Joshua Gabert-Doyon on the Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement at the University of British Columbia
The Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement is a loom of global resistance and autonomy. The Teachers Union of Ireland, the African National Congress and UCLA are a few of the growing number of threads which have adopted BDS in one form or another. I’m a student at the University of British Columbia, the site of one of the most recent BDS flare ups.
“Do you support your student union in boycotting products and divesting from companies that support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians?” That was the proposal brought forward a few months ago. There was energy on campus. You could sense it as soon as BDS started gaining traction. It was an unexpected political moment for our school where most of the focus is placed on resume padding and ”industry connections.“
There was pushback, of course, and tension. What we wanted was agency over the money we paid into our union. We wanted to set off a chain reaction: students, then the faculty, then the whole university; dismantle the rhetoric of red tape and pull the capitalist support structure from underneath itself.
I got involved with Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) mostly through my friend Cibell. The folks in SPHR were always calm and collected. They looked straight ahead — always. Cibell kept me up to date. I would meet her in the Student Union Building to hand out BDS literature. She would tell me about the countless speculative pieces, the rumours that were circulating about what the BDS motion would entail (always wildly over-exaggerated) and about the latest flickering lines of attack.
Word spread quickly about the BDS motion and mysterious ads started appearing on Facebook pages promoting a new campus initiative vaguely titled “Open Dialogue.” The ads redirected to a slick website with an undefined call to action. The website was home to the unofficial “No” campaign against BDS. I scoured the site for hours, cycling through pictures of Gandhi and Mandela, always paired with pleasant feel-good quotes about inclusion and free speech.
The “No” side aimed to disrupt the vote and de-politicize the campus. Bureaucracy is a thick sludge: the opposition sold the question as being too complicated for voters to make a decision on and too risky for the union to implement. They claimed that the history was just too messy. They claimed that more debate was needed before consensus could be reached about the existence of Israeli war crimes. These arguments were paired with a giant banner across from the Student Union Building declaring that “BDS is About Hate.”
Contradiction held the anti-BDS campaign in suspended tension.
Contradiction and, as I soon found out, money. Who had paid for those relentless ads? We came across a press release which boasted that Hillel BC, a Jewish group on campus, had piled more than $4000 on the “No” campaign and were soliciting more from donations through a local synagogue. Cibell laughed when she heard about it — the pro-BDS campaign had spent less than $200.
In March, Justin Trudeau, leader of Canada’s Liberal Party and Prime Minister hopeful, gave a talk at the student union building. He declared that BDS “has no place on university campus.” The irony of a politician peddling the myth of an academy above politics was stifling.
The union held a meeting to discuss BDS which went late into the night. There was a crowd of us out for the meeting. We watched council members tangle themselves in a mesh of paranoia and delicate phrasing. The modern colonial state is one of dull words and chatter. Everyone could tell which members were stalling, happy to keep their resumes looking sharp. Citing legal consultation, they delayed the referendum to the busiest time of term, when students were less likely to vote. Eventually 58% voted in favor of BDS, but we fell short of quorum (designated as 8% of the student population voting for one side). The numbers didn’t stop Hillel BC from taking credit for all those who “simply abstained from voting yes.”
General apathy is not the problem. The campus is always already political, as I see it — ideology masks it. We’re just trying to make sure the politics don’t support occupation and colonial violence. The situation is complex, sure, but there’s no excuse to remain silent. I don’t want my money to be spent on bulldozing olive trees to make way for new fences and checkpoints. It’s time to re-politicize the campus.