Letter to the Editor: What’s Really Going on with POLI 339?

Photo by Creative Commons.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Bull & Bear.

The recent controversy surrounding POLI 339 centers on the decision made by the AUS Executive, who overturned the initial Council vote on the course. I believe that the debate over the legitimacy of the Executive’s decision is valid, and at first glance, it appears undeniable that the AUS Executive wrongly chose to override the democratic will of Council in an untransparent and undemocratic way. However, the issue goes much deeper than at first glance – beginning with the initial Council decision.

On January 30, 2019, a vote was held at AUS Council on whether the $1000 fee for a McGill summer course in Israel, POLI 339, was reasonable. The motion immediately followed a motion to approve a $3000 fee for a similar course in Italy, which was supported by such a clear margin that votes were not even tallied.

However, the issue goes much deeper than at first glance – beginning with the initial Council decision.

The fee for POLI 339 would not be paid by AUS or McGill, but only by the students choosing to take the course. The location of this course was relevant only for determining whether the fee amount is a fair price to ask for part of the cost of travelling to and living in that location. The question that AUS Council members were asked was essentially: Do you believe that $1000, with all other costs covered, is a reasonable fee for students to choose to pay in order to travel to the Middle East and take a three-week long, three-credit class?

On January 30, 14 members of AUS Council voted against approving that fee amount. Strangely, a majority of those 14 councilors voted in favour of the fee for the course in Italy, even though it was three times more expensive. Both motions were procedurally identical, and both motions only had one legitimate reason for being rejected – due to the fee being an unreasonable sum. During the discussion prior to the vote on the POLI 339 fee, there was alarmingly not one single argument made for why the fee might be unreasonable.

This contradiction in voting behaviour demonstrates that the POLI 339 vote was disingenuously used as a way to further the political aims of a vocal group of students at the cost of an academic opportunity. On January 30, 14 AUS councilors misused their positions on AUS Council, and voted based on their own political biases – not based on the interests of the majority of their constituents. They manipulated a procedural vote that asked purely whether a class fee was reasonable, using it as a means to prevent the offering of a course that they personally opposed.

Unfortunately, the minutes from the Council meeting have not yet been approved, and are thus not yet publicly available. When they are made publicly available, I urge all McGill students to read through them, as they will validate the facts stated above. Furthermore, I encourage you to read McGill Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) McGill’s statement made on January 31 regarding the AUS Council decision, as it clearly demonstrates the political motive behind the Council decision. For reference, SPHR was the organization that kicked off the controversy with their initial Facebook post.

This contradiction in voting behaviour demonstrates that the POLI 339 vote was disingenuously used as a way to further the political aims of a vocal group of students at the cost of an academic opportunity.

After the AUS Executive’s decision to overturn the outcome of the vote at AUS Council, many of the same students who orchestrated and were complicit in the flawed initial vote at Council decried the undemocratic and untransparent nature of that decision. To be quite honest, I think they have a good point. What I do question, however, is whether those concerns were at the earlier Council meeting, when that same group of students not only undemocratically manipulated a procedural vote but did so through a secret ballot so that they could not be held accountable for their actions.

Wherever students stand in terms of the complex issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I would hope that all McGill students can unite in calling out corruption and abuse within our student politics. Furthermore, I would urge students criticizing the lack of transparency and accountability at the AUS Executive level to emphasize those values at all times, not only when it is expedient for one’s political agenda.

To conclude, I want to pre-emptively address some criticism that will likely be levelled against this article, and that was brought up at the AUS Council meeting. First, it is patently untrue that certain students would be barred from entering Israel on the basis of their nationality. That can be verified through a quick google search. A further concern was that certain McGill students would be barred from taking the course due to their anti-Israel activities, such as the case of Lara Alqasem. That is an understandable concern — I was very dismayed by the initial Israeli decision to ban Lara Alqasem, and was glad that the Israeli Supreme Court subsequently decided to overturn that ban. That being said, if we are using the fact that a certain subset of students may be rejected from another country to disqualify that country as a potential place of study for McGill students, we should apply that yardstick equally instead of holding Israel to a double standard. Unfortunately, that has not been the case; consider the fact that there was no controversy whatsoever over GEOG 425, which will be held this summer in Singapore and Malaysia – the latter a country that bars Israeli citizens from entry. In addition, under that criteria, McGill ought not to allow any students to study in the United States, given that currently students from Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia are subject to a travel ban.

With that understanding, I encourage the students who have become embroiled in the fight against POLI 339 who truly do seek to follow an anti-oppressive ideology to read through the definition of anti-Semitism that has been passed by SSMU and the Canadian government, paying particular attention to the clause on holding the state of Israel to a double standard.

Two wrongs don’t make a right, and I do not seek to condone the AUS Executive’s decision to overturn the initial Council vote. What I do ask, however, is that calls for accountability, transparency, and democracy are levelled equally, instead of being used in pursuit of a specific political agenda. That, in a nutshell, is what is really going on with POLI 339. It is the continuation of attempts by a group of students to impose their political beliefs on the general student body, this time at the cost of an academic opportunity. Are we not tired of this yet?

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