This article was co-authored by Jillian Kestler-D’Amours.
A Canadian politician has likened a grassroots, human rights movement to the notorious, white supremacist, Ku Klux Klan. And the overwhelming response was silent acquiescence.
On 1 December, Ontario provincial parliament member Gila Martow brought Motion 36 to a vote in a half-empty legislature. The motion, which passed with 49 in favour and five against, affirmed the parliament’s rejection of “the differential treatment of Israel,” including the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
“We would not be here supporting a Ku Klux Klan on our campuses, so why are we allowing BDS movements?” Martow said before the vote.
Effectively, in her brazen statement, Martow labelled activist students across Ontario campuses, which are some of the most ethnically diverse organising places in the world, akin to a dangerous and violent white supremacist group.
Let that sink in for a moment.
One group was founded by Palestinians living under decades of military occupation and systemic racism, discrimination and apartheid. Since the BDS call was launched in 2005, the nonviolent movement has galvanised people of colour and marginalised groups from around the world, and has maintained a network of allies united under the principles of human rights, international law and social justice.
Groups such as Black Lives Matters, Idle No More, No One Is Illegal and Independent Jewish Voices have signed up to BDS. It has been backed by figures like Cornel West, Angela Davis, Judith Butler, Naomi Klein and veteran South African anti-Apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to name but a few.
Martow has compared this movement to one which has a dark and bloody history. The KKK was created with the sole purpose of upholding white supremacy. It is responsible for racist lynchings, firebombings and murders in the United States under Jim Crow segregation laws. More recently, it has been reinvigorated by the victory of US President-elect Donald Trump and adherents to its toxic, racist ideology now figure within the highest echelons of power.
When a member of parliament, from her comfortable position of power and privilege at Queen’s Park, likens students, people of colour and grassroots human rights activists to KKK members, she is effectively accusing them of perpetrating the very violence to which their communities were and continue to be subjected. The extent to which Israel’s apologists will stoop in order to silence legitimate criticism of the state’s policies has long been known, but this level of absurd and baseless bullying is alarming, and dangerous.
It reflects a growing trend of top-down suppression of transnational, social justice mobilisation around Palestine, and the widespread conflation of anti-Semitism with critiques of state policies. Calling for an end to Israel’s occupation, the legitimate right of return for Palestinian refugees and equal rights for all citizens of Israel – the three tenets of BDS – is neither racist nor violent; it certainly does not merit comparisons to the KKK.
While entirely symbolic, Motion 36 is the latest in a series of anti-BDS measures pursued by governments in Europe and North America, including France, Britain, the State of New York and the US Senate, and Canada’s own government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Ultimately, the message being sent here is clear. When university campuses emerge as key sites of nonviolent organising in solidarity with Palestine, parliaments will become spaces to institutionalise censorship. When equating human rights activism with white supremacy is not only normalised, but also triggers virtually no public outcry, the criminalisation of free speech and the right to dissent is never far behind.
When marginalised communities are bullied so blatantly by the very people meant to represent them, it is the responsibility of their fellow citizens to condemn unequivocally the atmosphere of fear and intimidation. We’re still waiting.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.