Why student politics and the Middle East don't mix

When any decision you make is bound to be seen as a political statement, what's the point?

I don’t have a list of 10 Commandments for student politicians. But if I did, I’m pretty sure one would be this:

Thou shall not make any political judgments, implied or otherwise, on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Why? What do you gain by putting yourself in the middle of any conflict that does nothing to directly harm or benefit your student union, and will inevitably annoy half the people involved? At any university, there is a large pro-Israeli group and a large pro-Palestine group, both of whom go about their regular advocacy business, but with whom tensions can become inflamed in the blink of an eye. And such a thing has happened at UBC with their student union, the Alma Mater Society (AMS).

As you can imagine, the AMS decision to withhold a $700 donation by a student group for an aid flotilla to Gaza for council approval was the equivalent of skipping the whole match-and-gasoline charade and just going straight to the fire. Student councillors have been inundated with angry letters. Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), the group that was to give the donation, President Omar Shaban was escorted by security out of AMS president Bijan Ahmadian’s office when he came to ask for minutes of the meeting where the decision to withhold funds was made. Even UBC President Stephen Toope has weighed in, with a letter that obliquely refers to the current dust-up.

So how did we get here?

– It’s mandated that $1.50 per student be given to the AMS Resource Groups, a hodgepodge of associations that advocate for various social causes. Though technically a branch of the AMS, all the students’ union does is set the yearly budget for each resource group during the summer, and then allow them to be autonomous.

– In this case, the Social Justice Centre (total budget: $9,741) decided to give a $700 donation to the SPHR, who wanted to put the money towards a humanitarian aid flotilla bound for Gaza—leaving in Spring 2011. The money came out of the $4,000 line item in the SJC budget for “grants,” and all that was left to do was to have the VP Finance sign off on the cheque. In most cases, a fait accompli.

– Members of the Israeli Awareness Club complained to the VP Finance that allowing student money to go towards a Gaza flotilla was a foolish thing.

All going as you would expect student politics to go. Here’s where it gets tricky.

The VP Finance consulted with Ahmadian, the AMS President, along with other members of the executive, and it was decided to let student council decide whether they would get the money. Why? Well, at first it was claimed that it was due to the “controversial nature” of the donation. Then, it was argued by Ahmadian that it was due to the SJC not holding a proper AGM, and so was purely an administrative decision.

Except that having council approve funding decisions of its subsidiaries (which include the resource groups and clubs) is incredibly rare. And donations to Palestinian refugees is a wee bit of an international issue. Which meant that the decision, regardless of whether it was meant to be political or not, was always going to be seen as such

What’s next? Well, expect more virulent criticism of president Ahmadian and Shaban—who has gotten targeted online this week based on his incendiary past statements against Canada—on personal/political grounds, a council meeting scheduled for this week that has all the makings of a Tea Party town hall (there’s a chance it will move to one of the largest lecture halls on campus), and plenty of hurt feelings. It may make for a good story, but it makes for a more polarized community.

There are enough reasons for pro-Palestine and Israel groups on campuses to butt heads without getting student governments (or university administrations, for that matter) involved. And if anything good comes out of this, it will be that student leaders across Canada may think twice before wading into a debate they don’t need to be part of.

Related: We need to stop talking about Israel and Palestine so much

Update: Students to finance aid flotilla to Palestine

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