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Political differences at McGill University that are critical of Israel and pro-BDS are not anti-semitic

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McGill University campus. Photo: Ken Chaplin

McGill, like many other universities worldwide, has been the site of debates over the international movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of/from/on Israel (BDS) for the past few years.

resolution was passed by the McGill Undergraduate Student Society (SSMU) in support of BDS in February 2016, but it was rejected in the subsequent online ratification process. However, an important caveat is needed here: after appeal, the online ratification process was ruled invalid because phone and email lists, paid advertisements and social media campaigning were used, in violation of the Internal Regulations. Unfortunately, this ruling only came after the school year had ended, and so there was no possibility of repeating the ratification process. Thus, the BDS motion was considered not ratified, and was not adopted.

To counter the BDS motion and pre-empt any similar ones in the future, the Judicial Board of SSMU ruled BDS unconstitutional according to SSMU laws. This decision was ratified on September 17 by the Board of Directors (BoD) of SSMU.

At the SSMU Fall 2017 General Assembly (GA) on October 23, students voted against affirming three appointed BoD members, two of whom were against BDS and supported the "unconstitutionality" ruling.

All these events, despite some question marks, irregularities and procedural concerns, remain within acceptable limits of student politics and the students' practice of their democratic governance.

What is alarming is what followed. A claim was made -- one that made media headlines -- that the student directors were voted down in a show of anti-Semitism when, quite clearly, this was strictly a political difference and an exercise of democratic choice: the three students were not affirmed because they were anti-BDS or deemed unqualified by the student body, not because they were Jewish. In fact, only one of the students was Jewish.

As a Muslim and an Arab living in the West for decades, I understand how it feels to be the subject of discrimination or hate, and I would never take lightly any form of racism or discrimination. Anti-Semitism is a deplorable crime that cannot be ignored. I understand that very well and always combat it actively, although I am not personally a target.

On the other hand, being anti-Israel or anti-Zionism, or opposing Israel's policies and practices -- many of which are long-condemned by the UN and counter to UN resolutions -- is a political and human rights position that no one should be condemned, let alone punished, for holding.

As someone who witnessed firsthand Israel's discriminatory, unjust policies and practices against the Palestinian people, I stand with all who support justice and freedom, and who affirm their rights to act against Israel or Zionism in any peaceful manner they choose.

Irresponsibly using the allegation of anti-Semitism in the context of the McGill SSMU events is dangerous. When the claim of anti-Semitism is misused to stifle debate, defend a political entity or block a democratic process, it loses its value. Thus, real incidents of anti-Semitism are at risk of not being taken seriously or not given the attention they deserve.

Conflating anti-Zionism or anti-Israel protests with anti-Semitism does not benefit or protect the Jewish people from anti-Semitism. On the contrary, it may put the Jewish people in a negative light in the eyes of the many who see Israel and Zionism as unjust and oppressive to the Palestinian people.

Another alarming aspect of the McGill BDS debate is the interference of the university administration in student life and its attempt to influence student opinions. In early 2016, the administration made its position known very quickly, announcing, in unambiguous terms, that it is not only against BDS but will not allow the student motion to influence university policies.

Again, over the past couple of weeks, since anti-BDS students were voted off the SSMU BoD, the administration seemed under tremendous pressure to act and reaffirm its position.

The administration's reaction has been disproportionate to an allegation of anti-Semitism that, until now, is no more than that -- an allegation -- contradicted by the publicly known and observed facts.

Immediately after the October 23 SSMU GA, the principal went public and announced through an email to the entire McGill community that there will be an official university investigation as well as the creation of a support line and a task force. This was followed by another email with more details about the investigation. McGill's was a disproportionate response to unfounded and unproven allegations.

Do these actions by the university administration constitute interference in student governance and affairs? Are they intended to intimidate and silence students who advocate BDS or who stand against Israeli policies?

With the anti-BDS campaign, led by Israel and supported by Zionist groups worldwide, going to great lengths to fight the BDS movement on university campuses and elsewhere, I can only wonder how much pressure is McGill under.

It all seems like an abuse of the term "anti-Semitism" and a scare tactic directed towards those who confront Israel or promote BDS.

What will be left if we deny Palestinian BDS supporters the legal venues to express their views and advocate for action? Is this how the university will ensure that "values and principles of academic freedom, integrity, responsibility, equity and inclusiveness are respected," as stated in the principal's email on October 25?

Ehab Lotayef is a writer, activist, poet & IT manager at McGill University. This story was first published in the Huffington Post.

Photo: Ken Chaplin/Flickr

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