Yesterday’s vote in Parliament on a resolution formally condemning the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement once again highlighted a massive shortcoming of the Canadian party system: on the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine, as on many critical issues, Canadians have no meaningful representation in Parliament. And it’s hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that that’s a feature, not a bug, of the system.
The Conservative Party, of course, is continuing in its steadfast and unrestrained embrace of right-wing Israeli politics, in the tradition of their former Dear Leader Stephen Harper, who in a 2014 speech to the Israeli Knesset had some strong words about the BDS movement:
“People who would never say they hate and blame the Jews for their own failings or the problems of the world instead declare their hatred of Israel and blame the only Jewish state for the problems of the Middle East,” he said.
“Some civil-society leaders today call for a boycott of Israel…. Most disgracefully of all, some openly call Israel an apartheid state. Think about that. Think about the twisted logic and outright malice behind that.
“A state, based on freedom, democracy and the rule of law, that was founded so Jews can flourish as Jews, and seek shelter from the shadow of the worst racist experiment in history,” he said.
“That is condemned, and that condemnation is masked in the language of anti-racism. It is nothing short of sickening.”
He was speaking, of course, before a chamber composed of the elected representatives of only some residents of Israel, the embodiment of democracy for Israeli Jews (and some Israeli Arabs) but none for East Jerusalem, Gaza and West Bank Palestinians.
His invocation of the “rule of law” was certainly questionable, given that Israel has been accused by the United Nations of violating international law for allowing illegal settlement on Palestinian land, of war crimes during its invasion of Gaza in 2014, and of illegally preventing humanitarian aid from entering the Gaza Strip.
And Harper’s lauding of Israel for being based on freedom induces some severe cognitive dissonance, given the complete lack of freedom which characterizes the life of millions of Palestinians. Human Rights Watch, for instance, points out the “severe and discriminatory restrictions on Palestinians’ human rights”, the “excessive force against Palestinian demonstrators and suspected attackers”, the “specter of extra-judicial killings”, and the “practice of punitive home demolitions”, and asserts that “Israel’s closure of Gaza, supported by Egypt, amounts to collective punishment”, a violation of Palestinians’ fundamental human rights.
(As for using “the language of anti-racism” to condemn Israel, it seems pretty apt considering the facts.)
The Conservative Party’s opposition to BDS is no surprise, of course, and nor was their transparently propagandizing and divisive motion to formally condemn the movement. What was perhaps a little surprising was the particulars of the Liberal reaction to the motion. Global Affairs Minister Stephane Dion made it very clear that the Liberals thought the Conservatives were being bullies, and that official condemnations would do nothing to change the minds of BDS campaigners, who in their view are largely well-intentioned but completely wrong, and that the right of BDS campaigners to free speech was an important consideration.
He also voted in favour of the motion, along with the vast majority of the Liberal caucus, including the Prime Minister. The party embraced the Conservative lie that BDS is a pernicious form of anti-Semitism. This is consistent with the party’s long-standing position on the issue – Justin Trudeau explicitly labelled the campaign anti-Semitic in an interview with The Canadian Jewish News just days before last year’s election.
It also shouldn’t be surprising that the Liberals came down on the side of more restricted rights. If there’s one thing C-51 showed us, it’s that the Liberal Party is happy talk about the Charter and basic rights and freedoms until they’re blue in the face, but at the end of the day they’ve got bigger priorities.
And as for the soulless NDP, while they did oppose the motion on the grounds of freedom of speech, and while they deserve (limited) credit for doing so, Thomas Mulcair once again made abundantly clear that he is deeply opposed to the BDS campaign and that the NDP is a stalwart friend and ally of Israel. (And as for the NDP’s vote against this resolution, I’m sure Mulcair would have loved to vote in favour, but he could well have faced a grassroots revolt at the upcoming leadership review over the issue, so I won’t award him any brownie points on that score.)
Mulcair and the NDP came under fire during last year’s campaign from the party’s grassroots after it was revealed that it was purging candidates with positions deemed to be too “pro-Palestinian”. Though Mulcair has taken the NDP in a decidedly more pro-Israel direction, this is an issue with history. When Libby Davies, then the party’s deputy leader, made comments supportive of the BDS campaign in a 2010 interview, Mulcair, then just an MP, tore into her at a constituents meeting, calling for her resignation, and then-leader Jack Layton forced her to apologize. Davies spoke out on social media during the 2014 Israeli invasion of Gaza, but was prevented from speaking to the press about the issue by the party leadership. (Davies unsurprisingly declined to run for re-election last fall.)
In short, the Three Big Parties in our deeply flawed system are of virtually one mind on this issue. Israel’s atrocious treatment of the Palestinians is a taboo subject, and anybody who condemns the State of Israel’s actions is, at a minimum, helping to fan the flames of anti-Semitism, if not engaging in outright vile racism themselves.
There are many problems with this. One major issue is that this is far from a universally accepted position in Canada. The BDS campaign is supported on many campuses, by numerous unions, and by the United Church of Canada, which has some two million members. Many others don’t actively support the campaign, but nonetheless feel that Israel has behaved wrongly, even criminally, towards Palestine. All of these people are virtually voiceless in Parliament. Their views are not represented, their priorities are ignored, their cause and any attempt to promote it is formally condemned.
And this is true for many pivotal issues. People who want to see immediate action taken to end tar sands extraction and pipeline construction, people who are concerned about the fascist tendencies of the Ukrainian regime our government so fervently supports, people who object to our membership in the destructive and imperial NATO military alliance – all of them have no standing within the only three parties that have a chance of forming government. These are not fringe views, but there is an all-party consensus on all of them – we must find a way to (responsibly) get Canadian oil resources to market, Ukraine is our staunch friend and ally come what may, and we will continue to work closely with our NATO partners to face the world’s security threats.
On issues like these and like Israel, there is no room for dissent. People who step out of line – like Libby Davies, or like poor Linda McQuaig, who had the temerity to suggest that at least some of the tar sands would have to stay in the ground – find themselves pilloried by all sides, abandoned by their party leadership, and forced to meekly apologize or resign in disgrace.
This all-party unity on contentious issues does a massive disservice to everybody, not just those who hold contrary views. The attempts to silence anybody who voices criticisms of Israel and the atrocity that it commits against Palestinians are reprehensible and a threat to the freedom of speech. The position – embraced by all of the Big Three party leaders – that the BDS campaign and Israeli Apartheid Week constitute anti-Semitism is a disgusting slander and a transparent attempt to poison the debate and discredit Israel’s critics.
This is yet another major failing of the captured party system, which time and again produces results which are beneficial to a few privileged people and groups while disadvantaging the masses. There is perhaps no greater obstacle to true progress and justice than the very parties that people look to to implement the changes they so deeply desire.