What’s “hate speech” Got To Do With It? Moral Panic and the Media’s Politics of Distraction

I woke up on Monday morning, April 22, 2024, to a CBC storm. A blast of CBC rhetoric shot through the airwaves repeatedly over that day like ice pellets pummelling the windowpane. The storm surged at different intervals in a loop of newscasts that decried, with a strange mix of indignation and schadenfreude, a few words captured on video (00:35-00:50) at the Palestine solidarity march of April 20, 2024, in Ottawa. Prised out of context and instantly stamped as “hate speech” – as “a glorification of October 7th” – these words were nothing more than a motivational chant, typically needed to bolster the marchers’ spirits as they trundle through Ottawa’s downtown streets, buffeted by the elements: lashing gusts of wind and driving rain.

For over half a year, an intrepid community of Ottawa demonstrators has gathered at the Human Rights Monument weekly, calling for a ceasefire, an end to Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, and a halt to its genocidal war on Gazans. For the stewards who monitor the processions, it takes energy to shepherd the crowd, focus to maintain impeccable decorum, and courage to chant slogans of resistance before the threatening posture of police and by-law officers. The formidable gaze of law and order is deeply unsettling. Demonstrators are fully aware that they are being watched at all times and that their actions and words will be held against them should they “step out of line.”

Surveillance was particularly remarkable on April 20th when an unnamed individual caught some “alarming” footage of the solidarity demonstration on video. The videographer in question – likely a pro-Israel apologist – had probably been dreaming of this opportunity for six months. One imagines that he had long hoped to spot some misdemeanour, however small, that would qualify as a hate crime, and herald it as a “gotcha” moment – “a palpable hit.” And to what end? So that those annoying and oh so obdurate persons in keffiyehs, who journey through Ottawa’s downtown core in protest against an unprecedented genocide, could finally be criminalized as anti-Semites – the whole lot of them, including me, a Canadian (ex-Israeli) Jew.

Spectacular Distraction

Like hawks that circle about the horizon as lordly surveyors and swoop down in meteoric flight to capture their unsuspecting prey, pro-Israel apologists are known to scour public discourse hourly for every possible innuendo of anti-Semitism. Then, after a strenuous hunt, they pounce on an innocent victim with cruel glee, only to flaunt their trophy on line, so that a hue and cry can go viral. And with this, the storm of controversy comes crashing into public debate as a spectacular distraction from Israel’s legion crimes.

The brouhaha over so-called anti-Semitic rhetoric was so persistent throughout CBC’s reporting on April 22nd that, for some, it may have occluded Israel’s countless atrocities. Indeed, so overwhelming was this distraction that listeners may have failed to register the barbarity disclosed in news reports about the mass graves at Nasser Hospital where people were buried alive. As for other hideous events that unfolded over recent weeks (the complete destruction of the Al-Shifa Hospital complex; the Israel Occupation Force (IOF)’s umpteenth massacre of patients and doctors; its fascistic degradation of Gazan men stripped naked; Israel’s manufactured starvation of the entire Gazan population, and the list goes on), their unspeakable horror would have been overshadowed by the media’s histrionics over “hate speech.” Outrage over a half-audible chant had trumped gruesome human rights violations.

Disappointing as it might be to those who seek to weaponize the events of October 7th, it must be said that there was no holocaust or 9/11 that day. What occurred then, however horrific, pales beside Israel’s genocide in Gaza. Indeed, the intended extermination of a people – be it in whole or in part – is the acme of all crimes. By contrast, lies peddled on October 8th and beyond about beheaded Israeli babies, babies burned in ovens, and mass rapes have all been thoroughly debunked. Often forgotten or consciously suppressed in all this is Israel’s friendly fire and its implementation of the Hannibal directive, responsible for appalling Israeli and Palestinian deaths. Atrocity propaganda in the early days of the war whipped up media hysteria to justify accelerating the genocide of Palestinians (a holocaust that has been smoking slowly but persistently since 1948) and to pin the blame exclusively on Hamas, as if October 7th was some sort of spontaneous combustion (20:18-20:24), devoid of context and provocation.

But back to the rally of April 20th where even, according to the Ottawa Police, which typically yields to the Israel lobby, the label “hate speech” does not apply so easily to the words spoken at the demonstration. The matter, authorities say, deserves investigation. Still, CBC (along with the National Post, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, and others) chose on Monday, April 22nd to amplify the allegation with great fanfare, and tacitly frame it as a triumph of pro-Israel talking points, suggesting to the Canadian public that the pro-Palestinian demonstrators are a mob of terrorists – “all Hamas” – whose voices need to be quashed.

Anti-Palestinian Rant

That was certainly the sentiment of Tasha Kheiriddin’s sinister bombast in the Montreal Gazette (an anti-Palestinian rant, if ever there was one – or a form of hate speech, some might say), and it was of a piece, even in its extremism, with much of the mainstream press and the Israel lobby’s perverse perspective. Shades of the demonization of 13 UNRWA staff and the eventual defunding of that vital UN agency come to mind. To this day, Israel has provided no evidence to justify the vilification of this crucial aid organization. How little apparent wrongdoing is needed for the onslaught of false accusations to come hurtling down on innocent Palestinian and pro-Palestinian communities. A faint, barely discernible (and, indeed, trumped-up) peccadillo will do it.

For Canadians who have been traumatized by Israel’s obscene assault on Palestinians, CBC’s failure to express a modicum of outrage, let alone utter the word “genocide,” has been deeply dispiriting, though not surprising. Among many Canadians, there has been growing anger over the mainstream press, its bowdlerization of the facts on the ground, both past and present, and its tacit criminalization of innocent protesters. What the public sees in this is a flagrant instance of misinformation and a travesty of objective journalism. Indeed, in such moments the weakness of Canada’s mainstream journalists is lit up. As agents of the press, endowed with the power to shape the narrative of current events and influence the public’s political outlook, such messengers surely have a moral task: to resist acting as mouthpieces of institutional power and to act, instead, as voices of conscience. Truth is the first casualty of war and in Israel’s current war on Gaza truth has suffered a thousand wounds. While it has been rehabilitated intermittently thanks to alternative media channels, Israel’s screaming genocide of Palestinians is continually being muffled, if not drowned out by the stentorian noise (or news, if you prefer) broadcasted by Western media outlets.

It is precisely because the corporate media cracks down on the solidarity movement, wilfully misreading its sentiments, and twisting its political perspectives out of joint that pro-Palestinian demonstrators march every weekend through the downtown core – resilient to the last. These people, both young and old, both Jew and Arab, are exercising their right to uncensored expression in the face of a terrifying return of McCarthyism. And those (not least Ms. Kheiriddin) who treat this proliferation of solidarity rallies as hate marches fail to understand that such a label is not only misplaced, it is a vile slur. To be clear, if Palestine solidarity marches express hate, they do so towards a system of white supremacy, genocide, and Western complicity in Israel’s barbarism, not towards any ethnicity. Otherwise, why would Palestinians be marching alongside Jews? This is not rocket science.

Palestine solidarity processions hurt no one. They only irk the bad conscience of those supporting Israel’s genocidal actions. Claims about the unsafety of pro-Israel Jews are extravagant beside the perils that Palestinians (whether Christian or Muslim) and pro-Palestinian Jews face – both here and abroad. Recall the recent banning of a pro-Palestine congress in Berlin, stormed by 2000 German police officers. On that day, a Jew calling for an end to the genocide in Gaza was arrested. Where have we seen that before? The spectre of Nazi Germany still stalks Europe and allied countries. And therein lies the “unsafety” of all.

“From the river to the sea…”

But let’s return to the chant of April 20th and see whether the allegation of hate speech has any merit. Here are the words: “From the river to the sea, Palestine is almost free, because our resistance attacks are proof that we are almost free. October 7th is proof that we are almost free. Long live October 7th.”

Contrary to wilful mis-readings, the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine is almost free” does not signify or portend genocide. It merely indicates that Palestine will one day cease to be brutally occupied as it currently is. Today, Palestinians live under the dictatorship of a Jewish supremacist regime. IOF soldiers subject prisoners (men, women and young children) to abominable forms of torture. At checkpoints, these same soldiers block aid for sick persons and pregnant women. The result is often untimely death. Palestinian homes are demolished so that settlers can usurp the entirety of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. These same settlers have been known to break the skulls of Palestinian shepherds, while pogroms (see Huwara) occur unchecked under the IOF’s watch. For Palestinians, the contested phrase “from the river to the sea” signifies the long-awaited liberty to live in peace as dignified and equal human beings, free of Israel’s hellish military dictatorship.

The chant “Palestine is almost free” suggests freedom has not yet been secured, but is within reach. There are signs that Israel’s chokehold over Gaza is weakening. It has withdrawn its top brigades from the strip; there is dissension within the army, and soldiers have committed suicide in great numbers. Israel has massacred Gazan civilians in the thousands, but even after six months, it has failed to triumph over Hamas.

The phrase “our resistance attacks are proof that we are almost free” is not a glorification of anti-Semitic violence. It is a reading of history: i.e., the attacks of October 7th – however lamentable for those who lost their lives and for the bereaved – were embroiled in Israel’s own friendly fire and Hannibal directive. The latter was responsible for the dropping of tank shells on Israeli civilians and all other moving targets, causing abominable destruction and devastation of lives. The horror of October 7th cannot be construed as Hamas’s anti-Semitic holocaust of Jews. It was at once a jailbreak out of the biggest prison on earth and a military operation that humiliated Israel’s military elite (1:59-2:26).

Contrary to Western propaganda, and according to former UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories (2001 – 2008) John Dugard, Hamas is not ISIS, nor any death cult, but a political movement with an armed wing (16:04 – 17:24). Those who form Hamas are the descendants of refugees who were forcibly expelled to Gaza in 1948. Every one of those men has suffered huge family losses thanks to Israel’s countless extra-judicial killings. For the first time in 16 years, these same men entered their ancestral home turf and were able to see beyond the fence that has imprisoned them for almost two decades. October 7th to them is proof that those barricades can one day come down – and hopefully not through bloodshed but through peaceful means.

“Long live October 7th” is thus a commemorative statement that recalls a momentary escape from prison and a glimpse of freedom. The date does not conjure up a genocide, nor the intent to foster one. Rather it recalls a military response to a 75-year occupation. After years of oppression and years of humiliation, it is to be expected that a people living under the boot of a supremacist regime will one day rise up and respond violently. To think otherwise is to assume that white supremacy is an acceptable state of affairs that must be tolerated in perpetuity or that the ruling elites will surrender their power and privilege without a fight. The attacks of October 7th have nothing to do with anti-Semitism and everything to do with anti-colonialism – a struggle against Israel’s vicious domination over Palestinians. Treat your colonized subjects as savages and they will react.

It is high time that Canadian journalists brought this to the attention of the public and situated October 7th in historical context rather than fetishizing it as an anti-Semitic holocaust. It was nothing of the sort. Meanwhile, a holocaust of Palestinians is happening now. And that’s where the media’s focus should centre its critical gaze – not on a wholly innocuous slogan that caused a senseless tempest in a teapot.

P.S. I just learned that the person who distributed the video about the alleged “hate speech” is a conservative and convoy-related vlogger who is frequently recording the protests in the hopes of catching something, hoping that his clip will go viral, as the one on April 20th did. •

Michelle Weinroth is a writer and teacher living in Ottawa.