Last week, Canada jumped on the anti-BDS bandwagon, joining France, the United Kingdom and, as recent congressional rumbles become a roar, the United States.
The irony is, the motion to “reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] movement” was not passed under the former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whom Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dubbed “a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people“.
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Instead, it was the recently elected Liberals, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who got snookered by the opposition Conservatives into passing the latter’s motion “to condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organisations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad”.
Those organisations include the United Church of Canada and its two-million members, as well as unions and universities.
Snookered because, as Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion took great pains to outline during the February 19 debate, just about anything to do with Israel is highly divisive in Canada, which voters witnessed last year during the federal election campaign.
“To me, this is further proof that the Conservatives have not learned from their mistakes and are still trying to divide Canadians on issues that should unite them,” argued Dion in the House at the start of the debate that lasted the better part of the day.
He was followed, one by one, by Liberal MP after Conservative MP, all declaring their support for Israel, their revulsion of anti-Semitism, their denunciations of Hamas as a terrorist group.
When they spoke of 'collective punishment', it was merely to describe how BDS affects Israelis and not how Israel demolishes Palestinian homes.
But, in their more than 55,000 word-debate, there were two scant mentions of illegal settlements – and only to point out how nobody boycotts Turkey for its occupation of northern Cyprus, or Morocco for its takeover of the West Sahara.
When they spoke of “collective punishment”, it was merely to describe how BDS affects Israelis and not how Israel demolishes Palestinian homes. As for UN Resolution 194, which governs the Palestinian right of return and is one of the main aims of the BDS movement, it never came up – although it is plainly stated on the government’s Global Affairs website that Canada supports the resolution.
After his long and convoluted soliloquy on the merits of profitable relations with Israel, Dion concluded, with seeming regret: “We do not need fewer ties between Canada and Israel; on the contrary, we need more. We must implement the Canada-Israel free trade agreement in order to reduce technical barriers, enhance cooperation, increase transparency in regulatory matters, and reduce transaction costs for businesses. That is the way forward. We must oppose anything that stands in the way of stronger ties between Canada and Israel.”
Motion had to pass
And so, said Dion – who was conveniently in Berlin during the vote on February 22 – the motion had to pass.
Among the abstentions and/or absentees were the leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May, and 43 Liberals, including 10 Muslim Liberal MPs. Three Liberal MPs voted against the motion.
As one MP would later explain, his motivation was not support, or the lack of it, for Israel. Instead, his concerns were over freedom of speech.
Throughout, it was left mostly to the third and fourth place parties, the New Democrats (NDP) and the Bloc Quebecois, to vote against the motion.
They did so by reminding Trudeau that it was his father, the late Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who, in 1982, bequeathed to Canada its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of conscience, thought, belief and expression.
“The issue here is not about defining Israel and Palestine, which is a good debate that we should have, and we need that debate within the House,” exclaimed longtime NDP MP Charlie Angus.
“The question that has been put here is about the condemnation of individuals and organisations, including church people, teachers, and all manner of people. Whether the member agrees with them or not, it is the role of parliamentarians to stand up for individual rights. I am absolutely shocked that the member would stand with the Conservatives on a motion that specifically calls upon us to condemn individuals for their right to dissent.”
However, being condemned is one thing. Being outlawed is another. Canadians, so far anyway, still have the right to say what they like about the policies of the state of Israel, and they can also buy, or not buy, its products. Canada’s Charter would make it unconstitutional for any government motion to go any further than what was passed last week.
Pushing the envelope
That’s probably why the human rights organisation, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), is not only mockingly pushing the envelope on promoting BDS, it’s also pushing sticky notes to slap on offending products on store shelves.
What’s more, on the very same day that Parliament voted to condemn organisations that promote BDS, the student society at Canada’s prestigious McGill University voted 512-357 to support BDS. However, the vote was nullified over the weekend during the online ratification process.
According to Diana Buttu, a Canadian-born Arab Israeli and former adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told the Globe and Mail, “Canada follows international law and correctly labels Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank as illegal … Yet, the government passes a resolution condemning those who aim to uphold international law and Canadian foreign policy? It’s nuts.”
Perhaps not so nuts. The motion “to condemn” can pass constitutional muster. Meanwhile, Canadians – at least those already reluctant to speak out against Israel for fear of being labelled anti-Semitic – will be intimidated into total silence now.
Talk about chilling.
Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.