After the recent General Assembly vote for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and its subsequent failure to be ratified by the Students Society of McGill University (SSMU) you released a statement in which you write that the BDS movement "flies in the face of the tolerance and respect we cherish as values fundamental to a university" and that it proposes "actions that are contrary to the principles of academic freedom, equity, inclusiveness and the exchange of views and ideas in responsible, open discourse."
We feel compelled to express a number of concerns regarding the wording of your statement, as well as an important omission from it.
BDS was called by the Palestinian civil society in 2005 as an appeal to the international society to exert pressure on Israel to end its on-going military occupation of Palestinian territories, provide full equality to Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and protect the right of return of refugees in accordance with UN resolution 194.
The BDS movement has been gathering growing support worldwide, including among Jewish individuals as well as Israeli citizens. Not all of those who actively advocate in favour of human rights for Palestinians subscribe to BDS in its original formulation -- and this includes some Palestinian groups.
The argument, however, is not whether BDS is a legitimate strategy or not, but whether it is a useful or constructive strategy in the given situation. Your assertion that the BDS movement "flies in the face of the tolerance and respect" presupposes, and thus reinforces, a dangerous misconception that this movement targets or is intolerant toward particular groups, ethnic, national or political. This plays into the hands of those who wilfully equate criticism of Israel's policies with anti-Semitism.
BDS explicitly does not target individuals. The representation of BDS as being intolerant or targeting in any way Jewish or Israeli students on campus, or deprive them of a safe space is a misrepresentation which potentially does much harm by falsely victimising particular ethnic groups. The BDS movement is not intolerant towards individuals; rather it demands tolerance towards Palestinians through peaceful globalized means.
Our second concern is regarding the assertion that the BDS movement represents "actions that are contrary to the principles of academic freedom, equity, inclusiveness and the exchange of views and ideas in responsible, open discourse." We agree with you that such principles should absolutely guide McGill University. We hope, however, that you would agree with us that the university should uphold these principles in a universal fashion.
Therefore, while it is the university's right to reject the BDS movement, we strongly believe that its statement in this context needs to critically address the well-documented infringements of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement of Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, as well as non-Jewish Arab citizens of Israel. Failure to do so lends the university an appearance of applying double standards with respect to these universal rights, and of perpetuating the unforgivably biased nature of media reporting, focussing almost exclusively on the rights and security needs of Israeli Jews, while neglecting to apply the same to Palestinians.
In October 2012 we visited Gaza to attend a linguistics conference and were able to experience the terrible effects of Israel's siege on academic life in Gaza. During this visit we met with many students, faculty members, and civil society organisers and we witnessed first hand how the population suffers from the on-going Israeli blockade as well from repeated military assaults.
The population also suffer from the repressive Hamas government. However, until political conditions are normalised for Palestinians, and they are granted the right to live in freedom and exercise their right to freedom of movement, this internal repression will likely not be resolved for the population living in Gaza, of whom many do not favour living under a repressive Islamic government.
An additional personal experience exemplifying the lack of academic freedom and freedom of expression occurred in 2010, when Noam Chomsky was invited to Birzeit University in the West Bank, but was refused entry by Israel for no good reason.
In conclusion, whether or not one supports BDS, we commend the McGill students who voted in favour of BDS for standing up against repression in the face of increasing attempts by governments and other organisations to spread vilifying misinformation about the movement. Any statement about academic freedom in the context of Israel-Palestine must absolutely take into account that academic freedom is blatantly violated for Palestinian faculty and students every day.
We hope, with these comments, to be able to persuade you to rectify these omissions and publish an amended statement.
Máire Noonan, Course Lecturer and Research Assistant, Department of Linguistics, McGill University
Hagit Borer, Professor of Linguistics, Queen Mary University of London, London
Antoine Bustros, Composer, film composer and writer, Montréal
Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus), MIT
David Heap, Associate Professor, French Studies Department and Linguistics Program, University of Western Ontario
Stephanie Kelly, Assistant Professor, French Studies Department and Linguistics Program, University of Western Ontario
Philippe Prévost, Professor, François Rabelais University Tours, Tours, France
Verena Stresing, Ph.D., Scientific consultant
Laurie Tuller, Professor, Linguistics, François Rabelais University Tours, Tours, France