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Under Trudeau, Canada’s support for Israel still unwavering

By: | March 18, 2016

A recent vote in Parliament to condemn support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel reveals Canada’s new Liberal government is fundamentally aligned with Stephen Harper and the Tories on Israel and Palestine, say critics.

In the summer of 2014 Israel launched a military offensive on Gaza, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Israel's actions elicited outcry from the international community and prompted demonstrations worldwide to condemn the killing. On July 24 residents of St. John's gathered for a Gaza Peace Rally (pictured above). Photo by Justin Brake.

St. John’s East MP Nick Whalen turned some heads recently after being one of only three members of the Liberal government to vote against a Conservative motion calling for the condemnation of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

After the Feb. 22 vote he took to Twitter and justified his decision by arguing he is “opposed [to] quelling forms of non-violent protest and free speech.”

On the issue of Israel and Palestine, however, Whalen was clear: “I support the pro-Israel part of the motion,” the lawyer-turned-politician said.

“I campaign against BDS — but protect right to debate it.”

The motion claims the BDS movement “promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel” and asks the government to “condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad.”

BDS was initiated in 2005 by a coalition of groups within Palestine. It promotes the use of non-violent measures to pressure Israel into “ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and…respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194,” according to the BDS Movement for Freedom, Justice and Equality website.

On Feb. 18 Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion expressed the Liberal Party’s “reservations about [the motion's] form and about the Conservative Party’s real intentions,” but ultimately said the Liberals would support it “because we agree with the substance of it.”

Memorial University political science professor Kelly Blidook says the motion, which passed with a 229-51 vote, was divisive by virtue of its “absolutist” wording, and that it’s a “common ploy” for political parties to devise motions that “sound good [and] can be promoted, but that necessarily require really taking a certain side…on issues that are challenging.”

St. John's East MP Nick Whalen. Parliament of Canada.

St. John’s East MP Nick Whalen. Parliament of Canada.

While much of the media’s attention following the vote focused on the few Liberals who did not support the motion and the eight Liberal MPs who are Muslim and did not vote, human rights activists and other observers argue the Trudeau Liberals’ support for the motion indicates that while the new government is in some ways separating itself from its predecessor on Israel and Palestine, its approach to the major foreign policy issue is fundamentally not that different than that of the Harper Conservatives, who made Canada one of only a few countries in the world to offer unequivocal support for Israel’s right-wing government under Benjamin Netanyahu and his settler-colonial agenda.

Tom Beckett, a St. John’s resident and member of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), praised the three Liberals who joined the NDP and Bloc Quebecois in opposing the motion on the grounds of protecting free speech, but said that the Liberal majority vote in favour of the motion is evidence representatives in the new government “still have their blinkers on, and it’s Israel, right or wrong.

“In Canada we don’t condemn people from the government pulpit [over] what they’re talking about,” he said. “We condemn them if they pick up guns or stones — but you’re allowed to have your ideas.”

South Africa to Palestine

The BDS movement, which models its tactics after those used to end Apartheid in South Africa, is gaining support worldwide.

It has named a number of companies that are profiting from Israel’s expansion of settlements in the occupied territories and facilitating Israel’s regime of “apartheid, colonization and occupation.”

Last week Israeli cosmetics company Ahava indicated it was moving its plant out of the occupied West Bank and inside Israel’s state borders, while G4S, the world’s largest security firm, announced it was ending its operations in Israel, both decisions BDS organizers claim were due to pressure from their campaign.

The latest corporate withdraws from Israel follow French infrastructure corporation Veolia’s decision last year to sell off all its assets in the country after years of coordinated pressure from the BDS movement and the United Nations (U.N.).

Both the U.N. Security Council and U.N. Human Rights Council have repeatedly passed resolutions condemning Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and the government’s treatment of Palestinians. Last year a report from the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development said “if present trends continue” the Gaza Strip could become “unliveable by 2020”. 

Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza, coupled with multiple military conflicts in recent years between Israeli forces and Hamas, have killed thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands, and left most people and families living in the strip entrenched in poverty.

In 2014 Israel launched a military offensive that killed around 2,200 Palestinians, mostly civilians—including an estimated 550 children and 300 women—and injured another 11,000. After the 50-day conflict an Israeli veterans group released a report based on the testimonies of 60 Israeli soldiers concluding that the large Palestinian death toll was the result of a policy of indiscriminate fire coming “from the top of the chain of command.”

Toward the end of Israel’s assault on Gaza Israeli Defense Forces bombed six U.N. schools where Palestinians had sought refuge after being displaced from their homes. Hundreds were injured and at least 47 were killed, prompting outcry from the international community. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon denounced the attacks, calling them a “moral outrage” and a “criminal act”

During the conflict 66 Israeli soldiers were killed, and six Israeli civilians.

A “new form of anti-Semitism”?

While boycott, divestment and sanction tactics employed throughout the 1970s and ‘80s worked to help liberate black South Africans, some, including many Canadian politicians, argue BDS is different in the context of Israel.

On Feb. 18 Anthony Housefather, a Jewish Liberal MP for the Montreal riding of Mount Royal, explained to his fellow parliamentarians why he feels BDS represents a “new form of anti-Semitism”. 

BDS “stigmatizes and vilifies Israel by holding it to a different standard than every other country in the world,” he said during an impassioned speech, adding the movement “misrepresents history,” is “asking for…the disappearance of the State of Israel,” and that it “singles out Israel [and] is not looking at all those other countries in the world that engage in egregious human rights violations.”

Conversely, many, including prominent Jewish thinkers and human rights groups like Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), support BDS and have disputed the anti-Semitism argument.

In an open letter to Justin Trudeau following last month’s BDS vote in parliament, Michelle Weinroth, an IJV member, argued BDS “does not intend to single out Israel. Rather, it demands that she be held accountable, just like other states. Those who grieve that BDS singles out Israel need to ponder Israel’s self-assigned exceptionalism. By acting above the law, she ‘distinguishes’ herself and singles herself out.”

In the letter Weinroth quotes Israeli historian Ilan Pappé from a talk the activist and academic gave last year, during which he addressed the concept of BDS as a form of non-violent protest and the consequent charges of anti-Semitism against BDS supporters.

“If you dread the shame of being falsely accused of anti-Semitism, remember the daily agony of those who live under Israeli occupation, whose houses are demolished before their eyes, whose hospitals and schools are bombed with white phosphorus, whose land is ravaged by Jewish settlements, and whose children, at a tender age, are tortured by Israel’s military,” Pappé said.

BDS advocates widely argue that fighting a government’s human rights abuses does not make a person racist toward the dominant religious or ethnic group of that state, and that while some people who are anti-Semitic might use the BDS movement as an outlet for their hatred, the aim of the movement itself is to liberate Palestinians from violence and oppression by the Israeli government, not to perpetuate the hatred of Jews.

 If you dread the shame of being falsely accused of anti-Semitism, remember the daily agony of those who live under Israeli occupation… — Ilan Pappé

In response to the charges that BDS unfairly singles out Israel, Naomi Klein has written that “boycott is not a dogma; it is a tactic,” and that the “reason the strategy should be tried is practical: in a country so small and trade-dependent, it could actually work.”

Beckett said claims that BDS seeks to achieve the elimination of the State of Israel amount to “misinformation about the aim of the BDS movement…intentionally propagated by those who benefit from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the application of Apartheid-like restrictions against non-Jewish citizens living within Israel proper.

“There is nothing in the [BDS objectives that] demands either a one-state or two-state solution, and nothing [that] promotes violence,” he continued. “There is the requirement for equality of citizenship of all individuals within whatever becomes the new State of Israel.”

Beckett said BDS “is not about religion,” and offered an analogy to explain how the movement is not anti-Semitic.

“If you walk down the street and see three young men beating an elderly lady with sticks, you do not stop to ask the religion of the participants before you intervene. And even if you do learn their religions, you do not allow the three men to return to beating the lady. If you see the elderly lady’s grandson throwing stones at the families of the three men, you again do not ask what their religion is before you seek to stop the throwing of the stones.

“BDS removes the sticks from the hands of the young men and results in the stopping of the throwing of stones,” he said, adding he supports BDS “as a non-violent way for shepherds, children, harvesters of olives, teachers, nurses, doctors, and citizens of all walks of life to overcome the massive military might of the State of Israel.”

Canada’s pro-Israel, settler-colonial bias

In a recent column for the Halifax Media Co-op published before the Feb. 22 vote in parliament, academic and activist Judy Haiven said while Canada’s response to BDS isn’t as extreme as France’s, where last year the French government criminalized support for the movement, if Canadian politicians formally condemn BDS they will further isolate Canada as one of a small number of countries to stand beside Israel as it continues to oppress Palestinians and colonize their land.

“Over the last 50 years, the United Nations has passed more than 77 resolutions which have condemned Israel’s illegal and brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The UN even declared 2014 the ‘International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.’ Just a few months ago, the majority of UN member states voted to upgrade the Palestinian Authority to non-voting but official ‘observer’ status. Those countries which voted against were Israel, the US, Canada, Micronesia and Panama,” Haiven wrote.

“Canada has played a nasty role in its blanket and unwavering support of Israel – to the dismay of more than 150 other nations. Indeed in the last two years, Canada has voted against more than 20 UN General Assembly resolutions that condemn Israel for seizing illegal control over Jerusalem, and for grabbing Palestinian refugees’ property.”

Havien said as a Canadian Jew she is “angry that the new ‘sunny ways’ Liberal government has been held captive” by the Conservatives’ BDS motion, but that Canadians shouldn’t be surprised at the Liberals’ decision to side with the Tories instead of making a statement in support of free speech.

She points to the fact that, just as Hollywood celebrities, in recent years a significant number of Canadian MPs have accepted either discounted or fully-paid trips—junkets—to Israel by pro-Israel lobby groups.

 Canada has played a nasty role in its blanket and unwavering support of Israel – to the dismay of more than 150 other nations. — Judy Haiven

“There are people who have deep pockets who kick in [money] because they want famous people in the United States or Canada, who are either actors or lawyers or politicians or artists, to see what they want to show them about Israel. And as soon as you go on a junket you are compromised,” she told The Independent, explaining that interest groups that host junkets are able to bring influential members of society, including decision-makers, to the region and create a specific perception of the State of Israel, Palestine and the conflict by showing only the parts they want people to see.

“We see political and educational leaders compromised a lot in this country, and that is extremely shocking, because I don’t have the money to send these people tomorrow morning to Palestine, or to send them on a trip where they see Israel and Palestine. I can’t do that,” she said. “Only people with deep pockets, and organizations like the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) in Toronto, which claims to represent the Jewish community, can do that.”

The BDS debate has also been heating up on Canadian university campuses.

In recent years student groups have organized events to coincide with the global Israeli Apartheid Week in an effort to raise awareness and support for BDS.

In a 2014 op-ed for the Toronto Star University of Toronto academic and author Nora Gold claimed Israeli Apartheid Week has a “hidden agenda,” arguing the second and third objectives of the BDS movement “equals the end of Israel as a Jewish state.”

On Feb. 22, the same day parliament voted on the BDS motion, students at McGill voted to support the movement and request that McGill divest its holdings in “companies profiting from violations of Palestinian human rights.”

The vote followed two previous attempts in 2014 and 2015 to pass similar motions. A week later, amid claims by BDS organizers at the Montreal university that students, professors and groups contravened rules prohibiting campaigning during ratification processes, the motion failed to generate enough support for ratification.

Still, BDS organizer Melis Çağan told a campus newspaper the McGill BDS Action Network “made history,” and that “as history has shown, real change comes from the people and not from governments.” 

Immediately after the motion failed ratification McGill Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier released a statement condemning the BDS movement, highlighting above all else the university administration’s opposition to support within the movement for academic boycotts of Israeli universities.

The movement “flies in the face of the tolerance and respect we cherish as values fundamental to a university,” she wrote. “It proposes actions that are contrary to the principles of academic freedom, equity, inclusiveness and the exchange of views and ideas in responsible, open discourse.”

According to the BDS movement’s website, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI)—one of the movement’s founding entities—calls for a “comprehensive economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel” because “Israeli academic institutions (mostly state controlled) and the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics have either contributed directly to the Israeli occupation and apartheid or at the very least have been complicit through their silence. Still, the PACBI-inspired calls for boycott consistently target institutions, not individuals, steering clearly away from political tests or other McCarthyist measures.”

Responding to Fortier’s statement, dozens of McGill faculty members published an open letter titled “Not in our name” calling Fortier out for “echo[ing] the disappointing and ill-informed motion passed by the Canadian Parliament in condemning the growing BDS movement.

“[T]he McGill administration, like the Canadian government, is on the wrong side of history. The Canadian Parliament’s motion on BDS does not act in our name. As McGill professors, we also declare now and will continue to state that if this is the McGill administration’s response to the BDS movement, it also does not act in our name.

“[W]hether or not one supports BDS, we commend the McGill students who voted in favour of BDS for standing up against repression in the face of increasing attempts by governments and other organisations to spread vilifying misinformation about the movement. Any statement about academic freedom in the context of Israel-Palestine must absolutely take into account that academic freedom is blatantly violated for Palestinian faculty and students every day.”

 We commend the McGill students who voted in favour of BDS for standing up against repression in the face of increasing attempts by governments and other organisations to spread vilifying misinformation about the movement. — McGill faculty members

During last year’s attempt by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), and in the lead-up to the Feb. 22 vote, McGill alumni now serving in the federal Liberal government, including Whalen, waded into the debate.

Last May Trudeau tweeted: “The BDS movement, like Israel Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses. As a @McGillU alum, I’m disappointed. #EnoughIsEnough”.

Housefather, on the morning of the dual Feb. 22 parliament and McGill votes, joined the anti-BDS campaign at McGill on Twitter: “To students @McGillU. Please vote NO to BDS on Monday!”

The previous week, on Feb. 17, Whalen tweeted at McGill students too. “Hey future fellow @McGillU alumni, please vote NO on BDS”.

Blidook said given the divisive nature of the Feb. 22 motion in parliament he thinks “most MPs would prefer not to talk about it — they’d prefer there wasn’t a media cycle about this.”

An interview request and several follow-ups were made with Whalen’s office over the course of a week, but each time The Independent spoke with one of his assistants, Whalen was “in meetings all day,” too busy to talk otherwise. Finally, after several attempts to speak with Whalen, the MP’s parliamentary assistant Noah Davis-Power said, “You can just put ‘declined comment.’”

Blidook said there’s politically “very little for [Whalen] to gain from going down [the] road” of having to explain choosing between opposing BDS and supporting free speech.

While Canada’s own official position on Israel and Palestine states the government “does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967,” including the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and that the settlements in the occupied territories violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, the federal government’s rhetoric and diplomacy on the occupation are much less impartial, BDS supporters like Beckett and Haiven argue.

In January Israel’s defense ministry announced the government was planning to seize more land in the West Bank, a move that prompted condemnation from the U.N. and even the United States, another of Israel’s loyal allies.

Three days after the news broke Canada’s Department of Global Affairs released a statement from Dion that did not mention the most recent effort by Israel to annex Palestinian land but commented broadly that “continued Israeli settlements…are unhelpful and constitute serious obstacles to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.”

Dion also took the opportunity to reiterate Canada’s relationship with Israel as a “steadfast ally and friend”. 

Some have posited the Canadian government’s refusal to openly discuss Israel and Palestine in the context of settler-colonialism has to do with the inherent hypocrisy of such a position, given Canada’s own ongoing settler-colonization of Indigenous lands.

Turning point?

While to many Feb. 22 marked another day of status-quo uncritical political support in Ottawa for Israel, Haiven said the coinciding vote at McGill was “very significant” in that it revealed the pro-Israel lobby “is not as strong as it once was there, and they’re no longer holding McGill University hostage.

“[McGill] was a bastion for Jewish students for CIJA, for the pro-Israel lobby, and it fell away because students decided they would do the reading and the writing and they would understand what was really happening, and they could see that what Israel says is happening is not happening,” she continued, saying the McGill vote has “broken the ground” in Canada.

“There isn’t another university, I don’t think, where this has happened successfully.”

Beckett said in light of Fortier’s position on BDS and her efforts to suppress the movement within her own institution, if the principles of BDS are to be taken to their ends then “funding for McGill should be transferred to other institutions; faculty and staff should consider…whether they should move to a progressive institution; students should question the principles of McGill in selecting a university for higher learning. Now is the time to apply the BDS principles to McGill University.”

On July 24, 2014 hundreds of people joined the Gaza Peace Rally at Harbourside Park and marched through the streets of St. John's to condemn Israel's Operation Protective Edge military assault on Gaza. By the end of the 50-day conflict an estimated 550 women and 300 children had been killed. File photo.

On July 24, 2014 hundreds of people attended the Gaza Peace Rally at Harbourside Park and marched through the streets of St. John’s to condemn Israel’s military assault on Palestinians in Gaza. By the end of the 50-day conflict an estimated 550 women and 300 children had been killed. File photo.

As for the Canadian government, Beckett said its opposition to BDS and last month’s anti-BDS vote has opened up the conversation about Canada’s relationship with Israel and the BDS movement’s objectives as a human rights movement.

“In really meaningful terms, being condemned for supporting or talking about, or assisting, BDS by the Parliament of Canada is kind of meaningless,” he said. “I can continue to talk about it. But I think it really does open the door for people to examine the BDS concept. For example, why would you go out and buy shares in Caterpillar, who are making tons of money through the building of illegal settlements?

“There are a number of companies that are quite complicit in helping Israel,” he said, naming real estate company Re/Max for its profiting from “selling houses in the settlements for the illegal settlers.

“If you want to take the boycott to the final thoughts of it, then we should be boycotting Re/Max here.”

Beckett said if Canada had a less biased government that was sympathetic to the human rights abuses being perpetrated against Palestinians, one of the first things it would do is “put Israel on the list of countries [Canada] is forbidden to sell military or military-grade equipment to.

“The Government of Canada could ensure that their own procurement program is not buying Caterpillars, and that they’re not using Re/Max to sell government properties. That kind of thing. It’s very possible for them to do it within the construct of the current government regulations.”

If the Trudeau government won’t move Canada to a more objective position on Israel and Palestine, students and activists seem ready to do the work themselves.

CJPME recently launched a campaign offering free ‘Boycott Israel’ sticky notes to those willing to post them on Israel-made goods being sold at Canadian stores.

The notes read: “WARNING! DO NOT BUY THIS PRODUCT. Made in Israel: A country violating international law, the 4th Geneva Convention, and fundamental human rights. STAND UP FOR HUMAN RIGHTS. Boycott Israel until it respects international law. http://bdsmovement.net  #BDS.”

According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the notes were recently affixed to products in a Calgary grocery store, including Pampers diapers, manufactured by Proctor & Gamble, “one of the largest clients of an Israeli company that supplies diaper products; on Coffee-mate, made by Nestlé, which has a large business footprint in Israel; and McCafé coffee by McDonald’s, which BDS activists say has partnered with U.S. Jewish groups to promote trips to Israel.”

In November the European Union announced it would begin requiring Israel to label all export goods manufactured in the occupied territories to identify their place of origin.

The BDS movement is “totally non-violent,” said Haiven. “It’s not saying we’re going to send in troops and kill Israelis. It’s saying we don’t want to make investments in and we don’t want to support a regime that is oppressive.”

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