Since the summer, the 2015-2016 University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) has been under the microscope as a potential supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Inspired by a call from numerous Palestinian civil society groups, BDS is a campaign to economically isolate Israel until it ends its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.


BDS’s supporters see it as an important, anti-imperialist human rights campaign with significant global momentum. Its critics, meanwhile, deride it as divisive, and in some cases, anti-Semitic.


Within the UTSU, that debate has been put on hold. On Thursday, Jan. 28, the UTSU will host a general meeting for its members to vote on policy proposals, and BDS is not on the agenda. Instead, students will have a chance to endorse a broader call for “ethical divestment.”


That motion was introduced by Aidan Swirsky, a student involved with Hillel, an organization that describes itself as apolitical yet takes fervently Zionist positions. While critics of BDS activism in the past have more broadly denounced the UTSU’s taking of political positions, Swirsky’s motion calls for U of T to divest from companies that profit from human rights violations, labour and child labour violations, war, and the creation of environmental disasters. Swirsky has emphasized, however, that this motion is very different from BDS because it does not single out a country and advocate for policies that will lead to its “destruction.”


While the constructive nature of this approach is a refreshing alternative to that of, for instance, Ryerson’s BDS opponents, who amongst other things invited the tar sands-loving, Omar Khadr-hating pundit Ezra Levant to make their case, it is still not a satisfying alternative to BDS.


The University of Toronto’s statement of purpose already includes “a resolute commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice” and a divestment policy that targets activities which “violate, or frustrate the enforcement of, rules of domestic or international law intended to protect individuals against deprivation or [sic] health, safety, or basic freedom.”


Swirsky’s motion therefore simply calls for U of T to enforce its own policies. This in itself is not a problem. Toronto 350’s fossil fuel divestment campaign essentially does the same thing, arguing that the scientific consensus on the harms of climate change should make fossil fuel divestment a non-controversial issue for U of T.


But there is a problem with Swirsky’s motion. It casts its net too widely and thus dilutes itself. It’s not unlike John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a song which calls for the abolition of property, nations, and religious animosity, yet still comes across more as soft-liberal pop than as a revolutionary anthem. There is a fine line between the radical and the common sensical.

There is nothing groundbreaking about the belief that war, bigotry, and labour exploitation are bad. What is groundbreaking is taking those beliefs and applying them in contexts that make the powers-that-be uncomfortable. Toronto 350 did that when they called out U of T for ignoring the work of its researchers and investing in fossil fuels. BDS activists do that when they point out that North American politicians who uphold Israel as a beacon of rights and democracy are conveniently ignoring the Israeli missiles that disproportionately kill Palestinian civilians, and the Israeli bulldozers that illegally knock down Palestinian houses.


Of course it would great if U of T divested from all unethical sources, but under capitalism that’s basically impossible. When U of T plays the stock market it’s not investing in little family businesses but large, profitable entities that grow by pillaging the Global South and are aided by the coercive arm of Western militaries. Furthermore, U of T’s slow response to 350’s demands shows that a broad call for ethical divestment will not disrupt business as usual.


Divestment activists in groups like 350 and BDS know their limits. They do not seek to single-handedly bring about justice, but to change norms and public consciousness as part of a broader struggle. Are divestment campaigns like these divisive? Yes! But when our society forms a destructive whole, sometimes a little fragmentation is necessary.

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