Divestment Week campaign sparks political controversy for OPIRG

Photo from the January 30 Divestment Rally, by Jenny Fisher.

Ontario Public Interest and Research Group (OPIRG) Peterborough has been the site of many controversies and incidents over the past few weeks, largely stemming out of controversial topics like boycott and divestment sanctions, particularly those sanctions geared toward Israel.

The week of January 26, OPIRG hosted a series of workshops, debates, lectures, and films called Divestment Week aimed at stimulating a conversation about boycott and divestment sanctions (BDS) as a form of protest.

This comes alongside OPIRG’s collaboration with Sustainable Trent to have the Trent administration divest from fossil fuels. The climax of Divestment Week was a rally that circulated through the Symons campus and ended in a Board of Governors meeting.

Divestment Week also came at a time when a group of Trent students appealed to the Trent Central Student Association’s (TCSA) annual general meeting (AGM) to have the Boycott and Divestment from Israeli Apartheid policy rescinded. The policy was voted in during the 2013 AGM after the efforts of an OPIRG working group called the Peterborough Coalition for Palestinian Solidarity.

Divestment Week brought tensions to a head when a campaign poster was criticized for being anti-Semitic in the Peterborough Examiner, members of the Jewish Defence League (JDL) disrupted an academic panel discussion on BDS, and Trent4Israel publicly announced that it aims to defund the organization.

Poster Confusion

The Divestment Week poster featured prominently a traffic light with a maple leaf dripping with oil in the top circle and an Israeli flag in the middle circle, both of which are crossed out. In the bottom green circle is the word ‘DIVEST’. The image was meant to symbolize ending the support for Canadian oil sands and Israeli apartheid through divestment.

Due to the layout of the poster and the fact that many posters were copied in black and white, it was unclear that the middle circle represented an Israeli flag and not simply a Star of David. Student group Trent4Israel and Toronto-based Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies (FSWC) both issued concerned statements that this poster was anti-Semitic and that OPIRG is an anti-Semitic radical leftist organization.

In a statement following the controversy, OPIRG issued an apology and promised to be more mindful of their advertising literature in future. This statement was rejected by FSWC and Trent4Israel.

This controversy set the tone for much of the week in which pro-Israel supporters clashed with OPIRG and divestment advocates.

Boycott and Divest Panel Discussion

One of the events planned for Divestment Week was an academic panel featuring Nausheen Quayyum, who was speaking to the involvement of students in BDS campaigns and Trent professor Anne Meneley, who was addressing how support for Palestinian agriculture is a successful component of a larger BDS campaign. This event was disrupted by an aggressive intrusion by two men wearing shirts promoting the Jewish Defence League (JDL).

Professor Meneley had just finished addressing the audience of an estimated thirty people and Quayyum had begun when the men entered the room and started shouting violent obscenities at the organizers and panellists.

The men accused the panellists and organizers for imparting a pro-Palestine and anti-Israel rhetoric on impressionable students. “That’s not what it’s about. What university is about is being exposed to a lot of different ideas and deciding for yourself what you agree with,” said Prof Meneley in an interview with Arthur.

The interruption successfully threw off the event and after the men were escorted out of the room by campus security it was difficult to resume the discussion that had begun.

Prof Meneley expressed concern that there may have been students present who wanted to engage in an open and academic discussion but were put off by violent outburst.

Prospects to Defund

An article in the Peterborough Examiner from February 6 proclaimed that Trent4Israel will be attempting to have OPIRG Peterborough defunded and their student levy rescinded. As it stands, OPIRG receives a $12.78 refundable levy from all full-time undergraduates.

The levy is available to be refunded within a certain period at the start of the fall academic term. The levy is automatically charged to student accounts and the process for acquiring the refund simply involves going to the OPIRG office and asking for the equivalent in cash.

The student levy money is used to fund OPIRG’s various projects including the Food Cupboard and the Free Market which operate at no charge to the public and service hundreds of households throughout the community.

In addition, OPIRG provides support for many working groups that advocate for various issues. Working groups, like the Canadian Mining Awareness Group and the End Immigration Detention Network, are the result of students coming together and asking the OPIRG board if their cause is something the organization would support.

The support includes very limited funding opportunities, the use of the OPIRG office in Sadleir House, as well as training programs.

via Divestment Week campaign sparks political controversy for OPIRG.

Published by Ayesha Barmania

Ayesha Barmania is a journalist-entrepreneur and audio documentary maker, living and working in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.