Censorship and Civil Terror in Canada: The Silencing of Palestinian Voices and Palestinian Supporters
These are the final days of 2023.
But are we sure it’s not the end of 1953?
These days, the pro-Israel establishment and the political class of almost every western country are trying to silence Palestinian voices, and their supporters. The suppression doesn’t end there because it’s not just the voices that are being stifled. The powerful in western countries, including Canada, are resorting to threats, arrests, suspensions, and firing of people who dare to stand up in support of Palestinian human rights.
This is similar to what happened during the Red Scare in the US and in Canada in the late 1940s and 1950s. From that time, we know that people who were labelled Communists lost their jobs as screenwriters, actors, playwrights, and in all the cultural realms in the US. Lawyers lost their jobs, as did teachers, clergymen, and many people who worked in the government and private sectors. We know that in 1953 the US sent a married couple, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, to their deaths by electric chair because they were Communists and believed to be Russian spies.
Jobless or Suspended due to Supporting Palestinians
Almost a month ago, Davide Mastracci, a founding writer at The Maple, revealed a list of more than 21 people in Canada who have been suspended or tossed from their jobs because they stood up for the Palestine side of Israel’s war on Gaza.
Indeed, now is the time of the ‘Civil Terror’ – meaning that civilians in many walks of life are being threatened, harassed, and frightened by disciplinary and police actions taken by government, arts organizations, universities, as well as a range of employers. Not only that, but institutions such as libraries, art galleries, and even community centres have cancelled presentations and films because the pro-Israel lobby has intervened to stop them.
Here is a list to add to Davide Mastracci’s excellent work.
1. Nov. 29: The Board of Directors of the Westdale Cinema Group in Hamilton, Ont., cancelled the screening of Israelism, a documentary film. Israelism shows young Jews in the US who were raised to “unconditionally love” Israel now confronting “the brutal way Israel treats Palestinians.” The Westdale Cinema admits that it received 12 “almost identical emails” demanding the cancellation of the movie – though 200 tickets had already been sold and a roundtable discussion with one of the filmmakers after the show was planned. Two days later, after the Westdale had received a deluge of emails demanding the cinema screen the film and host the roundtable, the cinema’s board relented – that’s a victory. But it does not detract from the sting that a film critical of Israel was cancelled in the first place.
2. Halifax Public Libraries cancelled a two-day event, “Palestinian Existence Under Israeli Occupation,” two days before it was to be held at the main public library. The Anthropology Department at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax invited the public to attend two panels that featured eight international academics to discuss the issue on Nov. 4 and 6. Two days before the first event, the chief librarian at Halifax Public Libraries cancelled the panels, citing the fact that it was Holocaust Remembrance Week, so the seminars would not be in good taste. The library had allocated two meeting rooms, and the posters and advertising were already up before the events were abruptly cancelled. The library never rescheduled the seminars.
3. In mid-October, Canada’s biggest communications network, Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE), sent an email to its staff in Atlantic Canada – and possibly to everyone employed by Bell across the country. The email pointed out “the horrific terrorist attacks by Hamas against innocent people in Israel have been distressing. … Bell strongly condemns violence and hatred in all its forms.” Except Bell never said a word about the Palestinian suffering – and as we know, even early in the war, 5 Palestinians were killed to one Israeli. Of course, that number has grown exponentially up to and including Dec. 4.
4. Susan Kim, a city councillor in Victoria, BC, is one of just two elected Canadian politicians (the other is Sarah Jama, MPP in Hamilton, Ont.) to sign a letter demanding a ceasefire in Gaza and to accuse Canadian political leaders of being complicit in Israel’s murder of Palestinians in Gaza. Kim is a city councillor. In the open letter – which was first signed by Jama and by the now-fired director of the University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre – questions the charge that Palestinians committed sexual assaults on Israeli women during the Oct 7 attacks. The leader of BC United Party, the province’s opposition, called for Kim’s resignation. In addition, 8,600 people signed a petition asking her to resign. Interestingly, Victoria’s Mayor Marianne Alto refused to condemn Kim, saying that every councillor had the right to their views.
5. In Quebec, an unnamed political staffer for MNA Brigitte Garceau, a Liberal member of the Quebec legislature, was fired for “liking” two posts on social media. The 26-year-old woman staffer “liked” a post on Instagram that mentioned a Montreal rally in solidarity with Palestinians, on Oct. 12. Then she “liked” a post from a student group protesting that Palestinians were under siege. The staffer was told that her “siding” with Palestine contravened Liberal Party policy.
6. A student who graduated with a Master’s Degree from the University of Toronto in early November was told to remove her keffiyeh scarf or she would not be allowed to walk across the stage to receive her degree. She noticed that Indigenous graduates were permitted to wear ribbon skirts, and a South-Asian woman student was allowed to wear her ethnic dress. A Black graduate was allowed to wear a scarf that read Black Grads Matter. But the Master’s student was told expressly to remove the keffiyah or she would not graduate. To avoid embarrassment, especially for her parents who were at commencement, she took off the scarf.
7. At a rally on Nov. 5, Calgary police charged Wesam Khaled with causing a disturbance and applied “hate motivation” that – if convicted – would increase the penalty. Police issued a statement that said Khaled “… then proceeded to repeatedly use an antisemitic phrase while encouraging the crowd to follow along.” The phrase was “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The crown decided to stay the charges – but clearly Canadian law enforcement is treating that expression as criminal and hateful.
8. On Oct. 22, police charged Dr Tarek Loubani of London, Ont., with mischief after he squirted ketchup on the office door of London North MP Peter Fragiskatos after a demonstration calling for a ceasefire outside his office. Dr Loubani, who is a Canadian medical doctor, has tended patients in Gaza; in 2018, Israeli snipers shot him in both legs as he was doing so. In London, Dr Loubani had to spend a night in jail, though he was released pending his trial on Dec. 6. It’s doubtful that anyone else accused of mischief has had to spend a night in jail. His lawyers noted that squirting ketchup is not a crime, as one stated, “Members of the public have the constitutional right to protest against their elected officials.”
9. Anishinaabe artist and writer Wanda Nanibush was the Art Gallery of Ontario’s (AGO) first Indigenous Canadian curator. She was hired in 2016, but as of mid-October 2023, she is no longer employed by the gallery. The Israel Museum of Arts Canada (IMAAC) – formerly known as the Canadian Friends of the Israel Museum – sent an email of “concern” to the AGO protesting Nanibush’s public “hateful opinions” and “vitriol” about Israel’s bombing of Gaza. The email claimed that Nanibush posted “inflammatory, inaccurate rants against Israel.” The fallout from the email doubtless led to her puzzling exit. Her detractors noted Nanibush’s social media posts, which referred to Israel’s role in genocide and colonialism, actions also denounced by multiple international human rights leaders and organizations. The AGO refuses to comment on Nanibush’s departure, but her presence on the gallery’s website has been “silently scrubbed.” To add insult to injury, the same IMAAC email also demanded the AGO make “personal commitments to the Jewish community” by implementing mandatory sensitivity training for its curatorial staff based on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.
10. In early October, student groups at McGill University, University of British Columbia, University of Toronto, Toronto Metropolitan University, and York University held rallies and published statements showing their support for the people of Palestine and calling for an end to the ongoing genocide in Gaza. In response, each university administration condemned the statements and threatened to decertify the student unions. On Oct. 13, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather demanded York University decertify its three student associations to maintain a “safe space for Jewish and ‘pro-Israel’ students on campus.”
11. On Oct. 20, York University’s president announced that she was giving the student councils and their executives five days to withdraw their statements on the war on Gaza, and take the statements off their websites. The student leaders also were to “not endorse or support antisemitism or any form of discrimination or violence”, and they had to resign their council positions. If they did not agree to those draconian orders, the students had to prove they did not breach the Regulation Regulating Student Organizations. This kind of political interference in university student affairs is almost unheard of.
12. On Oct 17, Jill Dunlop, Ontario’s Minister of Universities, stood up in the legislature to condemn the three student councils at York University and one at the University of Toronto Mississauga for issuing “hateful statements” that she said were antisemitic because they criticized Israel’s bombings of Gaza and the killings of thousands of Palestinians. Dunlop also named three professors, including one she said “justified violence and mass murder” perpetrated by Hamas. The three professors “vehemently denied” this charge and said the government attacked their professional reputations. In the legislature, Dunlop also named – or doxxed – 17 students who are executive members of the student associations and unions representing workers on campus. The Ontario cabinet minister demanded the universities level non-academic misconduct charges against the students.
13. On Oct. 26, Toronto-based law firm Diamond and Diamond filed a $15-million class action lawsuit against York University because of “recurring antisemitic incidents” – such as scrawls written on bathroom stalls and a swastika painted on a residence room fridge. A week later, the same firm filed another $15-million lawsuit against Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), Queen’s University, and the University of British Columbia. The suit represents current Jewish students and alumni dating back to 1998.
14. On Nov. 10, eleven people were arrested and charged for daubing paint and plastering posters on the windows of an Indigo bookstore in downtown Toronto. They were protesting against the chain’s owner, Heather Reisman, for her support of soldiers who volunteer to fight alongside soldiers in the IDF (Israel Defence Forces). In fact, Reisman is the founder of HESEG, a taxpayer-funded foundation that supports lone Jewish soldiers from countries worldwide who want to fight with Israeli soldiers. Protesters claimed that Reisman was “funding genocide” for her support of Israel. Supporters of Reisman have said the protest was antisemitic because Reisman is Jewish. “That’s an outrageous slander.” The protest had nothing to do with the fact that she’s Jewish, said internationally-acclaimed writer and activist Naomi Klein. She spoke at a recent rally in front of the bookstore in support of the eleven charged,
“Whoever engaged in this activism was protesting the CEO of Indigo’s political activity. Not her identity. Not her religion.”
What is very worrying from a civil libertarian point of view is not only that the protesters were charged with mischief but that the police have upgraded the charges (and the possible penalties) by calling the protesters’ actions “hate crimes.”
15. Shree Paradkar, a respected columnist at the Toronto Star, recently wrote in her column about the terror gripping Ontario-based doctors who dare to show sympathy regarding the massacre and displacement of Palestinians “A chill has crept into Ontario’s health sector when it comes to criticizing Israel’s actions in Gaza.”
For example, Dr Yipeng Ge, a doctor who is in fourth year of residency training at the University of Ottawa, has been suspended indefinitely for his empathy for Palestinians. According to Paradkar, “A Toronto physician who is a friend of Ge and describes him as a “outstanding physician” and “consummate professional” does not want to be identified because he says he “worries about being punished for supporting Yipeng.”
16. Shree Paradkar also notes that there is “an abundance of over-scrutiny and low level harassment behind the scenes” after a new coalition Health Workers Alliance for Palestine published an open letter in November which called on Israel to stop bombing hospitals in Gaza. “There are no circumstances in which health facilities, patients, and healthcare workers can be viewed as legitimate targets of military operations. Israel’s war crimes must stop immediately,” the Nov. 10 petition reads. More than 3,400 medical professionals from across Canada have signed the letter; many say they are now facing professional repercussions such as complaints lodged against them and claims that they are making Jewish colleagues feel “unsafe.”
Paradkar interviewed many health care professionals who have been threatened or called out for their support of Palestinians. These items 17-20 cover what she reported.
17. Paradkar notes an Arab-Canadian doctor in Quebec who, after signing the open letter, was attacked by colleagues who “accused him of antisemitism and ‘blood libel’ and copied in senior management of the hospital.” The doctor told Paradkhar, “I thought it was not only a case of intense silencing and harassment, but also, quite frankly, character assassination.”
18. A senior Egyptian-Canadian physician in a Toronto area hospital was told “by senior administrators that they received several complaints about his signing the letter and his tweets, and while they did not find any evidence of wrongdoing, he now knows he’s being watched closely.”
19. A staff doctor at a Toronto teaching hospital said the chair approached them and their colleagues. The open letter was called antisemitic. The chair asked one colleague to rescind their signature, which they refused to do.
20. A medical resident at an Ontario university who signed the letter said he received intimidating comments from colleagues. Some asked why he’d signed the letter. One of them told him anti-Zionism was equal to antisemitism. Another said he was “disgusted” to be his colleague. The resident stated, “Essentially, pro-Palestinian voices or … any advocacy for Palestinian human rights has been essentially vilified and turned into something that it’s not and it’s disheartening.” The resident explained that the university has said nothing, which is even more disheartening. He said “I feel it continues to contribute to the culture of silencing.”
21. On Dec. 2, Israel refused to renew Jerusalem-based Lynn Hastings’ visa, which means she must leave Israel by the end of December. A Canadian, Hastings has a top United Nations post– she is humanitarian aid coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israel’s foreign ministry said Hastings was “not impartial” and full of “dangerous rhetoric.” Israel’s envoy to the UN, Gilad Erdan, claimed that some officials at the UN had “spread lies” about the situation.
22. The Art Canada Institute (ACI), which is part of Massey College at the University of Toronto, cancelled an online art exhibit that featured photographic work by a group of Arab-Canadian, Muslim, and some south Asian artists. Five days before the show, Lands Within, was to go up on Nov. 28, Sara Angel, ACI’s founder and executive director, insisted the work had to undergo a last minute “sensitivity review.” All the featured artists and others in the show withdrew their work, and the show was not mounted. Other artists in the show also withdrew their work in protest. Executive Director Sara Angel also backed a letter that targeted former Art Gallery of Ontario Indigenous curator Wanda Nanibush. Angel, along with the AGO board and executive staff, managed to silence Nanibush in some way – as she no longer is on staff at the AGO after an eight-year tenure there. Please see item 9 above.
22 incidents: those in power cut down pro-Palestine supporters
These are 22 incidents that I found in media reports or were reported to me.
What does this mean? We are a month after the original reports that were exposed on The Maple’s list on Nov. 10.
The Civil Terror created by the pro-Israel lobby is ramping up. There are two points I’ll make.
Chilling Effect and the Issue of “Agency”
First, there is the issue of the chilling effect. As researchers Sheryl Nestel and Rowan Gaudet of Independent Jewish Voices Canada noted in their monograph “Unveiling the Chilly Climate”:
“Public recrimination and attempts at disciplining critics of Israel are only part of the story. The ‘chilling effect’ touches on knowledge production, research, activism, and creating awareness about Palestinians’ struggle for justice. The ‘chilling effect’ undermines our dealing with 75 years of Palestinian dispossession and 55 years of brutal and illegal Israeli military occupation.”
The “chilling effect” also buries attempts at explanation or investigation of the current situation of Gaza and the West Bank with a silencing that suppresses free speech on Palestine.
Second, there is the question of “agency.” Too frequently we read in the newspapers and online, and we hear journalists report on events in the passive voice. One example is Palestinians were warned to move south in Gaza to avoid being massacred. Who is issuing the edict and who is doing the killing? Or various politicians, professors, or students were asked to withdraw criticism of the war on Gaza, or face being disciplined or fired. Who is disciplining and who is doing the firing? When those in authority punish or condemn people who support a ceasefire (even by signing a petition), or support pro-Palestinian organizations, those in authority are often masked or written out of the issue – despite the fact that they are knowingly, or not, acting as lobbyists for Israel. The assumption is that those in authority know best, so they need not be named or questioned.
Winter is coming, but the chill of civil terror, censorship, and silencing is already upon us. •