An informal coalition of forty students at the University of Manitoba has managed to bring forward two motions to the UMSU board of directors regarding the state of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories and protections for students impacted by the Palestinian struggle.
The two motions were moved by Tabitha Clavecillas and seconded by the Arts Student Body Council (ASBC) at the board of directors meeting July 22. They were then recommended to the executive committee and will be brought back for a final vote.
The coalition formed in early May during a period of heightened of violence during which Israeli bombardments killed 200 Palestinians, including 59 children, within a week.
Iqra Tariq, a science student in her final year and former president of the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) explained in an interview that the goals of the group are to pass these motions, release a statement to raise awareness and form a Students for Justice in Palestine group on campus.
The group also plans to pursue a human rights complaint against the Asper School of Business.
Amid a tense media climate and a period of intensified discourse over human rights abuses in Israel/Palestine among faculty and students in May, the Asper school of business sent an email to students which members of the group said was threatening.
In the email, which had the subject line “Offensive social media posts by Asper students,” it is mentioned that the school is aware of students posting “inflammatory messages” regarding conflict in the Middle East and warned that “anything you post […] can come back to haunt you later in life.”
“It was a direct threat to [the lives of international students] and their futures and their careers,” said Tariq.
“That was something that made me believe that there was a lot of work to be done at the University of Manitoba when it comes to the Palestinian cause.”
Campus culture shuts out Palestinians
Zahra Rizvi, a member of the group and third-year computer science major, said that UMSU has historically failed when it comes to supporting Palestinian students.
“Any kind of Palestinian solidarity has come with a disclaimer on campus and honestly Palestinian students are just very sick of it,” she said.
“We want to be able to talk about these issues without having to […] whitewash what we mean and what we want to say.”
In 2018, UMSU voted against the Canadian Federation of Students condemning the illegal occupation of Palestine by Israel and supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Then-UMSU president Jakob Sanderson claimed the motions were “divisive and ill-considered.”Years before that, in 2013, UMSU revoked the student group status of Students Against Israeli Apartheid, a student group that held annual Israeli Apartheid Weeks to raise awareness of ongoing human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Earlier this year, UMSU also adopted the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism which has been criticized for its potential to be used in silencing pro-Palestinian speech.
Following the introduction of the motions in July, the group had a two-hour meeting with the UMSU executive in which they shared testimonials and discussed their needs.
Tariq described their reception by the executive as “accommodating.”
“UMSU does have a stance of being non-political and non-partisan,” said Tariq.
“As somebody who has a lot of experience in student leadership and student politics, I completely understand that student groups need to be inclusive of everybody, but in an effort of being inclusive we almost felt excluded.”
Tariq continued that this manifested in UMSU shying away from the use of words such as “crisis” and “Palestine” in talking about the issues being brought up by the group.
Huda Alfarekh, a third-year student in the faculty of science and member of the group, said that there also seems to be a double standard on campus.
Students Supporting Israel, a student group on campus co-founded by current UMSU vice president advocacy Emily Kalo, has operated on campus for years while pro-Palestinian groups have been removed from campus.
During the uptick in violence in May which saw riots against the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah followed by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and Hamas firing rockets, the Students Supporting Israel group posted, “Now is the time to speak out for our people. We are not Jews with trembling knees. Speak out. Be Loud.”
Infographics accompanying the post call for supporters to “call out these blatant lies against Israel.”
Another post contains a video which claims that being anti-Zionist — a category that those who support the Palestinian right to self-determination often fall into — is inherently antisemitic.
“A lot of the time when Palestinian students come forward, they’re told immediately that this is a political issue, this is not our business, we don’t want to get involved,” said Alfarekh.
“My existence isn’t political. My culture isn’t political. This is something I’m affected with every day.”
Tariq said that getting other student groups to speak with theirs was difficult due to assumptions that they were attempting to force groups to take sides and exclude one viewpoint or group of people in favour of another.
“It took a while to get some student groups and student bodies willing to have a meeting with us because they felt like our work was not inclusive enough of both sides […] I think they didn’t realize that we weren’t asking them to choose a side.”
On September 1, a statement of in support of “the students who have been impacted by the apartheid, ethnic cleansing and violation of basic human rights in Palestine” was signed by the U of M Muslim, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Arab students’ associations as well as the campus chapter of the Egyptian Student Association in North America.The statement also says the signatories “unconditionally support” the motions being brought forward by the informal group.
“What we want to come out of this is people who are willing to have conversations about what’s going on in Palestine,” said Tariq, “and students that are affected by the human rights crisis in Palestine and around the world.”