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The BDS movement is not hate speech

Canada should learn from boycott advocates, not prosecute them.

May 18, 2015 2:00AM ET

The Canadian government intends to use hate crime laws against groups that support boycotting Israel, according to recent news reports. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has it exactly wrong: Canada should learn from boycott advocates, not prosecute them.

This new policy, which has been widely derided as a grave violation of free speech, was revealed from an email exchange between a CBC reporter and a spokesperson for Canada’s Public Safety Department. The reporter asked what the federal government’s zero-tolerance policy for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli companies means in practice. The spokesperson replied by citing Canadian hate crime laws and stating, “We will not allow hate crimes to undermine our way of life, which is based on diversity and inclusion.”

The government has since responded by calling the CBC report that made the allegation a “bizarre conspiracy theory.” The email exchange, published in full by the Intercept, proves the CBC’s reporting was accurate. The Canadian government’s actions over the last few years make CBC’s claim seem accurate as well, as the state has shown its willingness to trample over its own purported values in order to maintain an allegiance with Israel. 

Expanded laws

In 2014 the Canadian government expanded hate speech laws to include “national origin” as opposed to just race and religion. Some believe this is an effort to make anti-Zionist BDS activists vulnerable to hate speech charges for standing against Israel, as pro-Israeli groups in Belgium and other states have been actively supporting an expanded conception for this purpose. More than 20 BDS activists in France have been convicted under a similar law.

The government has since doubled down on opposition to BDS. In January, Canada signed a new Memorandum of Understanding with Israel. The Canadian foreign affairs minister, John Baird, announced, “Canada strongly supports Israel’s right to defend itself by itself and its right to live in peace with its neighbours. Canada will fight any efforts internationally to delegitimize the State of Israel, including the disturbing BDS Movement.”

Public safety minister Steven Blaney proudly shared Canada’s allegiance to Israel at the expense of Canadians’ free-speech rights during an address to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly shortly after. Blaney announced Canada’s “zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination including rhetoric towards Israel and attempts to delegitimize Israel such as the BDS movement,” conflating the explicitly peaceful form of economic resistance with a violent attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris earlier this year.

If freedom of expression were truly a Canadian value, the Harper administration would not be seeking to systemically dismantle the BDS movement.

Justin Trudeau, the leader of Canada’s unofficial opposition Liberal Party, has also come out against BDS. Trudeau said, in a tweet shared prior to a democratic BDS vote at McGill University, that, “The BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses.”

The government opposes BDS because it allegedly undermines “Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” according to Harper, who believes this right is “absolute and non-negotiable.” Regardless of the reasoning, the crackdown on BDS makes it clear that Harper’s forceful calls for freedom of speech and expressionsince the Jan. 7 attack at the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo are hypocritical. If freedom of expression was truly a Canadian value, as Harper claims, his administration would not be seeking to systemically dismantle the BDS movement. 


The Canadian government’s domestic opposition to Palestinian liberation is not just limited to BDS, however, as it has opposed charities seeking to provide relief to Palestinians. In 2011, the government stripped charitable status from the International Relief Fund for the Afflicted and Needy – Canada (IRFAN), a group that provided over a million dollars to Palestinian refugees. IRFAN has since been officially labeled a terrorist group by the government and legally prevented from raising any funds to challenge the designation, due to accusations of transferring funds to organizations associated with Hamas, the elected government in Gaza. IRFAN denies any wrongdoing and has launched a legal challenge to the government’s terrorist designation.

The government has also persistently opposed Palestinian statehood at the international level. Canada was the only state in the G8 to refuse President Barack Obama’s 2011 peace plan. In 2012, Canada was one of only nine states to vote against a Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN, with 138 voting in favor. Not content with denying legitimacy to Palestinians, the Harper administration has also failed to condemn violence against them. Israel’s 2014 invasion into Gaza went unopposed by all major Canadian parties, and was actively supported by the Conservative and Liberals.

Harper is right to say there is a “special relationship between Israel and Canada,” but wrong to claim support for Israel illustrates the “very Canadian trait” of doing “something for no reason other than that it is right.” Instead, the government’s allegiance with a severe human rights violator, which Harper has attributed to being a “moral imperative” with “strategic importance,” proves its claim to uphold purported values like multiculturalism and equality is a farce.   

A significant chunk of Canadians who do genuinely care about these values have expressed opposition to Israeli atrocities and Canada’s complicity, in a variety of protests, as well as letters and polls. A May 2014 Forum Poll noted Canadians were evenly split on who was to blame for hostilities, a far cry from the nearly unanimous stance taken by political parties. Meanwhile, a 2011 BBC World Service poll found 46 percent of Canadians surveyed supported recognition of a Palestinian state, with only 25 percent opposing the idea. The Canadian government has a nasty habit of putting support for Israel ahead of its citizens' wishes, sparking backlash.

The government’s stance has also led to condemnation throughout much of the rest of the world, which became impossible to ignore earlier this year when dozens of Palestinians threw shoes and eggs at Baird’s convoy in Ramallah, in protest of Canada’s pro-Israel stance. If Canada ever had a reputation as an international peacekeeper, it has now been lost.

In order for this to change, and for Canada to truly live up to its purported values, the Canadian government must abandon uncritical support for Israel, honor the free speech rights of its citizens, and work toward a just resolution of the oppressive occupation the state has helped perpetuate.

Davide Mastracci is a master of journalism student at Ryerson University, and an associate editor at the Islamic Monthly. His work has appeared in various publications including the Globe and Mail, the National Post and the Montreal Gazette. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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