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Harper government threat to criminalize criticism of Israel generates strong opposition

Baird signs Memorandum of Understanding with Israel opposing BDS movement.

In recent years, Israel and its allies have become increasingly concerned about the growing international movement to expose and sanction Israel’s behaviour. Their chosen response appears to be one designed to intimidate and suppress this opposition through the threat or actual use of legal punishments. Nowhere has Israel's call for help in this outrageous endeavor been more enthusiastically embraced than in the government of Stephen Harper, which is an unquestioning ally of the widely reviled Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party.

In the face of growing efforts at intimidation by the Harper government, Independent Jewish Voices - Canada (IJV) decided to write a statement identifying the tangible threat to criminalize criticism of the state of Israel in this country. We reached out to civil society organizations across Québec and the rest of Canada, with the goal of finding broad public support in defense of our civil liberties, which are already under attack through the ominous Bill C-51.

Here is the full text of the IJV-initiated statement, entitled "Oppose the Canadian government's threat to criminalize criticism of Israel":

In 2009, the Canadian government gave major support to the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (CPCCA), a group of parliamentarians who accused those challenging Israel’s unjust treatment of Palestinians of being anti-Semitic. The goal of the CPCCA was to create a climate in which criticism of Israel could be criminalized in Canada. Fortunately, that initiative was unsuccessful, thanks to widespread opposition from members of the Canadian public.

In what appears to be another attempt to suppress criticism of Israel, the Canadian government has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Israel which makes the claim that "the selective targeting of Israel is the new face of anti-Semitism" and declares that Canada will oppose those who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Shortly after the MOU was signed, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney announced to the UN General Assembly that the Canadian government would exercise "zero tolerance" toward "all forms of discrimination including rhetoric towards Israel, and attempts to delegitimize Israel such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement."

All this follows on the fact that in October 2014 the Canadian government passed changes to the criminal code in Bill C-13 which expanded the definition of identifiable groups to be protected against public incitement to hatred to include "nations." This change to Canadian law parallels the situation in France, where alterations to the French penal code have led to the conviction of twenty French citizens who support the BDS movement, on charges of inciting racial hatred.

It is not yet clear how the Canadian government intends to implement a policy of "zero tolerance" to those who exercise their freedom of speech by advocating and participating in boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns to pressure Israel to respect the rights of Palestinians. What is clear, however, is that the Canadian government is determined to target people who expose and oppose Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. Such efforts by the government can only put a chill on Canadian democracy and may lead to the criminalization of such dissent down the road.

We are unequivocal in our condemnation of all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. It must be stressed that it is not anti-Semitic to criticize the state of Israel. Those who equate such criticism with a hatred of Jewish people are simply attempting to silence Israel's critics.

In the face of these actions on the part of the Canadian government, we must defend the right of people in a democracy to criticize any government's behaviour and to participate in boycotts designed to alter that behaviour if they choose to do so.

***

We, the undersigned organizations, oppose attempts by the Canadian government to criminalize criticism of or opposition to the actions of any country.

 

The positive response to this initiative has been inspiring. At last count, 81 organizations from across English-speaking Canada and Québec -- including major trade unions, labour councils, civil liberties, anti-war, faith-based, student and other groups -- have endorsed the statement.

The Canadian Labour Congress came out with its own statement -- echoing the concerns in the IJV-initiated statement -- which was endorsed by some of its major affiliates. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association was compelled to come out with its own statement, as well.

The Harper government has yet to take punitive actions in pursuit of these outrageous assaults on our freedom of expression. But progressive forces in Canada clearly stand ready to mount a vigorous response if and when they do.

 

Sid Shniad is a member of the national steering committee of Independent Jewish Voices -- Canada. 

 

 

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