McGill, Montreal, News

Students shut down Bronfman Building, call for McGill to cease Israeli investments and study abroad program

Dozens of students, faculty, and Montrealers blocked the entrances to the Bronfman Building around 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 22 to compel McGill to divest from its Israeli investments, call for a ceasefire in Gaza, and discontinue its study abroad programs in Israel. At 10:16 a.m., McGill sent out an alert to all students and staff advising that all in-person classes in the building be switched to online for the day. Members of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) at McGill, Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) McGill, and the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) gave speeches throughout the day. 

Members of SPHR, IJV, and students who are participating in a Hunger Strike for Palestine were present at the Bronfman building’s three entrances. The blockade allowed exit from the building throughout the day, and beginning at noon, allowed entrance into the building through one entry point. In an interview with The Tribune, a member of IJV McGill, explained the thought process behind blockading McGill buildings and disrupting classes. 

“McGill hasn’t listened to anything else we’ve tried. We’ve obviously been doing rallies for four months now, and they’ve not responded with anything. We tried to pass the referendum policy [the Policy Against Genocide in Palestine] and they didn’t listen—they vetoed it,” the member, who wished to be unnamed, said. “So, we felt we had no other choice. [This] is the only channel that we could go down that McGill admin would listen to.” 

They elaborated on the specificity of choosing Desautels Faculty of Management, explaining it offers two courses—ORGB 434: Special Topics in OB, Comparing Startup Ecosystems of Israel and Canada and FINE 434: Topics in Finance—which include a collaborative three-week study trip with the Hebrew University Business School

“[The courses] historically have promoted Israel as a startup nation, rather than a genocidal entity that it is. It’s promoted using […] quotes saying Israel’s military advancements [and] technological advancements are the best in the world when in reality, they used those technological advancements on Palestinian civilians,” they said. 

In a speech to the crowd, Carter Forman, a member of IJV, further contextualized the decision to blockade the Bronfman building, explaining that Samuel Bronfman was President of the Canadian Jewish Congress from 1939 to 1962. 

“This organization was, for nearly a century, the most influential advocate for Zionism and the State of Israel in Canada. Samuel Bronfman is also universally portrayed as a philanthropist and as a hero to the Jewish people. As a Jewish person myself, I am sick and tired of being taught to idolize people like Bronfman,” Forman said. 

“What’s important is that as we speak, Israel is ruthlessly bombing Rafah, which is now one of the most densely populated places on the planet [….] Our community is not represented by the forces that aim to annihilate the Palestinian people, [and] that continue to starve, displace, and murder innocent Palestinians as we speak. To stand against genocide is not antisemitism. In fact, true antisemitism is to conflate all Jewish people with the violent settler colonial state of Israel through antisemitism to represent our Jewish people.”

Shortly after noon, building access via the North entrance was restored. An SPHR representative who wished to remain anonymous told The Tribune that protesters allowed entry into the building in the afternoon after alleged threats from McGill administrators. 

“Despite consistent threats of police violence from McGill administration, the coalition of students succeeded in holding up the picket line all day. Only in the afternoon did we allow a limited amount of people to enter through the north entrance but all classes remained cancelled,” they wrote.

In a written statement to The Tribune, McGill Media Relations Officer Frédérique Mazerolle explained that McGill’s Security Services and police had arrived shortly after the protest began.

“To our knowledge, no one was prevented from exiting the building at any time. Due to the disruption, several classes were held online,” Mazerolle wrote. 

Members of Chabad McGill were stationed in front of the McLennan Library complex, facing blockaders throughout the day. Various individuals filmed the blockaders, played music, and danced with Israeli flags. A member of Chabad McGill told The Tribune that they were there “to call for peace.” 

The Mohawk Mothers gave a speech to the crowd at around 12:30 p.m., beginning with Mother Kahentinetha explaining that in 2015, she sent a letter to the then Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier objecting to McGill’s invasion of Kanien’kehá:ka land. She also recalled that the same year, Palestinian students had approached the Mothers with the concern of McGill creating weapons that would be used by the Israeli Defense Forces. 

Mother Kwetiio subsequently told the crowd that everyone must do their part to support Palestinians and ensure that the atrocities McGill invests in are stopped, or they will be complicit in the genocide. 

“If we don’t get stronger, if we don’t use our minds, and our intelligence, and our understanding, it could be one of you. That’s not fair. So, we all need to do the work, you need to involve your families, you need to do everything you can do because it’s very hard to change the minds of a whole community. That’s our job,” Kwetiio said. 

In an interview with The Tribune, Kwetiio expanded on Palestinian-Indigenous solidarity, explaining that the key factors that unite the two groups are land seizure and oppression. 

“Palestinians are going through the same thing we went through,” Kwetiio said. “I feel like our two groups, we see the major similarities where someone came onto your land and told you that you’re insignificant. They told you that you’re less than human.”

Assistant Professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education Nanre Nafziger was also present at the blockade to support students’ demands for the university to divest. She emphasized that students voted in majority to pass the Policy Against Genocide in Policy, which McGill “did not recognize.” She urged McGill to listen to its student’s demands. 

“As an educator, as someone who loves children, it’s devastating what’s going on in Palestine. It’s also hurtful here today to also see students, the divisions, and us not being able to agree on something as basic as not killing human beings,” Nafziger said. 

A student who had their class cancelled due to the blockade and who preferred not to be named told The Tribune that they have felt isolated throughout their degree due to the lack of diversity and people of colour on campus. They shared that the blockade marked one of the first days they had “felt seen” on campus. They hoped that people would recognize that missing one day of classes was incomparable to the day-to-day experiences of Palestinians. 

“Just going into the school today, the amount of Islamophobic, hateful, and racist comments I’ve heard […] just because we’re missing one day of classes. What is that? Maybe three, four classes, whereas almost 100,000 people have been killed [or] injured in this war,” they said. “I feel like the point just keeps flying over people’s heads, and I think it’s really just a result of privilege or a result of the university stance, and as a result of the voices that aren’t heard enough and that aren’t amplified enough.”

Classes resumed as normal on Friday, Feb. 23. 

On Monday, Feb. 26, President and Vice-Chancellor Deep Saini sent a university-wide communication to all staff and students regarding protest-related disruptions calling for McGill to cease ties with Israeli institutions.

“McGill will not unilaterally sever its research and academic ties with Israeli institutions. Moreover, McGill will not interfere with the academic freedom of individual members of the university community to engage or partner with an institution simply because of where it is located. To do so would be wholly opposed to our institutional principles,” Saini wrote. 

Saini also shared university protocols for peaceful protest on campus, reminding students that the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures is violated “when the exercise of freedom of expression and assembly knowingly obstructs University activities such as teaching, research, and studying,” as the Bronfman Building blockade did. 

“Accordingly, I must stress that in any future instance where obstruction to University activities, or any other breach of our policies occurs, the application of the protocol for addressing campus disruptions referred to above will be swift,” Saini added.

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