As Canada approaches a federal election next month, there appears to be little difference between the two main rival parties – the Liberals and the Conservatives – when it comes to supporting Israel at the expense of Palestinian human rights. The main difference is that the Conservatives have been clear and open about their one-sided support for Israel, while the Liberals claim to be balanced while acting in a partisan manner.
To be sure, Canadian policy on Israel-Palestine has always walked a fine line. On the one hand, Canada is committed to international law, which includes viewing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory as necessarily temporary, Israeli settlements as clearly illegal, Jerusalem as a mixed, shared city, and Palestinian refugees as presumptively entitled to return to their homeland.
On the other hand, Canada views Israel as a close ally and a fellow liberal democracy. Canada has always endorsed the Zionist idea that the world’s Jews are entitled to a state in the Middle East. Regardless of whether Canadian governments have been Liberal or Conservative, support for Israel as a Jewish state has been constant.
Yet during a decade of Conservative rule (2006-2015), the Canadian tradition of encouraging respect for international law and promoting a just peace in the Middle East gave way to hyper-partisan support for the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.
During Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, which killed hundreds of innocent Palestinians (including scores of children), Canadian government officials blamed the Palestinians and trumpeted Israel’s “right” to defend itself. Canada punished the Palestinians by holding back aid, blocking Canadian doctors from volunteering in Gaza, and refusing visas to injured Palestinian children invited to receive treatment in Canada.
The election of a Liberal government in 2015, with its young, charismatic prime minister, was expected to usher in a new era in Canadian politics. The Liberal caucus was more diverse than any in the past. Justin Trudeau was unapologetic in his efforts to enhance representation and promote equality. He boldly declared, in response to a question about why gender parity in cabinet was important to him, “because it’s 2015”. Virtue needs no justification.
Those looking for a principled approach to Canadian policy in the Middle East might have dared to hope for a return to even-handedness. However, they would quickly discover that Trudeau’s progressive idealism does not include Palestinian human rights.
Even before the election, Trudeau had taken aim at BDS – the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Since around 2005, Palestinian activists have called for the use of this non-violent advocacy tactic – modelled on South Africa’s struggle against Apartheid – in the face of failed diplomatic efforts to bring an end to Israel’s decades-long military occupation.
BDS seeks to pressure Israel to comply with international law. It has been promoted through various initiatives, including campus awareness events like Israeli Apartheid Week, which was pioneered in Toronto and has spread to more than 50 cities around the world.Yet instead of aligning himself with the global justice movement, Trudeau allied himself with Israel’s most hardline supporters. In March 2015, he tweeted: “The BDS movement, like Israeli Apartheid Week, has no place on Canadian campuses.”
However, Trudeau was also aware that standing up for human rights – at least when it comes to Palestine – attracts a high political cost. For example, in 2006 the highly respected former US President, Jimmy Carter, published his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The reaction was swift and strong. Abraham Foxman, then long-serving head of the US Anti-Defamation League (ADL), labelled Carter an anti-Semite. The US’ Brandeis University lost donors after hosting a book talk by Carter. The Nobel Laureate faced a frontal assault to his reputation.
From December 2008 to January 2009, Israel carried out Operation Cast Lead. The relentless battering of the impoverished Gaza Strip was ostensibly provoked by missile attacks. Israel killed 1,409 Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians, including hundreds of children. On the Israeli side, three civilians and ten combatants were killed, four by friendly fire.
The Israeli assault on Gaza led to a UN-initiated investigation, headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone. His September 2009 report was critical of Israel, finding its military had intentionally used disproportionate force against Palestinian civilians.
Later that year, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister of Israel. He immediately began working to improve Israel’s diminishing global reputation. The apartheid analogy, the call for BDS, the Goldstone Report – these all signaled a shift in opinion that deeply unsettled Netanyahu. Goldstone was viciously smeared and shunned. Netanyahu’s “number one fan”, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, called Goldstone (a former colleague and friend) a “traitor to the Jewish people”.
In May 2010, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Israel’s Foreign Ministry was planning to use front groups to transmit hasbara (propaganda, or public relations) messages in order to influence “senior politicians, opinion shapers and journalists” in the West. Hasbara operates by seeking to explain and re-frame Israel’s record of abuse, while attacking its critics.
Hasbara found enthusiastic foot soldiers in Canada. Canada’s Jewish population today is one of the most pro-Israel diaspora communities in the world.
The group Hasbara Fellowships claims to have taken more than 3,000 university and college students from 250 different North American campuses to Israel for 16-day trips where the students learn “positive messaging” tactics to brand Israel.
Aish Toronto, which runs Hasbara Fellowship Canada, states that it takes “hundreds of students” to Israel every summer and winter, “giving them the information and tools to return to their campuses as educators about Israel”. Other groups, such as StandWithUs Canada, are likewise trained to act as “campus emissaries of the Jewish state”.
The Canadian Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the dominant pro-Israel lobby group established in 2004, contributes millions of dollars to campus hasbara activism. It has a staff of 50 and a $10 million budget to provide “advocacy support to 25 campuses in 9 provinces”. CIJA works closely with Hillel and other on-campus student groups to sanitise Israel’s reputation and delegitimise BDS activism.
B’nai Brith and the Simon Wiesenthal Center Canada have also, in recent years, focused their activities on demonising Palestinian solidarity activists and spreading the smear that BDS is anti-Semitic. Much of their work is concentrated on pushing pro-Israel campus advocacy.In the US, B’nai Brith created “The Lawfare Project”, whose raison d’être is to intimidate and silence Palestinian solidarity activism. In Canada, the recently created Canadians for the Rule of Law (CFRL) seeks to mimic the Lawfare Project, and has already held a controversial “teach-in” to mobilise anti-Palestinian activists.
All of this appears to be working. In February 2016, the opposition Conservatives, just six months after their electoral defeat, introduced a motion in the House of Commons condemning “any and all attempts by Canadian organisations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad”.
Despite a Liberal majority in the House, the Conservatives’ anti-BDS motion passed by a vote of 229 to 51. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, virtually every Liberal and Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) supported it.
More than three years before the US Congress gained its two outspoken Muslim Representatives, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the Canadian House of Commons had the arrival of an unprecedented number of Muslim MPs: ten Liberal and one Conservative. Yet not one stood up for Palestinian human rights by voting against the anti-BDS motion, despite the fact that three out of four Canadian Muslims surveyed would support some sort of international sanctions against Israel.
In fact, a silent majority of nearly two thirds of Canadians believe their government is biased in Israel’s favour. Yet, prominent Liberal MP Anthony Housefather (Mount Royal) recently took pride in highlighting in a Canadian Jewish newspaper the fact that the Liberal government has been more pro-Israel in international relations than any previous government of either major party:
We [Liberals] have voted against 87% of the resolutions singling out Israel for condemnation at the General Assembly versus 61% for the [Conservative] Harper government, 19% for the [Liberal] Martin and [Conservative] Mulroney governments and 3% for the [Liberal] Chrétien government. We have also supported 0% of these resolutions, compared to 23% support under Harper, 52% under Mulroney, 71% under Martin and 79% under Chrétien.
How a Liberal government that fancies itself a champion of social justice could denigrate a legitimate human rights movement and brag about it for expected political gain is no mystery. Canada has a vibrant and active Palestinian solidarity movement, but it pales in comparison to the well-resourced pro-Israel lobby.
Leftists and civil libertarians, including the Ontario Civil Liberties Association and a number of labour organisations, have pushed back against the embrace of anti-BDS politics. Tyler Levitan of Independent Jewish Voices said: “It is outrageous for our elected representatives to publicly chastise human rights supporters, and falsely accuse them of hatred and bigotry for standing in solidarity with the victims of Israeli state violence and oppression.”
In January 2019, Trudeau doubled down on his condemnation of BDS. Claiming concern for Jewish students who “still feel unwelcome and uncomfortable in some of our college and university campuses because of BDS-related intimidation”, Trudeau remained silent on the rising number of innocent Palestinians injured and killed at the Gaza border after months of mostly peaceful protest.
Trudeau attacked human rights defenders, while Israel pummeled Palestinian civilians.
For those who were still waiting for a sliver of principle from a prime minister seeking re-election, he has left little room for question as to how he lines up his priorities. Sadly for Canadians, the main alternative in the upcoming election – the populist Conservatives – could care even less about the Palestinians or their defenders. Conservative concern for free speech ends precisely where the subject of Palestine begins.
Canadians should be – but are not apparently – alarmed by the demise of integrity in our country’s approach to Middle East policy and international human rights. While most Canadians may acknowledge the imbalance in Canadian foreign policy, few seem sufficiently bothered to make it an election issue. Perhaps Trudeau’s gamble with duplicity will pay off after all.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.