The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) recently made headlines after McGill threatened to sanction the association for adopting a “Palestine Solidarity Policy”—a misleadingly named, unconstitutional proposal to marginalize Jewish groups. Nevertheless, many undergraduates and staff continue to defend the manifesto as an example of student “democracy.”
When McGill warned students on March 24 that the Palestine referendum question violated the union’s own policies, then-President Darshan Daryanani alleged that administrators were undermining SSMU’s autonomy. He even told The Canadian Press that the referendum—where the 71 percent who voted in favor represented a mere 7 percent of students—was “academic freedom” at work. That faux populism did not earn him any absolution days later when he was impeached for “impropriety” largely based on leaked allegations of sexual harassment.
Four days later, the Board of Directors refused to certify the Palestine proposal, overturning the referendum outcome. According to the SSMU Directors’ April 22 statement, the policy violated the Society’s constitution and Quebec law. Still, considering that all referendum questions are vetted before they appear on the ballot, the proposal should not have been approved in the first place.
As a result, the referendum—filled with unrestrained anti-Israel prejudice—was a profound waste of time. The campaign also reenergized a debunked, antisemitic “Blacklist” conspiracy that Zionist students are “surveilling” Palestinian peers in collaboration with McGill staff. Although the university administration responded with an “initiative to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia,” the problem is not the current policies themselves: it is that they are not enforced.
Although McGill has repeatedly threatened to terminate its Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) with the student union for its anti-Israel actions, it has never followed through. And it has the right to do that—discrimination against Zionist Jewish students is unconstitutional. In 2017, the judicial committee outlawed the Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. The following year, SSMU adopted the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) working definition for antisemitism.
These proved to be empty words. Despite a legal injunction against the March 2022 Palestine question, the elections officials resumed voting after anti-zionists complained. Then, SPHR circulated campaign materials that were not approved for use—including a massive poster on the McGill Arts Building. They also harassed Jewish students on social media, telling them to “return to Long Island.”
Jewish students complained about these and other electoral bylaw violations, to no avail. In many cases, Elections coordinators did not respond for more than 48 hours. The policy is unconstitutional, yet students were directed to vote on it. Democracy requires that the rules be followed, and Society members are justifiably angry because they were urged to vote on a policy that was liable to be overturned.
If SSMU cannot uphold its own constitution, who will? Although more than one hundred McGill staff signed a letter condemning the administration’s “undemocratic” sanction, they are missing the point. Modern democracies work precisely because their structures protect citizens from oppressive majorities and tyrannical minorities. That is the basis of civil rights law. Laws that protect Jews, Black people, and other marginalized groups have never been “popular.” For example, many Southern white people resisted the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools. When the Little Rock, Arkansas school board in 1957 refused to enforce the new policy, President Eisenhower sent soldiers to execute it.
In the McGill student syndicate’s case, democratic theory undergirds equity policies, electoral bylaws, and institutions like the Judicial Board. McGill’s letter of default was not arbitrary. It was the nuclear option, and it was necessary because SSMU does not have its own enforcement mechanism. If it did, SPHR would be sanctioned as well. The group, which published the libelous Blacklist screed, is now calling SSMU a dictatorship. On April 25, the club condemned executives for bowing to “Zionist donors,” even ostracizing former supporters.
This rhetoric, which normalizes extreme claims about Israel, contributes to physical violence. Only a week after the Palestine policy scandal, a middle-aged man was assaulted on May 5 near Dawson College, another Montreal secondary institution, after exiting an Israel Independence Day rally. Meanwhile, McGill’s SPHR has published statements purporting that Israeli civilians are a “myth,” suggesting that all Jewish State citizens—including some of their peers—are affiliated with the “occupation” and therefore legitimate targets for terrorism.
This article was originally featured in the Opinion section of the Canadian Jewish News.