York Federation of Students endorses Israel boycott

Jewish students say they’re victims of discrimination

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The York Federation of Students has endorsed the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign at York University, causing an uproar from those who disagree with its aims.

This decision was made during a meeting called by the YFS’ executive members on March 21, when a motion was put forth to endorse the campaign, resulting in a vote of 18-2 in favour.

Approximately 200 undergraduate students attended the meeting.

Safiyah Husein, vice-president equity of the YFS, says the movement is a form of “international solidarity with the Palestinian call for justice, equality, and an end to the occupation,” that, “puts pressure on institutions to divest from companies currently funding weaponry for the Israeli military.”

More than 5,000 students signed a petition asking the YFS to discuss the BDS issue, says Husein.

Jessica Cherkasov, member of the Jewish student group Hillel at York, alleges that no one from Hillel at York or Hasbara @ York, another Jewish group, was officially informed of the meeting, the motion, or of the agenda. They only found out about the meeting the day before it was scheduled when a member of Hillel at York overheard from the YFS that it would be happening, she says.

While both Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) and Hillel at York members had a chance to speak at the meeting, Cherkasov says she would have liked to have been informed earlier.

“I would have preferred that the YFS, as a body that represents all undergraduate students, inform Hillel that they wanted to have a conversation on the issue, just so the board members could have an equal opportunity to hear from both sides,” says Cherkasov.

Vanessa Hunt, YFS president, says the YFS by-laws were followed in calling a board meeting.

“The BDS campaign has been passed at [other universities], so we thought we should bring this to York,” says Johanna May Black, member of SAIA. “We did research last year about what companies York was invested in and we thought this would be a good way of raising awareness.”

The BDS campaign specifically calls on the university to withdraw its investments from companies—like Hewlett Packard, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, and Lockheed Martin—which allegedly profit from Israeli human rights violations and war crimes.

As of November 18, 2012, York had 580 shares in Northrop Grumman and 290,600 shares in BAE Systems Group, but no holdings in the other companies named, according to Trudy Pound-Curtis, York’s assistant vice-president of finance and chief financial officer.

The campaign also demands the return to the pre-1967 border and the removal of the Israeli West Bank barrier, improved rights for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the right for Palestinian refugees to return to homes they had prior to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Members of SAIA have been calling on York’s student body to endorse the campaign since September 2012. They celebrated the YFS’s endorsement after the meeting at around 1:45 p.m. with a march around campus, waving Palestinian flags and chanting “victory.”

The Graduate Students Association at York endorsed the BDS campaign on November 16, 2012, as have other student organizations including the Concordia Graduate Students’ Association and the University of Toronto Graduate Student Union.

Hillel at York and Hasbara @ York condemned YFS’s endorsement of the BDS campaign on behalf of York’s undergraduate students and issued a statement through the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. In the statement, Chaim Lax, president of Hasbara @ York, says Hasbara is “extremely disappointed.” He alleges the YFS is “blacklisting and boycotting Israelis.” Lax also alleges the YFS’ resolution is “fundamentally racist, and a possible violation of [York’s] anti-discrimination codes.”

Cherkasov says as a union representing the interests of 55,000 undergraduates, the YFS should not take a political stance on an issue that does not affect all students on campus.

“I understand that we all have our personal opinions, but the fact that [the YFS] took a stance on a very touchy issue for Israeli and Palestinian students, I think that was inappropriate,” says Cherkasov. “Now, they have marginalized a group of students and created a hostile environment.”

Lax echoed Cherkasov’s opinion, saying the YFS should not take a political stance that could divide the campus. He says 4,000 students have signed a petition against the GSA’s endorsement of BDS, created in November 2012 by Hasbara @ York and Hillel at York.

“It showed a substantial amount of students, our constituents, didn’t want the YFS to endorse this motion and didn’t want them them taking a position on the Palestine-Israel conflict,” he says.

Husein says the YFS took a “principled stance” on this issue, which does not mean everyone should agree with their support for the BDS campaign. She says if any students have questions or concerns about this endorsement, she would be happy to meet with them to discuss it.

“Indeed, not everyone supports reduced tuition fees, equity campaigns, or sustainability work, but we know the majority of our members believe this work is vital and important,” says Husein.

Husein says remaining silent on issues of basic equality is often a tacit endorsement of injustice. “We engage in anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, and anti-sexism campaigns not because they are popular, but because they are right, and they are important to our members,” she says.

Joanne Rider, director of York Media Relations says university administration has not been contacted by the YFS or any other student groups regarding this campaign.

This story originally appeared in The Excalibur student newspaper.