise again next Wednesday when a rally is to take place in support of ethical investment is set to take place. The YFS was the latest student union to pass BDS.
The days following the passage of the BDS motion by the YFS were the ones I feared the most. There has been tension at York University between those that are so-called pro-Palestinian and those called pro-Israel activists before.
When Students Against Israeli Apartheid, which I was a member of, started tabling back in 2008 we received harassment almost every time. Sometimes there were passionate arguments, but other times it was blatant bullying. One time a man grabbed hold of the table where a young woman in SAIA was tabling in Vari Hall, refusing to let go for a few seconds. Other times people would come and grab the flyers when no one was looking and toss them in the garbage bin en masse. The vast majority of the harassment came in the form of brow-beating and accusations of anti-Semitism. One time I remember we had a middle-aged Jewish woman, a mature student, who was tabling with us who was especially berated by pro-Israel passerbys. The worst incident I ever encountered came in February 2009 when, after finishing an interview with then CUPE Ontario head Sid Ryan, an assembly of recognizable "pro-Israel" students were waiting for me outside the campus radio station. The following week my female co-host told me she was followed to her car afterwards.
SAIA had much difficulty getting recognized and embraced by the larger York University community. Articles in right-wing newspapers often spoke negatively about Students Against Israeli Apartheid, particularly the chapter at York University. The opponents of SAIA took some drastic measures to try to quell the BDS movement. In February 2010 the group Hasbara Fellowships at York, a pro-Israel organization, made released a statement to the press that members of their group were assaulted by pro-Palestinian student activists. The footage from the day in question was examined by York Security and it was concluded that there "was no evidence of students being physically assaulted" (Shalom Life, Feb. 2010). This was a month before Israeli Apartheid Week 2010.
In March 2013 the rally started on the 27th. A bunch of red and white triangles were hung around Vari Hall's ceilings, celebrating York Spirit. This time there was no opposition. This year Vari Hall was packed with Palestinian flags. About 200 students and allies gathered to call on the York University administration to take on the call for divestment. Speakers included representatives from various student groups, a representative from the Graduate Student Association (who passed BDS earlier in the year), and a speaker from CUPE 3909 (the union that had made a solidarity statement with the YFS after they passed BDS) as well as faculty such as David McNally, Sue Goldstein from Independent Jewish Voices, and Hammam Farah from Students Against Israeli Apartheid.
"Yes they told us that our views do not represent the majority [of students]," Hammam Farah said into the microphone, the voice amplified by Vari Hall’s rotunda shape, "…and then the Graduate Student’s Association passed BDS. The York Federation of Students passed BDS. Even CUPE 3903 passed BDS! Graduate students, undergraduate students and the TA's, GA's, and Prof and faculty unions' all passed BDS!" Somehow the triangular red and white flags looked more epic with all the green, black, white and red flags waving.
The cheers eventually subsided. Someone flung an Israeli flag over the side of one of Vary Hall's interior balconies.
Someone behind it shouted: "Save Palestine from Hamas!"
Later on someone else yelled out: "Where, where's Palestine?" in responds to the amplified "Free, free Palestine!" chants.
An hour after the rally Vari Hall subsided and the celebrating groups departed. The University is now left with the aftermath.