Ontario bill targeting BDS movement voted down

Defeat of bill called "victory for the BDS movement" by campus organizers

Ontario bill targeting BDS movement voted down

A private member’s bill to restrict business relations with companies and entities supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement was introduced into Ontario Legislature on May 18 by Liberal MPP Mike Colle and Progressive Conservative MPP Tim Hudak.

Under Bill 202, the Standing Up Against Anti-Semitism in Ontario Act, “a public body shall not enter into a contract with a person or entity that supports or participates in the BDS movement,” and “no college or university shall support or participate in the BDS movement.”

Hudak called the BDS movement the “insidious new face of anti-Semitism.” He said, “If somebody said they weren’t going to buy from a business because the owners were gay, you would go crazy, but somehow because they’re Jewish or from Israel, oh, it’s free speech all of a sudden? Come on.”

While the BDS movement calls for a “boycott of Israeli companies, goods and services or of international companies involved in Israeli policies violating Palestinian human rights and international law,” it does not advocate for a boycott of businesses owned by Jewish people.

While in Israel on a trade mission, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne clarified that she is entirely opposed to the BDS movement, although she also stated that freedom of speech is “something we must vigorously defend.” The bill was defeated 39–18. with no support from the New Democratic Party caucus and solely Colle’s vote from the Liberal Party.

BDS activists on campus held a press conference at Harvest Noon, the café operated by the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU), on the topic of the bill. The UTGSU is one of several student unions in the country that have endorsed the BDS movement.

“Bill 202 was an obscene attempt by out of touch politicians to criminalize and censor activists campaigning for Palestinians and their basic human rights,” said Omar Sirri, a member of the UTGSU’s ad-hoc BDS committee. “These rights are blatantly violated on a daily basis by vicious Israeli occupation and apartheid.”

Sirri applauded the defeat of the bill, calling it a “victory for the BDS movement.” He said, “MPPs voted down this bill because they realised these McCarthyist tactics violate our basic freedom of speech and expression, calling out Israel for its egregious violations of international law.”

Aidan Fishman, second year law student and co-founder of Israel-on-Campus believes that the authors of Bill 202 did not make an adequate attempt to secure its passage, and says he is concerned that the BDS movement promotes anti-semitism. “My hope going forward is that MPPs from all parties unite to oppose all forms of bigotry, including BDS, just as the federal House of Commons overwhelmingly voted to condemn BDS in February,” he said.

The Scarborough Campus Students’ Union and the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, as well as the GSU, have voted to endorse BDS. The UTSU has not endorsed the movement. 

A bill without a cause

Why the controversial BDS bill failed before it began

A bill without a cause

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.

‘Our Struggles Unite’

UofT Divest hosts twelfth annual Israeli Apartheid Week

‘Our Struggles Unite’

This year’s Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) theme was Our Struggles Unite, which was chosen in order to emphasize the relationship between different liberation movements.

The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union’s (UTGSU) Divestment Ad-Hoc Committee, also known as UofT Divest, collaborated with Reclaim Turtle Island, the Black Liberation Collective, Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, and Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) as hosts.

“Israeli Apartheid Week is a set of events to highlight the settler colonial project and apartheid system of governance in Israel and Palestine that deliberately discriminates, displaces and kills Palestinians,” said Omar Sirri, an organizer with UofT Divest.

The events, which ran between March 8 and 10, aimed to raise awareness of U of T’s investment in companies such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Hewlett-Packard, which profit from the apartheid.

UofT Divest and SAIA have been tabling in the weeks leading up to the events in order to acquaint U of T students and faculty members with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), a topic that is central to IAW. 

BDS is a global movement against Israel that Palestinian civil society organizations initiated in 2005. The movement calls for the end of occupation of all Arab lands, the fundamental right of return for and reclaiming of properties for Palestinian refugees, and the dismantling of the Israeli apartheid wall. The wall is estimated to span 700 kilometres in length and runs through occupied Palestinian land.

New York-based spoken word artist and writer Remi Kanazi performed on the first day of IAW and spoke at a panel called Freedom is a Constant Struggle, alongside Reclaim Turtle Island activist Amanda Lickers.  Both speakers discussed the differences between settlement and occupation.

Organizers of the events discussed recent BDS victories, such as the British multinational security services company G4S announcing that it would sell its Israeli subsidiary which has become “reputationally damaging.” 

UofT Divest also highlighted the setbacks that come with planning such an event in light of McGill University’s BDS endorsement motion’s narrow defeat. McGill undergraduate student union’s general assembly passed the motion but failed to ratify it in an online vote. 

Prime Minister Trudeau has voiced his condemnation of the BDS movement citing it as “a new form of anti-Semitism.”

“It is remarkable that despite being elected on a progressive platform to end the politics of fear and censorship, the prime minister sees it fit to condemn a movement that stands for human rights and international law,” said Sirri, adding, “BDS is gaining more support and momentum in spite of these attacks.”

Last week, over 125 U of T faculty members signed a petition in support of UofT Divest’s call to boycott the Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Hewlett Packard for their role in international human rights violations.

Correction (March 16, 2016): An earlier version of this article misstated that British multinational  firm, G4S had ceased providing security for oil pipelines and mining projects, as well as participating in the prison-industrial complex. 

Three grievances call for an end to campus BDS work

Vice president, equity chooses not to address complaints

Three grievances call for an end to campus BDS work

Three students have filed grievances against the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) vice president, equity Sania Khan relating to her work in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The complaints were filed after the Social Justice & Equity (SJE) Commission hosted an event that discussed ways to build solidarity with Palestine during eXpression Against Oppression (XAO) week in 2015. 

“Throughout the course of this past year, it has become growingly evident that students and faculty members on the U of T campus are no longer choosing to remain inactive toward U of T’s complicity of human rights and international law violations in Palestine,” Khan said of the reasoning for holding such events. 

Khan highlighted the numerous faculty signatures endorsing the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union’s BDS efforts, the popularity of the XAO event, and the unanimous vote in favour of signing a letter of support for Al Quds University students at a recent SJE commission meeting, as evidence for this support.

“As students whose tuition money is consequently being invested in Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, we have a moral responsibility to hold the university administration accountable until they fully divest from the companies sustaining the occupation,” Khan said.

According to Khan, BDS is a campaign rooted in upholding human rights and international law. “People of conscience from all religious and non-religious affiliations have chosen to support BDS because of its focus on securing Palestinian human rights, and this is something we here in Canada have a responsibility to work toward,” Khan said, adding that Independent Jewish Voices at U of T has endorsed the BDS movement.

XAO event grievances

First-year law student Aidan Fishman and fourth-year Victoria College student Mitchell Gould filed two separate grievances against Khan in November 2015. Both were filed in response to an XAO event called Solidarity with Palestine — Building the Student Movement. 

Gould told The Varsity he posted on the Facebook event page requesting that UTSU release a statement acknowledging incidents of violence against Israeli civilians. He also alleged that he was blocked from posting on the Facebook page.

“As a Jewish student, I felt that I didn’t want to protest the event at all or in any way. I just thought… considering the equity of the fact that this sponsored in part by the UTSU that they say something about the fact that there were incitements of violence against Israelis and Jews in Israel at the time of this event and which are still [ongoing] in the country,” said Gould. “I wasn’t asking for the event to be cancelled or anything.”

The event included a screening of the documentary Roadmap to Apartheid and an open discussion. In his grievance, Fishman stated that he wanted the event to be cancelled or that the UTSU stop funding or sponsoring it. He also requested a letter of apology from Khan.

Fishman claimed that the film was anti-Semitic and alleged that the event violated the union’s by-laws on the grounds that it was not discussed at a meeting of the SJE commission. He further claimed that an endorsement of BDS in and of itself is a violation of the UTSU’s by-laws, as well as its mission statement, which includes a commitment to safeguarding the rights of all students, regardless of nationality.

“Whether people like BDS or not, there is not dispute that this is discrimination based on nationality,” Fishman argued. “That’s the whole point. It boycotts things coming from Israel. Israeli is a nationality.”

The UTSU’s Executive Review Committee addressed Fishman’s grievance at a meeting on November 11. The committee recommended that the SJE commission discuss and approve any and all events run by the vice president, equity. This recommendation was forwarded to the UTSU’s Board of Directors, which defeated the motion. 

Khan told The Varsity that she finds the tactics that anti-BDS groups deploy to be highly problematic. Anti-BDS groups often interrupt BDS events; members of the Jewish Defence League disrupted a panel in January that focused on how students could show solidarity with Palestine. Khan believes that the disruptions are an attempt to shut down debate and discussion about the topic.

“This tactic… fails to engage BDS on its merits, and the demands the movement makes, namely calling on Israel to meet its obligations under international law,” Khan said. “While convenient for some, this tactic further highlights the strength of BDS and the empty rhetoric of its critics. BDS is evermore important as our tuition dollars continue to fund violations of international law and the human rights of Palestinians.”

“‘Feelings’ of discomfort about BDS are used as a way to deliberately shift the conversation away from the facts on the ground, namely the violations of human rights and international law committed by Israel against Palestinians,” she said.

Khan stated that BDS campaigns oppose anti-Semitism, which is covered in its anti-oppression mandate. “[When] this tactic is exposed as deliberately misleading in order to dismiss Palestinian human rights claims, BDS organizers are accused of being anti-Semitic — even though the BDS movement opposes all forms of discrimination, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.”

Demand to end engagement with BDS

Reut Cohen, a first-year Trinity College student, filed a grievance in late December regarding a letter published by U of T Divest and Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) supporting Palestinian popular resistance. Among the 28 signatories of the letter is the UTSU Social Justice & Equity Commission.

The letter expresses support for Palestinian resistance, which Cohen believes indicates support for violence against Israeli civilians.

“I have no problem with people expressing a [non-violent] form of resistance,” Cohen said. “When you factor in the current political climate in Israel and the express support for those actions, that’s very disturbing to me.”

Khan said that reading BDS as an endorsement of violence against Israeli people is a misrepresentation intended to discredit the movement by avoiding the demands of BDS: to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, grant equal rights to all Palestinians inside Israel, and to respect the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

“These demands are powerful because they are all guaranteed under international law. To accuse BDS as something else is a deliberate attempt to avoid the key demands on which BDS is built,” Khan said.

Cohen’s grievance also demands that Khan discontinue engaging with BDS without the approval of the Board of Directors. 

In response to the demand that Khan cease her work on promoting BDS on campus, Khan told The Varsity that the mandate of the vice president, equity “includes a commitment toward anti-oppression, anti-discrimination, and anti-racism work,” and that supporting Palestinian resistance against Israeli apartheid fulfils that mandate.

Khan stated that she would not discontinue work that is required by her position.

A lack of response

Fishman, Gould, and Cohen have not received a response from Khan and have not had a meeting with her and the grievance officer, which is required under UTSU’s by-laws.

The resolutions suggested in the grievances include a public apology for the work Khan has done and continues to do in support of Palestinian resistance and the withdrawal of funds from collaborative efforts with student organizers committed to Palestinian resistance work.

In light of these demands, Khan said that her refusal to acknowledge the grievances was intentional. “I will not entertain any ‘proposals,’ ‘meetings,’ or ‘resolutions’ put forward by any student who suggests that I stop the work being done against Israeli apartheid. The position of vice president equity in fact requires that I continue this work,” Khan said.

All three grievances are expected to be addressed at a board meeting later this month.

Disclosure: Reut Cohen is an associate arts and culture editor for The Varsity.

With files from Iris Robin.

Faculty endorses Graduate Students’ Union divestment campaign

Movement calls on U of T to divest from three companies

Faculty endorses Graduate Students’ Union divestment campaign

In a March 3 press release, over 125 University of Toronto faculty members have announced their support for the Graduate Students’ Union’s (GSU) campaign to divest from three companies that are directly profiting from the ongoing military occupation of Palestine territories.

“This is wonderful news for the BDS movement on campus,” said Omar Sirri, speaking on behalf of the GSU’s ad-hoc BDS committee, also known as U of T Divest. “This level of faculty support is hugely significant, especially at a time when political leaders in this country continue to attack student activist [and] mislead the public about what BDS stands for. This level of faculty support is further indication [that] support for the BDS movement is steadily growing.”

The campaign calls on the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM) to divest from companies that are directly profiting from the ongoing military occupation of Palestinian territories, namely: Northrop Grumman, Hewlett Packard, and Lockheed Martin. It also urges the Governing Council to form a committee to review and divest from all companies implicated in violations of international law.

With these investments, Sirri believes that U of T is complicit in war crimes.

“Rather than supporting blatant violations of international law, the University of Toronto should stand on the right side of history on this issue,” he said, adding that the campaign’s work “[shines] a light on the abhorrent policies of the University Administration: financially profiting from violations of international law and war crimes against the Palestinian people.”

Rebecca Comay, a professor of philosophy and comparative literature, told The Varsity that there is a “growing consensus among faculty about the urgent need for divestment from companies profiting from the military occupation of Palestine.”

“The GSU’s call for divestment opens up an important discussion on campus about our institution’s own complicity in the Israeli occupation,” said Natalie Rothman, an associate professor of history. “As faculty we have a responsibility to ask difficult questions about how our university upholds its own standards of ethical conduct.”

Critics have questioned the effectiveness of the movement and the feasibility of certain demands, such as the right of return for all Palestinian refugees. Some also argue that the movement unfairly singles out Israel amongst other countries with worse human rights records. In response to negative assessments of the movement’s effectiveness, Sirri commented “It is clear the movement is gaining momentum on university campuses across North America, for example with BDS resolutions passed at Stanford, UC Berkeley, and York Univesrity here in Toronto, to name just a few.” He added, “Israel singles itself out with a form of institutionalized apartheid unlike anything in the world today, a racist structure of governance and a colonial occupation that are gross violations of international law. The three demands of BDS are grounded in human rights that are guaranteed to all peoples. The demands will become ‘feasible’ when Israel meets its international legal obligations, and ends its system of apartheid, occupation, and discrimination of all Palestinians, including refugees.”

The BDS movement is fundamentally concerned with achieving three core goals: bringing about the end of Israeli military occupation and colonization of Palestinian land, ensuring equal legal status for Arab-Palestinians living in Israel, and enforcing Palestinian refugees established right of return.

This releases come two weeks after the House of Commons voted in favour of a motion to condemn the BDS movement.

“Imagine that: the governing party and the previous governing party are asking Canadians to disregard both international law and official state policy when making decisions about where to invest,” said Jens Hanssen, an associate professor in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. “Yes, the constantly expanding Israeli occupation is illegal, our government acknowledges, but no, you must not say this out loud or take this into account when making ethical investment decisions.”

Sirri told The Varsity that U of T Divest plans to continue building support for the movement and educating the U of T community on this issue.

Faculty members at U of T are not alone in their support of BDS; earlier this week the York Faculty Association endorsed the YUDivest campaign at York University. The YUDivest campaign is an effort to have York divest from arms companies and weapons manufacturers.

With files from Iris Robin and Alec Wilson.

Correction (Monday, March 7th, 2016): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 125 faculty members had announced their support for the GSU’s Boycott, Divestment and Saction movement; in fact, they are supporting the divestment from three companies only. The Varsity regrets the error.

An inconsistent truth

Arguments against BDS, and in favour of Israel, are riddled with contradictions

An inconsistent truth

AS George Orwell famously wrote, “doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

One can only speculate as to what Orwell would have had to say if he had lived to see opposition to the crimes of a powerful military occupying force, decried as hate speech by elected officials in the chambers of a proud democracy. It is safe to suppose that his reaction might be a mix of disgust and vindication: disgust at the obliqueness with which defenders of an oppressed people are slandered and stigmatized by their elected officials, and vindication at how thoroughly his signature ‘doublethink’ concept underpins one of the most effective propaganda systems in the modern world. 

When Conservative MP David Sweet took the floor last month, calling on government front-benchers to denounce the “anti-semitic” Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, members of the governing Liberal party, led by Stephane Dion, expressed “reservations” about the motion’s goals and language. Ultimately, however, they voted in its favour.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even took to social media to announce that “the BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses.” When the dust settled, the motion to condemn the BDS movement passed with a resounding 229-51 vote. Even those who opposed it, like NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, have not dared to express support for BDS, criticizing the motion only on the grounds that it threatens freedom of expression in Canada. 

What is so objectionable about BDS that both the government and official opposition are almost competitively united in their repudiation of the movement? As the newly adopted motion explains, the BDS movement “promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel.” 

This is where the importance of doublethink starts to become apparent. Implicit in the charge that BDS delegitimizes Israel is the premise that the act of delegitimizing states itself should be condemned. Supporters of the bill, one might naturally assume, will then surely condemn Israel for its delegitimization of Palestine through its illegal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, its blockade of Gaza and pillaging of Gazan natural gas, its ongoing construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank, and its regular military incursions into Gaza. If mere criticism and calls for political action count as delegitimization, military oppression and illegal land seizures more than qualify, and ought to be similarly condemned.

Unsurprisingly, in the BDS debate, this is not the case. Delegitimization is both condemned and accepted, depending on whether it is Israel or Palestine that is being targeted.

In line with this, a common refrain from the pro-occupation side — usually employed to explain why Israel has a right to defend itself from Palestinian rockets — is that Israel, unlike Palestine, is a state in the international system, which can avail itself of international laws like Section 51 of the UN Charter, which gives states the right to self-defence. 

The rather cynical and legalistic insistence that Palestine is not a state, and thus cannot avail itself of international law, is a triumph of doublethink. Palestine has striven for statehood at the UN for some time now, and would have already won it, were it nor for fierce resistance from Israel and its powerful ally, the US, which threatened to slash UN funding if Palestine was so much as given observer status.

Indeed, during the last big push for Palestinian statehood, there was deafening outcry from the Israeli right, denouncing the action as ‘unilateral’ and insisting that the path to statehood was not through the UN, but rather through negotiations with Israel. 

By ‘unilateral’, they meant that the General Assembly supported Palestinian statehood 138 to 9, but that Israel did not. Thus, the path to statehood for Palestine was not ‘unilateral’ action at the UN, but rather negotiations with its military occupier. In the meantime, Israel could continue to ‘defend itself’ against its victims under Section 51, while denying Palestine’s right to defend itself from Israeli occupation.

Arguments like these, accepted and repeated by elected politicians in liberal democracies, may well be the very pinnacle of doublethink. Orwell might well find humour in the fact that the lessons of his iconic 1984 are both well known, and blithely disregarded by citizens of self-declared ‘enlightened’ states like Canada. This humour would undoubtedly be tempered, however, by knowledge of the abominable suffering and injustices that continue only because the powerful, simultaneously, continue to hold contradictory beliefs.

Simon Capobianco is a third-year student at Woodsworth College studying math and philosophy.

Evaluating the right to speak freely

The Jewish Defense League’s actions towards U of T Divest should be condemned

Evaluating the right to speak freely

Recently, members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) — a group that claims to restore “pride and integrity” to the Jewish people — came under scrutiny for disrupting a U of T Divest event. U of T Divest was hosting an event addressing Palestinian resistance to what they described as an Israeli occupation. More broadly, U of T Divest promotes the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, pressure the Israeli government politically and economically until it “complies with international law” and respects Palestinian’s “fundamental rights of freedom, equality, and self-determination.” The JDL claimed the U of T Divest event was a “call to murder Jews” and heckled a speech given by Noura Erakat, a human rights lawyer speaking at the event. 

As a Jewish student, I question the idea that events like the one held by U of T Divest are, in fact, “calls to murder Jews,” or even inherently anti-Semitic. The JDL’s notorious reputation of fear-mongering and spreading hatred also calls into question the integrity of their disruption, and their views should certainly not represent the Jewish faith as a whole. Most importantly, we need to discuss the rights of campus organizations to free speech and freedom from disruption.   

The BDS movement is a protest against Israeli treatment of Palestinians, not anti-Semitism itself. The BDS movement provides many criticisms of the Israeli government, addressing actions such as the occupation of Palestinian lands — which has been condemned in international law — and infringing upon the rights of Arab citizens of Israel. It is unfair to make sweeping conflations of those who criticize Israeli government policy, and those who espouse prejudice against Jews. These two groups may certainly overlap at points, but are not necessarily the same. 

This fact is perhaps no better demonstrated by how many Jews and Jewish organizations — such as the Jewish Voice for Peace — support the BDS movement.

It is also possible to disagree with critiques of government policy without being anti-Semitic.  For instance, in 2013 the American-Jewish newspaper The Forward published an op-ed that disagreed with the BDS movement’s platform, but also urged Jews and Jewish organizations not to consider it an anti-Semitic movement.

I refuse to let a group like JDL speak for me. My religion is one that promotes the pursuit of justice and peace; Verse 18, chapter 1 of Pirkei Avot — “Ethics of the Fathers”, a compilation of teachings and wisdoms of ancient Jewish rabbis and scholars — states that “On three things does the world endure: truth, justice, and peace.”

Propagating violence or hatred is no way to abide by these maxims, yet it appears that the JDL is built more on a foundation of prejudice than of Judaism. The US wing of JDL has been called a “violent extremist Jewish organization” by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Most notably, JDL’s leader was arrested and charged in 2001 for planning to bomb a mosque and an Arab-American congressman’s office.

While I do not personally support the BDS movement, I do support the right of all groups on campus to hold events and speak at their causes freely without disturbance. It is only natural to have strong disagreements with other people, but it is wrong to try and censor them. If JDL disagreed with U of T Divest’s platform, then they could have decided to hold their own event explaining the case against BDS, or simply voice their opposition during the question period of the event itself. 

Instead, they decided to disrupt the event and show blatant disrespect and disregard for both U of T Divest and their speakers. This was not an exercise in free speech, but a misguided attempt at trying to prevent another group from exercising their rights. 

Freedom of speech is a crucial part of our society, both for principled and practical reasons. Not only is it enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but diversity in thought is essential for innovation and encouraging critical thinking. As a Jewish student in a multicultural university, I feel I must not only represent my people, but reach out to students who I may not entirely agree with, but who have just as much a right to speak their minds as I do. 

Adina Heisler is a first-year student at University College studying English and women and gender studies.

U of T Divest event disrupted by Jewish Defense League

Organizers urge U of T administration to step up safety on campus

U of T Divest event disrupted by Jewish Defense League

An event advertised  under the name “Palestinian Popular Resistance: Building the Student Movement,” hosted by U of T Divest, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union ad-hoc committee on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) received criticism from several Jewish community groups, one of which interrupted the event entirely on January 12.

The event, held at the George Ignatieff Theatre, featured speakers Noura Erakat (via Skype), a human rights lawyer and assistant professor at George Mason University, and Nada Elia, an Iraqi-born Palestinian who works with the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

“Our event highlighted the ongoing human rights crisis facing the Palestinian people in Palestine and Israel,” said Omar Sirri, a spokesperson for U of T Divest. “The persistent violations of international law by the Israeli state have led to renewed forms of popular resistance by Palestinians. Our event sought to educate the campus community about the dire conditions facing Palestinians.”

Support is only growing for our campaign calling on the University of Toronto to divest from companies profiting from violations of international law and war crimes against Palestinians. The success of our event is a testament to that,” Sirri said.

Various Jewish organizations ended up criticizing the event. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) put out a press release, stating that such events are “offensive and strike a deep nerve within our community.” CIJA also disputed the claim that the BDS movement was gaining momentum, citing the rejection of an ad-hoc BDS committee by the UTSU’s Board of Directors over the summer of 2015.

Hillel U of T, the local chapter of the world’s largest Jewish campus organization, sent a complaint to the vice provost’s office regarding the event.

“We were disgusted by the name and by the content of the event,” said Hillel U of T co-president Rachel Benezrah. “The recent wave of violence being perpetrated against innocent Israeli civilians is being labeled as legitimate ‘popular resistance’ acts by Palestinian leadership. Hillel felt that it was important to make our position known to the University of Toronto administration.”

Most notably, members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) were present at the event and there was a heavy police presence outside the venue. The group advertised the event on their website and Facebook page, in which they characterized the event as a “call to murder Jews.”

After the event began, it did not take long for JDL members to heckle the speakers.

“Okay, this is outrageous!” shouted Meir Weinstein, the national director for JDL Canada. “This is incitement to murder Jews!” he yelled. Other JDL members vocally criticized the speakers as being anti-Semites during the event.

JDL members continued to shout throughout Erakat’s address. The organizers implemented a three-strikes policy, where an attendee would be asked to leave after three outbursts. Despite this policy, none of the JDL members who had accumulated three strikes left, nor were they forcibly removed by campus police.

Anticipating disruptive behaviour, the organizers had a room at OISE ready as an alternative location. Halfway through the event, the other attendees were asked to leave the theatre and were notified to head down to OISE 5170, where the event continued without further disruptions.

The JDL did not respond to The Varsity’s requests for comment. On Facebook, however, Weinstein declared their protest a success. “The pro terrorism meeting at U of T had to be moved. JDL was successful. They moved to OISE on Bloor Street and the room was to small and not setup [sic] for video. Most people left.”

Sirri, however, said that the JDL’s violent efforts failed. “The JDL’s violent disruption is yet another attempt by this hate group to shut down any discussion of the plight of the Palestinian people… The JDL’s failed attempt to shut our event down is just a microcosm of the Zionist disrupion, aggression, violence, and attempts at erasure that Palestinians face daily,” he said.

Sirri also took issue with the claim that the event represented an incitement to anti-Semitic violence. “Our work to affirm Palestinian human rights promotes life, an end to violence and an end to all forms of discrimination. This can only be done by addressing the root causes of the conflict, namely the brutal system of occupation, apartheid, and settler colonialism advanced by the Israeli state. Any suggestion otherwise is a racist, bigoted attempt to discredit the work of activists supporting Palestinian human rights,” he said.

What is the Jewish Defense League?

The JDL is a far-right pro-Israel Jewish organization. The group was founded in 1968 by American-Israeli rabbi Meir Kahane in New York City, who also served on the Israeli Knesset.

In the past four decades, members of the JDL in the US were connected to various bombings of Soviet diplomatic offices, the assassination of Arab-American activist Alex Odeh, and conspiracies to murder suspected Neo-Nazis and Nazi collaborators. In 2001, the FBI classified the group as a right-wing terrorist group.

The Israeli political party that was founded by Kahane was also banned in Israel, as its members were connected in the killing of 29 Palestinians.

Many pro-Palestine activists consider the JDL a hate group and mainstream Jewish organizations have largely repudiated the group.

Benezrah told The Varsity that Hillel urged the administration to make sure campus police was present at the event and distanced her group from the JDL. “Hillel and JDL did not communicate in any way prior or during this event,” said Benezrah. CIJA has also previously rebuked the JDL, saying that “the Jewish community doesn’t need the Jewish Defense League.”

The JDL are no strangers to the university. In October 2014, another event held by U of T Divest was disrupted by the group. That event was also moved to a different location after the disruptions.

After that event, Sirri noted that U of T Divest was better prepared for this year’s event. “[We’re] able to learn from these experiences and adjust accordingly,” he said.

Calls on the administration

Prior to the event, the university’s Office of the Vice President, Human Resources & Equity sent a letter to the JDL, urging the group to comply with the law and the university’s policies.

“If members of your organization fail to comply with university policies, the university may issue a Notice of Trespass or general ban on members of the JDL, as well as pursuing whatever legal remedies it deems appropriate,” read a portion of the letter.

Sirri called upon the university administration to ensure the safety and security of students and faulty. 

“The question really is: To what extent is the University Administration committed to ensuring the safety and security of students and faculty engaging in academic debate?

If the University Administration claims to stand against all forms of oppression and violence, then it clearly must do more to address acts of intimidation and threats of violence — which itself is a form of
violence — against members of the campus community,” Sirri said.

Althea Blackburn-Evans, the university’s director of news & media relations, said that the university was disappointed in the conduct of some of the attendees and would be looking into the matter.

“We recognize that there are strong views on our campuses and those views may be disconcerting or even offensive to some. It is our clearly and frequently-articulated expectation that discussion and debate on such issues take place in a civil and respectful environment,” said Blackburn-Evans.