Ontario lawmakers vote to smear BDS movement

Human rights defenders say Ontario’s latest anti-BDS measure is an attack on free speech rights in Canada. (Tony Webster)

Canadian human rights defenders are condemning a motion adopted by the Ontario legislature on Thursday that tars the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as racist.

Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) said it was “deeply concerned and disturbed” that the motion had been approved.

IJV had urged lawmakers to oppose the motion.

“It is outrageous for our elected representatives to publicly chastise human rights supporters, and falsely accuse them of hatred and bigotry for standing in solidarity with the victims of Israeli state violence and oppression,” IJV spokesperson Tyler Levitan said.

“The so-called debate in the Ontario legislature was little more than a slurry of lies and defamation against Palestinian human rights advocates,” Levitan added.

“It is defamatory to suggest that those advocating for human rights through nonviolent actions stand for hatred,” Atif Kubursi, of the Canadian Arab Federation, told media.

The non-binding measure describes BDS as a movement that encourages “hatred, hostility, prejudice, racism and intolerance” and promotes “the differential treatment of Israel.”

With the support of lawmakers from the provincial Liberal government and the right-wing opposition Progressive Conservatives, the motion passed by 49-5. Only the center-left New Democratic Party (NDP) voted against it. About half of all lawmakers did not take part in the vote.

By backing the motion, lawmakers ignored the advice of the Ontario Civil Liberties Association.

“We are not asking you to support BDS,” the group said in a letter to lawmakers on the eve of the vote. “We ask you to recognize, protect and advance the right of individual Ontarians to choose for themselves which social movements they will endorse, including BDS.”

Right to criticize

Introducing the measure in Thursday’s debate, Progressive Conservative lawmaker Gila Martow likened Palestinians and their allies struggling against Israel’s military occupation, settler-colonialism and systematic discrimination to white supremacists.

“We would not be here supporting a Ku Klux Klan on our campuses, so why are we allowing BDS movements and other anti-Jewish communities and anti-Israel organizations to have demonstrations and use our campuses, which are taxpayer-funded?” Martow said.

“New Democrats absolutely stand firmly opposed to any movement which encourages hate, prejudice, racism or intolerance in any way,” NDP deputy leader Jagmeet Singh responded.

“In our focus, we can’t be distracted by conflating criticisms of a government or criticisms of a government’s policies with anti-Semitism,” Singh added.

“People around the world and here in Canada have a right to dissent and to criticize,” Singh said, drawing an analogy with those criticizing Canada’s own atrocious human rights record, namely its “deplorable treatment of the indigenous community.”

“From direct genocides to a cultural genocide based on residential schools, the ongoing systemic discrimination of indigenous people and their deplorable conditions – people would be fully justified to raise a concern about the treatment of indigenous people,” Singh stated. “But it would absolutely not permit people to incite hatred against Canadians.”

Singh said that “peaceful demonstrations, discussions, debate, discourse, whether we agree with them or not, if they are expressed towards the criticism of a government or its policies, are absolutely, within our democracy.”

Union opposition

Rajean Hoilett, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, a union with 350,000 members in the country’s most populous province, said the motion “is quite obviously an attempt to silence activists, many of which are students.”

Hoilett vowed that students would not be deterred from advocating for Palestinian rights on campus.

Earlier, CUPE Ontario, a branch of the national public employees’ union representing 260,000 workers in the province, had also urged lawmakers to reject the motion as a violation of “the freedom of expression protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Dozens of other groups have urged the Ontario government to reject efforts to defame and condemn Canadians working in solidarity with Palestinians.

Abusing claims of anti-Semitism

Much criticism of the anti-BDS motion has centered on its conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Independent Jewish Voices said it was disturbed by “this defamatory motion’s endorsement of the Ottawa Protocol on Combating Anti-Semitism.”

“This protocol uses a widely discredited definition of anti-Semitism rejected by the European Union, which conflates opposition to political Zionism with anti-Semitism,” IJV stated. “This is an affront to those who have suffered under real anti-Semitism, and openly discriminates against Palestinian residents of Ontario who have been displaced and dispossessed as a result of political Zionism.”

“Putting all Jews into one basket that is represented by Israel is not only racist, it is also ignorant of Jewish history and Jewish tradition, which embrace and take pride in political and ideological diversity among Jewish communities around the world, including in Ontario,” the Israeli pro-BDS group Boycott from Within wrote in a letter to Ontario lawmakers.

“Canada has a history of structural and cultural violence, most blatantly manifest in racism and discrimination against many groups,” the Canadian Friends Service Committee noted in reaction to the vote. “This has certainly included a long and shameful tradition of anti-Semitism.”

The Quaker group recalled Canada’s refusal to accept more than a handful of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Europe and the existence for decades of “restrictive covenants” prohibiting the sale of property to Jews, Black people and others.

“For this reason it is deeply troubling when we see extremely important and powerful words like ‘anti-Semitism’ being compromised through misuse to promote a political agenda,” the Canadian Friends Service Committee stated.

The group accused the Ontario government of “taking the path laid out for it by lobbyists seeking to silence legitimate nonviolent protest.”

No change in law

The motion is a flexing of political muscle by the Israel lobby groups that promoted it, in particular the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which was praised by several lawmakers during the debate.

It is also part of a wave of anti-Palestinian measures being promoted around the world by Israel and its lobby groups.

But it does not actually change the law in Ontario, unlike an anti-BDS bill introduced in May that would have created a government blacklist of supporters of Palestinian rights.

That bill was soundly rejected by the Ontario legislature, prompting Israel lobby groups to return with this week’s non-binding motion.

On Wednesday, Independent Jewish Voices spokesperson Tyler Levitan told The Electronic Intifada that even if the motion passed this week, “the victory in defeating the anti-BDS bill in May would still stand.”

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Many Western democracies now equate money with free speech, i.e. you can donate as much money as you wish to the political cause or candidate of your choice. You may spend your money as you wish. The flip side of that must be you are free NOT to spend your money as you wish, and that you are as free to declare what you do not wish to spend your money on as you are to declare what you are spending your money on. BDS is a free speech issue, and must have co-equal status with any other political activity.

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