Dear Professor Fortier,
We feel compelled to express concerns regarding the wording of and an important omission from the statement you released after the recent General Assembly (GA) vote for BDS and its subsequent failure to be ratified by SSMU.
BDS was called for by Palestinian civil society in 2005 as an appeal to the international society to exert pressure on Israel to end its 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 movement has been gathering growing support worldwide, including among Jewish individuals and Israelis. Not all who actively advocate for human rights for Palestinians subscribe to BDS in its original formulation, and this includes some Palestinian groups. The argument, however, is not whether or not BDS is a legitimate strategy, but whether it is a constructive strategy in the given situation. Your assertion that the BDS movement “flies in the face of the tolerance and respect” presupposes, and 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. Its representation as being intolerant or in any way targeting Jewish or Israeli students on campus is a misrepresentation that potentially does much harm by falsely victimizing particular ethnic groups. The BDS movement is not intolerant; rather it demands tolerance toward Palestinians through peaceful globalized means.
You furthermore write that BDS 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 that such principles should absolutely guide McGill University. We hope, however, that you would agree that the University should uphold these principles in a universal fashion. Therefore, while it is the University’s right to reject BDS, 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 Gaza, 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 rights, and of perpetuating the unforgivably biased nature of media reporting, focusing almost exclusively on the rights and security needs of Israelis while neglecting to apply the same to Palestinians.
In 2012, we visited Gaza to attend a conference and were able to experience the terrible effects of Israel’s siege on academic life in Gaza. During this visit, we met with students, faculty members, and civil society organizers, and we witnessed first hand how the population suffers from the ongoing Israeli blockade and repeated military assaults. The population also suffers from the repressive Hamas government. However, until political conditions are normalized for Palestinians and sovereignty and freedom of movement are granted to them, this internal repression will likely not be resolved for Palestinians in Gaza, of whom many do not favour living under a repressive Islamic government. Another relevant personal experience 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 students who voted in its favour 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. We hope to persuade you to rectify these omissions and publish an amended statement.
—Máire Noonan, Course Lecturer and Research Assistant, Department of Linguistics, McGill University (McGill alumna)
Hagit Borer, Professor of Linguistics, Queen Mary University of London, London
Antoine Bustros, Composer, film composer and writer, Montréal (McGill alumnus)
Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus), Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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 (McGill alumnus)
Verena Stresing, PhD, biochemist
Laurie Tuller, Professor, Linguistics, François Rabelais University Tours, Tours, France