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Commentary: Politics or Palestine: What is McGill’s real problem?

a/Opinion by

There has been no shortage of commentators and students alike talking about the ‘contention’ of last week’s Fall General Assembly (GA). Many have asserted that the source of this dispute was whether or not the Students’ Society of McGill Union (SSMU) should take a ‘political stance’ on what was deemed a ‘highly emotional and complex foreign policy issue’.

I, however, contend that the true reason for the intensity of the dispute was not because of the choice of SSMU as a political forum, but rather the desire by a small group of students to suppress any discussion related to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

How else could Kafka-esque idioms such as “in the name of free speech, we shall have no discussion,” be relayed to a skeptical GA? What else explains the fact that hundreds of students who came to vote down discussion on the Palestinian Solidarity motion left almost immediately afterward, obviously having no issue with the resolution standing in solidarity with the Hong Kong student protesters? Where were the same impassioned speeches that the resolution would divide McGill, or marginalize Chinese students?

It then only logically follows that the leaders of this movement were more interested in quickly suppressing any discussion, much less motion, of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, rather than the use of SSMU, our student government, as a political forum.

After all, one must ask why such a concerted effort by an organized group of students was mobilized to denounce SSMU taking a political stance in this situation. Where were they when SSMU condemned South African Apartheid, Canadian military involvement in Iran, or the U.S.-led war in Iraq? Were they not worried of marginalization of American or Canadian students? How come there has been no campaign to reform SSMU’s equity policy which clearly delineates the SSMU’s relationship with speaking out on issues of social justice?

Another assertion by students who spoke in favor of indefinitely tabling the motion before discussion began, as well as insinuated by this newspaper, was that this issue “did not affect McGill students”—and thus SSMU was not an appropriate venue for the conflict to be discussed. In reality, it is important to note that McGill has institutional ties to research universities in Israel in which there is collaboration on weapons research that is used to enforce Israel’s blockade of Gaza and occupation of the West Bank – both illegal under international law. So while “No” students were simultaneously declaring that not only did the resolution “not do anything”—and thus shouldn’t be passed, but that it was also marginalizing Israeli students. They failed to consider the pre-existing divide and marginalization on campus among those who are uncomfortable with the fact that their tuition dollars are spent on research to enforce violations of international law and the human rights of an occupied populace.

Despite efforts to suppress discussion, we move on from this GA with our heads held high. We know it is important for us to continue. We know that we will never ‘normalize’ discussion about Palestine unless average people like us refuse to have our voices silenced—and continue to speak out.

  • Zahra

    Amazing article Sami!!!

  • Sara

    Amazing doesn’t define it

  • Jack

    Just have to say one thing. The students present at last week’s GA were most definitely not McGill students at the time when SSMU took a stance on “South African Apartheid, Canadian military involvement in Iran, or the U.S.-led war in Iraq.” So that point is really just an irrelevant filler.

    • Alex

      I think the point was that when those motions were being discussed, there was no outrage at the thought of SSMU being used as a political forum. Speaking of not having the same students present, we can also note that in 2009 a similar motion about this conflict was similarly indefinitely postponed. So it seems like whenever the issue of Palestine is brought up, so is this odd argument, whereas other political issues don’t seem to arouse the same ire…

      • Level

        This is definitely true, but I would say this is more of a function of student apathy than “the entire No campaign was bought by the Israel lobby”.

        Basically, if an issue isn’t very divisive (take Apartheid), the energy to mobilize against the motion will be low – generally, people aren’t very militant when it comes to what a student union can or can’t do. So even though many may think that SSMU condemning South African apartheid is outside of their mandate, who is going to get militant about that? Very few.

        However, the McGill campus is VERY split on the Israel-Palestine issue, and it’s very emotionally-charged and current. This provides greater impetus to be for or against the motion, while energizing those moderates who simply think SSMU should stay out of these matters.

        I bet if there was a pro-Israel motion, many of those against this motion would have found themselves opposing that hypothetical motion as well.

        • Beth

          Level, I think it is flawed logic to compare South African apartheid to the Israel-Palestine conflict in terms of response to the issues by the current level of contention or controversiality surrounding the topic. Obviously SSMU’s divestment from South African apartheid seems like a given now, but I hardly agree that it was at the time.

          Sociopolitical change is ALWAYS controversial and divisive when it is current, otherwise it wouldn’t be of such significance. Would you say that condemnation of US involvement in Iraq, Canadian involvement in Iran, divestment from South African apartheid were not controversial topics at the time of debate? Student movements and student unions have played integral roles in facilitating sociopolitical change, even when the issue is controversial.

          Even in terms of other issues that SSMU hasn’t been involved in (/taken a direct stance on), I think it is facetious to say that university students have not been fundamental actors in social justice movements (let’s consider: anti-Vietnam, the American Civil Rights Movement, the LGBTQ movement, the Feminist movement, etc.) and that said topics of historical sociopolitical change were not as controversial/divisive at the time.

          THAT’S why we should have brought this issue into the public realm of discussion and THAT’S why this issue belongs at SSMU (not to mention the actual directives of the SSMU Constitution).

          (PS. I’m not sure if you actually read the (whole) motion (for what is hopefully the last time I will have to link anyone to this: http://ssmu.mcgill.ca/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/General-Assembly-Motion-Calling-on-SSMU-to-Stand-in-Solidarity-with-the-People-of-the-Occupied-Palestinian-Territories-2014-10-22.pdf), but it is neither Pro-Palestine nor Pro-Israel. It merely condemns the violation of Palestinian human rights in the resolved clauses (at the END), without mentioning ANY specific actor, and additionally in the ‘Whereas’ clauses: “Whereas, condemning Israel’s aforementioned violations does not negate Israel’s right to exist as a state”. Yes, there are human rights violations throughout the conflict, but the fact that students attempted to post a motion condemning Palestinian human rights violations DOES NOT NEGATE other students’ rights to pass a motion condemn Israeli human rights violations. Simply no one tried to pass such a motion, and that should not have detracted from the motion to condemn the violation of Palestinian human rights. Similarly, if the motion was actually ALLOWED to be up for discussion, students could have suggested amendments to the resolvable clauses, ie. condemning violations on both sides. Unfortunately, students who were there to hear the discussion of the conflict and hopefully learn more or were there to make said amendments were obviously barred from doing so whatsoever).

        • guest

          Lol Apartheid had incredible support during its prime. The Mayor of New York asked why boycotts were ‘singling out South Africa’. It took more than thirty years from the first calls of boycotts against apartheid to apartheid’s fall.

  • Level

    Attempts at painting opposition as being co-opted by special interests is the oldest trick in the book.

    You may be right that much of the thrust was the pro-Israel lobby, but that doesn’t de-legitimize the point of view that these kinds of motions should be outside of SSMU’s purview, nor does it de-legitimize the No campaign as a whole.

  • SomeName

    I value your opinion, but I disagree with some of your claims:

    1) the vote was ~400-300 – yet the attendance dropped closer to 200 afterwards, so by simple math, it’s not merely those opposed who must have left.

    2) there is a difference (in my mind, at least), between identifying with a peaceful protest of HK citizens and the condemnation of a single side in a two sided armed conflict

    3) you also claim the blockade is illegal under international law, and that is factually untrue, though you may disagree with it’s policy

    4) the motion fails to make any balance in passing it’s judgement – no mention of Hamas, or the intentional targeting of civilians they employ. If you are against war, why not opposing all violence, instead of focusing solely on the actions of one side?

    • NiceNameDudeWhatYouAfraidof

      Hi `:)

      1) This motion was not a single sided condemnation – if you read the resolved clauses you would know that it ‘condemned ALL violence against civilians in Gaza’.

      2) “Most of the international institutions consider the blockade illegal. In September 2011, the Chair and Vice-Chair of a UN Panel of Inquiry concluded in the Palmer Report that the naval blockade is legal and had to be judged isolated from the restrictions on goods reaching Gaza via the land crossings. Concerning the restrictions on goods reaching Gaza via the land crossings the Palmer report stated that they were “a significant cause” of Gaza’s unsustainable and unacceptable humanitarian situation.[24][25][26] However a Fact-Finding Mission for the UN Human Rights Council chaired by a former judge of the International Criminal Court, as well as a panel of five independent U.N. rights experts concluded that the blockade constituted collective punishment of the population of Gaza and was therefore unlawful.[27][28] UN envoy Desmond Tutu, United Nations Human Rights Council head Navi Pillay, the International Committee of the Red Cross and some experts on international law[29] consider the blockade illegal.” – Wikipedia

      3) Your complaints about Hamas fall under the logical fallacy offff……. – wait for it – Whataboutism! The notion that “whataboutism” is a logical deterrent would invalidate all of empirical science.

      • HaHaYoureHilarious

        The motion says “SSMU publicy condemns …. and all violence against civilians in Gaza and other Palestinian occupied territories”
        So how is that not EXCLUDING any Palestinian acts towards Israeli population? Do you not condemn violence against ISRAELI civilians? Or does Israel fall under “Palestinian occupied territory” because you don’t recognize it’s legitimacy to exist, under any border?

        • Ok

          Ok, well you’ve made it clear you aren’t interested in a fruitful discussion. We are not required to condemn violence against all civilians everywhere just because we want to condemn violence against the Palestinians. If you look at the disproportionality of the conflict it is extremely clear that the Palestinians suffer magnitudes greater amount of violence than the Israelis do. Highlighting this disproportionality is something we seek to do, because these are not two groups engaging in a legal armed conflict, it is one group assaulting the people in a territory it occupies, when it is in fact required under international law to protect those territories.

          And, unless you’re projecting and or illiterate, the motion states very clearly that the motion does not negate Israel’s right to exist, but if you’d prefer to pander and sensationalize in order to stifle dialogue and prevent any meaningful steps forward from ever being taken then be my guest. Hope you pick up a little empathy somewhere along the way.

        • Ok

          Were the Civil Rights Movements Leaders required to actively fight every anti-racist cause everywhere in the world? Were they accused of ‘singling out’ because they did not condemn racial violations elsewhere? Groups can of course stand in solidarity with other intersectional issues, but to attempt to delegitimatize them because they are ‘focusing on a single cause’ is amateurish and easily dismissed.

          P.S. We could really use some of those Civil Rights Leaders in Israel today, where they just instituted segregated busses in the Occupied West Bank. ‘The road to apartheid is paved with good intentions’. This is why ethnocracies are a bad idea!

          • Sure

            Wow, so now you’re method of debate is to resort to name calling (here and especially in the comment below), that’s nice.

            Regardless, the two are tied together – Palestinian violence against Israeli is clearly related to Israeli violence against Palestinians. When you choose to condemn one, and completely not the other, even in your comments here, and in the wording of the motion, you are completely dismissive of one (because you view it as legitimate, I suppose), but not the other.

            If the motion resolved clause read: “We oppose the use of violence in the region, especially that which is directed towards civilians” (or something along those lines), I’d be right up there to support it.
            But this is not a true attempt to solve the crisis, or help that cause, rather this is a one sided agenda you are trying to push through SSMU, and you failed.

  • The Dread Hand of Arithmatic

    What an interesting intellectual exercise! It’s basically the “If you really cared about human rights you’d protest Arab regimes” criticism leveled at the anti-Zionists, but turned around. The problem, of course, is why is it suddenly legitimate now?

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