U of British Columbia student union rejects vote to boot Hillel from campus after Jewish groups sound alarm


((JEWISH REVIEW)) – Student government leaders at the University of British Columbia rejected a ballot measure Wednesday night that would have called for an end to Hillel’s presence on campus, following intense pushback from Vancouver Jewish groups and capping months of discord between the Hillel and its critics in the student body.

According to the student newspaper, the council said the measure was rejected for technical matters and not because of the criticism directed at Hillel amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. The council reportedly rejected the measure because it violated bylaws stating that all referendums be “clear and unambiguous” and that they contain a simple “yes or no” answer.

Known as Referendum 2, the measure would have pushed the university’s Alma Mater Society to “demand where feasible, that the University end Hillel BC’s lease,” in addition to demands that the school end partnerships with Israeli universities; divest from a list of companies that do business in Israel; endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israrl; and compel the university to state that Israel is committing “genocide” in Gaza.

In a statement posted to social media Thursday, Hillel BC said the verdict was “great news.”

“We are grateful that the AMS reached the right result and want to thank everyone who supported Hillel,” the statement read. “We are proud of our brave students and staff for their steadfast advocacy in preventing the erosion of spaces for Jewish community and culture on campus. Our commitment to providing students with a safe and inclusive environment is unwavering.”

BDS resolutions among North American university student governments are relatively rare but have been growing in popularity since the war; students at the University of Virginia held their own vote on the issue this week. But the inclusion of a clause specifically aimed at evicting Hillel, whose chapters support Jewish students on campus with religious services and programming as well as Israel activities, was unusual. 

The referendum triggered immense blowback from local Jewish groups, which issued statements opposing it ahead of the vote. The director of the Hillel also sent out an “action alert” to draw attention to the vote.

“We write to ask you to please reject the recent referendum that poses a significant threat to the inclusivity, diversity, and fairness that define UBC,” the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver wrote in an open letter to the student council which Hillel BC shared on social media Wednesday.

The letter continued, “This a stark reminder of the antisemitism that Jews have faced for centuries as we’ve been driven from, and prohibited from, public spaces, and even forcibly removed from countries themselves.”

An outpost of the Jewish student life organization Hillel International, Hillel BC serves seven campuses in the Vancouver area, of which UBC is the largest. The more than 850 Hillels around the world operate from both on-campus sites and buildings located adjacent to campuses but not owned by the university.

The physical location of its Hillel House is on UBC’s campus, making it a target for students who were motivated by broader anger over the Israel-Hamas war, as well as by two local controversies. The referendum specifically objected to the Hillel having invited a member of the Israeli military to campus, as well as to a November incident during which a contractor affiliated with the Hillel distributed “I [Heart] Hamas” stickers around campus and falsely attributed them to the university’s Social Justice Centre.

Earlier this month, the Social Justice Centre sued the Hillel and its former contractor for defamation over the stickers, saying they were “made with actual malice, knowing it was false, for the improper or ulterior motive of impugning SJC’s reputation.”

At the time of the incident, Hillel BC said it didn’t know its contractor had distributed the “offensive” stickers and that it terminated its relationship with the contractor. Its executive director, Rob Philipp, told the CBC, “This incident has nothing to do with Hillel BC.” 

According to the UBC student newspaper, on Wednesday the student council voted down the anti-Hillel measure 23-2 before it could make it onto a student-wide ballot to be distributed Friday. Referendums can be proposed if a certain percentage of the student body signs onto them, according to the bylaws, but the council still retains the final say on whether to include them on the ballot, according to a statement the student union released Wednesday.