Campus roundup: The struggle at Durham College to defend Palestinian human rights not over

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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.”


Conservative MP for Oshawa, Colin Carrie also got involved. It is not clear whether he really understood what had happened.

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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  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I don’t think preventing the group from being present was a good idea. It made it easy to attack the event and make accusations of discrimination. I agree with the author that in terms of competing ideas specific to social justice, BDS supporters have nothing to fear from pro-zionist advocates.

  2. I agree it probably wasn’t worth the hassle of excluding the hasbara fellowships although such a decision may (or may not) have been correct on the merits.

    Does anyone have any information on the original call or announcement on this event? Were the only organizations to be invited organizations that had a presence on campus? What conditions were to be met by groups applying to have a presence? I note in one announcement that it was an opportunity to connect with 20(?) community groups. Is this campus community or civic community? Hasbara fellowships supposedly didn’t have any local chapter so if it was limited to campus community there was no reason, legal or otherwise, to permit them to participate.

    Clearly since hasbara fellowship was founded by the Israeli foreign ministry and aish it is not a community or grass roots organization but the diversion that was created by refusing them probably isn’t worth it.

  3. I would think for BDS this is a pretty clear cut case. Hasbara Fellowship is explicitly Zionist and not particularly religious (though it only admits Jews). If you are going to attack political groups that are Zionist that’s about as easy a target as BDS is going to get. It is also not a particularly sympathetic target as it clearly partisan. A far more interesting case, and one they are likely to face next year if they don’t cave, are organization with unimpeachable social and religious credentials that are also explicitly Zionist. Something like like Chabad, UJA, MAZON of Canada… Jews have no reason to let there be any ambiguity that BDS in practice means anti-Jewish shunning. The other side gets to practice activism too once BDS is policy.

    That’s where the SA is going to have real problems with BDS. If they exclude these organizations they will openly be supporting anti-Judaism. To stop the objections: no supporting a theoretical non-Zionist Judaism that doesn’t exist in meaningful numbers is not going to play. The argument that there is a distinction between anti-Zionism and Antisemitism only works because of a leftist flight to fancy in creating a theoretical Judaism divorced from the Judaism that actual Jews practice. In reality Zionism as a political movement emerged out of the Zionist religious doctrines that have existed within the Jewish religion for 2700 years at least. As those religious doctrines have been realized in a material form they have incorporated into the religion. Similarly the Jewish religion now that it has a home base state is becoming a state church in the same way the Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox churches are, and thus even Canadian Judaism is increasingly impossible to separate from Israel. Israeli political figures appoint religious judges who make rulings on matters that Jews in Canada feel bound to obey.

    This ain’t 1/10th of 1/% of the level of oppression and violence that’s required to achieve your objectives of creating a uniform opinion among Canadians. If you can’t handle this clear cut of a case, hang it up.

    As an aside, the SA was quite explicit that they support a policy of open viewpoint censorship, “ The SA does not support policies of any government or state actors that violate international law…. Any organization whose mandate is to promote policies that contributes to the colonization of Indigenous Peoples, Palestinian or otherwise, does not align with the principles of social justice.“. That expansive definition of course would include countless organizations, an overwhelming majority of organizations work for societies that exist not societies that used to exist. And with regards to Palestine just about all Jewish organizations. At least they are being honest about their aims and means.

  4. As the earlier responders have said, there might be reasons for not allowing hasbara fellowship a booth at the social justice fair, for example if there were guidelines disallowing state-sponsored organizations. Whichever, that disallowance has certainly sparked a bigger and broader forum of debate.

    The debate to be encouraged
    is really about human rights and social justice issues – concerning rights that should apply to all human beings.
    Conflating one side of the debate or other with bigotry about jewishness or palestinian-ness is misleading. The comments of CD host do this and are obfuscating rather than elucidating.

    1. @Doug

      That’s not going to work because your group doesn’t support rights equally for all human beings. Take the debate with Anonymous where he was infuriated that I would argue that a child that came out of a Jewish vagina has just as much right to live in the place of his birth as a child that came out of a Muslim vagina. Rather he argued one ethnic group of people is “illegal” and thus doesn’t have any right to self determination, that is any right to have a government that represents their interests.If you all wanted equality and freedom for all people under the law you would be supporting the mainstream liberals.

      The 3 BDS demands amount to establishing the conditions for permanent oppression or destruction of the Jewish people. Of course that’s about Jewishness what else would it be about?

  5. By the way, I have a quick on the essay contest for Canadians under 30 on whether Canada should support BDS.

    Maryam Monsef my local MP (for Peterborough-Kawartha) and Canada’s Minister for Democratic Institutions, will not turn 31 till November 7th 2016. Can I encourage her to enter the contest or is she too old by a year?

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