The first reading of Private Member’s Bill (PMB) 202 at Queen’s Park passed without much incident. However, the bill deservedly received a lot of attention in the following two days, before it was defeated in its second reading on May 19. If adopted into law, the bill would compel the Province of Ontario to immediately terminate all contracts, divest from all companies, and effectively defund all universities that are associated with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Most of the attention the bill received was negative. In a May 18 statement, the Canadian contingent of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) called it “draconian” and “outrageous.” Activists across Toronto rallied at Queen’s Park to protest what they saw as an undue suppression of free speech.
Members of Provincial Parliament and co-authors Tim Hudak and Mike Colle define BDS as a political movement whose “primary purpose” is to boycott, divest from, and apply sanctions against “Israel and Israeli academics, students, corporations, businesses and cultural institutions” as well as businesses “owned by” or “affiliated with” Jewish Canadians.
At first glance, it seems intuitive to support legislation that would fight anti-Semitism, even if it has to impose on free speech to do so. If the manner in which Hudak and Colle defined BDS were accurate, there would be no question of the movement’s anti-Semitism. If a business refused to interact with another because the owner was Jewish, this would certainly qualify as discrimination.
However, BDS isn’t as simple as Hudak and Colle’s definition. The 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions originated from a coalition of over 100 Palestinian trade unions, human rights groups, interest groups, clubs, and non-governmental organizations based in the Occupied Territories and inside the ’67 borders. They came together in an attempt to nonviolently draw attention to and encourage response to Israeli violations of human rights and international law.
This information is on the homepage of the BDS website, along with the original 2005 letter calling for BDS solidarity and a list of demands, which do not include the exclusion or sanctioning of Jewish individuals or businesses. What it does say, though, is that these “non-violent punitive measures” are to be maintained “until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law.”
The BDS call argues that this goal requires dismantling the military apparatus that harms and endangers Palestinians, legally “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality,” and empowering refugees “to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”
These properties would include, for example, the 700 hectares that make up Canada Park, an Israeli tourist destination that was established through Canadian fundraising efforts on lands formerly belonging to three Palestinian villages. In 1967, Israeli military forces razed the villages, expelling their 7,000 inhabitants. In 1972, a Canadian campaign by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) began to afforest the area with fast-growing, non-indigenous pine trees that made it impossible for refugees to find and resettle the sites of their old homes. These villages, and this land, all fall outside of the 1967 borders of Israel, since they are recognized as occupied Palestinian territory under international law and Canadian official policy, and thus, both the park and its Canadian support are by definition illegal.
If this is the kind of business “affiliated with Jewish Canadians” that PMB 202 incorrectly alleges BDS activists are targeting, that relies on extremely loose interpretations.
One of the campaigns underway by BDS movement supporters is centred on the JNF and that specific incident. In a March 2016 statement by IJV Canada, they cite the project and its Canadian support as examples of the violations of international law that BDS seeks to address. Members of IJV Canada have reached out to the JNF and numerous Canadian pro-Israel lobby groups; they have been categorically ignored, slandered, or silenced.
Maybe it is to the aforementioned campaign that Hudak and Colle are referring. After all, the local Canadian branch of the JNF appears as if it could qualify as a Jewish Canadian institution, and it does appear that the BDS movement has targeted it. Yet, to settle on that approach is a dangerous misreading of the situation. Affiliated with Jewish Canadians as it may be — and though the same could be said about IJV Canada — the JNF is neither a Canadian-owned nor Jewish-owned entity.
Instead, it is a state-chartered organization based in Israel, that the Israeli government empowers to manage land exclusively for Jewish, non-Palestinian Israelis. If this is the kind of business “affiliated with Jewish Canadians” that PMB 202 incorrectly alleges BDS activists are targeting, that relies on extremely loose interpretations.
Furthermore, even if the definition applied, such a campaign hardly falls under the bill’s “primary purpose” of protecting Jewish and Israeli businesses and individuals from harm. The rationale behind this specific issue is clearly based in an incident where both Israel’s and Canada’s hands are dirty with violating international law and Canadian policy.
Legally restricting the rights of people in Ontario to protest such human rights violations, as land expropriation and occupation continues to occur in other countries, is an undue threat to civil rights in this province. Furthermore, the bill is a completely unacceptable and ineffective way of fighting anti-Semitism.
This bill is an extremely aggressive, blunt instrument that seems ill-prepared to address problems that — if they existed at all — would fall under the purview of other legislation.
This is not to mention that Ontario already has legislation in place specifically designed to deal with the kind of discrimination based on creed, background, and country of origin that PMB 202 claims to be addressing: the 1990 Discriminatory Business Practices Act and the Ontario Human Rights Code’s 2015 “Policy on preventing discrimination based on creed.” The former very clearly regulates against the kind of discrimination that PMB 202 wrongly attributes to the BDS movement, and the latter directly outlines steps for addressing discrimination through education, training, streamlined procedures for internal accountability, and the implementation of anti-harassment policies.
If the BDS movement was indeed guilty of all that PMB 202 argues, despite the breadth of accessible evidence to the contrary, then the bulk of those issues would be handily addressed by existing, robust provincial legislation. That’s a very big ‘if’ — Hudak and Colle completely redefined the BDS movement’s entire purpose and practice in order to justify PMB 202. This bill is an extremely aggressive, blunt instrument that seems ill-prepared to address problems that — if they existed at all — would fall under the purview of other legislation.
PMB 202 is attempting to respond to a set of circumstances that do not exist. It does so based on misinformation that could be easily corrected if its co-authors had done any research on the BDS movement at all.
Unfortunately, such misinformation is rife among many similar projects opposing BDS activism. Many campaigns argue that the movement threatens academic freedom by barring Israeli or Jewish people from participating in member organizations. Yet this claim has been proven false time and time again, most saliently in the case of a 2014 conference hosted by the American Studies Association, which featured Jewish and Israeli participants, while still remaining compliant with the boycott.
The primary purpose of the BDS movement is to expose and address the violations of international law and human rights that affect its Palestinian founders most significantly. Yet under the terms imposed by PMB 202, we are to automatically believe that such important criticism of Israel — criticism of the type that many Jewish and non-Jewish students alike actively engage in every day — is deserving of disproportionate governmental punishment. As a student, as a Canadian, and as a Jew, I am extremely thankful that this bill failed.
Alex Verman is a recent graduate of New College who studied Political Science. They served on the ASSU executive, on the BDS Coalition, and in several Jewish community groups based in Toronto.