AMS disendorses BDS referendum, supports students voting ‘any way but yes’

After a meeting that went on for over five hours, AMS Council voted to oppose the BDS referendum question that asks the AMS to divest from companies that support the Israeli military.

Earlier in the month, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) gathered the 1,000 signatures required to hold a referendum on whether the AMS should divest from companies that support the Israeli military's actions in Gaza and the West Bank.

On March 4, Council held an emergency meeting to discuss their action plan with the referendum.

After presentations from both SPHR and Hillel, the AMS talked about whether they should take a stance and advise students of their position.

AMS Ombudsperson Camelia Toghiani-Rizi gave a presentation in which she recommended Council to oppose the referendum, as she felt that the question put forth by SPHR contained loaded words and an answer within itself. She also said that she heard reports of violations during the signature collecting process, such as some students pressuring others to sign.

AMS President Tanner Bokor then clarified that, after consultation with their legal team, they found that the question did not presuppose an answer and passed the required bylaws for the language used.

According to the follow-up described in the motion, the primary reasons for the opposing vote revolved around the divisiveness of Palestine-Israel relations, the need to promote respectful dialogue on campus and the topic of international relations being outside the scope of the society's objectives.

The exact wording of the motion reads:

"BIFRT the AMS endorses any vote but a yes vote, as one of the AMS’ primary objectives, as outlined in the AMS Constitution, is to promote unity and goodwill amongst its members."

While most councillors agreed that the AMS should encourage dialogue between members of the UBC community rather than try to make a decision for them, the main source of disagreement came on whether the best way to encourage debate and reflection on the referendum question was achieved by opposing a yes vote.

VP Admin Ava Nasiri spoke against the motion on the basis that it would divide the campus community.

"I don't think that as the AMS we should be endorsing either side," said Nasiri. "I think that our goal here is to do as best we can to facilitate and mediate and I think that by taking one side or the other what we're doing is alienating a portion of the campus population."

Bokor said that, as the question of divestment is at base a moral and geopolitical debate with differing opinions, it was important for Council to also share their thoughts on it openly.

"If we will have any debate, it must be on the basis of each other's idea not each other's identities. We, as a community, must not marginalize each other because of who we are, or where we were born, or who our parents are, or what religion you follow," said Bokor. "We believe in providing equal opportunity and being inclusive to all voices, opinions and beliefs."

VP External Bahareh Jokar pointed out that the AMS did not take a stance on divestment from fossil fuels a year ago since it felt that it was not their place to take a stance for students.

"It's a matter of process," said Jokar. "Our role here as a Council is to effectively ensure that we are providing safety for our students, providing safe and respectable space for conversation and dialogue and to ensure that the processes are adhered to."

Still, councillor Christopher Roach said that endorsing the referendum would set a precedent of doing the same for any referendum pushed forth by students in the future.

"If we were to follow exactly what students requested us to do through a referendum, would we not disenfranchise a group of students? How are we going to act when that time comes?" said Roach.

Councillors then voted on the motion by secret ballot after Roach said that disclosing who voted for or against might put members' safety at risk.

While a secret ballot cannot reveal the number of votes for or against the motion, the motion passed by a simple majority.

After that, Council also voted not to proceed with a formal campaign on their position, but rather to send out one email informing students of their stance.

The referendum is currently slated to take place from March 23 to 27.