By: Paul Chislett & Mireille Coral
During student elections begun Feb 27th at the University of Windsor, a referendum was put to the undergraduate student body to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Having a campus wide referendum on BDS was a first for a Canadian university. The question passed 798 in favour to 585 against, with 1,398 votes cast.
There was a stunningly low voter turnout on a campus of about 14,000 full and part time undergraduates. The University of Windsor Student Alliance (UWSA) has a by-law forbidding media contact by those involved in a referendum. If this anti-democratic practice weren’t in place perhaps voter turnout would have been greater.
The win for the Palestinian Solidarity Group (PSG), who worked to have the referendum placed on the ballot, was marred by an isolated break in of an office on campus setting off a firestorm of fear mongering and the threat from University of Windsor President Alan Wildeman to have the referendum quashed.
A UWSA office was broken into the evening before the voting period was to begin and the word ‘Zionist’ and a Star of David were spray painted on a “Support Our Troops” flag. The incident has been decreed a hate crime and is still under investigation.
Zionism is defined as a “…national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.” Certainly and unequivocally the right of Israel to exist is without question. But does the condition of Israel’s existence have to mean the denial of the same right to a homeland for the Palestinian people? That’s a question fought over since 1948.
To claim someone is a Zionist without context and the opportunity for proper debate (for even Zionists disagree over their philosophy) is really just plain stupid. To do it by breaking into an office and spray painting it on a wall is criminal, but is it a hate crime? Can the PSG be blamed for the actions of someone’s behaviour? Is the PSG referendum responsible for creating an unsafe environment on campus? The university president and local media seem to think so, and published reports certainly imply it.
An early published report stated that “[d]espite the potentially explosive issue students are voting on … the university has no control over what referendums the student alliance conducts.” The issue is the referendum question and it is hardly “explosive.” In a later report, President Wildeman states, “The university cannot allow student organizations to compromise the university’s commitment to provide a welcoming learning and living environment to each and every student on our campus”. This astounding charge appears to be a heavy-handed attack leveled directly at the Palestinian Solidarity Group.
Let’s back up a bit and look at the referendum question:
Be it resolved that the University of Windsor Students’ Alliance:
Join student organizations around the globe by endorsing and participating in the 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions from Palestinian civil society; and
Commit to identifying and divesting from companies that support or profit from Israeli war crimes, occupation and oppression; and
Affirm that students have a vital role in supporting struggles for social justice, and stand in solidarity with Palestinians’ struggle for self-determination and freedom.
Let’s then ask what the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign is:
In 2005, as a response to Israel’s persistent violations of international law relating to its treatment of the Palestinian people, 108 organizations representing Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation, and Palestinian citizens of Israel called for an end to Israel’s occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and other Arab territories through a non-violent campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).
Israel has violated hundreds of UN resolutions since 1948 when Israel violently forced Palestinians from their land with the sanction of the international community. Today, also in violation of international law, Israel continues to build settlements on occupied lands, build a wall that separates Palestinians even from each other, and allows companies to profit while located in occupied territories.
Periodically, the Israeli military, one of the best armed in the world, has invaded Gaza killing hundreds of men, women and children. I have heard firsthand accounts of Palestinians in Windsor who endured the daily humiliation of Israeli checkpoints just to go to work, health clinics, school or shopping. Gaza has been described as the world’s largest open air prison. (And HERE)
For more on BDS listen to an interview with Electronic Intifada contributor David Cronin that Chislett conducted in February on CJAM 99.1 FM:
Even with this violent history, the referendum is seeking to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israeli companies that profit from work done on occupied Palestinian land. Not Israelis, not adherents of the Jewish religion, not individuals. The BDS campaign is a challenge to us all, and critically, to the University of Windsor Student Alliance not the University of Windsor, to boycott and divest from companies that profit in the occupied territories
How can it be that a group of University of Windsor students, concerned with the rights of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, have created a climate of fear at the university while following all the procedures for referendums?
The members of the Palestinian Solidarity Group on campus I know remind me of young adults in the past that fought oppression, war, and occupation. I have encountered from them nothing but humility and a sincere desire for justice and peace in the occupied territories.
There does need to be recognition of individuals who say they feel unsafe on campus, however; can that not be accomplished by creating a safe place for respectful dialogue to occur – an exchange in search of understanding about what justice means and how to attain it, and common ground around the right of all peoples to a homeland and autonomy? Could this not be a role the media and a university president could play in collaboration with the University of Windsor Student Alliance?
Instead, the local media and president Wildeman are playing their version of Fear Factor, and shame on them. Safety on campus, a stated concern of the President and the PSG, cannot be ensured by clamping down on legitimate debate and justice work.
Of course if a university president were only focused on devolving a university into a structure focused on neo-liberal economics and automotive technology, stripped of all semblance of humanist inquiry – arguably exactly what this president is all about – then stamping out justice work shouldn’t be a surprise move. Here many will recall last summer’s de-funding of the Centre for Studies in Social Justice on campus.
The fact is the PSG has NOT created a climate of fear at the university. The local media, notably the Windsor Star, and now picked up on by The Urbanite, the CBC, MP Jeff Watson, and international media appear to be using the isolated break-in and vandalization of property as an opportunity to smear the PSG and discredit the referendum and the BDS campaign on campus, thus fanning a climate of hostility on campus.
The members of the PSG are not willing to simply talk about a just world. They have taken the initiative for non-violent action against a serious injustice that does affect us here. Instead of praise for taking on a tough issue they are met with a hard line threat of censure. In contrast, students in sports, business, and technology programs are frequently celebrated for their work on and off campus.
The PSG is up against the entrenched belief that any criticism of Israel, especially in the post 9/11 world, is tantamount to racism. Our own Prime Minister, while in Israel in January, decreed criticism of Israel as the “new anti-Semitism”. As a result, the brutalization of Palestinians will continue unabated. Therefore, it is left to people of good conscience on campuses and communities the world over to take on the fight in the absence of such conscience on the part of our co-opted leaders and a compliant media.
Gerald Caplan got it right with his response in the Globe and Mail during Harper’s January trip to Israel that he “…will not be instructed by [Harper] about the limits of our free speech, and we will not be silenced in the face of injustice.”
On March 4th, University president Alan Wildeman issued a threat to the University of Windsor Student Alliance. Here is a segment of Dr Wildman’s ultimatum (the full letter is hyper-linked near the beginning of this piece):
I am aware that the UWSA Council will be meeting on Thursday, March 13, and that the report of the Chief Returning Officer (CRO) will be brought to the Council as a final step in the referendum process. I am requesting that you defer the receipt of that report and the finalization of the referendum process until the UWSA and the University have completed their investigations. Should you choose not to defer the tabling of the CRO report, and the complaints are proven to be valid, the University of Windsor will have to consider its options.
Stifling the referendum and vilifying the PSG will prevent crucial work on the global BDS campaign on an important university campus in a city counted as the fourth most diverse city in Canada. What kind of message does that send about the University of Windsor campus?
The rights of the Palestinian people are not some far off problem to a substantial number of Windsor residents. Palestinian rights also tie into Canada’s history. The oppression of the Palestinian people is a result of the same colonial mentality that tore apart First Nations in what is now Canada. The proper resolution of land claims and a nations to nation relationship with First Peoples cannot be resolved until Canadians come to terms with our own colonial past and present.
Too many Canadians usually descend into paroxysms of anger and denial when faced with the above version of our history; however, if one can put aside the manufactured (by the state and school system) history of assimilationist European settlement in Canada, one cannot fail to see the similarities in experience between First Nations people in Canada and the Palestinian people.
Colonialism and oppression are hard matters to talk about, but they must be faced. Instead of censure it is courage that is required, like that displayed by the members of the PSG. And where else but on university campuses should this tough dialogue take place? President Wildeman and his supporters simply want to wish away the tough dialogue that is required to make the world a more humane place. In fact if one reflects on president Wildeman’s patriarchal language around creating a safe campus, it is clear that what he means is students can’t be trusted to manage dialogue around difficult ideas. What kind of university president is that?
We should all be fearful, not of the BDS campaign, not of students challenging world views, but of autocrats in the service of injustice and their compliant media practitioners who want to silence democratic dialogue.
While much of the rest of the world moves to pressure Israel to conform to international law through the non-violent BDS campaign, President Alan Wildeman can be seen to be abusing his position of power to de-legitimize the BDS referendum. He is willing to censure free speech and derail the BDS movement on campus to impose some Orwellian idea of order.
This is a blatant example of autocracy in action which is becoming all too common at all levels of Canadian politics. The growing movement, fueled by the local media, to censure and punish the Palestinian Solidarity Group and end the BDS campaign before it gets under way should be vigorously denounced.
Tell University of Windsor President Alan Wildeman to respect the student referendum results:
Phone: 519-253-3000, ext. 2000
Paul Chislett is a Windsor, Ont. activist and host of OPIRG Windsor’s The ShakeUp on CJAM 99.1 FM Fridays at 4PM at the University of Windsor.
Mireille Coral is a Windsor Ont. Based adult educator and PhD candidate at the University of Windsor. Her research investigates the role of popular education in the context of a de-industrializing economy.
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