A divide in nations divides campus

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel has Queen’s students and faculty split on how to approach the issue

This time last year, students passing the corner of University and Union were stopped and searched.

The simulated checkpoint was a part of Israeli Apartheid Week, organized by Queen’s Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR).

The protest was a reminder of the division the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to create on university campuses across Canada, a division often brought to a head by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

BDS’ motive is to end international support of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, and pressure the state to comply with international human rights laws using BDS practices.

The BDS movement originated in 2005 when a number of human rights focused Palestinian non-governmental organizations initiated a collaborative campaign calling on the international community to boycott, divest and sanction any involvement with Israel.

The campaign continues to be in opposition to the Israeli government’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a conflict so contentious, even its origins can’t be unilaterally stated.

Oceans away from the conflict, university students and faculties in Canada continue to wade chest-deep into a debate over their institutions’ stance on the conflict, often in BDS’ context of whether those schools should continue to associate with Israel.

In February 2016, McGill’s SSMU’s General Assembly passed a motion to give formalized support behind the BDS movement, which was later defeated in an online ratification process.

In the same year, a faculty petition endorsing BDS surfaced at U of T — which was later halted by the administration.

Anti-Israel sentiments are made apparent by student protests like that of last year’s Apartheid Week, while the administration has largely remained silent. When contacted for their stances on BDS, neither the AMS nor Queen’s administration provided comments before deadline.

The SPHR is pushing for an academic boycott at Queen’s, citing, in an emailed statement to The Journal, previous occasions upon which the University has financially divested from countries in protest of their actions. 

Divestment has only happened twice in the University’s history, once in reaction to South Africa’s racial apartheid and more recently in 2007 from South Sudan after Darfur.

In the case of South African divestment, the Board of Trustees voted to remove South Africa from Queen’s endowment portfolio only after almost 20 years of debate on campus.

Success of the BDS movement at Queen’s would mean a comparable scrubbing of Queen’s endowment portfolio and the severing of the University academic ties with institutions such as Tel Aviv University, which most recently joined with Queen’s Law on a three-year collaboration to exchange faculties, lectures and students.

Principal Daniel Woolf – who visited Israel when Queen’s Law announced its new partnership with Tel Aviv University – spoke of the relationship as “a very exciting new collaboration that will open up all sorts of possibilities for our faculty, students and researchers.”

For the SPHR, the commitment demanded by BDS would place Queen’s on “the right side of history.”

“As a proud Queen’s University student-led group, we would hope that Queen’s, as a Canadian leader, follow its own precedent by continuing to condemn the violation of international law — including grave and countless human rights violations, war crimes, and illegal military occupation on Palestinian land,” SPHR representatives said.

For Queen’s Israel on Campus (IOC) — a student group devoted to strengthening the pro-Israel movement on campus — motions to support BDS are on the wrong side of history.

In an emailed statement, Quinn Bernholtz, ArtSci ’18, and Esther Oziel, ConEd ’18, co-presidents of IOC, said there is no place on campus for BDS nor does BDS promote peace.

“Several leaders in the BDS movement openly state that their goal is not to bring the two sides together in a peaceful way, or a two-state solution, but rather the destruction of the state of Israel. This kind of rhetoric has no place on any campus,” IOC representatives said.

 “BDS aims to put all of the blame on the Israelis, essentially ending the conversation and inhibiting healthy dialogue.”

Sharing a similar opinion as IOC, Vassili Schedrin, a professor of Jewish studies at Queen’s, is vocal about his opposition to current BDS tactics.

Born in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Schedrin studied at a local university, particularly taking interest in Jewish studies and history. As a professor in the field, he has taken courses in everything from Israeli to Palestinian politics, histories and Jewish culture.

“As a former soviet, I am well aware of propaganda, and to me this is it,” Schedrin said.

For Schedrin, education and open dialogue is a step in resolving feelings towards BDS and understanding its complex nature, however, he said he would only engage in these conversations if groups changed their tactics.

“On campus, the future of the world is educated — think about all the international students who come here as well. It’s about education, not about propaganda or the imposition of the opinions,” Schedrin said.

Schedrin also said that if the administration or faculty were to formally support BDS, he would fight it.

“It should not be given the place for actions on campus… If they take sides, I would take my side. I see it as a divisive practice.”

For Queen’s history professor, Howard Adelman, the topic’s very divisiveness is a reason for it to be pursued on a university campus.

As an Israeli dual citizen, Adelman has a lot of connections in Israel, from family to friends, colleagues and even a bank account and pension. Moreover, as a professor in Jewish history, Adelman engages with the subject of Israeli-Palestinian relations in class on a daily basis.  

“I think the whole thing about Israel is that it should provide a dangerous space, it should provide Jews with an opportunity to stand up for what they believe in, and have the guts of their convictions,” Adelman said.

“I was in Israel the other week and when I was looking around at a booming economy, massive construction and a huge vibrant country, I was thinking what does BDS actually do to this kind of enterprise,” he said.

“Raising the issue of BDS is the opportunity for dialogue. I don’t think any university actually has the means to make any substantive impact on Israel or Israeli policy.”

Adelman lived in Israel during the second Intifada, one of two Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

“One of the things that everyone was asking was ‘why don’t Palestinians find non-violent means of protesting?’ and now that they have people are complaining about their non-violent means of protesting and trying to stifle that,” Adelman said.

For Adelman, BDS opens the door for important and educational dialogue. “Before one makes a stand on BDS, in the abstract one ought to immerse themselves in the history and what the issues are — and then maybe read some books about Israel and Palestine.”  

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