Last week, students at the University of British Columbia rejected a referendum question that would have urged the student society to boycott Israeli businesses and products.
But the news was by no means all good when the results came in last Friday night. In fact, more students voted yes in support of BDS (boycotts, divestment, sanctions) than voted no. The question was defeated effectively on a technicality, with the number of students voting yes failing to reach quorum. Therefore the question failed.
Students were asked: “Do you support your student union (AMS) in boycotting products and divesting from companies that support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians?” The yes side received 3,493 votes, 2,223 students voted no and 435 registered their abstentions. To pass, the vote required 4,130 yeses, representing eight percent of eligible students.
In this, too, there is good news and bad news. The low turnout indicates that students at the university have better things on their mind than the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. It has become increasingly clear in recent years that the anti-Israel movement on college campuses in North America is comparatively small. Yet the damage this narrow group of extremists can do to the comfort and security of Jewish and Zionist students – and to the broader objective of an inclusive, welcoming environment – has been serious and detrimental.
The BDS movement has had few tangible successes and plenty of failures, if measured by their effectiveness at actually boycotting, divesting from or sanctioning anything. What they have been wildly successful at is spreading messages that single out Israel as the fountainhead of all things evil.
Also mixed news is the fact that, while campaigns like BDS are finding it difficult to rustle up serious numbers of equally agitated fellow travelers, Jewish students, too, are challenged in finding substantial numbers of allies when confronted with a campaign of targeted aggression against the Jewish homeland. There might be only a few thousand out of more than 50,000 students who succumb to anti-Israel messaging, but there are even fewer who observe that messaging and are moved to come to the aid of Israel – and/or Jewish students – when it is attacked in this fashion.
Which raises another issue facing our Vancouver community.
Later this month, Canadian Friends of Sabeel will hold a conference on “overcoming Christian Zionism.” Sabeel describes itself as an “ecumenical Palestinian liberation theology centre” that is “working for justice, peace and reconciliation in Palestine-Israel.” In reality, it is a group that promotes a misrepresentation of events in the Middle East. The conference slated for Vancouver is explicitly aimed at undermining Israel among its North American Christian supporters.
Conservative Christians have been among Israel’s most reliable bloc of friends in troubled times. Like any bedfellows, the Zionist-Christian alliance brings with it complexities. While some Christians use Zionism as a back door to evangelizing or view Christianity as a “successor” religion to Judaism, for example, there are also many in the Christian Zionist movement who respect the integrity of Judaism.
The upcoming conference is co-sponsored by three Christian churches.
The United Church of Canada, for decades but especially in recent years, has adopted a heavily anti-Israel approach to global affairs. Their sponsorship of this event is not surprising. The Presbyterian Church in Canada is also supporting this event, though this, too, is not shocking, given that the American branch of the Presbyterian Church has been beset by anti-Israel agitation and last year voted to divest itself of some Israeli holdings.
What is surprising – and worrisome – is the role of the Anglican Church of Canada as co-sponsor of this conference. Two years ago, the church passed a resolution that made some attempts at balance but was marred by typical anti-Israel boilerplate. With their co-sponsorship of this Sabeel event, the Anglican church has thrown itself unequivocally off the fence.
There are parallels between these two developments – the UBC vote and the involvement of erstwhile moderate Christian groups in a blatantly anti-Israel conference. The fact is, probably most active Anglicans, Presbyterians and United churchgoers have no idea what their national bodies are up to. Of the millions of Canadians represented by these three denominations, the vast majority probably do not have an opinion on – or do not agree with – the approach of this month’s conference. As we saw at UBC, the anti-Israel movement tends to be a small group of zealots who get involved in a legitimate body and turn it into a platform, a rabidly anti-Israel tail wagging an otherwise amicable dog.
Like the impact of anti-Israel extremism on campus, the involvement of mainline Christian groups in this anti-Israel conference shows how a small group of dedicated individuals can create nasty, lasting divisions in a multicultural community.