On Oct. 25, McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier announced an official investigation into allegations that voters at the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Fall 2017 General Assembly had been motivated by anti-Semitism when ratifying the Board of Directors (BoD). This was in part prompted by a Facebook post written the day after the vote by Noah Lew, whose position as a BoD member-at-large—along with two others—failed to be ratified. While anti-Semitism exists in society and on campus, cynical and unfounded claims of a conspiracy to silence Jewish voices only serve to obfuscate the real problem, and further conflate Jewish identity with Zionism. There are other legitimate reasons why students voted against him and the other Board members.
Whether or not one agrees with Boycott, Divestment, [and] Sanctions (BDS) against Israel in principle, Lew’s suggestion that it is “discriminatory in nature” mischaracterizes what this type of movement is trying to achieve. Namely, it is an attempt to recognize the responsibility of institutions such as SSMU to address injustices in the community and around the world. The Judicial Board’s ruling closes the door on any conversation on what is seen by many students as one possible way to show solidarity with victims of oppression—in this case, Palestinians.
Levelling claims of anti-Semitism against those who opposed ratifying Lew stifles this dialogue, but more so, it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of why many voted against ratifying the Directors in question. Supporting and lobbying for—or conversely, opposing—a motion opens you to criticism from the voting public. This is a fundamental part of the democratic process.
Four Board directors up for ratification had voted to approve the Judicial Board’s ruling on the BDS motion at its Sept. 17 meeting. The only one of them ratified was Maya Koparkar, the elected SSMU Vice-President Internal. The other three were seeking positions as members-at-large.
If a BoD member has concerns about how and to what extent BDS policies would be adopted by SSMU—and therefore impressed upon McGill—they should use their platform to address them. However, as a principle, the opinions that a student representative espouses and the stances they take inform the public about how they will act if elected—or in this case, have their position ratified. Voters will consider the evidence available to them, which includes not only a candidate’s own public advocacy, but also the ideologies of organizations that they are affiliated with. If that student representative, in their agency, repeatedly votes in accordance with these political views, it is neither unfair nor nefarious to suggest that this may reflect their future behaviour regarding similar issues. From this, voters may ultimately conclude that they do not want that person to represent their interests.
It is valid to question whether BDS should be the preeminent issue on campus, or whether it should be the only consideration of a candidate’s viability. However, campus activism is important, and it is unfortunate that it has been impeded by the Judicial Board. As a result, these events have completely overshadowed other matters that more greatly affect the day-to-day lives of students, like the plans for relocating clubs during the upcoming closure of the University Centre or the still inadequate access to physical and mental health care.
In my time as a student, many more substantive allegations have gone unaddressed by [the] administration—not limited to accusations of sexual violence by professors, and the mishandling of student-on-student assault. In light of this history of inaction, the administration’s sudden official investigation into the GA vote is disheartening.
Alleging that anti-Semitism was the primary motivation in how individuals voted last week is incredibly serious: It de-legitimizes reasonable support of BDS as a movement, and distracts from real elements of anti-Semitism in activist circles. Those making blanket claims which mischaracterize the intentions of voters must re-evaluate, or risk further undermining any chance of having a productive discourse on campus.
As an Ashkenazi Jew, the Zionist project was created to benefit me. The violent occupation and settler colonialism of what is now known as Israel-Palestine was designed as a homeland for the Jews in 1948, specifically the white Jews of Eastern Europe, as a safe-haven from anti-Semitism. With the recent allegations of anti-Semitism on campus after the events that transpired at the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) General Assembly (GA), I hope that my voice can shed some light on why these specific claims are illegitimate. Critiques of the Israeli state and the Zionist project do not inherently constitute an anti-Semitic act, because there is a difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
On Oct. 23, when a group of students walked out of the GA after it was announced that Noah Lew did not receive enough votes to be ratified to the Board of Directors (BoD), the tension in the air was palpable. After showing up late to the GA, SSMU President Muna Tojiboeva proclaimed Lew’s rejection from the Board was an act of anti-Semitism. The conflation of Jewishness and Zionism needs to be eradicated. Opposing a student representative’s Zionist affiliations is not in and of itself anti-Semitic.
Zionism is not inherent to all Jewish identities. In fact, some Jews, like myself, maintain that Zionism is antithetical to Judaism’s core teachings and to the lived experiences of the vast diasporic community. The cognitive dissonance necessary to claim that Israel’s existence is imperative to protect Jews from prosecution—while its government simultaneously exterminates, displaces, and degrades Palestinians who have lived there since before Theodor Herzl’s proposal—is mind-boggling. Furthermore, Israel’s founding did not eradicate anti-Semitism, but rather, replicated many patterns of violence found throughout Jewish history.
Claiming that critiques of Lew are inherently anti-Semitic not only overlooks the existence of anti-Zionist Jews, but glosses over the legitimate issues of his accountability and transparency as a BoD member. These criticisms have been brought up a number of times this semester in relation to SSMU’s internal dynamics. Democratize SSMU, a campaign created in reaction to the lack of transparency and sustainability in student government, has been demonized for trying to highlight the undemocratic ways in which student representatives have been conducting their affairs. Tojiboeva is guilty of not announcing meeting times or lengths, and failing to alert the student body of the deadline to submit GA motions. While the original wording of Democratize SSMU’s Facebook event fell into anti-Semitic tropes, the organizers later apologized and removed the offending comment. This kind of ignorance must be called out and condemned, but does not change the fact that their goals of democratizing student government are not only legitimate, but sorely needed.
Tojiboeva’s criticism of anti-Semitism at the GA only distracts and de-legitimizes efforts to hold student government accountable. SSMU resembles a tire fire more than it does a student society. It’s time for SSMU representatives to answer for their conduct.
Tali Ioselevich is affiliated with Jewish Independent Voices, but the views presented here are their own.
The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Fall 2017 General Assembly (GA) on Oct. 23 was indicative of the deep flaws in McGill’s current democratic system. These flaws further disillusion a student body already apathetic about SSMU. To solve them, structural changes must be made to the GA.
In the most recent GA, three members of the Board of Directors (BoD) failed to be ratified. There is a clear relationship between the directors’ failed ratifications and their opinions on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. This link is obvious if you look at the recent Facebook post history of a group called Democratize SSMU.
The event page for Democratize SSMU, which has since been deleted, encouraged students to challenge the makeup and structure of the BoD. However, its event description focused less on progressive democratic change and more on the issue of BDS. The event page listed critiques of specific Jewish BoD members, using their names explicitly. There was no mention of Alex Scheffel—a member who they would later vote down—who is not Jewish. Democratize SSMU later issued an apology, admitting its event description was “insensitive to anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish people as corrupt and politically powerful.”
Notably, Democratize SSMU expressed no qualms about democracy this past March—when there were Internal Regulation changes regarding the BoD with ostensibly undemocratic effects—calling the sincerity of the organization’s democratic motives into question.
In May 2016, the SSMU Judicial Board (J-Board) ruled that the BDS motion is unconstitutional. At this time, Internal Regulations for SSMU stated that J-Board decisions had to be ratified by a simple majority of the BoD, or could be overturned with a four-fifths supermajority. However, in February 2017, former Arts representative Igor Sadikov and former SSMU executive Erin Sobat submitted an Internal Regulations change to SSMU Legislative Council, which would lower the vote necessary to overturn a J-Board decision from four-fifths to a simple majority of the BoD. This number was eventually amended to two-thirds, but the point remains that there was intent to change the BoD’s ability to overrule J-Board decisions—including its reference on the constitutionality of BDS. This change weakens the voice of the J-Board, while simultaneously strengthening what the BoD can do to dispute its authority. Despite how undemocratic this change was, a group like Democratize SSMU was conveniently not formed at this time. Although Democratize SSMU’s supporters could have mobilized to oppose this actual undemocratic change in SSMU governance bodies, they did not, as the new regulations helped further their political views—namely, by potentially reopening the conversation on BDS. This makes the group’s allegedly apolitical mission to instate democratic change within SSMU rather questionable.
Meanwhile, at the Oct. 23 GA, Democratize SSMU played a lead role in voting down multiple members of the BoD. Approximately one per cent and 0.5 per cent of the student body voted on Noah Lew and Alex Scheffel’s respective BoD memberships. In contrast, typical online referendums receive over 10 per cent of the student body’s opinion.
SSMU does need to be “democratized”—but not through a single group’s co-opting of the GA. In order for the GA to serve as an accurate forum to gauge student opinion, voting on BoD members should go directly to online ratification and should be split so that each member is considered individually—as they were on Oct. 23. Important decisions like these should be made by a substantial portion of the student body, and this adjustment would make it easier for a greater number of students to vote on this matter. Increasing the quorum needed for GAs to run would also help. The current quorum for a GA is 100 students, which represents less than 0.5 per cent of the student body. An appropriate change would be to increase quorum to one to two per cent of the student body. When quorum is not reached, all motions brought to the GA should go to Legislative Council, where all faculties and external bodies of SSMU are represented equally.