What’s Next for BDS Activists in Canada?

By Marion Kawas

Ontario’s Bill 202, the most direct effort so far by Zionist forces in Canada to criminalize support for the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, thankfully failed by a wide margin last week.

We know we won’t have long to celebrate though, as new draconian efforts are surely on the horizon. Swift and coordinated activist pushback was critical to this defeat; there were also a myriad of other factors at play, including intra-Zionist squabbles (similar to what is going on now in the Israeli government) and even domestic Canadian politics.

The bill introduced in the Ontario legislature was extreme only in comparison to what we have seen so far in Canada, not when compared to efforts in other countries. Still, the language and penalties were harsh and once again, similar to the anti-BDS motion in February 2016 in the House of Commons, specifically targeted individuals as well as organizations. However, if one reads the Hansard text of the House of Commons debate and the Ontario debates, comments by members of the Conservative Party that introduced both actions, were very similar. Even to the point of mentioning and condemning specific activists outside of Canada. None of this should be a surprise to anyone who has followed and advocated for the Palestinian issue in Canada for the last decade.

The bigger question here is how much of the “Harper legacy” will be carried forward when it comes to the BDS movement.

Even within the Zionist forces themselves in Canada, there is disagreement on the best way to proceed. A recent article by Shimon Fogel, the CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, arguably Canada’s most powerful Israel lobby, sheds some light on these issues which probably reflect party loyalties as well (both in Canada and in Israel).

“Second, we must refuse to allow Israel to be clouded by a haze of controversy and defined as a state under siege. While we should not be shy to expose the discrimination and anti-Semitism inherent in the BDS movement, we must be strategic in how we do so. Raising the topic of BDS at moments and in forums in which it is not a real threat provides our adversaries undue profile. It also introduces untold numbers of Canadians – many of whom are motivated by good, though misguided, intentions – to the idea of boycotting Israel.

In contrast, employing aggressive tactics, using ideological language, and attempting to out-shout Israel’s detractors is counter-productive because that approach emphasizes conflict and distracts attention from Israeli contributions. Worse, those who engage in tactics that reasonable observers would see as an effort to silence Israel’s critics risk turning BDS activists into free-speech martyrs. Such moves have the potential of turning an otherwise fringe movement into the figurehead of a national conversation on censorship, with Jews cast in the role of censor.” (Note the crude switch at the end, suddenly casting all “Jews” in the role of censor -ed.)

Ontario’s Bill 202 was likely introduced to test the waters in a way that wasn’t necessarily designed to have the bill passed, but more to gauge reactions and plan for the next assault. (Legislative condemnations of Israeli Apartheid Week in Canada also started in the Ontario legislature in 2010, before spreading to other provinces and finally coming up in the House of Commons.) Bill 202, pass or fail, also gave plenty of opportunity for grandstanding on the part of Conservative Party legislators, who have so far been leading the charge on this front, both nationally and provincially.

Now to the Liberal Party, which recently formed the Federal government and is also in power in Ontario. They are more than willing to vociferously condemn BDS (examples abound) but have so far not crossed the line into criminalizing support of BDS through a bill. Another curious factor with the Ontario bill was that it was introduced by a Conservative legislator along with a leading Liberal one, although at the end of the day, Liberal MPPs voted against it in overwhelming numbers. Why? And was the timing meant to embarrass Ontario Premier Wynne who was on a mission to Israel at the time drumming up new business opportunities?

The bill came to second reading, where it was defeated, on the exact day Premier Wynne was in the occupied West Bank, pretending to be even-handed by meeting with Palestinian Authority officials. Was the Liberal Party affected by all the pushback, which was considerable, that followed their support at the national level of the anti-BDS motion in the House of Commons? And will the Liberal Party move to support criminalization if the right bill is presented? Was that part of the plan here – to see what would possibly be supported in the future?

All of this will unfold in time, but here is what we can state with absolute certainty:

BDS has been condemned by all 3 major Canadian parties, something that became crystal clear during the last election campaign. Opposition to these recent motions and bills (when it occurs) is based more on a fleeting commitment to free speech than any support for the inalienable rights of Palestinians.

More attempts will follow to try and criminalize BDS actions and activists in Canada.

The quick and dedicated action to counter the Ontario bill by a wide cross-section of supporters played a major part in defeating it, even though the bill may have ultimately failed for a multitude of reasons. And if the bill had passed, it would have put BDS activists in the difficult position of having to invest huge amounts of time and resources to challenge it retroactively.

So, what is the future for BDS activists in Canada? It is excellent news that the Ontario Bill failed and by a wide margin. However, we cannot interpret this to mean that we can now put our faith in politicians to protect either freedom of political expression or the rights of the Palestinians. In fact, the national and human rights of the Palestinians were barely mentioned during the Ontario legislature debate. The real strength of the BDS movement is that it is a grassroots initiative, and it does not count on any level of government for its survival. The best way forward is the path we have been following till now – intensify BDS, and keep bringing to the forefront the struggle of the Palestinian people.

– Marion Kawas is a long-time pro-Palestinian activist, a member of BDS Vancouver-Coast Salish and cohost of Voice of Palestine. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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