On Tuesday, March 14, a group of around twenty students and community members attended a panel arguing in favour of an academic boycott of Israeli universities. Following the panel, participants held small discussion groups to present their own strategies for implementing such a boycott.
Held in McGill Arts Building as part of Israeli Apartheid Week, the event featured Michelle Hartman, a professor at McGill's Institute of Islamic Studies; Ralph Haddad, a member of McGill BDS Action and an editor at The Daily; and a representative of the Anthropology Graduate Student Association (AGSA) of McGill, who wished to remain anonymous.
On an international level, the movement for an academic boycott is spearheaded by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). PACBI, in turn, is part of the larger Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. The aim of BDS is to pressure institutions and governments into complying with international law by upholding Palestinians' right to self-determination.
According to PACBI's website, "Israeli universities have played a key role in planning, implementing and justifying Israel's occupation and apartheid policies, while maintaining a uniquely close relationship with the Israeli military." The organization also holds that the majority of Israeli academics have, directly or as a result of their silence, contributed to maintaining Israeli oppression of Palestinians.
"People think that the academic boycott is against freedom of speech and expression," said Haddad, in an interview with The Daily, "but we need to rethink these rights as universal and start thinking about them as rights that some people have and some don't."
Haddad added that Palestinians do not have the same access to education as Israelis do.
"For example," he said, "Israel has repeatedly closed schools and universities throughout the West Bank as part of its military regime of the area. In one famous documented case, Israeli soldiers are seen throwing tear gas at a group of children on their way to school."
Academic boycott of Israel, according to PACBI, includes measures such as refraining from participation in academic collaboration with Israeli institutions, and withholding funding from such collaborative initiatives. Instead, PACBI calls on the international community to support Palestinian academic institutions, and to pass motions in support of BDS at universities around the world.
McGill's ties to Israel
At McGill, the only direct Exchange Programs in the Middle East are with Israeli universities. Students wishing to study at universities elsewhere in the region do not benefit from the same institutional support as Exchange students do, and must arrange their own Independent Study Away singlehandedly.
"Many of these universities are built directly above a razed Palestinian village," Haddad continued. "The Technion Institute of Technology manufactures weapons for the Israeli occupation forces, which are fieldtested on Palestinians in Gaza. McGill students actively participate in this research by going on Exchange to the Technion, oftentimes given special awards by McGill in order to make it easier for them to travel and study there."
The AGSA representative discussed the successful passing of a BDS motion within AGSA last January, and shared insight with those present.
Then, once the issue at hand had been contextualised by the panelists, the attendees broke up into small groups to strategize and troubleshoot possible obstacles to an academic boycott campaign.
According to the participants, one of the issues faced by Palestinian solidarity activists is the unwillingness of other like-minded individuals to show their support for fear of harassment. Many people keep their support of the cause private, as it can lead to being profiled and targeted.
Another difficulty identified by the participants concerned community outreach. While interested in fostering open and constructive conversation, participants said they often it difficult to present themselves as approachable to those opposing BDS. As one student attending the panel told the room, "if we really want to counter the anti-BDS campaigns, we should go to their events, sit, listen to their arguments [...], and then counter them during the Q&A."
In an email to The Daily, written in French, organizer Abir Haddade explained the rationale behind the panel and discussion:
"The goal was [...] to offer more space for the [BDS] movement," she said, "and particularly to the academic boycott, which is still not discussed very much as compared to other forms of boycott."
"I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome of the event," Haddade continued. "Several innovative ideas were raised, actually. Michelle [Hartman] emphasized the importance of strengthening ties between the different universities in Montreal. Montreal is a student city par excellence and knowing that the BDS movement has been particularly successful on university campuses, it's a shame for each of us to work on our own."
One of the breakout groups, she added, had also suggested organizing wine-and-cheese events from time to time.
"We disagree? Our ideologies are in opposition? That's OK, let's discuss it over drinks. It's as simple as that," Haddade said.
"I think that this meeting allowed us to get a valuable sense of the challenges and obstacles we face," she finished, "but also to engage with approaches which will allow us to overcome them. Discussing with students from neighboring universities (Concordia and UQAM) was very promising with regard to future collaborations. [...] Linking McGill to the rest of student life in Montreal will only strengthen our local BDS network."