In Orwellian doublespeak, government propaganda subtly influences citizens’ thought patterns and behavior by inverting the meaning of certain words. In extreme cases, “war” becomes “peace.” In Canada, under the present Tory government, “Israeli boycotter” has now been recklessly conflated with “anti-Semite.”
Specifically, due to a recently signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Canada and Israel, our federal government is now pursuing a “coordinated public diplomacy initiative to oppose boycotts of Israel” and “to work to counter the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement.” While BDS is a non-violent global organization that uses economic tactics to hold Israel accountable to international law in its treatment of Palestinians, the MOU paints BDS objectives as “the new face of anti-Semitism.”
At the UN General Assembly in January, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney reaffirmed the conflation of the BDS movement with anti-Semitism, stating, “Canada has taken a 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.” The minister’s statement led the CBC to conclude that Israeli boycotters, including student groups such as U of T Divest, might be subject to prosecution under Canada’s hate crime legislation.
As several civil liberty groups have pointed out, there’s technically nothing inherent in the BDS movement for a democratic government to oppose. Boycotters who encourage others to put economic pressure on Israel — or Russia, the US, or any other rogue state, for that matter — are not guilty of willfully promoting hatred of a national or ethnic group. They are simply exercising their democratic right to free association, expression, and thought. Consequently, the real life “zero-tolerance” scenario is untenable: a student handing out divestment pamphlets outside Robarts will never be put on trial for inciting hatred against the Jewish community.
Yet, Blaney’s remarks remain absurd even if nothing litigious comes of them. In fact, it’s not the legal aspect of Harper’s redefined anti-Semitism that we need to worry about. We must instead focus our suspicion towards a political culture that chips away at our autonomy, towards a government that subtly limits the right of its citizens to choose, fearlessly, what we think or say as democratic citizens. Harper and company want us to confuse legitimate political protest with anti-Semitism — they want us to buy into the doublespeak set out in the MOU and believe that criticizing Israel amounts unequivocally to anti-Semitism.
Perhaps we are expected to believe that on Harper’s whim, valid protest against Israel’s behaviour may be considered an actionable form of nationality-based discrimination. But, in reality, it’s the now-articulated possibility of a boycott supporter being publicly regarded as an anti-Semite that works so well in Harper’s favour — why bother imprisoning citizens, given a route of lesser resistance? Manipulating public opinion, that old Machiavellian standby, runs less risk of blowback than coming down on dissenters with an iron fist.
Ultimately, it’s unnecessary for Harper to invoke discrimination law to coerce us into conceding our beliefs to his government’s interests. Rhetoric that compares BDS support to hate crimes may well assimilate over time into the public consciousness and succeed in dismantling the movement not by legal means, but by painting its affiliates as Nazi fanatics.
The government may accuse the press of fear-mongering, but it’s our own ministers who dangle the anti-Semite label over the heads of those who exercise their right to oppose Harper’s agenda and the anti-BDS clause contained within the MOU. Blaney’s classification of anti-Israel rhetoric as necessarily discriminatory is thus indisputably troublesome. It not only stealthily undermines our freedom to criticize Israel by cultivating a culture of fear and embarrassment for doing so, but also points to a more visceral attitude of disrespect for enshrined democratic values.
Spewing “zero-tolerance” statements and conflating the BDS movement with anti-Semitism does nothing but further expose Harper’s total disregard for the right of Canadian citizens to unfettered expression. That the Harper government hides behind a smokescreen of anti-Semitism to scare away legitimate political opposition is as much cause for concern as anything contained in Bill C-51.
Though there may not be legal ramifications for those who protest Israel’s conduct, a psychological barrier to free speech still remains. If nothing else, Blaney’s hot air at least showed us that threats to our Chartered rights needn’t take place only in the courtroom.
Malone Mullin is a fifth–year student studying philosophy.