Countering Palestine Solidarity Work in Canada

Over the past several months of 2008, Israel advocacy organizations
have entered a period of ongoing mobilization in an effort to
decisively counter what they see as the growing influence and impact
of the Palestine solidarity movement.

After spending years trying to find its footing in the aftermath of
the Oslo Accords, the Palestine solidarity movement has found a new
strategic focus with the emergence of the campaign for boycott,
divestment and sanctions (BDS), which has effectively shifted the
terms of the Israel-Palestine debate and presented a clear analysis of
the apartheid reality facing Palestinians.

These shifts have thrown the mainstream Zionist movement into a state
of crisis as it finds itself unable to effectively counter the charge
of apartheid. In addition, Zionist organizations find themselves
increasingly isolated (with the exception of right-wing, conservative
and Christian evangelical circles) as the solidarity movement
continues to gain traction amongst an ever larger spectrum of
audiences and organizations.

It is against this backdrop that a divided Zionist movement is seeking
ways to reverse their organizational and ideological disarray. Most
significantly, the emergence of this repressive trend directed at
Palestine solidarity work is converging with a broader targeting of
students who are active in other struggles.

Shifting Solidarity: The Development of a New Politics in the Aftermath of Oslo

The onset of the second Intifada in September 2000 opened the eyes of
many who had up until then still harboured illusions as to the nature
of the Oslo process. Far from leading to the establishment of an
independent Palestinian state, the "process" merely served to distract
from the ongoing colonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Instead
of a winding down of the occupation, the matrix of Israeli control
intensified. Land continued to be expropriated, Palestinian population
centers were increasingly isolated and surrounded by expanding
settlements, and life remained regimented by hundreds of Israeli
checkpoints.

With Oslo, the focus of the Palestinian struggle narrowed from
resisting the advances of a settler-colonial state to one of
accommodation and "state building" in West Bank and Gaza Strip. This
accommodation with Zionism sidelined the efforts of refugees and
represented a retreat from the fundamental demand of the Palestinian
national movement: the right of return to lands from which they were
expelled in 1948.

The demand for the right of return had united and linked a dispersed
nation – those in exile abroad and in the refugee camps of the
neighbouring Arab states, those living under Israeli occupation, as
well as Palestinians living inside what became Israel – under a common
political platform. The more recent demand for an end to Israeli
occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel,
formalized in 1988 – sidelined the core issue of the conflict and in
the process it marginalized all those not residing in the occupied
territories.

It was into the political vacuum created by the destruction of the PLO
and the marginalization of the refugees that a new generation of
Palestinian organizers has made its mark. Under their leadership, the
solidarity movement has moved beyond the narrow confines of the
`occupation framework' imposed on it since 1993 towards a more
holistic understanding of the contours of Israeli apartheid. This
fuller understanding of the actual situation confronting the
Palestinian people has opened up new possibilities for effective
solidarity.

Integral to this shift in emphasis was the placing of Palestinian
experiences and perspectives at the core of solidarity organizing.
Over the next few years, activists new to the movement were introduced
to it through an unambiguously anti-Zionist lens in which Israel was
located through the prism of history as a product of European settler
colonialism. When compared to similar colonial enterprises that
developed in South Africa and North America, a new understanding began
to emerge as to the roots and dimensions of the conflict, as well as
steps that needed to be taken in order challenge it.

These political developments began to coalesce in 2005 with the call
from Palestinian civil society for a comprehensive campaign of
isolation through the use of BDS. Modeled after the struggle against
South African apartheid, the call highlighted the dependent nature of
the Israeli state. The BDS call was not a new strategy. Rather, it
expressed in new language a position that the Palestinian left has
advanced for decades: there should be no normalization of
relationships with the oppressor. It was correctly understood that the
Israeli system could not retain its Zionist character against
indigenous resistance were it not for its international bases of
support. The swift and determined response from solidarity
organizations and international civil society to the call caught
Israel advocacy organizations off guard, as they were increasingly
forced to respond to grassroots initiatives undertaken to isolate the
Israeli state. As time went on and the Palestine solidarity movement
grew in strength, it has become clear that this movement increasingly
represents a real and effective challenge to Israel's Canadian base of
support.

Contention in the Universities

To a large extent what informs the pro-apartheid effort to counter the
anti-apartheid work being done by Palestine solidarity activists is
the perception that time is "running out." Throughout the world more
and more people are coming towards an accurate understanding of the
Israel-Palestine conflict. They are in turn translating that
understanding into various forms of political action. Significantly,
on the campuses and in the wider public, Israeli apartheid is now
increasingly spoken of as a concrete reality, and not merely as an
opinion or slogan.

This new found clarity as to the nature of the political problem
surrounding the `question of Palestine' is precisely what the Zionist
movement is opposing. Using a variety of tactics, it aims to silence,
repress, diffuse and divert the efforts of those who have taken a
principled stand in support of Palestine (and who have thereby
questioned the ongoing legitimacy of Israel's apartheid project).

This is seen most clearly on the campuses. As was the case with the
emergence of the movement to isolate apartheid South Africa, it has
been until very recently student organizations that have taken the
lead in agitating for Palestinian liberation. The struggle on the
campuses initially took the form of building awareness as to the
nature of the Israeli state, its negation of Palestinian rights, and
of its brutal suppression of the Intifada. In time these efforts
shifted more towards researching and organizing against the campus
institutions that were complicit in sustaining the structures of
apartheid in Palestine, efforts that were given an added push after
the call for the BDS campaign in 2005.

Key to the student movement's successful growth was a new proactive
form of activism. This activism not only seeks to respond to this or
that event, but to push an analysis, open debate and move toward action.

An example of this proactive approach to organizing was the
development of Israeli Apartheid Week. First undertaken at the
University of Toronto in 2005 to introduce to the public the apartheid
analysis, it has since spread to 25 cities around the world with South
Africa and Palestine participating in 2008. This remarkable growth,
tied to an increasingly coordinated and successful campaign for an
academic boycott of Israeli institutions, has caused a visceral panic
among Zionist organizations. After initially attempting to ignore and
downplay the significance of this movement, these organizations have
turned to a more direct policy of repression, intimidation and
bureaucratic threats against campus activists.

This was given its first articulation in the summer of 2007, when the
presidents of over 20 Canadian universities unilaterally issued
statements opposing an academic boycott of Israeli academic
institutions. The publication of these letters (prominently reported
on university websites and in major Canadian newspapers) followed the
passing of a pro-boycott resolution by academic unions in the UK. It
was clearly a co-ordinated and pre-emptive move by the Zionist
movement against similar resolutions in Canada. Taking place as it did
in the summer, it can only be assumed that that moment was chosen so
as to neutralize student criticism and opposition.

Nevertheless, student groups responded in a clever and effective
manner to this bureaucratic attempt to shut-down debate before it had
even begun. Students on many campuses raised the call for an open and
honest debate on the question of an academic boycott. If, the students
argued, university presidents were seriously committed to the
principles of `free speech', then why did they act to unilaterally
silence any debate on Israeli policies and the responsibility of
academia? A very important victory in this regard was won at Ryerson
University, Toronto, where a progressive student association – working
in alliance with student groups on campus – was able to win the
President's support for a debate on academic boycott. Over 600 Ryerson
community members turned out to hear the debate which was resoundingly
and convincingly won by the anti-apartheid side.

The Ryerson victory was soon followed by the most successful series of
Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) events since the week began in 2005.
Exceeding all expectations, over 2000 people attended IAW events in
Toronto (events also happened in Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver,
Victoria, Peterborough, and New Brunswick). The Zionist response to
IAW was confused and marked by incompetence. Pro-Israel organizations
attacked the week in paid full-page advertisements in national
newspapers (including one in the National Post that accused IAW
organizers of being "anti-Semantic" sic). Campus newspapers across
the country were filled with advertisements, reminiscent of the South
African apartheid regime, proclaiming the supposed `democratic' and
`multicultural' virtues of Israel. In Ottawa, the Israeli ambassador
to Canada organized a public forum to speak against IAW. The meeting
was poorly attended and he was convincingly shamed by audience members.

On some campuses, Zionist groups attempted to organize counter-events
but these were poorly attended and by their own admission failed
miserably. At the University of Toronto, for example, a Zionist event
that promised a free, hard-cover book on Israel to the first 50
audience members had only 12 people in attendance. At exactly the same
time, over 300 people packed a university auditorium for the IAW
lecture. A pro-apartheid demonstration organized by the far-right
Jewish Defense League on the first night of Israeli Apartheid week at
Ryerson University attracted a meager 25 individuals, while, at the
same time, over 350 people attended the IAW lecture that night.

Embracing Repression

Following the success of IAW, the Zionist movement has moved to openly
embrace a strategy of repression against student activists. This
strategy of repression is combined with bureaucratic attempts to
prevent students from organizing politically, restricting the use of
university space, or shutting-down speeches about Palestine. It is
absolutely critical for left and progressive movements across Canada
to recognize this trend and to organize openly against it.

One of the most shocking indications of this repressive atmosphere is
a campaign by Zionist organizations to convince university
administrations to ban the phrase "Israeli Apartheid". At McMaster
University in Hamilton, for example, students organizing IAW events on
their campuses were issued with a letter from the Provost office
informing them that the university had banned the term "Israeli
Apartheid" from use by student clubs. This effectively ended their
participation in the week as they were then barred from attaining the
necessary approval to advertise, book rooms, etc. A massive
mobilization by students and community allies forced the university to
backtrack from this position. Nevertheless, letters and articles by
Zionist organizations and supporters continue to appear in local
Hamilton newspapers calling for further repression.

At the University of Toronto, 125 faculty members published an open
letter in the National Post stating their opposition to Israeli
Apartheid Week at "their" institution, requesting "that the
administration stop this hateful and divisive event from returning to
our University in future years." The Israel advocacy organizations
were quick to applaud this latest attack on student's freedom of
speech and right to organize. Foremost among the voices calling for
repression was Avi Benlolo of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre
who explained his organization's hope "that faculty at other
universities across Canada and around the world follow in their
footsteps and present a united front in opposing the hatred"
supposedly evidenced at IAW. That these academics would openly call
for this type of McCarthyite response to a phrase that is widely
accepted in academic and other settings, indicates both the fear which
the Zionist movement has of the new anti-apartheid struggle and the
measures to which they are willing to go to prevent this struggle from
growing.

At York University, where the past few years have seen Palestine
solidarity activists arrested and arbitrarily expelled for their
efforts, as well as confronted with a number of disciplinary and
administrative measures to curtail activism on campus, Students
Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) were recently fined $150 for tabling
after complaints were filed by students affiliated with the several
Zionist organizations active on campus. Included in the university
administration's decision was a 30 day ban of SAIA using any of the
university's facilities and space for organizing, even tabling
information.

The complaints against SAIA were issued by students from on campus
Zionist organizations, namely executive members of the Hasbara
Fellowship at York. This organization, which recently made inroads
into Canadian universities, was founded in 2001 in conjunction with
the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its express purpose is to
train students to be "effective pro-Israel activists on their
campuses." Every summer, hundreds of students are brought to Israel,
given access to high ranking Israeli officials, and "return to their
campuses as leaders in the fight for Israel's image" their website states.

What this "fight" translates to when it is put into practice by this
wing of the Zionist movement is a campaign comprised largely of
intimidation, slander, threats and repression. Those engaged in
tabling efforts are routinely swarmed by Zionist students who attempt
to engage in shouting matches and distract activists from directly
engaging with the broader student body. Often, when this fails, they
make politically charged complaints to administration officials, who
as in the case of York prove only too willing to respond with fines,
disciplinary proceedings, and other punitive measures.

The `Liberal' Zionist Response

Aside from repression and raising bureaucratic barriers to organizing,
the liberal faction of the Zionist movement also seeks to provide its
own `alternatives' to Palestine activism. It is critical to understand
this wing of the Zionist movement as an integral feature of the
repressive strategy. Both the `liberal' and `right-wing' faces of
Zionism need to be understood as two-sides of the same coin. They act
to sustain and support each other and need to be actively opposed by
anyone concerned with real justice.

As Dan Freeman-Maloy, a student activist at York recently noted, one
way in which this relationship works is through using one or another
right-wing organization to "make displays of Palestine solidarity on
campus appear as unproductive shouting matches." The intent being
that, having created the shouting matches, "the way is clear for
seemingly more moderate Israel advocates to chime in to say that all
this shouting is unproductive, and that anger regarding Israeli state
policy is best diffused through one or another ineffectual channel."
An excellent example of this in 2008 has been Hillel's Peacemaker
computer game that was toured around during Israeli Apartheid Week.

The game had as its goal "for the player, taking on the role as either
an Israeli of Palestinian leader, to achieve peace." Tilley Shames,
associate director of Hillel GTA, noted: "Our intention is to have it
on three different campuses during the IAW week in very public
spaces so students can come together and try their hand at peace…It
shows that these are really complex issues that can't be narrowed down
to slogans." Yet, for all its supposed complexity, the organizers are
confident that the issues are somehow able to be narrowed down to a
poorly designed computer game with bad politics.

The call for `dialogue' is the precise complement to Zionist
repression. Presenting the struggle for justice in Palestine as a
`complex problem' requiring `painful compromises on both sides' is
designed to obfuscate the relationship between the oppressor and
oppressed. No-one (at least today) would argue that South African
Apartheid was simply a misunderstanding between blacks and whites: it
was a system of oppression designed to institutionalize racial
oppression. Standing for justice means taking sides and being prepared
to work to end the root cause of the problem. The empty calls for
`dialogue' and `peace' do precisely the opposite: they serve to equate
the oppressor and oppressed and thereby sanction the status quo. By
refusing to take a clear stand against racism and oppression the
advocates of dialogue actually DO choose which side of the fence they
stand.

The call for dialogue is also intended to paint those who do take a
clear stand for justice as `extremists' who should be feared and
isolated. That is why the kind of dialogue advocated by Shames and
others helps to justify and maintain the repression of Palestinian
activists on campus and elsewhere. In contrast, the call for boycott,
divestment and sanctions against Israeli apartheid works to undermine
this type of ideological subterfuge. The BDS strategy clearly
identifies the root cause of the problem and helps people to
understand that any kind of relationship with the structures of
Israeli Apartheid is morally wrong. Isolation of the apartheid regime
in Israel is actually the fastest route to peace and justice.

Beyond the Campuses: Rebranding the Apartheid State

As the anti-apartheid movement has grown, it has moved from the
campuses and into the broader community. High school students, faith
organizations, labour unions and community associations are now
playing an increasingly active role in supporting Palestinian rights.

Israel advocacy organizations, which have traditionally controlled the
discussion of Israel-Palestine in the public realm, are also
undertaking new efforts to block the advances of the solidarity
movement beyond the campuses.

A two-day "brainstorming" session was held in Toronto this past March
as part of a $4 million project to "rebrand" Israel. Organized by the
Israeli Foreign Ministry and attended by the leadership from the
Canadian Jewish Congress, Canada-Israel Committee, the UJA Federation
of Greater Toronto and Hillel among others, the campaign seeks to
present a presumably more `accurate picture of Israel' by getting
Canadians to think of Israel outside the "narrow prism of the
Arab-Israeli conflict."

The necessity of diverting the attention of Canadians away from the
core issues of the conflict was clearly explained by Israel's consul
general to Toronto, Amir Gissin during a recent event organized by the
Canadian Friends of Peace Now and National Jewish Campus Life. "What
is becoming more and more critical" Gissan noted, was the ability of
Israel's critics "to present Israel or brand Israel as the new South
Africa…to brand Israel an apartheid state." Also worrisome in his view
was the tendency of the solidarity movement to call for "a one-state
solution rather than a two-state solution."

Lest anyone confuse the nature of the Ministry's campaign, Ido
Aharoni, founder of the "Brand Israel" concept and head of the
ministry's brand management team highlighted what was on the line.
Speaking to the Toronto Star, Aharoni explained that "a better image
for Israel and a better performance of that image is part and parcel
with Israel's national security. Contrary to popular belief, national
security is not just based on military power; it's also a strong
economy and a strong image." Both of which have been undermined
internationally.

Aside from public relations to rebrand Israel there is also a growing
effort to rebrand those engaged in Palestine solidarity organizing.
Attempts have been made and a great deal of money spent to portray the
solidarity movement as unduly divisive, encouraging anti-Semitism and
classify our anti-racist activism and messaging as `hate speech.'

After an anti-Semitic incident at York University, Frank Dimant, the
Executive Vice President of B'nai Birth attempted to tie Israeli
Apartheid Week to the perceived `growth' of anti-Semitism. "Poisonous
messages of this nature, infused with hate and violence, does not
occur in a vacuum," he was keen to note. Referring to IAW, Dimant
argues that "once a university has lent its premises to an event that
promotes hate against one segment of its student body, it is
predictable that other acts of hate will likely follow." Other Zionist
leaders were quick to follow this line without ever specifying what it
was about IAW exactly that promoted `hate'.

It was further disclosed some time ago in the Jewish Tribune, the
publication of B'nai Birth, that efforts were underway to open police
investigations on those using the term apartheid, and to have
solidarity organizations brought before the Ontario Human Rights
Commission for their ongoing "hate speech." This despite University of
Toronto president David Naylor's own admission that the term "Israeli
Apartheid" had been sent to the Toronto Police's Hate Crimes Unit and
that they found no basis unto which to label the term `hate.'

Turning the Tide

The Israel at 60 celebrations have given the Zionist movement ample
time and opportunity to mobilize their constituency and the public
around the issues pertaining to Israel's perceived success and
challenges. Yet, even their celebrations are facing boycotts.

Palestinian citizens of Israel have refused to take part,
participating instead in commemorations of the Nakba. Over 100
Palestinian organizations have called for boycotts, and international
cultural festivals are now routinely marred by controversy, opposition
and boycott when attempting to `celebrate' the 60 years of Palestinian
dispossession and ethnic-cleansing on which the Israeli state was founded.

The celebrations, like much of the programming undertaken to counter
the work done by the solidarity movement has as its aim the
elimination from public discussion of any references to refugees, or
their inherent right of return. They want to eliminate discussion of
settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing in Palestine, a practice that
is ongoing. Above all, the understanding of Israel as an apartheid
state, which has served to put all these other policies into a
coherent historical context, is to be sidelined from public
discussion. Repressive efforts towards these ends are ongoing, but are
assured no guarantee of success.

Opposition to Israeli apartheid has grown significantly, and Zionist
propaganda efforts look increasingly desperate as they either try to
avoid the issue of apartheid, or counter it with the superficialities
of life for Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel. Nevertheless,
this counter-mobilization is something that must be discussed and
combated. The Zionist movement is increasingly resorting to
intimidation, repression and bureaucratic measures that are closing
space for debate, organizing and action on our campuses and in our
communities. It is imperative that the left and progressive movements
in Canada understand this, draw the appropriate conclusions, and act
accordingly. •

Zac Smith is an activist with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid
(CAIA).

From: The Bullet