Last week I wrote a letter to McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier, after reading her disgraceful comments outlining the university’s ad hoc ‘policy’ on BDS. Bad enough that a senior administrator at one of Canada’s most prestigious universities would wilfully misrepresent both the principles of BDS and its objectives. Worse still her extraordinary decision to send these comments to the parents of all current McGill students.

In fact, one such parent who has two kids at McGill says the university had never before contacted him regarding human rights activism on campus. Clearly, it is only Palestinian rights that excite Principal Fortier’s antipathy, and require singling out for exclusion.

For the avoidance of confusion, BDS is modelled on the boycott of South Africa which helped hasten the end of apartheid. It began with a call for solidarity from a network of Palestinian civil society groups, frustrated with the toothless handwringing of foreign governments and international institutions in the face of Israel’s ceaseless and brazen violations of international law. Its advocates claim three objectives:

1. a halt to Israeli settlement building on Palestinian land

2. equal rights for Arab Israelis

3. the right of return of Palestinians expelled from their homes when Israel was created in 1948.

Although the enemies of BDS are numerous and varied, ranging from the Guardian comments editor Jonathan Freedland to the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the London Mayor Boris Johnson, their single point of attack is identical: however appalling Israel’s behaviour, any pressure on it to change can only be ‘anti Semitic’. It follows that anyone making this demand is, of course, an anti Semite.

Over recent days, I have heard from many people, including several McGill alumni, who are troubled by Principal Fortier’s effort to suppress freedom of conscience on campus, not to mention the distortions she peddles. This is why I decided to publish my letter to her, which is below.

Dear Principal Fortier

In 1983, I had a narrow escape. You see, that was the year I had to choose which universities to apply to in order to begin my undergraduate studies the following year.

I was accepted at both McGill and Trinity College at the University of Toronto; I chose to attend the latter. The decision was difficult because of my love of Montreal, and my undergraduate days were not especially joyful.

For more than 30 years I have wondered if I made the right choice. It was only when I read your comments about BDS, the non-violent movement to support Palestinian rights and international law, that I was finally certain. Your attack on BDS, and aggressive efforts to smear students who support it, is shocking and cynical in equal measure, and I am pleased and relieved that I have no connection with an academic institution whose leader would take this position.

Indeed, I am certain it will come as a surprise to many current students and alumni that you feel such deep hostility to efforts to secure basic rights for the Palestinian people and to demands that Israel comply with international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, that you would launch this public attack, and then take the extraordinary step of contacting students’ parents in order to announce your position.

It is a bleak moment for freedom of thought and expression in Canada, all the more so because of ugly efforts by some in academia to knowingly and actively misrepresent non-violent advocacy in aid of an occupied and besieged people. The only comfort available to those of us who are familiar with these tactics is the news that some of your faculty have had the integrity and humanity to speak out against your bullying.


Juliana Farha