Students petition for referendum on divestment from pro-Israel companies

This year’s AMS elections may see students voting on whether the society should divest from companies that support Israel’s actions in Palestine.

UBC’s branch of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) is currently circulating a petition for a referendum question on whether the AMS should boycott and divest from companies that support Israel’s occupation of Gaza as part of the global BDS movement.

BDS, which stands for boycott, divestment, sanctions, calls for an end to Israeli occupation in West Bank and Gaza and support for the rights of Palestinian refugees and Palestinians currently living in Israel.

Similar policies at the student union level have recently been passed at York University, Ryerson University and various branches of the University of California, among others. The referendum would call on the AMS to divest from companies such as Motorola and Sabra, who had previously been accused of providing support to the Israeli army.

According to geography student and SPHR member Hussain Khan, the mission of the petition and the referendum is to take a stand against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. If the referendum passes, the SPHR will continue the process of compiling a list of specific companies that they'd like the AMS to divest from.

“Drawing upon those tactics of boycott and divestment, what we’re trying to do is get a question up on the AMS referendum to call for this sort of campaign to be executed by our AMS and our student body,” said Khan.

Khan also said that while this year’s campaign has been fuelled partly by the renewed military operations that took place in the Gaza strip over the summer and saw over 1,400 Palestinian civilians killed, the SPHR’s primary goal has been to show solidarity with the Palestinian students on campus and put pressure on Israel through the voice of the students.

“There needs to be that pressure in the world, the community needs to stand together and say that ‘yes, this is wrong and you need to be held accountable for that,’” said Khan.

In order to have the question make it onto this year’s referendum, the petition needs to reach 1,000 signatures from students who are currently enrolled at UBC. If the petition is successful, students will then vote on whether or not to support the referendum question in the March elections.

The referendum would also need to meet quorum, which requires eight per cent of all eligible students to vote.

Ciara-Maëlle Thibault from SPHR said that they are close to reaching the required number of signatures and will continue campaigning during the elections period to encourage more students to vote in support of the referendum question.

“I think students have every right to have their student government represent those interests and work towards not supporting certain companies that are involved in the occupation,” said Thibault.

Eviatar Bach from the UBC Social Justice Centre (SJC) also said that their club members voted to endorse the petition.

In 2010, SPHR provided a $700 donation to SJC in order to help fund a humanitarian aid flotilla to Gaza after $13,000 in legal fees were spent to figure out whether the AMS could allow the transfer.

“SPHR and SJC had a good relationship for many years,” said Bach. “The question of Israel-Palestine is very much relevant, obviously because of social justice, but also because Canada is so complicit, so it’s very much a thing that is very immediate and that we can do something about.”

However, fourth-year political science student Sam Heller, who is also a member of the Jewish Students Association, said that while he desires peace for both Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East, he fears that widespread support for the BDS movement will spark a wave of anti-Semitism on university campuses and UBC in particular.

“For most students, this may be just a petition that they’re asked to sign,” said Heller in an email interview. “For me and the other Jewish and Israeli students on campus, this is something which will have hurtful consequences for years to come, deeming us outsiders and not full members of the UBC family.”

The elections are set to take place from March 9 to 13.