On 17 October, the Canadian government subjected Linda Sobeh Ali, the chargé d’affaires of the Palestinian Authority’s delegation in Ottawa, to what The Globe and Mail described as a “high-level dressing down” (“Palestinian envoy is asked to leave Ottawa after controversial tweet,” 18 October 2011).
Ali’s transgression was her tweeting of a poetic recitation by a young Palestinian girl on YouTube (“Heartbreaking poem of young Palestinian girl,” YouTube). Nationalistic in its rhetoric, the poem invites Palestinians and Arabs to work towards freedom, revolution and the liberation of Palestine.
Canadian government officials, under orders from John Baird, the foreign minister, have deemed this poem offensive. They falsely claim it culminates with a call for “the death of Jews.”
The officials who alerted Baird to the poem relied on an English-subtitled version that mistranslated the final verse from a call to “extinguish the soul of a Zionist” to an invocation “to war that raze the injustice and oppression and destroy the Jews [sic]” (“Feds turf Palestinian rep,” Toronto Sun, 18 October 2011). This was the version tweeted by Ali and subsequently used as pretext for her dismissal from her capacity as representative of the Palestinian Authority in Ottawa.
The incident was set into motion when Baird was notified of the tweet by Shimon Fogel, chief executive officer of the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a lobby organization that actively works towards strengthening the Israel-Canada relationship. Two weeks later, with the aid of Morris Rosenberg, Baird’s deputy minister, the Palestinian representative was brought in for a high-level “sit down.”
Unsatisfied with simply making his own — and by extension the federal government’s — opinions on Ali’s conduct known to her, Baird also involved the Canadian representative in the West Bank, Chris Greenshields, who then notified the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah of its dissatisfaction with Ali’s retweet.
Gleeful reporting in media
In an email sent by Chris Day, a spokesman for Baird, Ali was informed in no uncertain terms that her “serious transgression” has lead the Canadian government to “have taken the decision to limit communication with this official until a replacement is selected.” While the media is adamant to point out that Ottawa did not order Ali’s removal, the email circulated by Day amounted to a discharge, endorsed by the highest level of the Canadian government. Or, as The Ottawa Sun reported, “The federal government is sending the Palestinian representative to Canada packing.”
Linda Sobeh Ali has since shut down her Twitter account and, in response to pressures from the Canadian government, she has resigned and will be heading back to the West Bank or reassigned to a different location. Emotional, apologetic and regretful is how Ali is being represented to Canadians. She is sorry to have retweeted a poem she had not seen nor heard. She has no interest in spreading “hate” and she “regrets” the poem’s “controversial” and political content, she has told the media (“Palestinian envoy apologizes for controversial retweet,” CBC News, 18 October 2011). The Palestinian Authority has asked her to submit her resignation because it has no wish to “offend” Ottawa.
But what exactly is Ali apologetic about? Why doesn’t the PA wish to take a stand against the Canadian government, a government that has repeatedly declared and acted upon its unwavering commitment to the Israeli state even in the face of illegal settlement expansion, continued land expropriation and theft, and mass population removal and displacement?
What part of the poem’s call for Palestinian liberation and struggle against Zionism offends the Canadian government’s sensibilities? Or does this recent attempt merely replicate the strategies used in the US to stifle the expressions of Palestinian children who live under Israeli occupation and experience its transgressions on a daily basis? Does the Ottawa government take issue with the poem’s strong invocations against the settler-colonial project of Zionism? Perhaps this designation of Zionism as a settler-colonial project is too close for comfort for Baird, an important figurehead for the settler colonial state of Canada?
An undignified “recall”
Linda Sobhi Ali’s apology and the PA’s “recall” of its representative embolden the Canadian government’s lie that the poem spreads hate. This affair renders apparent the national and international politics of public shaming and deception being played out against Palestinian representation in Canada and by extension Palestinian Canadians and the Canadian public at large.
It lays bare how the Palestinian struggle against Zionism is being scripted as unjust, hateful, and deserving of state censorship and control. This latest act of surveillance and discipline needs to be understood as a national spectacle of racial, national, political and gendered significations.
Through her apology, Ali is painted as a weak female official, an inept representative of a loathed non-state entity, whose foolishness and recklessness cost her an important job. Relying on the tired gendered stereotypes of the hysterical, emotional and irrational woman, Miranda Stephenson described Ali to CTV as “very emotional, very regretful, [and] in tears at points.”
Compelled to disavow her tweet and distance herself from the political content and message of the poem, a humiliated Ali has said: “I am against hate. I am pro-peace. I’m a person who is advocating for the dialogue between Jews and Palestinians because that is the only way that will lead us to a just, lasting peace” (“Ousted envoy ‘regrets’ anti-Israel ‘retweet’,” Ottawa Citizen, 19 October 2011).
But these apologies, concessions and disavowals are insufficient for a federal government that has proven eager to stifle legitimate critique of Israel, punish Palestinian representation and demonize Palestinians and their allies in Canada. Because, like Shimon Fogel, this government ascribes to the politics of obfuscation and distortion that would have Canadians believe that there is no difference between a poem that calls for a struggle against Zionism and one that spreads anti-Semitism through calling for “a war that … destroy[s] the Jews” (“Palestinian official in Canada apologizes for offensive tweet,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 19 October 2011).
What does this reprimand signify in broader political terms? It displays the Canadian government’s uncritical support for Israel and its allies in Canada. In this political climate, and in accordance with the new and all-encompassing definition of anti-Semitism provided by the federal government and signed by Baird, speaking out against Zionism and Israel is an act of racism (“Canada becomes the first country to sign the Ottawa Protocol,” press release, Citizen and Immigration Canada, 19 September 2011).
Meanwhile, the Canadian public is encouraged to accept a mistranslation for a fact, showcasing, at best, a failure of journalistic integrity, and at worst, a willful act of public deception. Baird has fired a shot warning the Canadian public and the international community at large that this government will not tolerate opposition to Israel in any form. Expect Ali’s reprimand to be one of many pro-Israel performances in the year ahead by Canada’s Conservative government.
Dana Olwan is former National Chair of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights. She resides in Vancouver, British Columbia.