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B.D.S. in Canada: A long road

Close ties with Israel and the hurdles facing the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

by Joey Grihalva

Photo: Meagan Wohlberg
Photo: Meagan Wohlberg


In the Dheisheh refugee camp in Palestine a young organizer poses a question to a group of teenagers, “Why don’t you boycott Israeli products?”

“Why do I need to boycott Israeli products?” they reply. “They’re better than Palestinian products and all the Arab countries are buying them.”

Areej Ja’fari, the organizer, sees this mentality as an example of internalized colonialism. She believes it is what makes it possible for refugees to willingly buy products from an Israeli-owned factory sitting on occupied land that once belonged to their family and effectively prevents them from returning to this land.

“Just bringing water to your house is a struggle in Palestine, so you can imagine the struggle not to buy water from an Israeli source, because most Palestinians buy water from Israel,” says Ja’fari.

In conjunction with the Palestine Freedom Project Ja’fari helped organize the first Israeli Apartheid Week in Palestine this year. The series of events marked the fifth anniversary of the Palestinian Civil Society Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli apartheid.

The “apartheid” label is based on what many groups and international organizations believe to be an entrenched system of racial discrimination by Israel against its Arab citizens, including the construction of an illegal—according to international law—wall, built on occupied Palestinian territory and the continued expansion of Israeli colonies in the Palestinian West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Gaza Strip and the Syrian Golan Heights.

While the BDS movement has gained momentum in the Middle East, Europe and Africa, here in Canada it remains a tough sell, like Ja’fari’s appeal in the refugee camp. This is primarily due to the fact that Canada has been one of Israel’s strongest supporters for much of its history. The current administration is arguably the biggest booster of Israel in recent memory. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pledged that as long as he remains in power, Canada will “take a stand with Israel, whatever the cost.”

The Canadian BDS movement got started one year after the initial call from various sectors of Palestinian civil society. The first international BDS conference in Canada took place in Toronto in 2006. A number of actions were planned at this meeting, including demonstrations in support of a boycott of Israeli wines sold in Québec liquor stores. The turnout was modest but signaled the beginning of a grassroots effort to draw attention to the injustices faced by the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation.

Since these early attempts to get Canadian public support behind the Palestinian cause the government of Canada has positioned itself even further behind Israel. There are now multiple free trade agreements and border security agreements between the two nations. Canada repeatedly votes in Israel’s favor at the United Nations. In addition, hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-deductible donations are made to Israel from Canada each year.

Yves Engler, freelance journalist and author of Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid, reports that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has a “budding relationship” with Mossad, Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. He also asserts that there are growing ties between Canadian and Israeli private security companies.

“The BDS movement faces a hundred years of pro-Zionist, pro-Israeli political culture in this country, and that’s a lot to fight against,” says Engler. He also worries about the growing trend of labeling anyone critical of Israel as an anti-Semite.
In early November the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism joined like-minded parliamentary bodies at a conference in Ottawa. Prime Minister Harper and Liberal opposition leader Michael Ignatieff both attended this event. The key players in this political body--which in fact has no authority from parliament as a whole--are Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney and Irwin Cotler, a lawyer and the former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. The conference focused on how to combat what they call “new antisemitism,” which they define as speech encouraging the destruction of the Jewish state.

“These people (Cotler and Kenney) have the objective of criminalizing speech that is critical of Israel, with the maximus goal of criminalizing the term ‘Israeli apartheid,’” says Engler. Though he doesn’t think they will be successful in bringing this kind of legislation to pass, he feels they are creating a McCarthy-like climate particularly designed to frighten the intellectual sectors of society.

“They are trying to scare heads of unions, professors and anyone who has a voice in the media to stay away from discussing Palestinian rights,” says Engler.

Despite the difficulties, the BDS movement is encouraged by small successes. Last month the Canadian government chose not to partake in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) annual tourism conference in Jerusalem. Their delegation sent an official letter to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) stating that they do not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

Stefan Christoff, an organizer, artist and journalist based in Montreal, recently returned from a trip to the Middle East as the coordinator of a Québec delegation to the World Education Forum. But Israeli authorities would not grant Christoff entry because of his political views. Not to be discouraged, he met with activists and artists in Jordan and Palestine. He spread the word about Canada’s efforts in the BDS movement, including the international BDS conference that took place in Montréal this fall and the declaration against Israeli apartheid that was signed by five hundred artists in Montréal last year.

“The resolution of support for the BDS campaign by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, which was the first national union in Canada to support the BDS call, was also a really important gesture that speaks to a growing interest from major progressive institutions to address this appeal by Palestinian civil society,” says Christoff.

Some Zionist scholars believe the BDS movement hurts the Palestinian cause by creating more tension via aggressive anti-Israel rhetoric. In an article published in the Montreal Gazette before the recent BDS conference, McGill professor Gil Troy criticized the Université du Québec à Montréal for allowing their campus to be “used as a forum for demagogy and dishonesty.” He went claimed that the BDS movement has an “exterminationist agenda,” referring to the destruction of Israel.

Mostafa Henaway, an activist with Tadamon!, a Montréal-based collective of social justice organizers and media activists, disagrees with this analysis of the BDS movement.

“This is a false argument because if you look at the actual demands of the boycott you see they are just talking about basic human rights. They are not calls for a political solution and certainly not for the destruction of Israel or for the punishment of the Israeli people, but simply equality for the Palestinians,” says Henaway.

Henaway says it is important to remember that the BDS movement in Canada takes its lead from the Palestinian movement, specifically the Boycott National Committee. This is echoed by Christoff, who adds that they are working hand-in-hand with a lot of Israeli activists and progressives on the ground who are directly involved in the boycott movement.

These efforts around the globe have caught the attention of Israeli leaders. They say the BDS movement represents the “de-legitimizers of Israel” and poses “a strategic threat that could turn into an existential threat.” Some politicians in Jerusalem are now trying to make it against the law for Israeli citizens to support the cause.

“The Israeli government is threatened by the fact that the movement is starting to take hold," says Engler. “It’s becoming a legitimate popular movement that has the possibility of really putting pressure on different institutions within Canada to de-link from their complicity with Israeli apartheid.”

The BDS call appears to be making a political impact and, Christoff argues, it is also making a positive impact on the morale of the Palestinian people. But he stresses that BDS is a long-term strategy, one that may last a few decades before making real change on the ground. For South Africa it took almost thirty years for the BDS movement to take hold.

“At the end of the day the goal is to have an impact on people’s lives,” says Christoff.

“I have no doubt in mind that we’ll be successful, but it will take years.”

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