Open letter to McGill University’s Suzanne Fortier: Rectify your misrepresentation of BDS

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Dear Professor Fortier,

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. [1] 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.

Signed:

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), 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 (McGill alumnus)

Verena Stresing, Ph.D., Scientific consultant

Laurie Tuller, Professor, Linguistics, François Rabelais University Tours, Tours, France

Notes

[1] One blatant example is Military Order No. 854, which was “established to control the matriculation of the West Bank’s academic institutions. Under No. 854, the military has total control over who may enter a university as a student, teacher, or administrator. All students must have obtained an identity card distributed by the Area Commander before enrolment”.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli_Military_Order#Other_Military_Orders)

 

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7 Responses

  1. lonely rico
    March 11, 2016, 7:12 pm

    Madame Fortier’s values “fundamental to a university” do not apply to Palestinians, particularly not to those
    DAILY TORTURED HUMILIATED AND MURDERED
    in the Occupied Palestinians Territories.

    Please do not think that Fortier’s fundamental values –

    principles of academic freedom, equity, inclusiveness and the exchange of views and ideas in responsible, open discourse

    need be applied to discussion of Israel’s cruel criminal dispossession of Palestine.

  2. RockyMissouri
    March 12, 2016, 12:20 pm

    UTTER TRUTH …….

  3. lysias
    March 12, 2016, 5:57 pm

    Awful that they couldn’t get any professor at McGill to sign.

    • Emory Riddle
      March 14, 2016, 10:26 am

      No professors signed — except for the following, lysias:

      Signed, Malek Abisaab, Associate Professor, Department of History and Classical Studies Rula Jurdi Abisaab , Associate Professor, Institute of Islamic Studies Diana Allan , Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology and the Institute for the Study of International Development Alia Al-Saji, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy Isabelle Arseneau, professeure agrégée, département de langue et littérature françaises Jodie Beck , Course Lecturer, Department of East Asian Studies Arnaud Bernadet , professeur agrégé, département de langue et littérature françaises Lara Braitstein, Associate Professor, Faculty of Religious Studies Brian Bergstrom , Visiting Professor, Department of East Asian Studies Curtis Brown , Faculty Lecturer, Department of English Mary Bunch , Faculty Lecturer, Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies Michelle Cho , Korea Foundation Assistant Professor, Department of East Asian Studies Aziz Choudry , Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Social Movement Learning and Knowledge Production, Department of Integrated Studies in Education Barry Eidlin , Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology Shanon Fitzpatrick, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Classical Studies Allan Greer , Professor and Canada Research Chair in Colonial North America, Department of History and Classical Studies Jill Hanley , Associate Professor, McGill School of Social Work Michelle Hartman , Associate Professor, Institute of Islamic Studies Adrienne Hurley , Associate Professor, Department of East Asian Studies Ahmed F. Ibrahim, Assistant Professor, Institute of Islamic Studies Steven Jordan , Associate Professor, Department of Integrated Studies in Education Pasha M. Khan , Assistant Professor, Institute of Islamic Studies Thomas Lamarre , James McGill Professor in East Asian Studies and Associate in Communications Studies Catherine Leclerc , professeure agrégée, département de langue et littérature françaises Andrée Lévesque , Professor Emerita, History Department Abby Lippman , Professor Emerita – Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health Margaret Lock , Marjorie Bronfman Professor Emerita, Department of Social Studies of Medicine Laura Madokoro , Assistant Professor, Department of History and Classical Studies Setrag Manoukian , Associate Professor, Institute of Islamic Studies and Department of Anthropology Gregory M. Mikkelson , Associate professor, Department of Philosophy Charmaine A. Nelson , Associate Professor of Art History, Department of Art History and Communication Studies Naomi Nichols , Assistant Professor, Department of Integrated Studies in Education Máire Noonan , Course Lecturer & Research Assistant, Department of Linguistics Kristin Norget , Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology Anthony Paré , Professor Emeritus, Department of Integrated Studies in Education Laila Parsons, Associate Professor, Department of History and Classical Studies Jarrett Rudy , Associate Professor, Department of History and Classical Studies Jessica Ruglis, Assistant Professor, Department of Educational & Counselling Psychology Mela Sarkar , Associate Professor, Department of Integrated Studies in Education Richard Shearmur , Professor, McGill School of Urban Planning Jon Soske , Assistant Professor, Department of History and Classical Studies Maria Theresia Starzmann , Assistant Professor, Anthropology Department Gavin Walker , Assistant Professor, History & Classical Studies and East Asian Studies Robert Wisnovsky , Professor and James McGill Chair, Institute of Islamic Studies Brian J. Young , Professor Emeritus, Department of History Advertising

    • Maire Noonan
      March 14, 2016, 3:35 pm

      Lysias: To be accurate, I signed the letter, and I do teach at McGill. I also signed another letter, which was specifically from McGill professors and signed by quite a number them, as Emory above points out (link to that letter: http://mondoweiss.net/2016/03/by-opposing-nonviolent-bds-mcgill-and-canadian-government-put-themselves-on-wrong-side-of-history/). I should explain the background of this particular letter, which I initiated. As the penultimate paragraph of this letter states, it was signed by nine academics (mostly linguists, including Noam Chomsky) who visited Gaza as a group in 2012. The letter therefore was not passed around other McGill professors for signatures, of whom I am sure many would have been happy to sign this statement (but those who would had mostly already signed the other letter, which endorses BDS). We wanted to write a response to Fortier’s statement that is neutral on BDS. This letter neither directly endorses, nor rejects BDS. It takes issue with Fortier’s misrepresentation of what BDS is, and her complete silence with regard to the oppression Palestinians live under, including their lack of academic freedom. This common type of misrepresentation and smear is, in my view, much more damaging than whether or not an institution such as McGill with its board of governors rejects or adopts BDS (predictably they’ll reject it.). Having Noam Chomsky join in signing this letter was important to us. (As you may know, while Chomsky is not oposed to boycotting and divesting, he takes issue, from a strategic point of view, with the formulation of the BDS call in its precise form, in particular ith the third point.)

  4. lysias
    March 12, 2016, 6:01 pm

    McGill South Africa Committee.

    The site doesn’t allow me to cut and paste. Suffice it to say, the work of this committee, composed of students, led McGill to divest from South Africa in 1985.

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