a, Opinion

Commentary: The destructive effects of divestments and boycotts

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel has been gaining momentum recently. Around two weeks ago, the student workers’ union of the University of California school system voted favourably on a ballot to support the movement, urging the university and the federal government to divest from stock associated with Israeli institutions. In the same spirit, students at Wesleyan University, a private institution in Connecticut, protested to stop selling Sabra brand hummus in its dining facilities, citing discontent that Sabra is partly owned by an Israeli group with past connections to the military.

As these events have turned heads, students of institutions that have maintained relative silence on the issue, such as McGill, were undoubtedly puzzled by their university’s reluctance to support the movement. This confusion has its roots in the sentiment that there is a moral responsibility for administrations to express their support for the Palestinians in Israel one way or another. However, from a university’s standpoint, it is hard to ignore the ineffective nature of the BDS movement.

The practice of academic boycotting highlights the types of problems that emerge when universities engage in BDS. In 2009, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, a large trade union, called for a resolution for Ontario universities to ban Israeli academics from speaking, teaching, or researching at their institutions. Regardless of where one stands on the issue, it is very difficult to see the practice of academic boycotting as anything other than a blatant violation of academic freedom. This is probably why the proposal was met with strong opposition from politicians and professors on both sides of the political spectrum. If students were to support the BDS movement as a whole, it would make hurtful policies like academic boycotting more acceptable to the public.

The movement harshly divides people on the issue by attempting to defame Israel as a whole instead of encouraging education and open discussion on the subject.

This proposed resolution served to identify the general problem affecting the BDS movement. The movement harshly divides people on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by attempting to defame Israel as a whole instead of encouraging education and open discussion on the subject. No matter which angle one looks at the movement through, it is an open attack on Israel as a nation. It punishes Israeli scholars abroad who have little to no influence on the occupation of the Palestinian people, and it hurts Israeli businesses and institutions regardless of their stance or involvement in the matter. The purported goal of all this is to put pressure on the Israeli government. However, it comes at the price of trading constructive scholarly dialogue on the injustices being committed by the occupation for a knee-jerk movement composed of outraged picketers and equally hostile opposition. It goes without saying that universities should do all they can do to encourage meaningful education and help build an arena for academic discussions.

There is also great danger in pushing forward such an aggressive, yet popular, agenda. Students often join without being aware of the movement’s real impact. For example, the movement objectively provides a cover for the right-wing ultranationalists in Israel who support the occupation. Many of these ultranationalists accuse the movement of being anti-Semitic; needless to say, this claim helps them gain support from outraged Israelis who would otherwise be against the occupation. To make matters worse, the academic boycott penalizes the most open minded and progressive intellectuals who could otherwise influence the nation. Not to mention that the boycotts will hurt Palestinians employed in Israel businesses as well as subject them to further unnecessary resentment from the Israeli public.

While the ethical motives behind the movement are just, its effects and implications are neither reasonable nor constructive, and students should think twice before bringing it onto their campuses.

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One Comment

  1. davismirza8U

    As a graduate student who supports the BDS vote at McGill, I find it highly suspect that the student writer who advocates for Israel in the McGill Tribune never mentions the words “occupation”, “Palestinian human rights” or “illegal settlements” when they criticize a non violent student movement to censure Israel conduct in the Occupied Territories!

    Is it an accident that Mr. Park fails to cite intellectual Jewish critics (and strong proponents of BDS) when discussing the merits (or failures) of Israel’s domestic policy – be it Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Norman Finkelstein or even Israel’s own former Defense Minister Ehud Barak who stated, “…the simple truth is, if there is one state . . . if this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.” Just last year, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni warned that, without a two-state solution, Israel could turn into an “apartheid state.”

    What’s wrong with criticizing Israel’s occupation of Palestine and holding a student vote to boycott Remax for selling stolen Palestinian land to Israel settlers? If Tipi and Ehud can hang Israel politicians out to dry for its illegal occupation of Palestine, why can’t McGill students?

    Obviously, BDS touches a raw nerve among supporters of Israel’s occupation, because it highlights what these pro-occupation students would like to keep hidden in the shadows…that Israel’s human rights abuses are far worse than South Africa was at the height of apartheid.

    The writer’s displeasure with those who boycott Israel misses a crucial point – even South Africans themselves make the link that Israel’s domestic policies are far worse than what they endured under white rule. Willie Madisha, President of COSATU, one of South Africa’s largest labour unions, explains, “As someone who lived in apartheid South Africa and who has visited Palestine I say with confidence that Israel is an apartheid state. In fact, I believe that some of the atrocities committed against the South Africans by the erstwhile apartheid regime in South Africa pale in comparison to those committed against the Palestinians.” That is why the University of Johannesburg severed ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, following a campaign by apartheid foe Archbishop Desmond Tutu and over 400 South African academics.

    When the truths are aired, students across North America are jumping on the BDS train.This has only added impetus to a worldwide cultural boycott of Israel by musicians, filmmakers and writers who have refused to perform in Israel or have cancelled scheduled performances following pressure from the BDS movement including Bono, Snoop Dogg, Jean Luc Godard, Elvis Costello, Gil Scott Heron, Carlos Santana, Devendra Banhart, Faithless, the Pixies, Cassandra Wilson, and Canada’s own – Cat Power. Artists and cultural figures now speak publicly of their support for BDS including : Roger Waters, Alice Walker, Naomi Klein, John Berger, Judith Butler, Etienne Balibar, Ken Loach, Arundhati Roy, Angela Davis, Sarah Schulman, among others.

    As a University of Toronto graduate student, I support the McGill vote to divest from companies that support Israel’s illegal occupation. I would also remind critics of BDS that it is the right of every Canadian student to criticize human rights abusers and demand changes in their political policies…it is our right and duty under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which enshrines freedom of expression, association and conscience as fundamental rights, which are similar rights recognized in Quebec’s rights charter.

    I would urge McGill students to vote en masse to end the silence around Palestinian political prisoners; as students, we cannot remain silent about illegal Israeli settlements; we cannot remain silent about illegal walls that divide communities; and in the memory of Rachel Corrie – who was killed trying to stop a Caterpillar bulldozer from destroying Palestinian homes and olive groves – we can no longer be forced into silence by apologists of Israeli military aggression.

    I support the McGill students’ campaign to end the occupation of Palestine…it let’s the world know that boycotts, divestment and sanctions are the kind of non-violent political change worth voting for. Click: http://ssmu.mcgill.ca/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Motion-Regarding-Divestment-from-Companies-Profiting-from-theIllegal-Occupation-of-the-Palestinian-Territories2.pdf

    In Solidarity,

    Davis Mirza BA, BEd. MA Candidate (OISE/UT)

    Toronto, CANADA

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