The struggle to support Palestinian human rights at Durham College has taken many twists. A motion by the Student’s Association to support a boycott of Israel was only the first step. Lots of other players got in the action. Read our special campus correspondent’s report…
Struggle to support Palestinian human rights at Durham College takes many twists
Campus Round up
By: Special correspondent Erin Yanzi
Students at Durham College/UOIT in Oshawa have found that passing a motion to support human rights for Palestinians was only the opening round in the struggle for justice. A successful move last January to adopt a motion supporting boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) against Israel by the student body was initially very encouraging to pro-Palestinian activists on campus. But it quickly brought out a strong pro-Israel response from groups on and off campus, including the local MP.
On January 25th, the Durham College student association (SA) voted to support BDS. In its press release it explained that the motion “mandates the SA to boycott the purchasing of products from illegal Israeli settlements.” The motion also directs the SA to lobby Durham College and the government. The motion had been spearheaded by a campus group called Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and was endorsed by Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) and numerous other campus clubs and societies.
Other actors enter the picture
However, two months later, the motion came under fire when Hasbara Fellowships Canada, a pro-Israel campus organization, claimed they had been denied a table at the campus Social Justice fair. Hasbara Fellowships had hoped to use the fair to promote their upcoming “Israel Peace Week” program. Hasbara Fellowships’ focus is to “deliver Israel’s message”.
Robert Walker, the director of Hasbara Fellowships claimed that a representative of the Durham faculty association (which had had no role or part in the Social Justice Week programming) had told him that the denial was based on the SA vote, explaining that it would not be appropriate for an organization with such close ties to Israel to be represented at the fair.
Walker then complained publicly about “widespread anti-Israeli discrimination” on university campuses in Canada. Walker also blamed the Durham administration for its lack of action regarding his organization’s exclusion from the SA event.
The UOIT administration hastily released a statement saying the university supports “respectful dialogue, dissent and discourse”, “freedom of speech”, and promotes an “inclusive, diverse and safe environment on campus”. “UOIT does not support a boycott, divestment or sanctions against Israel,” it said.
The administration statement prompted the Student Association to respond. It released its own statement which justified the exclusion of Hasbara from the fair. The SA pointed out that Hasbara Fellowships’ defence of Israeli policies and violations of human rights towards Palestinians “does not align with the principles of social justice.”
The stakes were further raised in July when Walker filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. The complaint names both the SA and Faculty Association at UOIT/Durham College as having discriminated against the organization. Walker’s filing in part said “I was perceived as being ‘tied’ to the state of Israel because I am Jewish and work for a Jewish organization,” and “I was denied the right to participate in a public event at a public university because of my creed…” (see this National Post article).
Hasbara has also recruited the local MP to defend them. Colin Carrie, the Conservative MP for Oshawa, issued a press release supporting Hasbara Fellowships Canada. Carrie hopes the result of the filing will be an SA policy prohibiting discrimination and return the campuses to “places of healthy and respectful debate”.
Complex divisions and different interests
The events at Durham College reflect the complex divisions between Palestinian human rights supporters, student representative bodies, university faculty and administration. Each have different perspectives and interests to protect.
The struggle on campuses to understand and defend human rights for Palestinians is convoluted. Passing a motion is only the first step in a longer educational process. The debate can quickly expand to include the faculty, the university administration, other organizations present on campus, and even local elected representatives of the Canadian public.
Preventing a pro-Israel group from speaking on campus however, may have shifted the discussion away from human rights for Palestinians onto the question of “censorship”.
In reality, human rights for Palestinians should be an easy case to defend in an open and frank discussion. Activists armed with the facts should have little to fear from Hasbara Fellowships or any other group which wishes to oppose them. However, open debates like this rarely happen and pro-Israel groups have often chosen hostile offense to any situation calling for education and debate.
With the new school year starting, we should encourage “dialogue, dissent and discourse” on Canadian university campuses about BDS, Israel, and Palestinian human rights.
Comments? Was it a good idea to exclude Hasbara Fellowships from the Social Justice Fair? Did that promote or hinder a discussion about human rights for Palestinians on campus?
REMINDER: THERE IS STILL TIME TO WIN $1000 IN OUR ESSAY CONTEST!! A $1000 prize is available for the best essay by a Canadian under 30 on whether Canada should support BDS. Get more info by clicking on this link. Contest ends September 30th.
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