The Canadian Left has made a historic step forward in its opposition to Zionism.
On Saturday Montréal held probably the largest pro-Palestinian demonstration in Canadian history. Despite some ridiculous media reports, I estimate that there were between 12,000 and 17,000 (possibly as many as 25,000) people marching through the streets of downtown.
"Jews, Christians, Muslims, anglos, francos, grandmothers and children walked together yesterday in the bitter cold to call for an immediate ceasefire in [Gaza]," noted the Montréal Gazette. The march was endorsed and organized by all three major Québec unions and most of the province’s social groups.
Two weeks ago Sid Ryan, the head of 200,000 member Canadian Union of Public Employees-Ontario, courageously denounced Israel’s "genocide" in the Gaza strip and this weekend influential Canadian author Naomi Klein published an article supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel called for by Palestinian social movements.
In the face of media hostility, CUPE-Ontario, The Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the teachers Federation in Québec and the 40,000 members of Québec student Association ASSE have all supported the international boycott campaign against Israeli apartheid.
Canadian opposition to Israeli policy is important in light of this country’s long history of private and public support for Zionism. Before there was a Jewish Zionist movement, in the 1880s, Canada’s preeminent Christian Zionist, Henry Wentworth Monk, supported efforts to colonize Palestine on behalf of European Jews and called for the British Empire to establish a "Dominion of Israel", similar to the Dominion of Canada.
Six decades later, Ottawa played a decisive role in the UN’s 1947 partition plan, which gave the new Jewish state the majority of Palestine despite the Jewish population owning only 5.8 per cent of the land and representing less than a third of the population.
Four decades on, a survey of UN members ranked Canada second only to the U.S. in perceived support for Israel and by fall 2008, Harper’s Conservatives were publicly proclaiming that Canada was the most pro-Israel country in the world.
One might assume that the Canadian Left has long opposed Israel’s Jewish/White supremacy, its role in advancing U.S. geopolitical interests in the Middle East or its status as the final frontier of European settler colonialism. Unfortunately this has not been the case.
Recent opposition to Israeli policy by the Canadian Left is particularly important because it’s a reversal of the Left’s historic support for Zionism. While it might seem like ancient history to unions that recently passed motions to boycott Israel, in September 1977 the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) passed a resolution demanding Ottawa enact anti-boycott legislation against Arab countries that were boycotting companies doing business with Israel to pressure that country to return land captured in the 1967 war.
In 1975, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution (72 votes to 35 with 32 abstentions) calling Zionism a form of racism. In response, CLC President Joe Morris stated, "By this act, it can justifiably be argued the UN has ‘legitimized’ anti-Semitism and pogroms against Jews. Canadian labour will fight all moves to implement such a resolution and will exercise its influence to prevent further extensions of the resolution."
The same year, the CLC vigorously opposed the admission of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to the International Labor Organization (ILO) and in 1985 CLC president Dennis McDermott denounced a Canadian Senate report that rebuked Israel’s 1982 invasion/occupation of Lebanon and provided mild support for the PLO. McDermott, who referred to himself as a "Catholic Zionist," said the Senate report, which stopped short of calling the PLO the legitimate voice of Palestinians, was an ”exercise in bad judgment and, even worse, bad taste.” (A portrait of McDermott hangs in a library named after him at the trade school of the Histadrut union in Israel.)
Most astoundingly, in 1956, the CLC called on the Canadian government to "lend its sympathetic support to Israel’s request for defensive armaments in order that Israel may match in quality if not in quantity, the constant flow of Soviet Block armaments into the Arab countries." The resolution was passed just before Israel invaded Egypt alongside former colonial powers France and Britain. What is especially disturbing about this resolution is that Canada had been selling Israel weapons for a number of years and was under (private) pressure from Washington to send Israel advanced fighter jets.
Unions are not the only part of the Left that staunchly supported Israel. In 1975, Tommy Douglas, the ‘father of Medicare’, told the Histadrut, "The main enmity against Israel is that she has been an affront to those nations who do not treat their people and their workers as well as Israel has treated hers." This speech was made eight years into Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a quarter century after 800,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed during the 1948 war.
Staunch Zionist Irving Abella explained in the late 1970s that, "Historically, the New Democratic Party (NDP) has been the most supportive of the Israeli cause, largely because of its close relationship to Israel’s labour party, and to the Histadrut, the Israel trade union movement."
The Left is still not unanimous in its antagonism towards Israeli policy in Palestine, its domestic racism or its belligerence in the region (over the years Israel has bombed Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq and is now threatening to bomb Iran). Some unions continue to buy Israel Bonds while some NDP MPs still take tours of the region organized by pro-Israel groups.
In a particularly distasteful episode last year, the NDP opposed and then supported the Harper government when Canada was the first country to withdraw from the second UN Conference on Racism ("Durban II"), much to the delight of the Israeli government, which was the second country to pull out (criticism of Zionism at Durban I was deemed "anti-semitic").
Despite some setbacks it is clear that the Canadian Left is slowly catching up to the rest of the world in seeing the fundamental injustice of Zionism. Palestinian activists, alongside non-Arab activists, have worked tirelessly to make opposition to Zionism a central part of the left’s political culture. This helps explain why there were 18 actions for Gaza across the country on Saturday, many of them with 1000 or more people, even in smaller cities like Hamilton and Edmonton.
Yves Engler is the author of the forthcoming Canada on the World Stage: A Force for Good or Bad Actor? and other books.