Last week, a 78-year-old UK-born rock star and a soft-spoken Palestinian Canadian undergraduate joined forces for a discussion about the suppression of Palestine solidarity on campuses across the country. The contrast was sharp, but rallying disparate forces is key to successful political campaigns.
On Thursday, the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute hosted an online rally and press event featuring Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters in support of McGill students who’ve faced a litany of attacks for advancing the Palestinian cause. It was an unusual fusion of local organizing and global star power.
Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) McGill activist Sarah detailed her group’s work to mobilize students around a March resolution committing the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) to divest from and boycott “corporations and institutions complicit in settler-colonial apartheid against Palestinians.” The result of the campaign was overwhelming, with 71 percent of students voting for a Palestine Solidarity Policy mandating SSMU to take action for Palestinian rights.
Not everyone was pleased with the result. B’nai B’rith, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and several donors to the university expressed their opposition to the outcome of the vote. The McGill administration threatened to suspend its fee agreement with SSMU and shortly after student union officials withdrew the widely endorsed resolution. Subsequently, SSMU also suspended SPHR’s club status.
The day before performing for an audience of 15,000 people at Montréal’s Bell Centre, Waters joined an online rally in support of McGill students advocating for Palestinian rights.
During the event, the English musician and activist described the vote as a “crushing defeat for B’nai Brith and the Zionist movement in general.” He pointed out that the strong endorsement for BDS at the elite university demonstrated the growth of Palestine solidarity over the past decade and a half since he became involved in the movement. “Five years or six ago you could not use the word apartheid with reference to the Zionist agenda. You couldn’t do it,” Water’s noted. “Now it is impossible to have any conversation about the Zionist project in Palestine without using the word apartheid.” Water also talked about the importance of educating people about Palestine, stating that “our message is huge.”
Sarah from SPHR McGill told the press and audience that “Despite everything we are still able to organize.” She asserted that “no matter what is thrown at us we will always resist.”
The event also included a message of solidarity from the Montréal council of the CSN labour federation. Nearly 600 people registered for a rally endorsed by almost 40 organizations, including the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Canadian Federation of Students, and Africa for Palestine. The event was covered by La Presse, rabble, and Le Journal de Montréal (with articles reprinted in Le Soleil and La Voix de l’Est) and was also mentioned in an article published by the Globe and Mail.
Significant resources are directed towards stifling support for Palestine on Canadian campuses. Hillel, Israel on Campus Canada, Hasbara Fellowships Canada and StandWithUs Canada are all university-focused pro-Israel groups. Honest Reporting Canada regularly runs campaigns targeting student papers while Canary Mission is an international website devoted to sabotaging the job prospects of university students who participate in pro-Palestinian activism.
A recent Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security report on “The Rise of Ideologically Motivated Violent Extremism in Canada” highlights the efforts devoted to demonizing campus activism. With input from CIJA and B’nai B’rith leadership the report recommends: “That the Government of Canada thoroughly reject the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel, and condemn all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups, or individuals, including university campus associations, to promote these views.”
Now more than ever, it’s critical to pushback against attempts to squash Palestine solidarity campaigns. In the recent academic year students at five Canadian universities passed resolutions supporting elements of the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, joining some two dozen student associations that had already endorsed the Palestinian civil society’s call.
When organizers achieve a 71 percent student vote in favour of Palestinian rights, it is essential to defend them from outside pressure. Roger Waters should be applauded for lending his star power to grassroots organizers working to end Canadian complicity in Palestinian dispossession.
Bianca Mugyenyi is an author, activist and director of the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute. She is based in Montréal.