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Palestine and progressive politics in a post-Harper Canada

If Trudeau is serious about his progressive leadership, the government needs to discuss campaigns like BDS in a less simplistic and demonising way

September 22, 2016 at 3:40 pm

According to prolific writer Naomi Klein, solidarity with Palestine “is the hardest organising circle.” More specifically, she referred to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on university campuses.

When Klein was a student, she saw for herself how the call for a boycott and sanctions in order to end apartheid in South Africa made the university administration uncomfortable. However, she also saw how the same administration embraced the ideas of liberty and freedom after Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

In fact, the first time that she wrote an article about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an undergrad writer for The Varsity — the University of Toronto’s in-house newspaper — its biggest private donor made a phone call to the authorities and threatened to withdraw his donations if her article “Victim to Victimisers” was published.

Last Wednesday, Naomi Klein spoke to the faculty and activists at the university about solidarity between different struggles (she cited the steel workers, trade unions, fossil fuels and BDS). While all are being fought on university campuses, the BDS movement continues to be the most difficult to mobilise support for. Nevertheless, when put together, there is an opportunity and a need to reassess progressive politics in a post-Stephen Harper Canada. “We have a new landscape,” said Klein. “There are perils and there are opportunities, but you have to understand what is at stake.”

Her comment is timely. Last week, in America’s Berkeley University, the administration reinstated a course on Palestine after it had decided to take it of the curriculum as the autumn semester began. The speed with which university administrators are able to block anything related to Palestine is alarming. Furthermore, the price that academics like Steven Salaita and Norman Finkelstein have had to pay for standing their ground on their work related to Palestine have been devastating. However, this is not just happening on university campuses.

On 8 September, the New York Times reported that a popular Broadway cabaret club had cancelled a concert benefiting Black Lives Matter, citing the movement’s criticism of Israel. Black Lives Matter embraced the BDS call and faced the consequences; losing space for its events, for example, but this does not mean that it will back down on its position. This is the chief strategy: always unify each other’s voices. If your movement is against racism, it should be against all forms of racism, and then when people invite you to perform or give you a platform, you must remember each other’s common struggle and bring them with you.

In Canada, difficult discussions around the BDS campaign are happening slowly. While the New Democratic Party of Canada might have been discreet about this, much of the internal dislike for Thomas Mulcair’s leadership was tied directly to his ambiguity around the transnational movement that has been filling an unprecedented amount of public space in the relatively short period since BDS was launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005.

Just last month, the Canadian Green Party’s Elizabeth May MP was also put to the test after the shadow cabinet attempted to pass a BDS resolution that was already in line with what is supposed to be the progressive position of the party against illegal Israeli settlements. Beginning on 7 August with the party’s adoption of the pro-BDS resolution, May quickly choose to disassociate herself from the motion instead of embracing the conversation that some of the party members were putting forward. A “special meeting” unprecedented in the Green Party’s history has been scheduled for 3-4 December in Calgary to re-open the pro-BDS policy resolution adopted last month.

Klein argues that conversations around movements like BDS are not easy to have but there should always be a degree of urgency to evoke them on university campuses, in trade unions, in political parties and all the way to the top by confronting the prime minister.

Charm is a mobilising force and Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, exudes it. At the same time, he is benefiting from the use of progressive language. Trudeau is able to win the hearts and minds of many Canadians by saying the right things, going to the right ceremonies and using the right technology to appeal, although there is still so much to see from him in terms of acting upon his words.

Even if you are sceptical about Trudeau, there is an opportunity to confront his leadership with hard conversations about pressing decisions that need to be taken over issues such as Canada’s position on illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. He also needs to be challenged about freedom of speech on university campuses to allow the discussion of matters like settler-colonialism, Israel’s occupation and militarisation, in a transparent and critical manner.

If Trudeau is serious about his progressive leadership, the government needs to discuss campaigns like BDS in a less simplistic and demonising way. His predecessor, Stephen Harper, was vehemently pro-Israel, right or wrong. His cabinet went ahead and issued a motion condemning BDS as if it is the new anti-Semitism instead of opening a discussion on what BDS actually entails. Right now, Trudeau has shown the same one-sided and ill-informed position towards BDS as Harper did; those who support the movement should challenge him on it.

If the community of activists which includes students, faculty members, politicians and political advisors cannot force such debates to take place, then what is the difference between the Harper era where the prime minister was unapologetic about his support for Israel, and a Trudeau government which talks the talk of the progressives but refuses to take clear steps to put it into action?

Update: An earlier version of this page incorrectly called the New Democratic Party of Canada as the “National Democratic Party of Canada”.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.