A motion supportive of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel was voted down at the University of Ottawa on Tuesday, marking the tenth successive failure for the movement on Canadian campuses.
The measure called on the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) to endorse BDS and “take a Pro-Palestine stance,” and to express these positions in its policy manual.
It further sought to commit SFUO to reading a declaration in support of divestment at all meetings with the university’s Board of Governors, to “work for the cancellation of all forms of cooperation with Israeli academic institutions,” and to urge a “boycott of propaganda initiatives that promote Israel or whitewash its violations of international law.”
The chair of the SFUO General Assembly meeting where the motion was debated initially announced that “the resolution is adopted” with 241 votes in favor and 231 votes against — news that was met with whoops and shouts by some students, and the display of a large Palestinian flag. However, an unidentified member of the audience pointed out shortly afterwards that any changes to SFSU bylaws or policies need to be approved by a two-thirds majority. The record was subsequently corrected to indicate that the BDS resolution failed.
Rabbi Chaim Boyarsky, co-director of the Rohr Chabad Student Network of Ottawa, said some Jewish students started crying when they heard that the BDS motion passed — only to celebrate after the correction was issued some ten minutes later.
“When that happened, Jewish students — students who never wear kippahs, never visibly identify as Jews — danced and danced in the middle of campus,” he told The Algemeiner. “It was a sight I’ve never seen before, it was unbelievable.”
Chabad partnered with other Zionist groups — including Hillel Ottawa, Hasbara Fellowships Canada, the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee, and StandWithUs Canada — to help mobilize the community against the vote.
“We reached out to many, many students that came to our events,” Boyarsky said. “We called, we texted, we asked them to bring out other friends. We knew the Jewish vote alone, we can’t win. We were working around the clock to get students to come.”
Some 500 people ultimately attended the forum, including about 200 Jewish students — and the ensuing debate was marked by impassioned arguments from both camps.
Shaad Khiladi, a student who identified herself as the granddaughter of Palestinian refugees, told the audience that May 15th — the date that the nascent state of Israel was invaded by the armies of Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in 1948 — would mark “the 70th anniversary of militarized occupation of our land” and the “perpetuation of this injustice through the incarceration of children, through the continued bombing campaigns on Gaza, the existence of an open-air prison, the existence of a 700 kilometer wall.”
She said BDS provided Palestinians “with an opportunity to gain back the voice of justice through nonviolent methods, because at this point in time, that’s all that is left for Palestinian people.”
Navine Ahmed, a uOttawa student whose message was read in her absence by her sister, challenged this characterization.
“I am from Iraqi Kurdistan,” she said, “and as a child, my family and I had to flee Iraq and claim refugee status in Syria. I’ve been a refugee, I know the complexities of this issue and the emotional toll.”
“When I visited Israel and the West Bank last year, I did the exactly the opposite of what the BDS calls for people to do,” Ahmed continued. “I talked to Israeli academics, journalists and politicians, I talked to Palestinian peace negotiators and visited an Arab village.”
“The picture of Israel and the occupied territories is not the black and white one painted by BDS,” she argued. “BDS excludes one side of the conflict from dialogue. The movement fails to take into account the people of Israel, their experiences, their values, hopes, and anxieties.”
Eyal Podolsky, president of the Jewish campus group Hillel Ottawa, explained his own opposition to BDS by sharing anecdotes of antisemitism on campus, which he linked to the campaign.
“I personally have had two experiences in the past two weeks with directed antisemitism,” he said. “I was walking by two gentleman, and one of them sees me — I wear a kippah all the time, so I’m obviously visibly Jewish — and one of them goes, ‘Oh great, the last thing I needed to see right now, a f**king yehudi [Jew].’”
He also recounted the experience of a Jewish student named Dalia, who said that after peers recently inquired about the origins of her name, and she indicated that it was Jewish, she was asked, “Did you steal that name from the Palestinians like you stole their land?”
“We’re talking about a movement that breeds hate,” Podolsky said. “With my kippah, I am a visible minority, people know I am Jewish, and I don’t feel comfortable walking on a campus where people feel comfortable saying things like that.”
Gabi Ghannoum — president Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), which co-sponsored the BDS motion — countered accusations that the campaign fomented antisemitism, calling it “very peaceful.”
Arabs and Palestinians “are always demonized” when they talk about BDS, he cautioned, before telling students to contact him if they experience antisemitism in the event that the resolution passes. “We are your allies, we are here for you, we don’t want to cause any hostilities,” Ghannoum said.
While the resolution ultimately failed — as a similar BDS motion considered by the SFUO’s Board of Administration did in November — some suggested that pervasive hostility against Israel remained an issue in certain spaces on campus.
“We are currently dealing with a student government that doesn’t care for their own by-laws, doesn’t have a current constitution, and acts based on bias and ideology as opposed to pragmatism,” said Dovi Chein, director of Hillel Ottawa.
The Jewish advocacy group B’nai Brith Canada threatened to take legal action against the SFUO if it adopted the latest BDS motion, saying it “would have violated the notice requirements guaranteed by its own constitution,” as well as its policies against discrimination based on national origin or religion.
The student government also came under fire last year for trying to remove the club status of both Hillel Ottawa and its sister organization, the Israel Awareness Committee.
While creating a sense of unease, these episodes have also “galvanized our community on campus, and empowered our students,” Chein said.
The motion’s defeat represented the tenth consecutive setback for BDS at Canadian universities, according to B’nai Brith Canada. “Over the past two years, BDS votes have failed at the University of Toronto (twice), the University of Waterloo, McGill University, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, the University of Winnipeg [twice] – and now twice at the University of Ottawa,” it wrote.
SFUO did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A video of uOttawa students celebrating with Rabbi Boyarsky after the vote can be found below.
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