Canadians and the International Boycott Movement

Protesters demonstrate outside an Indigo/Chapters bookstore in Montreal, Febuary 2007. (John Bonnar)

We in Canada have our own AIPAC’s, devoted Zionists in bed with our government, and the Christian Right. However, we also have many Palestine solidarity and Arab organizations, as well as grass roots civil groups that have flowered here over the years, and take a dynamic, public position on the occupation, the right of return, the human rights abuses that Palestinians are subjected to, and have wholly embraced the movement to Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel. We consider it our mandate to educate the Canadian public on these issues and as well, on our government’s untenable and right wing policies towards the Middle East.

The Canadian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign was officially launched in October 2006 at the BDS Conference in Canada, organized by the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid of Toronto. It was attended by hundreds of people from all parts of Canada. Keynote speakers were Salim Vally of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in South Africa and Jamal Juma’ of the Stop the Wall Campaign in Palestine. Participants came from many sectors of civil society: university, faith-based communities, anti-poverty groups, unions, solidarity and human rights organizations, and activist for justice and peace in Palestine. After the conference, a CAIA branch was established in Montreal.

In the week of February 12th - 17th, 2007, hundreds of Canadians across the country took part in the third annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) continuing a tradition that began in Toronto, Canada two years ago, organized by Students Against Israeli Apartheid. The IAW is a week-long series of events held concurrently across various North American and European campuses, and included lectures, cultural events, film screenings and demonstrations. The cities involved this year were New York, London, Oxford, Cambridge, and in Canada, the cities of Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Hamilton.

The aim of the annual Israeli Apartheid Week, is twofold: to push forward the analysis of Israel as an apartheid state and to bolster support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign in accordance with the demands outlined in the July 2005 Statement signed by 171 Palestinian organizations: full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, an end to the occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza, and the implementation of the right of return and compensation for Palestinian refugees pursuant to UN resolution 194.

Toronto demonstration in support of Palestinian. (John Bonnar)

Canadian activists have a special imperative to inform Canadian citizens of the ways in which the Canada government actively participates in Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people. Canada was the first country to institute the boycott of the newly elected Hamas government, which has maintained the economic stranglehold on the Palestinian people. Canada also has many commercial and military agreements with Israel. As well, Canadian Zionist organizations act as lobby groups and maintain a strict McCarthy like vigilance over the public discourse about Israel and Palestine, using as weapons intimidation, threats and accusations of ‘Antisemitism’.

According to the keynote speaker of the week, Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) Dr. Jamal Zahalka, “Israel is implementing apartheid policies in Palestine by building the apartheid separation wall, bypass roads for Jews only in the West Bank, restrictions on movement of Palestinians, hundreds of checkpoints, in addition to the siege and daily violation of basic human rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.”

He added, “At the same time, Palestinian citizens of Israel are second degree citizens that suffer systematic discrimination in all aspects of their lives.” He characterizes the core of the illegal Zionist ethnic cleansing project and so-called Israeli “Democracy” as maximum land with minimum Arabs. As well, Dr. Zahalka, made clear that Israel’s policies were self-destructive, laying the seeds of its eventual demise. He spoke in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

“The analysis of Israel as an apartheid State is spreading as people realize that this analysis reflects the actual reality of what is happening in Palestine, and not some slanderous gimmick employed to catch attention,” explains Ghadeer Malik, one of the organizers of Israeli Apartheid Week in Toronto.

The fact that Israeli Apartheid Week has spread from Toronto to eight cities spanning three countries and two continents in only two years, attests to the growing global consciousness of Israeli Apartheid. An extremely important aspect of the Israel Apartheid Week is its inclusion of the analysis of present day and past indigenous sovereignty struggles in North America as having many parallels with the Palestinian liberation struggle. This coupling of the two ongoing struggles has built solidarity between Indigenous Canadian and Palestinian organizations.

Protesters gather in downtown Toronto to protest Israeli Apartheid. A Mohawk flag a notable addition to the demonstration. (John Bonnar)

Other speakers at this year’s Israeli Apartheid Week included: Professor Joel Kovel, a Jewish anti-Zionist activist and 1998 US Green Party Senate candidate; Professor Norman Finkelstein, author of Beyond Chutzpa; Sociology Professor Bonita Lawrence of the Mi’kmaw Nation; Professor Walter Lehn, author of The Jewish National Fund; and Palestinian refugee Issam Al-Yamani.

Israeli Apartheid Week culminated in a Day of Action calling for the Boycott of Chapters and Indigo Bookstores as part of the growing international movement of Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israeli Apartheid Divestment, and Sanctions campaign. The boycott was instituted when it was learned that the major shareholders of Chapters and Indigo Bookstores, Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz, a Canadian couple, recently founded an organization called Heseg, which provides scholarships and other support to “lone soldiers”. These soldiers are those who have enlisted and served in the Israel Army of Occupation, and are mainly foreign nationals.

As stated in the literature of Heseg, “lone soldiers come from North America, Brazil, Argentina, Uzbekistan and even Chechnya”. The aim of the boycott is to pressure Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz to cut their financial ties to Heseg. In Montreal and in Toronto there are regular pickets operating at Chapters and Indigo bookstores.

Canadian Labour Unions have also taken steps against Israeli Apartheid. At the annual convention of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario, held 24-27 May 2006 in Ottawa, the union passed a resolution of historic importance. Resolution 50 - adopted unanimously by the 900 delegates at the largest convention in the union’s history - expressed support for the global campaign against Israeli apartheid.

The union stated that it would educate its members on the apartheid nature of the Israeli state and Canadian political and economic support for these practices. It also declared that CUPE Ontario would participate in the international campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until the realization of Palestinian self-determination. Most importantly, the union highlighted the significance of the right of return of Palestinian refugees as a critical component of Palestinian self-determination.

Resolution 50 is a vital step for both Palestinian rights and the North American labor movement. CUPE Ontario is the largest public sector union in Ontario and represents over 200,000 workers in the most highly populated province of Canada. The resolution represents the most powerful statement in support of Palestinian rights ever made by a North American trade union. And is but one in a growing global movement to isolate the Israeli state as was done with apartheid South African.

On February 9th, 2006, citizens of Montreal marked the 6th anniversary of a vigil held every Friday in front of the Israel Consulate. Not one Friday in all 6 years has been missed, rain or shine, snow or stifling heat.

At the present time, the organizations are mobilizing to plan for a large participation of citizens in the June 9th Day, the 40th anniversary of the Occupation, across Canada.

Freda Guttman is a Montreal based artist and activist. Freda is active with the International Solidarity Movement and the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, CAIA. This article was originally written for the International Middle East Media Center [IMEMC] in Occupied Palestine.