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The struggle against Israeli Apartheid at York University

By: 
Arshia Lakhani

February 4, 2013

For decades, Palestinians have been denied their fundamental rights to freedom, equality, and self-determination by the State of Israel. Despite condemnation by the UN and other internationally recognized human rights organizations, Israel continues its policies of ethnic cleansing, colonization, racial discrimination, and military occupation of Palestine. As a direct response to the inaction of international bodies, a plurality of Palestinian civil society organizations have taken it upon themselves to call for a global campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) in order to put international pressure on Israel to comply with international law on the question of Palestinian rights.
 
The Palestinian BDS campaign is modeled on the international movement that arose in opposition to the South African apartheid regime. The demands of the BDS campaign are:

  1. the end of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the dismantling of the Apartheid Wall as recommended by the International Court of Justice;
  2. the recognition of the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
  3. And the right of return for Palestinian refugees as stipulated in UN General Assembly resolution 194.

 
The movement began in 2005 and has since grown rapidly, spreading around the world.
 
Activists worldwide have campaigned in solidarity with the Palestinian-led BDS movement to hold Israel accountable for its ongoing human rights violations. Artists like US singer/songwriter Cat Power have cancelled their performances in Israel as part of the call for cultural boycott. Members of the United Church of Canada have affirmed a resolution to boycott Israeli settlement products. The campaign has – importantly for students - increased its presence on university and college campuses.
 
York BDS
Last November the York University Graduate Students’ Association voted overwhelmingly to pass a motion endorsing BDS, effectively amounting to a commitment to pressure the school administration to divest from companies that are complicit in Israeli violations of human rights. That was soon followed by a series of other student victories for BDS in the Toronto area, including a similar motion at the University of Toronto Graduate Students' Association.

The campaign calls on the York University administration to immediately divest from all corporations involved in Israeli war crimes against Palestinians. Currently, the York University Pension Fund is funneling millions of dollars in investments to companies that are complicit in, and profit directly from, Israel’s violations of international law. Prominent examples include BAE Systems, a company that sells guidance systems for fighter jets to the Israeli military, and Northrop Grumman, a company that manufactures parts for Apache Helicopters. Both of these companies sell their equipment to the Israeli Defense Forces. 
 
York University has also invested in Lockheed Martin - a US company that is the world’s number one military contractor and largest arms exporter. Hewlett Packard, a company that has developed and sold computer technology to Israel for use in its military checkpoints in Gaza and the West Bank, is another. These checkpoints disturb the daily lives of Palestinians who are regularly subject to racial discrimination in the form of harassment by way of humiliating physical and psychological abuse, and arbitrary detention, as well as being prevented from accessing basic services such as education and potentially life-saving medical care. At the same time, these checkpoints provide ease of movement for Israeli citizens.
 
After researching and compiling these findings, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) at York University officially launched their divestment campaign in September of 2012. SAIA is a network of students allied to the growing BDS movement who work to raise awareness about Palestine and Israeli Apartheid on campus. SAIA is working to gain the explicit support of all undergraduate students through their representative institutions in the form of a petition to urge the York Federation of Students to join the Graduate Students' Association in endorsing the call for BDS. As a result of York’s unethical policy of war-profiteering, Students Against Israeli Apartheid has demanded that the university immediately divest from BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, Hewlett Packard, and Lockheed Martin; and secondly, to refrain from investing in all companies involved in violations of international law. SAIA is also calling for York’s administration to  work with students, faculty, and staff to undergo a democratic and transparent process to ensure accountability and commitment to principles of social and environmental justice.
 
The campaign has encountered resistance from members of Pro-Israeli campus groups such as Hillel. After the Graduate Students’ Association’s endorsement, Hillel at York released a statement condemning the motion, attacking SAIA on the basis of alleged lack of objectivity: "BDS only serves to promote a toxic and divisive atmosphere on campus. It does nothing to promote civil discourse and will never lead to any true learning or education about the Middle East."
 
Rochelle Derlick, Hillel's vice-president internal, has added that this type of campaign intends only "to isolate and delegitimize Israel." They have since launched a counter petition which claims to take a ‘neutral’ stance towards the conflict in an attempt to hinder the progress of the divestment campaign - however, as Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
 
As it stands, such attempts to derail the BDS campaign have thus far been ineffective and SAIA York continues to gain momentum. Student awareness of York University’s complicity in war crimes and campus solidarity with the Palestinian struggle has reached new heights over the past year. SAIA has succeeded in organizing countless demonstrations, actions, and events on campus and is moving with confidence into the term ahead. The campaign has created new bonds of solidarity between campus groups, new alliances that will play an important role in struggles to come.
 
The recent surge in activism on campus has been one of encouragement – if it can happen at York, known for its hostility to student activism and reputation for campus repression, it can happen anywhere. The new York University slogan “this is my time” should be challenged by students and activists alike - we would argue no, this is our time.
 
Next month is Israeli Apartheir Week. For more information go here.

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