The thorny issue of Israel and Palestine came to McMaster University Wednesday in a heated meeting where students voted to boycott any business with ties to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories.

About 500 students voted during a McMaster Students Union (MSU) general assembly for the union to join a pro-Palestinian movement called BDS — boycott, divestment and sanctions.

However, the assembly did not have quorum at the vote  — 633 students were needed to have quorum, and only 518 were present — making a non-binding resolution.

Students on both sides of the debate have commented on the tense atmosphere and at times feeling unsafe and uncomfortable.

“I can tell you it was a toxic environment in the room tonight,”  said Raphael Szajnfarber, director of Jewish Student Life at McMaster​ told CBC Hamilton. “I know that some students did indeed feel targeted.”

'Step by step, day by day, it grows larger and larger until politicians realize that this is what the public wants.' - Salah Khalaf, chemical engineering student

BDS is a global campaign designed to pressure Israel to end its “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands,” says the website for the BDS movement. It also calls on Israel to recognize the rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and to “respect and protect the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.”

BDS supporters call it a human rights movement akin to the fight against South African apartheid. Those against BDS say it aims to weaken and delegitimize Israel.

York University students voted in favour of BDS last year. This month, University of Windsor students voted for it in a referendum, although the results are under investigation.

Wednesday’s meeting was tense too, from “no to BDS” supporters leaving en masse to a student at the microphone asking security to stand between him and another student. “I’m actually feeling a little unsafe right now,” he said.

MSU brought in extra security for the meeting, said Spencer Graham, MSU’s vice-president education.

“We were expecting it to be tense even just judging from what had happened around our community in the week or two leading up to it.”

Little time to debate the motion

Any of McMaster’s 21,000 undergraduate students can ask for a motion to be placed on the agenda, Graham said.

Salah Khalaf, a chemical engineering student, asked that BDS be debated, although “there was definitely a group of students who felt passionately about having this on the agenda,” Graham said.

The issue received little debate Wednesday, as the motion came just as MSU had to vacate the Burridge gymnasium. And the meeting didn’t have quorum anyway, Graham said.

The motion now goes to the student representative assembly (SRA), although Graham doesn’t know when. It’s up to the speaker to bring it forward, and the speaker has up to a year to do that, he said.

There is an SRA meeting on Sunday, but it’s more likely to come up at one of three April meetings, he said.

Vote brings awareness

Khalaf isn’t discouraged by the lack of quorum and non-binding result of the vote. “People are aware,” he said.

“Step by step, day by day, it grows larger and larger until politicians realize that this is what the public wants," he said. "This does not target any ethnicity race or religion, rather any corporation that helps sustain the illegal occupation."

Khalaf cites past United Nations resolutions condemning Israeli policy. The local “Yes to BDS” campaign includes organizations such as McMaster Amnesty, the McMaster First Nations Association and Independent Jewish Voices, he said.

The meeting was tense, he said. But he sees universities as a place to have these conversations.

“In every academic institution since civilized man has existed, we have had discussion and debate,” he said.

'No debate, no quorum'

But Szajnfarber doesn’t think McMaster is the place for the discussion.

“That’s not to say that student governments haven’t gone into that realm (of international politics), but when they have, the results have always been problematic.”

Over the past week, he said, “there have been divided camps in which the rhetoric rose exponentially” to the point where “a lot of students didn’t feel safe,” he said.

“As far as we’re concerned, there was no debate, no quorum, and the vote occurred after the meeting ended.”

“We fully expect the SRA to reject this illegitimate vote.”