Symbolic gesture condemning boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel is ‘an attack on freedom of speech,’ rights group says
TORONTO, Canada – The Ontario provincial legislature has passed a symbolic motion condemning the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement - a move Palestinian rights activists in Canada say aims to stifle criticism of Israeli human rights violations.
The motion, passed on Thursday, states that the provincial legislature stands against any position or movement that promotes “any form of hatred, hostility, prejudice, racism and intolerance in any way”.
It also recognises “longstanding, vibrant and mutually beneficial” ties between Israel and Ontario, and rejects “the differential treatment of Israel, including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement”.
'It is outrageous for our elected representatives to publicly chastise human rights supporters, and falsely accuse them of hatred and bigotry' -Tyler Levitan
Proposed by Conservative MPP Gila Martow, the motion received the support of the provincial Liberal party, which holds power in the province. The left-leaning New Democrats (NDP) voted against it.
The motion passed with 49 votes in favour, five against, and almost half of the 107-member legislature absent, according to a report in the Canadian Jewish News.
"We would not be here supporting the Ku Klux Klan on our campuses, so why are we allowing [the] BDS movement and other anti-Jewish and anti-Israel organisations to have demonstrations and use our campuses, which are taxpayer-funded?” Martow said, according to the CJN article.
NDP MPP Jagmeet Singh said on Thursday that conflating criticism of government policies with hate speech is a "distraction from the real problem of anti-Semitism".
“Dissent, protest and freedom of speech are a fundamental part of a democracy,” Singh added.
Tyler Levitan, spokesperson for Independent Jewish Voices Canada, a Jewish advocacy group that supports Palestinian rights, said the parliamentary debate “was little more than a slurry of lies and defamation against Palestinian human rights advocates”.
“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,” Levitan said in a statement.
Civil liberty and freedom of expression organisations in Canada also criticised the motion, and governmental efforts to intimidate BDS activists in Canada, ahead of Thursday’s vote.
“Any such motion, attacking any such social movement, is an attack on freedom of speech in Ontario,” the Ontario Civil Liberties Association said in a letter sent to MPPs earlier this week.
“We are not asking you to support BDS. We ask you to recognise, protect, and advance the right of individual Ontarians to choose for themselves which social movements they will endorse, including BDS,” the letter continued.
The motion also endorsed the Ottawa Protocol on Combating Antisemitism, which Canada signed during the tenure of former prime minister Stephen Harper, a staunch supporter of Israel.
The Ottawa Protocol has been accused of conflating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and silencing debate by treating all critiques of Israeli government policies as anti-Semitic and therefore illegitimate.
Palestinian civil society organisations launched the BDS movement in 2005.
It seeks to use non-violent means to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, dismantle Israel’s separation wall, achieve full and equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and implement the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Student unions, trade groups, and civil society institutions from around the world have signed onto BDS, and the Israeli government has made it a stated goal to fight the movement worldwide.
Renowned activists, artists and academics, including British scientist Stephen Hawking have boycotted Israel in the name of BDS.
In February, Canada’s federal parliament passed a symbolic motion decrying BDS as “a form of discrimination” and calling on the government to condemn any individuals or groups that support it.
On Wednesday, the Ottawa Citizen published an editorial in support of the anti-BDS motion in Ontario, which it said would “indicate clearly that Ontario is serious about leading the battle against anti-Israel hysteria”.
The newspaper said the legislature could make up for the “cowardice” it showed in May when an earlier anti-BDS motion was voted down.
That motion, Bill 202, described BDS as “anti-Jewish” and “anti-Israeli”. It called for public bodies to refrain from entering into contracts with any individual or organisation that supports BDS and for pension funds and foundations not to invest in them.
Bill 202 was ultimately rejected when the Liberals, under Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, voted against it and critics said it infringed on freedom of speech.
Wynne visited Israel in May in an effort to boost trade ties with the country. Toronto Mayor John Tory took a similar trip in November.
Dania Majid of the Canadian Arab Lawyers Association decried the motion passed on Thursday, which she said is “based on falsehoods about the BDS movement and serves to whitewash the reality of Israel's ongoing and systematic mistreatment of the Palestinians”.
Levitan, of Jewish Voices Canada said by passing the anti-BDS motion, and increasing ties to the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ontario has made it clear it does not care about the suffering of Palestinians.
“This brings enormous shame on us all,” he said.