OPINION: Province Believes In Freedom Of Oppression, Not Expression


Omar Mosleh

This column originally appeared in the Vaughan Citizen

This week on Newstalk 1010, during a discussion on Israeli Apartheid Week, a caller denounced the demonstrations and their hosts, saying, “These are not schools of thought, these are schools of the thoughtless”.

Israeli Apartheid Week started in 2005 in Toronto and has since spread across the globe to different university campuses in more than 40 countries. It’s a series of demonstrations, protests and lectures comparing the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians to the treatment of blacks in apartheid South Africa.

In late February, Thornhill Conservative MPP Peter Shurman made a motion in the Ontario legislature, which passed unanimously, to denounce Israeli Apartheid Week at all publicly funded post-secondary institutions on the grounds the name in itself is hateful and “odious”.

What’s odious in this day and age, is that our provincial government believes in freedom of oppression, not expression.This month, Edmonton-Sherwood Park Conservative MP Tim Uppal had a similar motion blocked by members of the NDP and Bloc Quebecois in the House of Commons. While opposition called it a freedom of speech issue, Mr. Uppal said: “This House is concerned about expressions of anti-Semitism under the guise of Israeli Apartheid Week.”

The labelling of IAW as hateful is consistent with attempts by B’nai Brith and the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee to discredit any criticism of Israel by classifying it as anti-Semitism.

Mr. Shurman carefully said the event name is “close to hate speech”, because it conflicts with Canada’s definition of hate speech by attacking a government, not an identifiable group distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.

Criticizing Israel as a political entity is not anti-Semitism. Equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism assumes all Jews support Israel’s actions, which is untrue.

After hearing Mr. Uppal’s motion was defeated, Sid Shniad, a spokesperson for Independent Jewish Voices, a Jewish group that partakes in IAW said, “This shows courage to stand up to the Orwellian attempts by Israel’s supporters to bully Israel’s critics into silence.”

The motions proposed by two Conservative members illustrates the government’s unconditional support of and continued attempts to mute any criticism of Israel.

For example, in 2008, Canada was the only country at the UN Human Rights Council to vote against a resolution calling for “urgent international action to put an immediate end to Israel’s siege of Gaza”.

B’Tselem, an Israeli non-governmental organization, estimated the conflict killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, including about 700 civilians, 400 of which were women and children. The total Israeli casualty was 13.

In 2006, after Hezbollah launched missiles into Israel that killed five Israeli soldiers, Israel responded with a massive bombing campaign in southern Lebanon.

The Associated Press estimates more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians died as a result. The total loss of Israeli life was under 200, including military and civilians. The bombing severely damaged civilian infrastructure and caused the largest oil spill in the history of the Mediterranean. Prime Minister Stephen Harper called this response “measured”.

Residents of Gaza and the West Bank are not permitted to vote in Israeli elections, must routinely cross checkpoints and are not allowed to use the same roads or water sources as Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

Even Jamal Zahalka, an Arab member of the Israeli legislature, said while Israeli-Arabs technically enjoy equal rights as Israeli-Jews, they face racism from Israeli policemen and civil servants.

Furthermore, the 500-mile separation wall that runs around the West Bank has been decried by the International Court of Justice and Amnesty International as a violation of humanitarian law because it encroaches into pre-1967 Palestinian territory, limits mobility and annexes farmers from their fields.

Serious humanitarian issues are occurring in Israel that need to be discussed openly and candidly. We should have the right to criticize any country.

Just because the Conservatives are more concerned with identity politics and appeasing powerful Jewish lobby groups like the Canadian Jewish Congress, doesn’t mean we should ignore Israeli human rights issues.

Detractors of IAW say the event makes Jewish students uncomfortable by creating a “hostile” atmosphere. At any demonstration, someone will cross the line into hateful speech, but this is the exception and not the rule.

Thomas Walkom, national affairs columnist for the Toronto Star, said he did not find or hear any evidence of anti-semitism at an IAW event he attended at Ryerson this month.

In The Citizen’s sister paper, The Thornhill Liberal, a column on IAW mentions the significant medical advances Israel has contributed and notes that Premier Dalton McGuinty will visit Israel in May. It concludes Ontario attendees and organizers “may want to consider moving their venue next year to a neutral location”, just not Ontario.

So because Israel has done such great things in the health and trade sectors, that means we should ignore human rights issues there?

Not only is this idea absurd, it is also hypocritical. Do we ignore China’s because of its contribution to the global economy? No one declares Islamophobia when Saudi Arabia is criticized for inequality issues, and they have a desirable stockpile of fossil fuels.

I do not agree with the term “Israeli Apartheid”, but I do feel discussion surrounding human rights issues in the Palestinian Territories is warranted as long as the administration promotes a fair, tolerant discussion.

But this becomes difficult, considering perhaps the most disturbing part of this issue is that the government is denouncing demonstrations at universities – the very institutions created to encourage critical thought.

Meanwhile, this week, American conservative pundit Ann Coulter is speaking at Canadian universities. Ms Coulter has made controversial statements in the past that could be construed as hateful, such as “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”.

At the University of Western Ontario this week, Ms Coulter told a Muslim student she should “take a camel” when asked about her statement Muslims should be banned from airplanes.

As a Muslim-Canadian, do I find this statement offensive? Yes. But do I feel Ms Coulter should be banned from Canadian schools because of her views? No.

I am eager to see if the federal Tories will make a motion denouncing Ms Coulter’s words as hateful. My sneaking suspicion is they won’t because the government hasn’t demonstrated much concern toward human rights issues, unless, of course, they run counter to its own views.

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