Tuesday I had the privilege of attending the SFUO General Assembly.
Like many people sitting in the room and standing outside, I was frustrated and hurt throughout the night. Sitting in the room I felt the tension as feet were tapped and glances exchanged. The thought of “who’s side are you on?” seemed to flutter into everyone’s mind. The motion in question was whether we (the University of Ottawa) should implement the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of Israel (BDS) movement on our campus.
As we sat, we listened to each side speak their truth and feelings about the impending motion. One person spoke in favour of BDS, as they recounted their family history of being refugees and fleeing with little on their backs from Palestine. As another person spoke against BDS, they mentioned their recent experiences with antisemitism on campus and throughout Ottawa.
While my peers spoke on opposing sides of the debate, I couldn’t help but recognize the commonalities that both of these peers experienced. I am Jewish. My family, along with many of my Jewish peers, have experienced the feeling of being refugees. Collectively, us Jews, we can understand that experience. On the other side, my Jewish peer spoke of feeling discriminated against at the university and throughout the city. Unfortunately, this is not a unique experience to the Jewish community. Too many people know the feeling of being discriminated against across both sides of the aisle; just as too many people know the feeling of being displaced.
We share these common experiences and I do believe we have common goals for peace. It is from this understanding of one another and our commonalities that I struggle to reconcile with the BDS movement within an academic context.
The BDS movement fails to bring each side of the debate together in productive discourse. In fact, it greatly hinders this process. BDS calls for the boycott of all academic institutions. This translates to students not being able to study abroad in Israel, and Israeli students not being able to come to the university. Furthermore, academics and researchers could not apply for grants that bring or send people to Israel. It does not matter whether these researchers are pro-Palestine or pro-Israel or neutral. It is a blanket ban that refuses to bring researchers and students together to exchange ideas across these boundaries.
This additional barrier inhibits the ability to engage in productive discussion to truly find peaceful solutions for Israel and Palestine. Encouraging discussion can enable people to reconcile with each side of the debate and learn from one another. Speaking respectfully and starting from a place of understanding can promote peace and lead to productive movements towards solutions.
By not allowing academic exchanges of knowledge and research it greatly limits our ability to fully understand the complex issues happening between Israel and Palestine. This issue is not black and white. This issue is grey. This is complex. It is doing an injustice to Israelis and Palestinians to pretend that BDS has a “right” versus a “wrong” side.
There is no “right” versus “wrong”. There are policies that occur that must be discussed and debated. These policies are important to people here in Canada, but also to the lived experiences of Palestinians and Israelis. However, we must have the opportunities within an academic institution to fully discuss and explore these implications of policy.
This is why BDS won’t work. It will not work because it refuses to acknowledge the grey and to encourage productive and fruitful debate of policy. It further polarizes Palestinians and Israelis and their supporters. More importantly, academic institutions are the place to discuss policy and have debates. It is at university where we should learn to be uncomfortable and learn about issues that shake us and reform the ways in which we think in the future. That is what university is supposed to teach us; how to learn and think, and how to listen to beliefs with which we don’t always agree.
Choosing not to invest in Soda Streams or Sabra Hummus is a personal decision that is respectable and a way to express one’s stance. Unfortunately, shutting down shared research and debate is not productive, nor does it respect our communities.
Instead of encouraging BDS and letting the SFUO take a side on a complicated and extremely personal matter to many people, I encourage us to discuss our differences from a place of understanding. A place where we can agree on basic fundamental experiences that we share—the feelings of being displaced or the feelings of being discriminated against. From acknowledging each other, we can engage in productive and respectful conversations that discuss policies and ways to move forward that respects both each another’s cultures and political stances.