How McGill fails Palestinian students

Doxxing, harassment, and blacklists—what goes on beneath the surface

Maya Abuali, Managing Editor

​​Growing up, introducing myself was a persistent gamble. When I, inevitably, would say that I was Palestinian, the words would taste heavy with reluctance. They were never just accepted as a crucial part of my identity, but instead as a political statement, an invitation for debate, and in some unfortunate cases, an incitement of blatant racism. Still, I consider myself lucky that I grew up in Southeast Asia, and not, say, the United States, where saying you were Palestinian could be considered an act of verbal terrorism—until maybe last year.

Needless to say, receiving this kind of reaction was always frustrating. Containing my exasperation has not gotten easier. To me, there is a very distinct similarity between Palestinian anger and female anger: When you describe your oppression, you are often belittled, dismissed, and infantilized, which only serves to exacerbate your irritation. My grandmother, who was born in Bethlehem, would always say that emotions are our people’s fatal flaw. She advised me to maintain a cool head when telling our side of history, lest our message get lost in emotional translation. But being a fervently nostalgic people, maintaining this even temperament seems to be unrealistic for most Palestinians—particularly when we are told to our faces that our country is not real, or when we wake up to news of another child dead. It provokes the kind of rage that makes you stare daggers at a tub of hummus in the middle of a supermarket because it was created by an Israeli company that profits from stealing your culture.

As I got older, I learned to deal with the reactions I received when introducing myself, and my trepidation dissolved into an unwavering sense of duty. Now at university, among friends and coworkers, I constantly refer to myself as the “annoying Palestinian,” given my incessant and unflinching ability to link any topic of conversation to my ethnicity. As much as this may seem like a slightly obnoxious personality quirk, it is a habit that is ingrained in me and many other diaspora Palestinians to desperately remind those around us that we exist and that our people are still struggling.

I visited Palestine for the first time when I was 16, when my parents decided it was time for my two siblings and me to see it. Before then, it had been a sort of mythological place in my mind. My grandparents would tell us tales of our homeland, and I’d feel a knot form in my chest, longing for the roots that I only knew were real by the unmistakable homesickness in their voices. My grandfather would sit at the head of the table—always peeling fruit—and tell my siblings and me of his time as a boy scout in Gaza, teaching us all their chants. Though he would be smiling in reminiscence, a telltale mist would brim in his eyes each time he spoke of the home he lost. The mourning for Palestine persists year after year, each period less hopeful than the last.

All four of my grandparents were born in Palestine. They were among the 750,000 Palestinians—roughly half of the population—who were expelled from the country in 1948. This was during Al-Nakba, literally translating to “the catastrophe,” when European Jews colonized the land by force at the behest of the British after World War II. Their armed forces destroyed at least 500 Palestinian villages, and then gave the rest Hebrew names, virtually erasing the country’s geographical history. Israel declared itself over the unceded lands. Most Palestinians, including my grandparents, left their homes with the plan to come back when the massacre was over. They packed for a temporary trip and kept their house keys with them. Many of the older generations have held on to those keys, which have become a symbol for the Palestinian right to return where their families lived. But the first Israeli government implemented a series of land laws that prevented any Palestinians who left during this period from ever returning. The Nakba is what rendered us “stateless,” and the resulting trauma is still very much alive for Palestinians 73 years later.

For the Palestinians who managed to stay behind, the discrimination and violence they face from the Israeli state have become part of their daily lives. Israeli authorities have razed the homes of Palestinians in East Jerusalem in order for settlers to move in. Those living in Gaza have been subjected to multiple blockades and restrictions on movement. During the pandemic, while the world applauded Israel’s vaccine effort, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were not offered vaccines for months. Israel’s actions have been so unjust that the watchdog Human Rights Watch, along with other organizations, has labeled Israel’s current legal system as perpetuating apartheid.

In response to the steadily mounting human rights concerns, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign was born in 2005, pushing the international community to sanction and end their support for Israel. The BDS movement urges individuals to boycott Israeli goods and withdraw investments from the state.

At McGill, students have been active in the fight against the human rights atrocities perpetrated by Israel for years. Students for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), a McGill club, educates people about the Israeli occupation and advocates for Palestinian liberation. One of SPHR’s central objectives has been to push the McGill administration to divest from Israeli companies. The club released a petition in May 2021 in response to the 11 straight days of brutal atrocities carried out by Israel, including airstrikes in Gaza that left at least 60 dead. It was the deadliest escalation since the 2014 seven-week war on Gaza, which killed around 500 Palestinian children in one summer.

Despite the fact that these actions are clearly wrong, the situation is consistently referred to as a “complicated conflict.” Murder, land-theft, and apartheid are words quietly avoided by Western media. Instead, they deploy muddling adjectives like “complex” and “nuanced.” But one does not need a master’s degree in political science to recognize injustice.

Harassment, Blacklists, and Doxxing

When McGill students have attempted to protest Israel’s human rights violations, the pushback has been severe. People, particularly Palestinian students, have been doxxed, harassed, and bullied. Those involved with SPHR are familiar with these methods of harassment. Farah*, a Palestinian student who has been involved in SPHR for three years, explained that they have been frequently targeted for their activism on campus.

“I’ve been harassed and followed around on campus,” Farah told The McGill Tribune. “I’ve been filmed without giving my consent. I’ve also been followed by McGill security guards that were sent by the administration while we were protesting a couple of years ago.”

Farah recalled a time when, while tabling for SPHR at an activities night, she was non-consensually filmed by several students.

“Imagine just being on campus minding your own business, trying to talk about your struggle for liberation, and some random students feel that they have the right to literally follow you around and film you and post it on social media because they know that they are going to face zero consequences from the administration,” Farah said.

These instances of harassment and surveillance generate an atmosphere of fear on campus for Palestinian students. Not only are they at the risk of discrimination and surveillance, but they are also in danger of being falsely labelled as anti-Semitic. Students who call out the human rights abuses perpetuated by the Israeli government are often put on blacklists like the Canary Mission, which document supposedly “anti-Semitic” student activists and professors.

“We can see doxxing websites like the Canary Mission where students, professors, and staff are put into these lists and smear campaigns are launched against them,” Farah said. “They take things out of context, they take screenshots of things people have said, and post them with the intention of ruining these peoples’ academic careers or actual careers.”

The Canary Mission also lists organizations such as SPHR, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), BDS, and the newspaper Al Jazeera. It lists Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), an organization on campus comprised of Jewish people who stand in solidarity with Palestine against Zionism. IJV’s former membership and fundraising coordinator Geneviève Joëlle, 3L Law, talked about the experience of being posted on these public blacklists.

“Being on Canary Mission and that being the first thing that comes up when people Google your name—I’ve been experiencing that for the past four years,” Joëlle said. “It is very stressful. The university needs to be taking this seriously, and the fact that they haven’t is very distressing.”

These websites demonize students advocating for the liberation of Palestine by conflating anti-Semitism—an insidious form of discrimination against Jewish people and Judaism—with anti-Zionism, which is an entirely different position. Zionism is the desire for a Jewish nation-state or homeland only for the Jewish people—a movement that is now closely coupled with support for Israel, and thus the oppression of the Palestinian people. It is a settler-colonial movement that supports an apartheid state where European Jews have more rights than the land’s native inhabitants. To equate opposition to the systematic killing, dispossession, and occupation of the Palestinian people with anti-Semitism is either intellectually lazy or manipulative—and in both cases, profoundly wrong.

Currently, Zionism is not regarded as a legitimate form of racial discrimination according to McGill’s “decolonization” and EDI initiatives. As a result, when McGill students are met with this kind of racist hassling on campus, they cannot seek institutional support from equity channels. Their attackers can act with impunity.

The 11-day war

Things came to a head last year when the 11-day war erupted. Israel attemped to forcibly evict eight Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem, in violation of international law. When Palestinians in Jerusalem protested against the eviction, Israeli Defence Forces proceeded to bomb, raid, and maim Palestinian worshippers in the Al-Aqsa mosque, during the holy month of Ramadan. Meanwhile, Israel launched a military attack on residential buildings in the besieged Gaza strip, where there was no evidence of military targets in the vicinity. The Israeli air strikes killed at least 200 Palestinians in the first week alone—more than one quarter of whom were children.

During Israel’s attacks last year, SPHR wrote an open letter calling on McGill to recognize Zionism as a form of racism and divest from corporations that participate in the expansion of illegal settlements in occupied Palestine. Unfortunately, their request was swiftly dismissed by the administration. Instead, Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Christopher Manfredi sent out an email to students and staff that condemned Palestinian students for speaking out at all.

“[It was] genuinely one of the most offensive [things] I’ve ever read,” Farah said.

The Provost referred to the atrocities that had occurred as “unrest in the Middle East,” not even bothering to use the words Gaza, Jerusalem, and the West Bank. By choosing not to specify any of these places, the Provost is contributing to the colonial erasure of Palestine.

“The raiding of Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the bombing of Gaza, all of that stuff was called ‘violence in the Middle East,’” Farah explained. “So imagine being a Palestinian, receiving this email while your people are literally dying, and the administration doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of your struggle.”

Instead, the Provost called this activism a “misuse of our EDI-based plans and policies.” What are the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) policies for if not for students to call out discrimination and injustice on campus? Nothing could have been more insulting to Palestinian students on campus, who were already burdened with mourning their people and trying to attend classes while their family’s homes were being bombed.

Perhaps the most harmful element of the entire email was when the Provost carelessly wrote that the unrest impacted “Palestinian and Jewish members of the campus community.” Not only did he dangerously confound Zionism with Judaism, but he implied that all Jewish students were in support of the Israeli state, and thus the violent oppression of the Palestinians. Joëlle explained not all Jewish students share those views.

“This is an attempt to paint Jewish people as a monolith, and in the process undermines efforts being done [by anti-Zionist Jews] to further Palestinian rights,” Joëlle said.

In some ways, McGill’s inaction comes as no surprise, considering their reaction to activism against South African apartheid. In the 1980s, Black and African students urged McGill to divest from South Africa, but it took several years and significant student pressure for it to happen. The campaign was primarily led by a club called the McGill South Africa Committee, which, like SPHR, advocated for divestment through workshops, informational sessions, and protests. They also had their very own Anti-Apartheid Week. The McGill Daily published an editorial called “South Africa: Love it and leave it” in 1985, at which time student organizations had been calling on the administration to divest for years. Though the administration finally divested in 1986 after a four-hour protest involving 1,200 McGill students, total divestment took several years. It seems the administration needs years of pressure to be on the right side of history.

Blacklists on Campus

In May of 2021, an anonymous student tipped off The McGill Tribune that there was an alleged blacklist of pro-Palestine students circulating on campus. In the same month, according to SPHR, several sources told the student organization that the list may have existed for decades, with the alleged objective to surveil and document pro-Palestine students at McGill. According to SPHR’s sources, some student politicians have used the list to mobilize against “Anti-Israel” candidates running for Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) positions. In a statement regarding the list, SPHR claimed that when a student raised the issue of the blacklist with the dean of students, he dismissed it due to lack of evidence. Shortly thereafter, however, the student began to receive text messages from random strangers asking about their sexual activity. Harassers posted their name and personal phone number to a website that stated they were offering sexual services, and depicted them as an anti-Semite.

“When our university is not even trying to pretend that they believe that this blacklist exists, that Palestinian students on campus feel unsafe, then when someone decides to be an activist on campus, they are putting themselves at future risk,” Farah said.

Bryan Buraga, former president of SSMU, expressed his disappointment that further investigation into these claims about a blacklist never materialized.

“In my opinion, if someone is incredibly accused of aiding and abetting violence against certain individuals on campus, in this case pro-Palestinian activists, that should demand a full investigation and suspension,” Buraga said.

SSMU’s history of disapproving policies in favour of Palestinian human rights reinforces this theory. The BoD has also refused to ratify a joint SSMU-SPHR statement acknowledging the Palestinian Nakba, despite its endorsement by SSMU’s Legislative Council. The Board’s decision was made during a confidential session.

“[The conflicts of interest involved] just tell me that they fundamentally don’t care about the safety concerns of students, at least when it comes to pro-Palestinian activists,” Buraga said.

Our university often chooses to recognize political injustices only in retrospect. Why should the administration wait to issue a useless apology in 50 years, when it has finally deemed my people’s suffering worthy of its acknowledgement? Here’s a revolutionary thought: McGill should make substantive changes in the present tense. It can begin to do so by answering SPHR’s demands. It must not just acknowledge that Palestine exists, but also that its people are being subjected to a racist apartheid. It must not just call Zionism what it is—a settler-colonial movement—but also divest from the institutions that fund and profit from it. It must not just investigate the blacklist that threatens students and faculty on campus, but penalize those involved. Claiming to foster a “safe” campus for racialized students is not enough; McGill must take action to fulfill this commitment.

Illustrations by Jinny Moon, Design Editor