Archive, Jan 2009: Canadians rally against attacks on Gaza Archive, Jan 2009: Canadians rally against attacks on Gaza. Source: § Pooyan Tabatabaei - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Politicians alarmed by the strength of the Palestine movement use smears to justify the erosion of our democratic rights, reports John Clarke

The Toronto Globe and Mail recently published an open letter that was an initiative of Jean Charest, a prominent Liberal Party of Canada politician and former Quebec premier. Though the letter is framed as an appeal for political leaders to return to ‘civility’ in their public lives, the underlying message has far more dangerous implications and feeds into the ongoing attack on the Palestine solidarity movement.

Signed by an array of politicians, business luminaries and other pillars of the establishment, the letter calls on ‘the senior political leadership of Canada to “address urgently the rise of incivility, public aggression and overt hatred that are undermining the peace and security of Canadian life.”’ The signers are, apparently, compelled to speak out because ‘one cannot deny that tensions are on the rise in our streets and on our campuses.’

The drafters of the letter leave no doubt that, while the problem they address may not be entirely new, the reaction to the unfolding genocide in Gaza is their most pressing concern. They suggest that in ‘the case of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, perhaps its particular contours and content are so significant in scale and impact that some Canadians feel justified acting out in intimidating and violent ways. Perhaps strident ideologies have erased the nuance required to understand complex events fully.’

Respectful dialogue

The remedies that are proposed in the letter are a little fuzzy and somewhat contradictory. It is suggested that there is a need to ‘…protect and defend the right of every Canadian to the lawful and free expression of strong viewpoints and unpopular positions about even the most challenging and divisive of topics.’ Yet, more ominously, political leaders are urged to ‘…help Canadians understand that words and actions that fall short of criminal behaviour can still contribute to fear and insecurity that weaken us as a society.’

Charest has given a number of interviews that shed further light on his intentions in pulling together this initiative. The Canadian Press news agency notes that he is concerned that politicians are facing greater levels of threat and intimidation. For reasons that are unclear, he points to resignations by local councillors in Quebec and focuses on an incident in which the ‘Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly was confronted in the street about the war in Gaza.’

The situation in Canadian universities is also an object of concern for Charest. ‘I was talking to a university rector recently. They’re on the lookout … so that there’s a dialogue on campus, but it’s very difficult because there are a lot of emotions, and that’s a big concern,’ he told Canadian Press, stressing that ‘…our democracy is too important to let these things happen without saying anything.’

Charest identifies the reaction to the genocide in Gaza as a major factor in undermining the ‘Canadian value system’. However, he was less candid about which side he believes shoulders the blame. Is the ‘strident ideology’ at work the one that supports the slaughter in Gaza and the dispossession of the Palestinian people, or does he attribute it to the people who have taken to the streets to call for a ceasefire and pressure political leaders to work for one?

In Canada, as in other Western countries, the rights of free expression and assembly are threatened by vigorous attempts to discredit and even criminalise the Palestine solidarity movement. As this unfolds, it is abundantly clear that those who support and enable Israel’s crimes face no such attacks. 

If Charest’s goal was really to promote respectful dialogue, his letter would have recognised that free speech on Palestine is a precondition for that. It is striking that the signers of the letter include a number of prominent figures that are associated with support for Israel, but no one who could possibly be described as a defender of Palestinian rights has put their name to it.

It is important to take note of the ugly political climate facing those who challenge Israel’s crimes in order to properly appreciate the implications of the Charest letter. Last month, Toronto Sun columnist Warren Kinsalla asked his readers ‘…who’s writing the cheques for anti-Israel protests?’ Kinsalla claimed that these mobilisations, ‘sometimes pro-Hamas,’ have been so threatening that they have ‘paralyzed cities across Canada’ and internationally.

The Sun column went on to speculate just who is ‘the directing mind’ behind the outpouring of opposition to genocide. It suggested that Russia and China have already interfered in the political life of Western countries, and asked ‘which country now stands to benefit the most from destabilizing Israel and its allies?’ No evidence was presented, of course, but we may ‘…take it from this writer. What is happening – what you are seeing on your TV and computer screens – isn’t “organic.” These troubling events aren’t just happening independently.’

The column insisted that ‘…police and intelligence agencies across Canada and the West are working overtime to answer that question’ but Kinsalla was confident that ‘the road will lead, ultimately, to the real Jew-hating Wizard of Oz: Iran.’ The right-wing frenzy of the Toronto Sun and the more measured and respectable language of Charest’s open letter are significantly different approaches, but the concept of the ‘enemy within’ is common to both of them and the Palestinian solidarity movement is the primary target.

International pattern

These developments in Canada are very much part of an international pattern in which free expression and the right to assemble are threatened when they are employed to challenge Israel and its Western sponsors. Writing in February for Counterfire, Kevin Ovenden touched on very similar themes in the UK.

Dealing with the ‘parliamentary shenanigans’ that were ‘deployed to stop a clear vote on a ceasefire that the Scottish National Party proposed,’ Ovenden linked these to ‘authoritarianism against public protest and free speech.’ He also pointed to false claims that elected politicians had faced threats and intimidation from pro-Palestinians protesters, and the widespread political strategy of ‘smearing the entire anti-war movement as in some way incubating terrorism.’

Last November, Axios reported that, in the US, ‘…members of Congress in both parties are grappling with an increase in threats, disruptive protests and unnerving security incidents spurred by the Israel-Hamas war.’ Representative Becca Balint ‘had an event in Burlington last week disrupted by hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters urging her to support a ceasefire.’ She painted the event in the most lurid terms, stating that ‘…they surrounded the building, they were pushing and banging on glass, we thought the windows and the doors were going to break. There was no way to get out. Every single person in the building felt unsafe.’

A report of this same protest in VTDigger shows that it was ‘organized by Jewish Voice for Peace-Vermont and cosponsored by a dozen other organizations.’ While it was clearly a spirited action in which outrage at the horrible events in Gaza was evident, there is nothing in the article to support Balint’s allegations of extreme intimidation. It appears that, yet again, a different standard is being applied to pro-Palestinian protests compared to those for other causes.

The mobilisation in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle is alarming Western political establishments. They know that the protests are striking a chord and winning huge support. They are also aware that their continued support for Israel’s crimes puts them on dangerous political ground. There is an increasing determination to contain and discredit the Palestine solidarity movement. As the situation in Gaza becomes ever more dreadful, and the regional instability it is generating becomes increasingly serious, we can expect these attacks on our democratic rights to intensify.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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