Some blame outsiders for spread of pro-Palestinian encampments. The idea isn’t new, say students and experts

Pro-Palestinian protests continue to grow on campuses across North America, with encampments at 15 Canadian universities set up to date.

But the demonstrations have also attracted scrutiny, with some critics raising questions about who is supporting these groups and pointing to “outside agitators” and shadowy sources of funding.

For example, speaking in the House of Commons last week, Kevin Vuong, Independent MP for Spadina-Fort York in Toronto, claimed that the University of Toronto (U of T) encampment was a “sham protest” and that the majority of those present were “demonstrators-for-hire,” not students.

In an April 30 interview with As It Happens, Fabrice Labeau, vice-provost of student life and learning at McGill University in Montreal, said the university has “seen the arrival of large numbers of people from outside the McGill community” but did not provide specifics.

LISTEN | McGill administrator defends encampment crackdown:

As It Happens8:32McGill vice-provost defends crackdown on pro-Palestinian encampment

McGill University has asked police for help dismantling a pro-Palestinian protest encampment on the school’s campus. Fabrice Labeau, vice-provost of student life and learning, says the school respects students’ free speech rights, but the encampment is unsafe and ‘must go.’ He spoke to As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

Some have attempted to connect the protests to conspiracies involving billionaire financier George Soros or even Hamas, the militant group that led the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel that Israeli officials say killed an estimated 1,200 people. The subsequent Israeli military campaign in Gaza has claimed the lives of around 35,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials.

Several students whom CBC News interviewed over the past two weeks say the allegations of outside influences are baseless and insulting.

“I’m very appalled by those claims,” said Kalliopé Anvar McCall, a fourth-year U of T student in diaspora studies who took part in the encampment.

She said the comments are part of “deliberate attempts to try to weaponize various terms or various ideas against pro-Palestinian expression to try to silence us …, to tarnish our image.

“I can say with 100 per cent certainty that these [claims] are completely false and unfounded.”

WATCH | U of T students respond to claims of outside influence:

What is divestment?

3 days ago

Duration 6:00

Protesters at universities across Canada and the U.S. are demanding an end to Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza amid a growing humanitarian crisis — and want their schools to divest from companies they say profit from the conflict. But what does the process of that divestment look like?

‘Outside agitator’ claims used to discredit past uprisings

Broadly speaking, the protesters are demanding that their universities disclose their stakes in and divest from investments they say support Israel’s actions against Palestinians, such as weapons manufacturers and the defence industry more generally. 

Some also want to see academic boycotts of Israeli universities that operate in the occupied territories.

Accusations pointing to outside agitators suggest a movement’s demands are manufactured or otherwise illegitimate. Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism at the City University of New York, says this tactic has been used to discredit protests at least as far back as the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

“The idea behind the accusation of an ‘outside agitator’ is, at its heart, the idea that the community that is rising up, the community that is engaging in this organizing, wouldn’t be doing it if not for being spurred on, manipulated, pressured from outside,” he said.

“Over and over again, we see that that’s false.”

A headline from a May 1963 New York Times story reads, "Jackson Says No to Negroes; Mayor Hits 'Outside Agitators.'"
In a May 1963 New York Times article, Jackson, Miss., Mayor Allen Thompson said he would not create a biracial committee in the city because it would be co-opted by ‘racial agitators from outside.’ Historians say such accusations are used to try to delegitimize protest movements. (New York Times)

Unions, alumni, faculty among supporters

CBC News looked at some of the groups organizing encampments at five Canadian universities: U of T, McGill, the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria.

While the majority of the student body at these universities might not be participating in the protests, the encampments appear to be organized and led by students or university-age people who sympathize with the Palestinian cause. Many involve coalitions of grassroots pro-Palestinian organizations and student groups recognized by their respective universities or student unions.

For example, at McGill, where the first Canadian campus encampment was formed, the official student groups Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights McGill and Concordia are supported by the Montreal chapter of the Palestinian Youth Movement.

Some members of the wider university and alumni communities have also pledged their support. For example, more than 4,100 University of Toronto alumni and 2,300 University of British Columbia alumni and workers signed open letters in solidarity with the student encampments at their institutions.

Some university instructors have also weighed in, including the University of Toronto Faculty Association and the Faculty for Palestine at the University of Victoria. Nearly 1,400 academics signed an open letter to censure the University of Calgary and University of Alberta for the use of force when removing the encampments.

Labour unions such as local and provincial chapters of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) have also made public statements of support.

WATCH | What do student protesters mean when they call for divestment?: 

Students at U of T encampment on claims they’re paid to protest

14 minutes ago

Duration 2:13

University of Toronto students say allegations of paid outside influence create a false narrative that seeks to discredit the pro-Palestinian student movement, stressing that some have made personal and professional sacrifices to be there.

‘People are trying to divide us’

Erin Mackey, a spokesperson for U of T Occupy for Palestine, the main organizers of that campus’s encampment, told CBC News that allegations of outside agitators are “absurd.” 

“People are trying to divide us; they’re trying to create false narratives,” said Mackey, who’s in her final year of undergraduate studies in political science and environmental studies.

“We have hundreds of students and faculty and staff who are here at this encampment who have been staying overnight. But there are hundreds of others who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to stay overnight, but they’re helping in other ways.”

A student wearing a keffiyeh holds a sign that reads, "DISCLOSE DIVEST" at a pro-Palestinian university encampment.
Erin Mackey, spokesperson for U of T Occupy for Palestine, says there are hundreds of students and university community members at the Toronto encampment. She says allegations of outside agitators are ‘absurd’ and contribute to ‘false narratives’ about the protests. (Aloysius Wong/CBC)

Alejandro Paz, associate professor of anthropology at U of T, says he has been a regular presence at the encampment and has seen many of his own students there.

“All those allegations that this is ‘outside agitators’ are false, and they’re trying to undermine the efforts of these students,” he said.

Some critics are not convinced, however. Vuong, the MP, amplified rumours recently that the fact that the initial tents set up at U of T — which he said cost $400 each — all looked the same was evidence of an unknown investor.

CBC News visited the encampment and identified the brand of tents and confirmed that they are among the cheapest models at Walmart, costing around $45 each.

Johnston says the cost of the materials needed to organize protests like the ones we’ve seen — mainly tents, megaphones and food — would likely be in the range of a few thousand dollars and not require outside backers.

“We’re talking about … an amount of money that either can come from the students themselves or can readily be raised from just local supporters,” he said.

Protest funding questions

Some of the groups organizing the encampments list the supplies they need that people can donate on their websites or social media accounts. Most request items such as food, beverages, chairs and tents.

Some are also accepting money, either to go toward a legal fund or the purchase of supplies.

Registered clubs and organizations, such as Integrity Not Spite Against Falastin (INSAF) and the Palestinian Students Association at the University of Ottawa, can also receive discretionary funds directly from their university or student union.

PHOTOS | Scenes from the university protests:

Some news outlets, including The Jerusalem Post and the Toronto Sun, have suggested the North American protests are financially supported by organizations with ties to Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist group by Canada, the U.S. and other Western governments.

The allegation that Hamas is involved in financing the protests partly stems from a recent report by the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), which claimed the National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) — one of the main student protest groups on U.S. campuses — received money through donations from “Hamas-linked charities.”

WATCH | Comparing today’s protests to those over the Vietnam War:

Pro-Palestinian students ‘more mild’ in tactics than Vietnam-era protests, says historian

14 minutes ago

Duration 1:15

Angus Johnston, a student activism historian at the City University of New York, says the ‘radical activist tactics’ in the anti-Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s are not present in the pro-Palestinian student movement today.

CBC News has not independently investigated the allegations in the report, but receiving material support from or providing it to Hamas would be a crime in the U.S. and Canada. CBC did not find any public reports of NSJP members being charged in the U.S. or Canada for ties to Hamas.

The RCMP did not immediately answer a CBC News query about whether it has investigated or charged any NSJP members in Canada for Hamas connections.

Earlier this month, the NSJP was named in a civil lawsuit filed by American and Israeli victims of the Oct. 7 attacks, alleging the group’s activism is “aiding and abetting” Hamas. It has yet to file a statement of defence and did not immediately respond to a CBC request for comment.

INSAF flatly denied any suggestion that secret money was being funnelled from Hamas to students, saying that suggestions that anything but solidarity with the Palestinian cause was behind the protests was “simply an attack deeply rooted in anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab rhetoric.”

This map is being periodically updated and may be missing some of the most recent encampments set up or dismantled.

Soros conspiracy theory ‘troubling’

Some media outlets, including the New York Post, the Daily Mail and Politico, have suggested the protests have received financial assistance from organizations related to George Soros, who has been accused by conspiracy theorists of having a hand in everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to the deadly August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.

The rumour has also been levied against protesters at Canadian universities.

The claims about Soros’s involvement reference publicly reported grants from Open Society Foundations (OSF), which was founded by Soros, to organizations such as the Education for Just Peace in the Middle East and Jewish Voice for Peace.

But the grants cited are from 2022.

Snopes, PolitiFact and the Washington Post have independently debunked these claims. Politico issued a long correction after a fact-check from Rolling Stone.

WATCH | Fact-checking student protest rumours:

Fact-checking claims about who’s behind pro-Palestinian student protests

3 days ago

Duration 7:46

Some have claimed that outsiders are backing pro-Palestinian student protests at campuses across the U.S. and Canada. CBC’s Ben Makuch fact-checks those claims to find out what’s really happening.

In a statement to CBC, OSF says it has funded “a broad spectrum of U.S. groups that have advocated for the rights of Palestinians and Israelis” and that its funding is publicly disclosed and “fully compliant with U.S. laws.”

Johnston says the Soros conspiracy theories are strange and “very troubling.”

“The heart of antisemitism is a belief in conspiracies about Jews doing secret, shady things behind the scenes,” he said. “This idea that George Soros, an elderly Holocaust survivor, is the person who is behind this movement … plays on antisemitic tropes.”


Posted in CBC