françois legault mcgill emcampment observations from Montreal

McGill protesters don’t want their university to profit from Israeli apartheid and genocide — it’s that simple

McGill President Dr. Deep Saini is waging war on reality by refusing to recognize a genocide in progress and ignoring his students’ reasonable demands. The university has divested from an apartheid regime before — why not now?

Having recently read McGill President Deep Saini’s open letter concerning the Palestinian solidarity protest, and given that it essentially represents the university’s de facto official position concerning the encampment, I feel compelled to both set the record straight and provide a rebuttal. 

Allow me to be perfectly clear, Dr. Saini: The solidarity encampment is the very definition of a peaceful protest. It is not an illegal occupation, as you claimed it was. If you would like to see a good example of an illegal occupation, I suggest you visit Gaza or the West Bank. 

It is entirely because of Israel’s apartheid policies towards the people of Palestine that a small corner of McGill’s impressive downtown Montreal real estate — land where people enslaved by James McGill likely once worked — is currently occupied by a small yet determined group of protesters. 

In case you are unfamiliar, Canada is a democracy, and in a democratic society such as ours, the right to protest is sacrosanct. The right to protest is not up for discussion.

McGill’s investments are.

The students — and the growing public that supports them — are not asking you to cut ties with Israel. By all means, support Israeli human rights organizations. Support Israeli politicians and academics who have been silenced by the increasingly fascistic Netanyahu regime. Support Israelis calling for a ceasefire. Support Israelis who want Netanyahu to make good on his commitment to bring the hostages home, rather than continue this war to maintain his grip on power.

Support the Israelis who take to the streets every week demanding that Netanyahu resign, and who in turn are beaten bloody by their fellow citizens, in “the only liberal democracy in the Middle East.”

There are a great many Israelis that McGill can support. What the students are — quite clearly — asking, is that you no longer profit from investments in the machines of death and destruction. 

By any objective measure, Netanyahu is committing ethnic cleansing in Gaza. Coupled with Israeli government policy towards the Palestinian people stretching back to the Nakba, there is good reason to call this what it is: genocide. This is not mere opinion, but the determination of scholars, experts, a growing number of nations and the International Criminal Court.

The students are not demanding anything radical or outrageous given these circumstances. Immediate divestment from, and boycott of, any companies involved in Israeli Apartheid or genocide — including weapons manufacturers — should, quite simply, be the bare minimum standard for a public university in Canada. Extending this boycott to Israeli institutions, such as universities, is an unfortunate but necessary additional step. Such is the nature of a boycott — which, I might add, is yet another example of peaceful protest. In order for a boycott to be effective, it must be total.

That said, what the students have asked for, and what McGill has offered in return, do not align. They aren’t even in the same ballpark, and this doesn’t reflect well on the institution. You can’t argue that you’re attempting to negotiate in good faith when you have essentially dismissed the students’ very reasonable demands.

No further examination is needed. Every day, your students can witness the inhuman conditions, the needless destruction, the pathetic suffering, the inexcusable pain and torment caused by Israeli Occupation Forces on the innocent civilian population of Gaza. They have seen enough, though I suspect you haven’t had the courage to look.

There are no hidden mass graves, no secret extermination camps, no UN investigation to conclude — the atrocities are all out in the open, and Netanyahu has so far been shielded from all scrutiny. There is simply no more time to wait — the genocide is happening now.

Your counter-offer, that McGill will increase its links with institutions and scholars in Gaza, borders on being a sick joke. Netanyahu has deliberately bombed all of Gaza’s universities. Israeli soldiers have been documented deliberately burning books — perpetrating a biblioclasm — in yet another example of ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide. Israel’s occupation forces have killed a great many scholars, too. 

McGill may as well be making commitments to biodiversity and conservation by supporting dinosaurs and Dodo birds.

And as to having to relocate spring commencement, did it occur to you how many Palestinian children and youths won’t be able to attend their academic ceremonies this year? It’s not just because their schools and universities have been turned to ash — a great many students have been vaporized, too. 

You might not know this Dr. Saini, but McGill students once successfully managed to get the university to divest from another apartheid state waging a genocidal war against a long-suffering Indigenous population. That was just about 40 years ago, when students used peaceful protest to get the university to divest from Apartheid South Africa.

You should know that McGill had no problem with the “geographic location” of South African businesses profiting off Apartheid when it divested in the 1980s. This is no different. Your characterization of the request for divestment uniquely on geographic grounds is absurd — one country is committing a genocide, its leaders are wanted by the ICC for war crimes. Not all South African companies were directly involved in the Bush War or Apartheid, but in order to affect change, the entire South African economy, and its institutions, had to be boycotted. The aim is to encourage the people of Israel to peacefully remove those responsible for the genocide from power, and to deliver them to the ICC. Divestment is thus necessary until Israelis do the right thing and justice is obtained.

This is by no means permanent. Once the genocide ends, once the occupation ends, once Israel commits itself to the “rules-based international order,” McGill can resume its investments in Israel, just as it might do in South Africa today.

Furthermore, there ought not be a neutral stance when it comes to genocide. This is not a contested election, a divisive political movement or mere territorial bickering between two nations — it is simply a genocide. 

One would have hoped that McGill hadn’t taken a “neutral stance” during the Holocaust, though we can remind you, Dr. Saini, that McGill was happy to exclude Jewish students from attending while that genocide was on-going.

You argue that “students and academics are trained to interrogate and contest assumptions and authorities.” Have you seen the mainstream media’s whitewash of the genocide of Gaza? Your students are contesting assumptions and authorities as we speak. They are doing so in the encampment. Its very presence is the literal embodiment of the very interrogation and scrutiny you’re looking for.

Anyone with two eyes and two ears can see and hear that the encampment has been an entirely peaceful affair. Your attempt to mischaracterize it in the press, quite frankly, ought to be grounds for your dismissal. Had you any shame, you would have already resigned for these asinine and duplicitous comments. 

Many of your students have doubtless read 1984 — why, then, are you taking the role of Big Brother, telling us to doubt our senses? Why wage war on reality? There have been no documented cases of violence, no occupation of McGill buildings, no hate crimes charges, no need for police intervention. Even the jackbooted thugs of the SPVM, always happy to crack students’ skulls in service of the establishment, find no grounds to intervene with force here. So has a superior court judge.

Yet still you persist — demanding police bring about the violence that has indelibly stained the campuses of once great American institutions. And has that police suppression of fundamental, democratic rights diminished the protest movement? No, of course not. Everywhere, it grows.

The solution to all of this is very simple: divest from the military-industrial complex and boycott Israel so long as Netanyahu continues to commit genocide against the people of Palestine. It is a clear, moral and ethical choice, no different from McGill’s previous divestment from Apartheid South Africa. Do that and McGill puts itself on the right side of history, takes an important and progressive step forward as an institution, rejects genocide and, above all else, shows its engaged student body that they truly can become the change they wish to see in the world, which is exactly what you want of them. 

If you do all this, no one will care that spring convocation had to be moved. It couldn’t possibly matter less. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.