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Andrew Brett

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Andrew Brett is a queer activist in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewbrett

A case study in failure: the Israel lobby at Toronto Pride

| July 6, 2010
Rocco Rossi and Bernie Farber at Pride 2010

Just one month ago, Israel lobby groups in Canada were celebrating the decision of Pride Toronto to prohibit the participation of the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) at the 2010 Pride parade. The group has marched in the parade since 2008 in response to a public relations campaign to rebrand Israel as a safe haven for queers in the Middle East, effectively pinkwashing the occupation and Israel's apartheid practices –- which deny rights to queer Palestinians.

After two years of backroom lobbying of the Pride board of directors, their sponsors and city officials who make funding decisions for the festival, the organization succumbed to pressure and announced that it would censor the term "Israeli apartheid" from the parade.

In its May 28 editorial A case study in activism, the National Post hailed the decision as a landmark victory that would have “significant repercussions for the intellectual climate in this country.”

Less than a month later, Pride Toronto reversed its decision and allowed Queers Against Israeli Apartheid to march in the parade. As a result of the controversy, hundreds of people joined the group at Pride last weekend, forming the largest Palestine solidarity contingent in the parade’s history.

How did this happen? The Israel lobby applied many of the same tactics it used successfully against other community groups, unions, student associations, artists and academic institutions. Why did they backfire this time?

When Naomi Klein made a surprise appearance at a cabaret fundraiser for Queers Against Israeli Apartheid at a Toronto nightclub last week, she summed it up in six words: “They messed with the wrong community.”


Queers and censorship

Canada’s queer community has a long history of battles against censorship. From pornography laws to Canada Customs, queer activists have discovered that tools of censorship are blunt instruments, which are more often used to target marginalized communities than protect them.

Pink Triangle Press, which owns the lion’s share of LGBT news media in Canada, won two pivotal court cases in 1978 and 1982 when charged with publishing indecent material. As a result of its own struggles against censorship, its editorial policies commit its publications to supporting freedom of expression.

Censorship in Pride parades across Canada has also been a source of contention, with some (mostly straight) observers complaining about everything from drag queens to men dressed in leather. Attempts to censor any contingents -- including the 2002 arrest of nudists in the Toronto pride parade -- have traditionally been met with backlash from the queer community.

Despite this historical context, Israel lobby groups thought it would be a wise move to launch a campaign to censor the Pride parade, in a community hostile to censorship.

Hate speech

Aside from the outlandish claim that Pride parades are not political, the primary argument used by Israel lobby groups to justify censorship is that the term "Israeli apartheid" constitutes hate speech. The claim has been made several times by Israel lobby groups and even some mayoral candidates, but surprisingly no one has bothered to call the police to report this apparent crime.

This is because they know very well that criticism of a government is not hate speech, and it is only being framed this way by defenders of the Israeli government to smear its critics in the court of public opinion.

According to documents [PDF] from a 2009 meeting with City of Toronto officials obtained through a Freedom of Information request, Israel lobbyists admitted that the term Israeli apartheid “does not meet the criminal standard of hate law in the Criminal Code of Canada.”

While extra-judicial interpretations of hate laws may work for right-wing mayoral candidates, it doesn’t convince a community that knows very well what actual hate speech is.

Credibility

The first groups to challenge the inclusion of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid in the Pride parade were B’nai Brith and the Canadian Jewish Congress, two groups with questionable records on LGBT rights.

While the CJC was telling Pride Toronto how to run its parade in 2009, its co-president was Reuven Bulka, a homophobic rabbi who sat on the scientific advisory committee of the U.S.-based National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, which advocates conversion therapy for queers and supports the re-listing of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder. Bulka still sits on the board of directors of the CJC.

At the same time, B’nai Brith was working closely with Canada’s most prominent anti-gay activists, including Charles McVety of the Canada Family Action Coalition. McVety is still campaigning to repeal same-sex marriage in Canada, and he led the charge against Ontario’s new sex ed curriculum.

The track record of these Israel lobby groups on LGBT issues damaged their credibility when they lectured the queer community about which groups should be allowed in the parade.

After these groups failed to convince Pride Toronto to censor the parade in 2009, a new spokesperson emerged to lead the charge against QuAIA. The National Post said that unlike previous lobbyists on the issue, Martin Gladstone “had grass-roots credibility within the gay community,” even though most queer activists had never heard of him before.

“I don’t consider myself an activist,” Gladstone told the Jewish Tribune in May 2009. Yet he was subsequently described as a “gay rights activist” by Israel lobby groups and the right-wing press in an attempt to lend credibility to their front person.

On the other side of the debate, activists with long histories of contributions and commitment to queer activism spoke out against the censorship of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid.

When Pride Toronto announced its censorship decision, the founders of the 1981 Toronto Lesbian and Gay Pride Day issued an open letter expressing solidarity with QuAIA. The grand marshal and honoured dyke both refused their appointments, and 21 former grand marshals, honoured dykes and Pride Toronto award recipients returned their honours in protest. The 519 Church Street Community Centre and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, two of the city’s prominent queer institutions, publicly opposed the censorship. Gay Olympic gold medalist Mark Tewksbury and prominent South African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat both criticized the decision.

Backroom lobbying

The failure of Israel lobby groups to mobilize support among credible queer voices was not just a strategic error. It was the inevitable result of a long-term shift in the priorities and politics of these groups from human rights organizations to lobby groups with a narrow focus on unconditional support for the Israeli government. While activists in Queers Against Israeli Apartheid were tapping into networks and relationships they had formed through years of solidarity work, Israel lobbyists could only rely on pressure tactics against Pride Toronto and its funders.

Queers opposed to censorship were taking the discussion to the community, with a packed town hall held at the queer community centre. Gladstone and the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre chose the backroom approach, initiating secret meetings with city bureaucrats, insisting that they pressure Pride Toronto as one of its funders.

Through this kind of backroom lobbying, a slim majority of Pride Toronto board members were swayed to censor the parade in the interest of preserving the organization’s funding.

Yet the decision to only pressure the leadership -- while ignoring the community Pride Toronto is accountable to -- set the stage for a community revolt. The loud community response created the exact situation that Pride funders were desperately trying to avoid: a political controversy about Israel/Palestine, with sponsors implicated, taking one side of the debate.

The tide is turning

It’s not just the colossal series of strategic missteps made by Israel lobby groups that resulted in this failure. Although Canada arguably has the most pro-Israel government in the world right now, attitudes are shifting in this country and globally against Israeli policies.

It was only one week after Israeli soldiers boarded an aid ship in international waters and murdered nine peace activists, when a town hall was held at the 519 Church Street Community Centre in response to Pride Toronto’s censorship. It was standing-room only in the auditorium where more than 400 queer community members gave a standing ovation to Queers Against Israeli Apartheid.

One by one, as representatives of different organizations expressed their solidarity with QuAIA, it became clear that many in attendance were not just supportive of free speech, but also becoming increasingly aware of Israeli government practices and how they disproportionately harm queer Palestinians.

“We are Black queer and trans people against Israeli apartheid,” announced Syrus Ware from the Blackness Yes Committee, to cheers from the audience. Amy Gottlieb, one of the founders of the 1981 Pride Day, spoke while wearing a “Jews Against the Occupation” button.

As opinions continue to shift against the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, Israel lobby groups are stepping up their campaign to silence critics in Canada. The Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism -- a pseudo-parliamentary committee of pro-Israel MPs -- is using anti-Semitism as a front to develop strategies to curtail criticism of Israel. One of the deputations to the committee hearings was made by Martin Gladstone, whose submission falsely accused Queers Against Israeli Apartheid of displaying swastikas at the 2009 Pride parade.

However, as the Pride Toronto example demonstrates, these desperate measures only bring more attention to criticisms of Israeli policies, and encourage discussion about the plight of Palestinians. Every time an attempt is made to censor the term “Israeli apartheid,” more people ask questions about how Israeli policies constitute apartheid under international law. And they get answers.

On May 28, the National Post prematurely celebrated the “wonderful irony that the professional ‘activists’ at QuAIA got beaten at their own game.” As we can see now, the real irony is that Martin Gladstone’s game only helped to make “Israeli apartheid” a household term in Toronto’s queer community and beyond.

And now that we know what Israeli apartheid is, it’s time for us to end it.

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