2009: BDS failed at McGill
2014: BDS failed at McGill
2015: BDS failed at McGill
2016: BDS passed at the McGill General Assembly….
….Three Days Later: Ratification failed by online vote.
When I got the news that BDS had finally passed at the General Assembly held by my Alma Mater after failing four times in recent memory, I was aghast. I couldn’t help but wonder: what went wrong? When did it go wrong? I felt the campaign this year was beautifully executed, and it was clear that a lot of intelligent work and strategy had gone into it. The verdict surprised me.
I wondered if the result meant that the BDS movement was getting stronger, the anti-BDS movement getting weaker, or some spurious factor outside it all that caused this interesting trend.
The last vote was less than a year ago. The BDS motion was shot down by seventy-five votes, which wasn’t that small a margin given that only about 450 students had showed up. Last Monday, February 22, the margin was much wider, in the other direction: 512 voted for BDS, while 357 voted against it.
But then… PLOT TWIST! BDS actually failed! At McGill, every general assembly motion has to be ratified by the student body in order for it to pass, in order to account for extenuating circumstances that prevent students from attending them. Every motion that passes the general assembly is subject to an online vote. Result? 2119 votes for BDS, 2819 against.
Interestingly, this scenario taught us a lot about the strength and progress of the BDS movement. As my mother always told me (and as usual, she was probably right), “Don’t worry about BDS, it’s just a silent, crazy bunch of loudmouths, most people think they’re nuts anyway.”
- There is a silent majority who are scared of coming out. Most students who voted in the ratification process didn’t attend the General Assembly. Interestingly, 1/4 of the Yes voters showed up, while only 1/9 of the “No” voters showed up. This could mean a lot of things. Most importantly, as someone who has attended a McGill GA before, if you are there for a BDS-related GA, it is assumed you are taking a side. It’s a very polarizing and tense atmosphere, and as a Jew, it’s typically assumed you are a “no” voter, which can be scary. Regardless, the results could mean two things: (1) there is a silent, relatively apathetic majority, and/or (2) people on the “no” side feel more unsafe and intimidated on campus for showing their views publicly so they are afraid to attend the general assembly and get flack for it. I suspect it is a combination.
- BDS somehow became “cooler” to flaunt in public The decision of the side of BDS to co-opt successful movements like #BlackLivesMatter was a brilliant strategic move because it made them “cool” and “with it.” They spent their money to even bring BlackLivesMatter activist leaders on a highly biased tour of the Palestinian territories to drill in this comparison. These leaders then brought the ethos back to their campuses. For the first time, the Black Student Network officially endorsed BDS. This development also added a lot to BDS’s “cool” factor, which is why people may have felt pressured to support BDS publicly, but felt more comfortable opposing it privately.
- Scheduling is Important. The vote was carried out on a Monday, during midterm week, as opposed to Sunday during the lull between midterms and finals as it was in the past. This change is significant for two possible reasons: First, radical students who are less apathetic are more likely to support BDS because it comes with the radical leftist package that one must accept to be part of that crowd. Second, pro-BDS students are more likely to be in the Faculty of Arts, or in fields related to social justice and oppression, and these students are more likely to have papers than midterms, making them less likely to be tied up that night. (We may have noticed all the academic associations that boycotted Israel were humanities and arts). As we were able to see from the results of the online ratification, these inconveniences caused by switching the day and month may actually have had an effect, as the results were vastly different when voting only required a two-minute online ballot and most of a weekend to vote.
- The anti-Israel side did a much better job at the General Assembly. There must have been about a dozen Palestinian speakers crying that they can’t see their homes making the “I studied at Hebrew U and didn’t see apartheid” folks on the “No” side look extremely callous in comparison. You can’t win against someone who is waxing poetic about not being able to go back to his homeland, or being victims of Israeli brutality, tugging at our most primal heartstrings. We also didn’t address their points, and sometimes even bolstered them. Remember, the BDS motion at McGill stated that they will stop the boycott if we dismantle settlements, take down the wall, allow right of return for Palestinians, and provide equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians. Lest we forget that the first three are suicidal to Israel and the last is already the case Israel proper and would cause a security mess if it were instituted in Areas B and C. There were many “No” speakers in the debate that reiterated the BDS campaign’s demands, saying they still disagree with BDS in spite of them because BDS denies Israel’s right to exist. It’s difficult to prove that BDS denies Israel’s right to exist in this particular motion, and can easily lead to straw man accusations, so these arguments of “I am against the settlements and the wall, and believe in the Palestinian right of return, but….” is literally arguing for BDS rather than against it, even if it’s inadvertent, because it’s agreeing with their terms. In this case, we need to be all in or all out, we can’t go halfway, as they sound so much more sure of themselves, while we waver. Since those who voted in the ratification process were less likely to have seen the GA, they were less likely to have been swayed by the Yes side’s superior performance in the debates.
So the good news is that there is indeed a silent majority that pro-Israel groups need to mobilize. I actually suspected this, because whenever I table on campus and go up to ra
ndom people and ask them if they support Israel, about 80% have said yes. The bad news is that BDS is stepping up their game, so it’s time we step up ours on campuses around the world. McGill has shown us that even with a fierce opposition, the truth can win out in the end.