Protesters advocating for a free Palestine.
Protesters advocating for a free Palestine. Credit: Manny Becerra / Unsplash

Nearly every university in Canada has an anti-racism policy, nearly all have a commitment to address and issue statements on equity and inclusion on their campuses. Saint Mary’s University in Halifax launched a course which is the  first of its kind in Canada, teaching Zionism and Palestine through an academic and critical lens.

Zionism refers to the national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their biblical homeland and later for the creation of a Jewish State.

The Zionist narrative that promoted the state of Israel, arguably did so on historical and biblical grounds.

The early Zionist leaders were ardent socialists and nationalists who hoped to create a homeland for a completely new kind of Jews; a modern community that amalgamated nationalism, socialism, enlightened western culture, along with some as yet undefined ethnic Jewish identity.

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 had significant consequences for the indigenous Palestinian population. Over 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their land creating one of the largest refugee and humanitarian crises in the world at the time. 

The course, titled “Zionism: Israel’s Narrative,” is being offered through the Religious Studies Department and is open to students attending Saint Mary’s, Dalhousie  and King’s College.

It is a 3000-level course that examines the historical formation of Zionism and its ethical complexity as an ideology. 

This course is being taught by Daphna Levit in the Winter Term (January-April 2023).

Daphna Levit taught economics and finance at Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion universities.

She has contributed and edited numerous books on Middle Eastern politics and is the author of two books: Wrestling with Zionism and Israeli Rejectionism: A Hidden Agenda in the Middle East Peace Process.

Levit, born in Israel and served in the occupation forces, says that this course aims to show the Palestinian narrative as well as the Jewish one.

 “I fought in the Six-Day War, I was an adult during the October War, I have been involved in lots of wars,” said Levit. “I was very active in Israel in the anti-occupation, Free Palestine in Israel we were very dynamic, we did a lot,” she added.

The course aims at educating people on the history of Zionism and how it came to be.

Unearthing the Palestinian narrative

“I want people to think about it, who creates the other, who creates the otherness, and what is our criteria for otherness and how come we can demean the other without taking into account we are demeaning human beings, and isn’t that what the Germans did,” said Levit.  “In universities this is not taught, in academia the Palestinian narrative is rarely taught,” she said. 

The Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, a national association that is committed to providing support for the Arab legal community, released a report in 2022 that showed the frequent occurrence of anti-Palestinian racism across numerous institutions in Canada.

This report provides accounts of how Palestinian narratives are excluded and erased. 

In Canada, pro-Palestine expression by academics, students, and activists is often silenced and attacked.

“Anything that goes against the narrative is scary, no one wants to go against the narrative,” said Levit.

In November 2021, Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) in London, Ont., issued a school dress code banning attire that promotes the “Free Palestine” movement, claiming it promotes violence and hate.

How narratives on Palestine are suppressed

In June 2021, a social justice educator and equity program advisor with the Toronto District School Board was suspended after sharing resources about the Palestinian cause. 

Javier Davila was later smeared with hate campaigns by B’nai Brith Canada, a leading anti-Palestinian lobby group.

READ MORE: Anti-racism and the IHRA definition

B’nai Brith, which describes itself as Canada’s “staunch defender of the State of Israel and global Jewry,” claimed that Davila abused his position as an educator and “spread hateful propaganda.” 

In August 2022, McGill University student Jonah Fried filed a lawsuit against the Students Society of McGill University (SSMU), Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) and McGill’s administration.

The SPHR held a vote in which 71 per cent of the student body voted to support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) a Palestinian-led movement promoting boycotts, divestments, and economic sanctions against Israel.

Following the overwhelming support the SPHR received, Fried sought to block the voting, when he could not do so, he filed a lawsuit supported by Bi’nai Brith to pressure McGill students to take back their votes on the already adopted resolution.

In a report in 2022 by Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV),  a 15-year-old national organization that advocates for Palestinian human rights and brings together Jews across Canada who are critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, provided nearly 80 testimonies from academics and students which describe the repression, intimidation, harassment and silencing that they face on Canadian campuses for their support of Palestinian human rights.

This continues to happen despite the fact that several reputable human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have labeled Israel as an apartheid state.

Canada still fails to acknowledge that the “Free Palestine” movement is as much of a call for freedom and independence as the “Free Ukraine” movement.

“Where do we draw the line, when does it become permissible to shoot at a child?” said Levit.

Larry Haiven, of IJV Halifax says this course is important at universities.

“If we are not going to do controversial stuff at universities, where else are we going to do it?” said Haiven.

Larry, a professor emeritus at Saint Mary’s University says it is important that a course like this should be taught by someone like Levit.

“First of all, she is Israeli, she has personal experience growing up and being in Israel, experiencing Zionism firsthand both as an Israeli citizen and as a critic of Israeli policy, she has the academic credentials,” he said.

Students, academics and professionals are usually blacklisted when they stand in solidarity for the Free Palestine movement.  

Canary Missions is a website aimed at blacklisting people, especially students who advocate for Palestine, accusing them of Anti-Semitisim.

The term Anti-Semitisim has been used to silence Pro-Palestinian human rights advocates, which has consequentially ruined lives, careers, and futures.

“Somehow, you know, defending human rights in Palestine is somehow transmogrified into antisemitism,” said Haiven in a recent interview.

Levit’s course aims to dive deep into the history of Zionist ideology, which she says is something that took a long time for her to acknowledge. 

“It took me a long time from becoming before the army a pro a totally unthinking uncritical Zionist to today where everything that is being said is like oh my god, how can you say that, it’s a long journey,” said Levit.

Yara Jamal

Yara Jamal Is a Palestinian journalist based in Kjipuktuk/Halifax, Nova Scotia. Jamal, from Haifa, Palestine grew up in Kuwait and is a first generation immigrant to Canada. Her work focuses on Middle...