On February 16, 2022, the University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU) passed a motion stating, “Be it resolved that The UTSU wholly divest funds and further on forbid investment to firms complicit in the occupation of Palestinian Territory.” This motion passed with 299 of the present members voting in favor and 143 against. The Trinity Times has reached out to the UTSU for definitions of key terms including “complicit,” but has received no response.
Recent BDS Activities at the University of Toronto
On February 5, 2021, the Complaint and Resolution Council for Student Societies (CRCSS) found the UofT’s Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) guilty of engaging in discrimination, violating the University’s “open, accessible and democratic principles” for its support towards the BDS, which may cause membership fees from students to be used to fund potentially antisemitic causes. The CRCSS recommended the UTGSU to make fees from student members refundable and change its by-laws to oppose nationality-based discrimination, among other amendments.
Later that year, the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus Student Union voted to affirm support for the BDS movement, passing two motions: The first calls for U of T students “refrain from engaging with organizations or participate in events that normalizes Israeli apartheid.” Another motion was meant to reaffirm the rights of Jewish students. However, Maxwell Fine, the student who submitted the original document, told the Varsity that clauses to ensure students could attend lectures on Israel and Palestine, as well as participate in research with Israelis or Israeli institutions were removed behind closed doors. President Meric Gertler condemned both motions, stating “both motions are inconsistent with the University of Toronto’s core values of freedom of speech and inclusion.”
The UTSU SGM
Mr. Evan Kanter, a member-of-college of Trinity and an opponent of the motion spoke to the Trinity Times regarding the UTSU Special General Meeting, and Trinity Times spoke to him regarding the details of the debate on this BDS motion. Mr. Kanter proposed a motion to strike this divest motion from the agenda altogether, but it failed narrowly by about ten votes. Others present at the meeting alleged the votes against striking were inflated by roughly 40 votes. A request for a recount was denied by the chair.
The first two hours of the meeting centered on the agenda itself – whether the BDS motion should even be on the agenda, and in what order it should be considered – whether the divest motion should be debated before the by-laws that need to be changed and whether the Member’s Forum, an opportunity for general members to question the Executive and ask them questions about their work, should also be beforehand. Opponents claimed these actions constituted a soft filibuster.
Spring, a magazine supporting the motion, stated that there were “countless attempts to strike out the divestment resolution. But the pro-Palestine students stood their ground and kept it on the agenda.” It also claimed that “when the divestment resolution finally came up on the agenda, nearly four hours later, the pro-Israel students tried to force a vote to adjourn the meeting, arguing that too much time had passed.” The vote took place after about another hour, and when it finally did, debate was quite minimal, and the meeting moved almost right away to voting, although it had been discussed in a roundabout previously by members of both sides who often failed to confine their comments to the matters at hand despite instructions from the chair.
Throughout the discussion, significant attention was placed on the future of kosher food businesses, one of the main forms of Jewish-owned businesses in the university campus. In an interview with the Varsity, Kaamil Hassan, the student who proposed this motion stated that there was no clause banning kosher food. When asked about the impacts of the divest motion to Jewish-owned businesses and the UofT student population (excluding kosher food), Mr. Kanter stated “Even though the person who raised this motion says it does not ban kosher food, they wrote a horribly written motion in such a way that it could be interpreted to ban kosher food. You could argue that a firm that is complicit with the occupation of Palestinian territory could be any firm that believes in Zionism, because to some people, Zionism inherently means occupation of Palestine territory. If you ask me, what the word Zionism means is belief in the right for Jewish people to self-determine in their indigenous homeland of Israel.” Mr. Kanter particularly stressed his view that most of the land Israel is situated upon is not occupied Palestinian territory, as it was legally purchased by the Jewish National Fund and then used to form the state of Israel based on a UN-approved partition plan. The UTSU has not yet clarified if and how any restrictions will be implemented.
Moe Alqasem, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 1281, tweeted “A history victory” regarding the divestment motion passing. He also stated to Spring Magazinethat the successful vote is a sign of the growing confidence of BDS activists on Canadian campuses and of a groundswell of support for Palestine among students in general.
In an interview with the Varsity, Kaamil Hassan, the student who filed the motion, said that he submitted it with the belief that the University of Toronto has been focusing on protecting human rights, including the rights of indigenous peoples of Canada and he therefore took action to support human rights advocacy, in this case against the human rights violations conducted against the Palestine people.
The opponents of this bill condemned it as ‘anti-Semitic and divisive.’ Mr. Kanter stated his belief that this is an antisemitic motion because it singles out Israel, saying, “It applies double standards to the only Jewish majority country in the world. They could have passed a motion that condemns Russia for their occupation of Ukraine; they could have passed a motion condemning China for their treatment of Uyghur muslims, but they didn’t do that… The only time they applied a foreign policy to another country is to the only Jewish majority country in the world. So why did they single out Israel? Because it’s a Jewish country. That’s antisemitism.” Evan also mentioned that the passing of this ‘divestment’ motion will cause Jewish students to be more afraid than ever to express their identity on campus.
Daniel Koren, the Executive Director of Hasbara Fellowships, an organization empowering Jewish and pro-Israeli student activists, wrote an open letter to President Meric Gertler, stating that this motion was “so vaguely worded, that, depending on how it is interpreted, it could potentially lead to the banning and boycotting of Jewish-owned businesses.” He further condemned this discriminatory behaviour and called for the University of Toronto to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism in order to protect the rights of Jewish students, a definition which would show how this motion, and similar motions by the UTSC student union as well as the UTGSU were antisemitic.
As during previous UTSU debates on related topics, the meeting abounded in ill-will, procedural finagling, personally charged tensions, and the staff and chair and zoom infrastructure were generally overwhelmed by the massive and unruly participation. That said, this was one of the best attended UTSU General Meetings in recent memory and one of few that did not struggle to fill quorum. Of course, one must question, how was a motion this controversial and contentious decided in a meeting during a midterm week by less than five hundred students out of a membership of roughly forty thousand?
Disclaimer: The Trinity Times recognises the importance of divergent views and open debate and holds no official position on any of the topics mentioned.