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I've been involved in the BDS movement since the 1970s, although it was not called that back then. From the 1960s onward, groups opposing the racist system of apartheid in South Africa were involved in educating Canadians as well as providing material and moral support for those struggling to end this system.
At that time, there were many who opposed both our tactics and our opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa. The African National Congress was commonly denounced (even by some on the left of the political spectrum) as a "terrorist" and "communist" organization, with Nelson Mandela -- then imprisoned -- seen as one of its key terrorist leaders.
I thought of all this last week when I received a letter signed by a small group of university students, expressing their opposition to my recent open letter to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne re: her plan to visit Israel. As an academic, I have no trouble with students opposing my position on anything. To me, that's what being at university is all about: learning how to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions via thoughtful analysis and credible supportive evidence.
However, this letter saddened me, not because it contested my position, but rather because, for the signatories, the reality about what is happening in Israel-Palestine was simply denied. The essence of this letter was that they had all the facts while I, apparently, was totally ignorant of them. The three-page letter concluded with their hope that I would meet with them, not to debate and discuss our differing positions, but, rather, for them to (once again) tell me all the problems with BDS.
Today, Canadian politicians love to proclaim their past support for the struggle to bring down the South African apartheid system. However, this is largely a myth. Put simply, Canada long maintained a two-track approach: both major federal political parties at the time -- the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives -- expressed opposition to apartheid while simultaneously maintaining extensive economic ties to the white South African regime. This included allowing military hardware to be illegally shipped to South Africa via private corporations (several of whom had ties to Israel as well).
The federal Progressive Conservative party had a particular affection for the racist South African regime. In 1977, after returning from South Africa, Robert Coates -- then candidate for the national president of the Progressive Conservative party -- wrote an article for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald defending the white minority government. Conservative MP Dan MacKenzie, on his return from South Africa, argued that Blacks in that country were still too primitive and uneducated to be given the vote. And when MP John Crosbie -- a leadership candidate for his party -- was challenged in the House of Commons for his statement sympathetic to the apartheid system, he replied: "I have gone there and seen, you big loudmouth. Have you been there? You keep your mouth shut till you go and learn for yourself you professional bleeding heart."
So, support for apartheid Israel today by the three major political parties in Canada is not particularly surprising. Nor -- as support for BDS grows rapidly -- is the growing attack on its supporters via "hasbara" (Zionist propaganda). What was particularly disturbing about the letter I received was not its argument, which was totally predictable, but rather its arrogance of tone and vituperative personal attack on me. This was particularly distressing, coming as it is from university students.
Just a few examples: "…we find it bizarre that you…are seemingly unable to grasp the hypocrisy of your behaviour," or, "…we find it disturbing that a professor…would consistently resort to lies and historical distortions…." And, with the ultimate arrogance, "…it is deeply concerning that someone in your position would abuse the privilege of authority bestowed upon you to perpetuate this sort of blatant and haphazard propaganda. It would behoove you to remember that people are entitled to their opinions, but not to their facts." Like John Crosbie's attempt to shut down debate in the past, it seems that I too am being told to keep my mouth shut.
A previous piece I wrote -- about the BDS campaign at the University of British Columbia -- concluded this way: "As we were entering the student union building, I spotted a sign on the lawn that said ‘It's about hate, vote no to the BDS referendum.' I smiled. If this is the key argument left to the pro-Zionist side, we've already won."
And that's how I feel about this attack letter. If slander, denial of reality, and personal insults are the best that these folks can come up with, then, indeed -- on the propaganda front at least -- those who are supporting a just resolution to the conflict in Israel-Palestine by taking part in the BDS campaign have already won.
On the broader front, however, we do have a long way to go. Luckily history has shown us the route. A paper I co-wrote for the UN in 1984 concluded this way: "It is evident that pressuring our government [to isolate South Africa] has been, and will continue to be, a difficult task…but Canadian history has shown that governments have modified their policies in the face of massive popular opposition….There is no reason to assume, therefore, that our government cannot be made to modify its foreign policy as well." BDS played a key role in bringing down the racist regime in South Africa, and -- despite hasbara's escalating attempts to silence us -- it will again play its part in ending apartheid in Israel-Palestine.
Source: The final quote and information re support for the South African apartheid regime comes from Relations Between Canada and South Africa, by Joanne Naiman, Joan Bhabha and Guy Wright, UN Centre Against Apartheid Notes and Documents, 1984.
Joanne Naiman is Professor Emerita, Sociology, Ryerson University, and a member of Independent Jewish Voices.
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