Freedom of Expression and Palestine Advocacy

Enormous resources have been marshaled by conservative and Zionist organizations in an attempt to silence criticism of the Canadian government’s unwavering support for Israel. The first few months of 2009 have seen a concerted campaign to shut down Palestine advocacy in Canada. Such examples include:

  1. cutting funding to the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF) due to the organization’s outspoken criticism of the government during the war in Gaza;
  2. banning posters for the annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) in several Ontario university campuses; and
  3. a smear campaign against the Ontario branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) for daring to discuss the issue of an academic boycott of Israel.

This is not an exhaustive list. The Canadian government also banned George Galloway, who was scheduled to speak about his trip to Gaza, in the same period. Artist Reena Katz was recently “disassociated” from the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Toronto, which was exhibiting her artistic work. Koffler “disassociated” with Katz for her activities with Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW): her exhibit was on the Toronto Jewish Community, not related to Palestine at all.

Palestine advocates have always had to live with harassment, false accusations, and smears. All these vastly intensified after the latest Israeli assault against the captive people of Gaza that left over 1400 people dead, including 430 children, and thousands of homes and public infrastructure destroyed in an already devastated and besieged area. This direct response to a growing international solidarity movement in support of Palestinian human rights is an attempt to demonize the movement and curtail its ability to do public organizing and campaigning.

This article answers the false accusations made against Palestine advocates, documents three cases of harassment and violation of free expression (CAF, IAW, and CUPE), and argues that free expression for Palestine advocates is an issue that should be taken up by all who are concerned about free expression.

Defending Israeli War Crimes

Israeli state arguments in defense of war crimes against the Palestinian people are becoming less convincing by the day, as open racism becomes acceptable in Israeli politics (demonstrated by the electoral victories of Lieberman and Netanyahu) and as Israel’s treatment of Palestinians becomes more brutal. Supporters of Israel increasingly resort to the argument that attacking Israel is ‘anti-Semitic.’ They have coined the term “the new anti-Semitism” – defined as any criticism of Israeli policies (see, for examples, Phyllis Chesler, The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About it (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003) and Alan Dershowitz, The Case for Israel (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2003). Accusations of anti-Semitism against those critical of Israeli policies aims at either silencing them or forcing them to spend their time and energy defending themselves against allegations rather than writing or organizing. The accusation of anti-Semitism leveled against all who criticize Israel contradicts claims that Israel is a state like any other. If both of these claims are true, criticizing Israel should not be different from criticizing any other state, and should be protected by free expression, as should discussion of Palestinian human rights. If even discussing the Palestinian situation is a form of anti-Semitism, then Palestinians cannot have full human rights.

Israel’s supporters claim that Israel and Canada are western societies that embody ‘freedom.’ While exalting these societies for their freedom, these same supporters shut down freedom for those who speak out against Israel’s crimes.

Another offered reason for silencing Palestine advocacy is that calling Israel an Apartheid state is offensive. It certainly is offensive, to Zionists as it would also offend white South Africans who believed in the apartheid system to be challenged, but would this mean that all events that challenge supporters of apartheid should be shut down? Do we shut down pro-choice events because they offend anti-choicers? Since when is the measure for allowing events who they offend? There are many pro-Israel events that take place every day on Canadian campuses – even at times soldiers who participated in war crimes are paraded like heroes, sometimes in front of students whose homes have been bombed by these same soldiers. This is offensive, but nothing has ever been banned because Palestinians find it offensive.

The campaign of repression against pro-Palestine groups is not simply an attack on Arab-Canadians, or even just their allies. They are attacks on the progressive movement as a whole. They are aimed at limiting our collective ability to criticize government policies, whether on supporting Israel, the war in Afghanistan, or the case of Omar Khadr. They are also aimed at creating migrant communities that are silenced into obedience, using the threat of cuts to government funding. The examples below point to an increasing trend that is clearly coordinated across sectors to silence those speaking for Palestinian human rights.

Community Organizations Penalized for Palestine Solidarity

On 17 February 2009, several media outlets announced that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was poised to slash federal funding to Canada’s largest Arab community organization, the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF). A month later, Kenney followed through on his threats by formally cutting funding for CAF programs that help newcomers (these programs help all newcomers – not only Arabs). Two programs were cut, one that teaches English to newcomers and the second helps them search for jobs once they come to Canada.

The media has portrayed the cuts to CAF funding as a response to its president calling Kenney a ‘professional whore’ for supporting Israel in its war on Gaza (the President of CAF was actually quoting Professor Norman Finkelstein, a well-known critic of Israel). But Kenney himself has clarified on several occasions that funding cuts had nothing to do with the comments made about him. On 7 March 2009, Kenney admitted there was no connection between the insult and the decision to cut funding to CAF and stated:

“When I first became Minister over 2 years ago, one of the very first things I said to my bureaucrats on the very first day in my Department of Multiculturalism was that we would not be funding groups that promote extremism, defend or apologize for terrorism or terrorist organizations and promote hatred, and as I mentioned specifically two groups: the Canadian Arab Federation and the Canadian Islamic Congress” (Jason Kenney interview from AM 770 – Alberta).

Here we have a government minister clearly and openly declaring that he is targeting groups because he perceives them as being ‘extremist.’ Beyond cutting funding, Kenney explained that a ‘change in leadership’ would restore the funding, as reported in the National Post on 14 March 2009:

“Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says the Canadian Arab Federation will have to change its leadership and adopt a more moderate stance or risk losing federal funding…Mr. Kenney said taxpayers should not be footing the bill for an organization whose leader ‘promotes hateful and extremist views.’ Mr. Kenney said there are many moderate organizations that could do the job… He suggested the decision could be reversed if more moderate leaders were in place.”

The irony to Canadian-Arabs is startling, especially when you consider that many of them have ended up in Canada fleeing repressive governments that stifle criticism. Here you have a government minister interfering in a community’s choice of leaders, telling the community to change its leadership to restore funding because this leadership is not to his liking. After such extreme action, the Minister tells the community he is doing this because they are not ‘moderate.’

In explaining his case for the cuts, Kenney said on February 26th 2009:

“But my point [in weighing whether to continue funding the CAF], is whether an organization … that distributes videos produced by Hamas and Islamic Jihad that glorifies terrorism [and] indoctrinates children into the cult of anti-Semitic hatred… is not an organization, in my opinion, that should be receiving taxpayer subsidies…I’m simply saying, when we make funding decisions we should take into account the character of the organization and its leadership. And if they’re promoting extremism, or [in the case of the CAF], implicitly promoting anti-Semitism, I think that should be a consideration” (Minister Jason Kenney in an interview with Canadian Jewish News).

The Canadian Arab Federation has been a vocal critic of the Harper government’s uncritical support for Israel. This began in July 2006 when CAF criticized Prime Minister Harper and the Conservative government for calling Israel’s invasion and devastation of Lebanon a “measured response.”

Because CAF has helped to organize demonstrations against Israel’s war in Gaza and Lebanon, Kenney is falsely accusing the organization of being “anti-Semitic” and cutting funding on that basis. There has been no formal investigation on any front, no due process to accuse CAF or its leadership of anti-Semitism. Yet based on Kenney’s personal opinions and political biases he can declare what he wants to the media, including statements smearing people and decisions harming entire communities of newcomers, without substantiation or accountability.

While present at a conference against the “new anti-Semitism” in London England on February 18, 2009, Minister Kenney said:

“These [Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) and CAF] and other organizations are free within the confines of our law and consistent with our traditions of freedom of expression, to speak their mind, but they should not expect to receive resources from the state, support from taxpayers or any other form of official respect from the government or the organs of our State (italics added). And I would encourage all other governments to take a similar approach to organizations that either excuse violence against Jews or express essentially anti-Semitic sentiments.”

Minister Kenney’s use of the phrase “our state” suggests he is speaking of a state that Arabs and Muslims do not belong to. This in turn suggests a political test for belonging to what Kenney calls “our state.” The message seems to be that Arab-Canadians and anyone else who dares to criticize Israel can do so, but that makes them anti-Semitic, ‘immoderate,’ and unworthy of state funding.

CAF has decided to challenge Minister Kenney’s decision to cut the funding in the courts. On Monday March 30, 2009 CAF asked Justice Kelen of the Federal Court for an interim order so that it could continue to receive the funds it needs to operate its English language training program until its challenge to the cancellation of this funding is heard by the Court. The Court did not issue this order because it concluded that the harm caused by the immediate loss of funding could be recovered later in damages if the CAF ultimately wins its case in court. Interestingly, Minister Kenney chose not to present evidence through government counsel to counter CAF’s allegations that the cut in funding was inappropriate and motivated by Kenney’s political beliefs. Government counsel did not try in court to defend Minister Kenney’s strong allegations that CAF is anti-Semitic and promotes terror.

The courts did find that the evidence reveals that Minister Kenney probably breached his legal duty to act fairly to the Canadian Arab Federation. Justice Kelen made it clear that it would be inappropriate for the Minister to cut CAF’s funding because its President had called the Minister a name (as noted above this was never the issue). Justice Kelen said:

“Being a target of public criticism is part of holding public office. If the Minister decided to cancel English as a Second Language funding contract for the Canadian Arab community simply because he was called a name… his decision should not stand. It was not unexpected that the Arab community would be repulsed by Israel’s invasion of Gaza … the Arab community was upset that the Canadian government did not strongly protest this attack. Many reputable Canadian Jews were similarly opposed to… [the] attack.”

Mohamed Boudjenane, CAF’s Executive Director said: “Cleary this was a political decision in an attempt to silence CAF, however, we will continue our court case to clear our name and repair the damage done to the Canadian Arab Federation and the Arab Canadian community at large.” CAF is also leading a broad-based campaign to defend freedom of expression in various sectors.

University Campuses and Palestine Solidarity

There is a similar pattern of unsubstantiated accusations against Palestine advocacy groups on campuses. University campuses have long been seen as a space for critical debate and the building of solidarity with international struggles. Despite the fact that the production of knowledge in North American universities is increasingly linked to the interests of the state and the corporate sector, campuses provide an important space to organize in support of marginalized and oppressed groups. Indeed, it has become increasingly difficult to find such views off-campus within the corporate-controlled media or a political system dominated by various shades of conservatism.

The university has consequently become a contested ground. After a long hiatus during the Oslo ‘peace’ process years (1993-2000), a vibrant student-movement in support of Palestinian self-determination was re-ignited on university campuses across North America with the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000. The movement grew as Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights intensified, particularly following the re-invasion of the Occupied Territories by Israeli troops in March-April 2002. Much of the solidarity movement modeled itself on the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa; in a short time petitions were circulating calling for divestment from Israel. By the time the anti-war in Iraq movement began in 2003, many students were equipped with a variety of skills – from organizing large scale demonstrations, public meetings, street-theater to more confrontational direct action tactics – acquired in their Palestine organizing.

This new anti-apartheid movement is extremely troubling for supporters of Israel, due especially to the comparisons that began to be openly made with apartheid South Africa. The memory of the struggle against apartheid South Africa is very much alive in the public consciousness. Broader layers of the population are beginning to understand the mass expulsion of three-quarters of the Palestinian people in 1948 that lay at the heart of the ‘Palestine Question.’ These comparisons damaged the progressive veneer that for many years had built the illusion of a ‘left-Zionism.’

As the Intifada continued the analysis of Israel as an apartheid state was developed further on campuses and was finally cemented with an action plan when the call for Boycotts, Divestments, Sanctions came from Palestine signed by over 170 civil society organizations in 2005.

In order to quash this movement, university administrations began to target student activist groups through repressive and bureaucratic means (establishing codes of conduct is just one example of these measures). Student activists were harassed and public spaces for student demonstrations and teach-ins were labeled “private property” (even though this is the property of a public university) making it “illegal” (in some cases overnight) to hold events. Student organizers have also noticed a pattern of harassment when it comes to room bookings. The same organization will put in a booking for multiple events on campaigns around Venezuela, Bolivia, Indigenous solidarity, among others. Yet, the only room bookings that will be delayed and speakers biographies questioned are those related to Palestine. The students’ ability to organize, and indeed their freedom of assembly, is dependent upon access to space. When university administrations are colluding with off-campus pro-Israel organizations to deny space, it is not only the freedom of expression of students doing Palestine solidarity work that is being curtailed, but that of all students and progressives on campuses. This was surely the case at the University of Toronto (see Liisa Schofield’s Bullet #188). These actions by university administrators resonate with a view of students as customers paying for a service, rather than as active participants in the politics that shape the world around them.

Another administrative measure is the charging of security fees. The rule seems to be the more critical of Canadian foreign policy the speaker, the higher the security fees. The procedures for assessing security fees is not transparent. Though Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) activists have asked repeatedly from both administrative and security bodies on campuses to let them know what the procedures and guidelines are for assessing ‘security risks’ there is never a straight answer, no guidelines, no written documents. It could simply be based on racial profiling – for example a speaking event for Tariq Ali, a UK-based author of about a dozen books, organized by OPIRG Toronto and the CUPE 3903 International Solidarity Committee was charged fees for the University of Toronto security personnel to be there. The organizers didn’t request security yet received a bill following the event. This also took place when Students Against Israeli Apartheid organized a talk with long-time South African anti-apartheid and Palestine activist, Salim Vally, in which Vally compared South African Apartheid policies to Israeli policies. These charges are a de facto suppression of free expression since they represent prohibitive costs for activist groups operating without any resources.

Politicians Attack IAW

Since its inception at the University of Toronto in 2005, Israeli Apartheid Week has garnered wide-spread media attention and smear campaigns from various Zionist organizations. This year however, the attack was much more extreme. Beyond the usual B’nai Brith fear-mongering and full page ads urging universities to shut the week down, the novel element was the intensity of attacks by political figures.

Minister Kenney for example, on the March 6, 2009 stated:

“Like many Canadians, I am deeply concerned about the activities associated with ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’… It is disconcerting that university student groups would promote these gatherings in a manner that demonstrates a complete disregard for the safety and security of Jewish students and professors and the general well-being of campus life… I call on all Canadians to reject anti-Semitism.”

Minister Kenney again seems to stop short of directly calling IAW anti-Semitic, but as he does against CAF, he makes the case by innuendo. Kenney’s “concern” is not accompanied by knowledge: he did not attend a single lecture of IAW and refers to the week without any reference to anything organizers have said or done.

On March 3, 2009, Conservative MP Paul Calandra (Oak Ridge – Markham) declared:

“Mr. Speaker, Jewish students across the country are under siege as anti-Semites unveil their plans for Israel Apartheid Week. Liberal MPs have been quoted in the media and even today in the immigration committee saying that anti-Semitic organizations like the Canadian Arab Federation should receive taxpayer support. Will the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism explain why the government believes that Israel Apartheid Week is anti-Semitic?”

Calandra makes more direct, but no more informed, accusations in this little declaration. Beyond the smears, the disrespect for free expression is striking.

But the surprise of the week was when the head of the Liberal Party, Michael Ignatieff issued a public statement about Israeli Apartheid Week (an annotated version of his statement is available here). One has to look at the situation from some distance to view it with some humour, as Canada plunges into a recession and workers across the country are losing jobs – politicians are busy speaking against a week of lectures on university campuses because this week happens to call Israel an apartheid state. Ignatieff wrote in his public statement that: “Labelling Israel as an ‘apartheid’ state is a deliberate attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state itself” because international law defines apartheid as a crime against humanity. But Israeli Apartheid Week is not the only place in the world where Israel has been called an apartheid state: South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been saying it for several years now and Ronnie Kasrils of the African National Congress has participated in Israeli Apartheid Week as a keynote speaker. These two South Africans certainly know more about apartheid being a crime against humanity than Ignatieff does. But the issue isn’t really if Israel is an apartheid state or not – it’s that university students have every right to organize lectures, film screenings and debates about the issue!

Ignatieff, fearing not to appear liberal enough, contends in the same statement that “criticism of Israel is legitimate” but that “attempting to describe its very existence as a crime against humanity is not.” Yet, there are very specific political, legal and moral arguments about whether Israel is an apartheid state or not. There are academic books on the matter such as Uri Davis’s Apartheid Israel, as but one exapmple. Will those books that describe Israel as an apartheid state be banned? This is all still unclear. What is clear is that Israeli Apartheid week has hit a nerve among supporters of Israel. But if the analysis of Israel as an Apartheid state is wrong, why such fear? Why all the effort to shut the week down? If the facts are on Israel’s side, then Israel’s supporters should be able to win the debate on the merits, on the facts and arguments. No one is stopping Zionist organizations from organizing ‘Israel is great’ weeks. Why spend such effort trying to stop pro-Palestinian voices from putting forth arguments?

One of the most objectionable accusations against IAW was the allegation that calling Israel an apartheid state makes Jewish students unsafe. But many Jewish students helped to organize IAW: are they less Jewish because they are not Zionist? Will Ignatieff and Kenney enter the business of deciding who is Jewish now, as well as deciding what is legitimate and illegitimate to say?

Banning Posters

On February 9, 2009 Carleton University became the first to ban the IAW poster. The posters were taken down at the request of Carleton’s Equity Services, under the rationale that the posters “could be seen to incite others to infringe rights protected in the Ontario Human Rights code” and are “insensitive to the norms of civil discourse in a free and democratic society.”

The poster was created by noted cartoonist Carlos Latuff and depicts a child being killed by aerial bombardment. This occurred over 430 times in Israel’s latest attack on Gaza according to United Nations reports. How this image that portrays a factual situation “incites others to infringe on rights” is unclear and left unexplained by the university administration. One wonders if the poster was a photograph of a Palestinian child killed by Israeli bombardment if that too would be banned.

The troubling aspect of the poster banning is the use by the Carleton administration of ‘human rights’ as an excuse to violate freedom of expression. The process by which the poster was banned is completely unilateral and doesn’t allow for appeal: there is an unsubstantiated accusation and students cannot even defend their work. Are these the norms of “civil discourse in a free and democratic society” that the Carleton administration is referring to?

Ironically, this same administration that banned the poster could not summon enough concern for human rights or the right to education to speak against the bombing of a Gazan university. When 56 Carleton professors asked President Roseanne Runte to condemn Israel’s bombardment of the Islamic University of Gaza, the President refused. Neither the direct killing of hundreds of children nor the direct bombing of a campus are enough to elicit condemnation: a poster depicting the bombing is.

Following Carleton’s lead, on February 20, 2009, the University of Ottawa became the second Ottawa university administration to ban the posters of IAW 2009. Like Carleton University’s administration, the University of Ottawa’s Communications Office used spurious “human rights” claims to ban the poster. The Communications Office’s short communiqué to Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights read:

“A poster from the campus group Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights has recently come to the attention of the Communications Office. All posters approved by the Communications Office must promote a campus culture where all members of the community can play a part in a declaration of human rights recognizing the inherent dignity and equal rights of all students. Consequently, we will not place this particular poster on our campus billboards.”

Other universities (Wilfrid Laurier, Trent) also stopped the poster from being circulated using the same type of justification.

Again how this poster does not recognize the “inherent dignity and equal rights of all students” is unclear and unexplained. There is no mechanism for an appeal. In fact, the banning of the poster is a failure to recognize the dignity and equal rights of Palestinian students and those who seek to expose the violations of human rights of Palestinians. This is another innovation: the use of the language of human rights and equity, won through progressive struggle, to justify administrative fiat against students who are trying to practice the politics of human rights and equity.

As this article was being written, the Koffler Centre of the Arts announced it is dissociating itself from an exhibit presented by Reena Katz solely on the basis of her political affiliations, specifically with Israeli Apartheid Week. On May 12th, Koffler and its parent organization United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto (UJA) issued separate public statements of dissociation from Katz. Koffler made the artist a verbal offer to honor the full funding of the project while removing the Koffler’s name, logo and URL from any related material. The ironic part about this move to disassociate from the artist is that the off-site exhibit, entitled each hand as they are called, consists of sonic and visual performances, bringing elders from Toronto’s Jewish community into conversation and play with students from Ryerson Public School. The exhibit has nothing to do with Palestine, Palestinians or Israeli Apartheid. The Koffler’s behaviour, besides being an outrageous for an arts institution, sets a dangerous precedent, suppressing art and choosing to support artistic endeavors based on an artists’ political beliefs and affiliations (see Katz’s website:

We are starting to see that the silencing of Israeli Apartheid week spread beyond campuses. Repression, once released, is not easily contained: it inevitably trickles outside to other aspects of everyday life. Why harm an exhibit about Jewish history on the basis of the artist’s affiliation with IAW?

Organizers of IAW are interested in opening up debate and discussion on Israel. As a matter of fact they have been calling for debates on the academic boycott of Israel to take place across Canadian universities. On one side, you have organizers clearly seeking mature debate on a subject of great importance to the public. On the other, politicians, university administrations, and now cultural institutions are trying to shut the debate down.

Labour Unions

If campuses are spaces where the possibility for a wider debate are possible, making them contested ground, labour unions are organizations that press for progressive change, and are often punished for it. Most are familiar with the media smear campaigns against CUPE Ontario, and its President Syd Ryan, when Resolution 50 supporting BDS was adopted by the membership. This resolution was adopted overwhelmingly by the CUPE membership, yet outside organizations, contemptuous of the democratic processes of the union, initiated campaigns of harassment against the leadership. Ryan received death threats, the chair of the international solidarity committee at the time had to change her phone number and email address due to the barrage of hate mail she was receiving. Luckily, CUPE did not back down due to these campaigns and continued to do rank and file education around Palestinian rights. As Ryan explained it: “criticize the State of Israel and face individually targeted and unprecedented criticism, threats and personal attacks – tantamount to a new form of McCarthyism.”

Shortly after the attack on Gaza, the university sector conference of CUPE Ontario adopted a motion calling for research on Canadian University connections with Israeli Universities specifically in the area of military research. It passed a second motion supporting free expression on the issue of Palestine on campuses. As those motions were being discussed inside the conference, the Jewish Defense League (JDL) gathered outside waving Israeli flags, one sign was of Ryan’s picture superimposed on Hitler’s body. The objective is to tell trade unionists solidarity with Palestinian workers will come at the price of fear, harassment, filthy accusations, and physical aggression.

Other unions, such as OPSEU and OSSTF, have active grievances in process because their members have been disciplined for putting up IAW posters or other Palestine-related materials in their workplaces.


A targeted campaign against Arab community organizations, academics that support Palestinian human rights and student activists that organize events such as IAW has been launched to keep the solidarity movement occupied with defending itself. This campaign employs a vast array of methods including threats by donors to stop grants to universities; calls for the dismissal of academics based on media smear campaigns, and the intervention of members of Parliament.

The success of Palestine solidarity activists and other progressive movements led to the launch of these campaigns of intimidation and repression. The level of retaliation an oppositional movement receives is a good gauge of its success and its ability to affect change in the public consciousness. This success is also reflected in the growing confluence of the political right, conservatism and the Zionist movement. Zionism is increasingly losing its ability to divide progressive movements and becoming associated with right-wing politics.

These developments indicate the importance of building cross-linkages and networks of solidarity between various progressive movements. This new round of attacks represents a threat to many of the gains won during previous rounds of struggle, most notably the free speech campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s across North America. It is on all of us to take responsibility to beat back this new McCarthyism. •