Last week, the B.C. Supreme Court rejected a petition to stop the University of British Columbia’s Alma Mater Society from holding a referendum April 3-7. The question being posed in the referendum is the same one the AMS asked of students in 2015: “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 question was brought to the AMS by the UBC branch of the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), which collected the required number of signatures to have a referendum that was initially scheduled to take place in March. It was postponed when UBC third-year commerce student Logan Presch filed a petition against it. He and his legal representation secured a court order that resulted in the referendum’s delay.
Presch’s petition stated the proposed question “is divisive, creates a toxic atmosphere for students supportive of the state of Israel, and is destructive of open and respectful debate on an important issue.” It also raised safety concerns, he said, noting the 2015 referendum “drove a wedge between religious groups on campus who had previously enjoyed interfaith outreach and collaboration. Students outwardly opposed to the [referendum] encountered a hostile reaction and there were reported acts of antisemitism on campus.”
In an affidavit, Rabbi Philip Bregman, executive director of Hillel BC, recalled that, at that time, anti-BDS lawn signs at UBC were pulled down. He also cited a climate of “a lack of personal security that many Jewish students experience on campus that is exacerbated by referenda such as the proposed question. There is an important line between robust political discourse and circumstances where I am compelled to deal with the personal security of students who study and live on campus who feel threatened by the consequences of this type of proposed question, which I believe foments the antisemitism and hostility I have described…. I believe that these students’ concerns for their personal safety are justified, as acts of violence have often followed hostility to Jews.”
While not Jewish, Presch is a member of the Jewish Students Association and the historically Jewish Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. He declined requests to comment but, in an affidavit filed with his lawyer, Howard Mickelson, Presch recalled that the first referendum created a “toxic environment on campus.” He said the question being posed by the AMS was contrary to its mission statement, which is to “cultivate unity and goodwill among its members” and to “encourage free and open debate as well as respect for differing views.” Presch also noted that the AMS code of procedure requires referendum questions to be capable of a “yes” or “no” answer, but that this question is “so loaded with assumptions (which are themselves highly controversial), that it will not be clear what a yes or no vote by my student colleagues will actually mean.”
Mickelson said the court recognized that the question was loaded and that the intention of a “yes” vote could be unclear for the AMS to act on, but denied the petition because the court determined “the society’s bylaws do not require that a question be fair as long as it can be answered yes or no. The standard for a qualifying question is a low one.”
Mickelson said the court recognized the “concerns for student safety” and acknowledged “the responsibility of the AMS and UBC to ensure student safety and respectful debate by all means necessary.”
“Although this case involves the political hot potato issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of BDS on campus, we argued that this was about the interpretation of this society’s bylaws,” said Mickelson, who represented Presch’s petition pro bono. “One of the arguments made by proponents of the question was that, in the context of a referendum, one party that is ‘funded’ or has ‘connections’ may be able to shut down the question against those that may not have the same level of funding…. I thought it was important for the court to understand that I was doing this pro bono.”
Though “disappointed” about the ruling, Bregman said “we really won the battles because the judge didn’t disagree with any of our arguments. We lost because the judge felt he was bound by a very poorly written bylaw by the AMS. So, we go forward fighting this nefarious referendum aimed at marginalizing and demonizing not only Israel but, by extension, those who support Israel.”
Bregman recalled that, in the spring 2015 referendum, UBC had the largest “no” vote ever seen in Canada at that time. “We’re ready to fight the referendum,” he said, adding, “But really, what we’re all about is dialogue and this is something that the SPHR has never taken us up on. Whereas we have dialogue with all sorts of groups on campus, the SPHR has rebuffed all of our efforts.”
The referendum question was to be directed at students starting Monday, as the Jewish Independent was preparing to go to press.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net. This article was originally published by CJN.