Did the Liberals really mean it? Advocates respond to Dion's anti-BDS motion

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Some people in the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are prepared to cut foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion a bit of slack despite the decision to "condemn" their activity in a Feb. 22 vote.

All this has to be placed in a political context, explains Tyler Levitan, campaigns co-ordinator for Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), the major Jewish organization in support of the BDS campaign against Israel.

"I think [Dion] is personally torn on the issue. I am glad that he was appointed as foreign affairs minister as opposed as to somebody who has very clear leanings towards Israel."

The Feb. 22 motion was originally introduced by the official opposition Conservatives as the latest of a series of bills in North American legislatures that target BDS.

BDS is a non-violent international campaign started by Palestinian civil society organizations in the occupied territories to peacefully address their much-reported experience of colonialism and discrimination under Israeli military rule since 1967.

Liberals give into bullying by Conservatives?

Political analyst Neil McDonald says that Dion and the Justin Trudeau government caved into the "bullying" by the Conservatives.

In his defence, Dion in a public statement before Parliament explained his party's decision to support the anti-BDS motion despite personal misgivings about its tone.

The Liberals agreed with the references in the bill to alleged "demonization and delegitimization" of Israel by BDS.

But the foreign affairs minister also took issue with the reference in the Conservative motion to "Canadian organizations, groups or individuals" that "promote the BDS movement both here at home and abroad."

Dion specifically parted company with Stephen Harper and his ministers in the previous government which he says unfairly painted all of BDS with the brush of "anti-Semitism."

"Many organizations and individuals in Canada and abroad support the BDS movement out of the belief that it will somehow accelerate the peace process and be a non-violent initiative that leads to a lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Dion wrote.

Dion disagreed with any boycott of Israel but he has a preference for dialogue with BDS advocates.

"We will not convince the people acting in good faith that they are mistaken by hitting them over the head and condemning them at every turn. Intimidation, name-calling, and accusations will not lead to constructive dialogue with them. We must talk to them with respect and explain why boycotting Israel is a false solution."

Nonetheless, the Liberals' endorsement of a Conservative anti-BDS bill is more about "stunting the growth" of BDS politically in Canada than about democratic debate, counters Levitan.

"It is an example of the Israel lobby flexing its muscles on the Hill [in Ottawa] and showing that it has quite a lot of clout."

The IJV spokesperson is referring particularly to the Centre for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA) which some in the Jewish community had suggested had harmed itself as an effective lobby group by straying too closely to Harper.

Levitan says he expects the Liberals, which also have ties to CIJA, to differentiate a little bit, but not entirely, from Conservatives in terms of a Canadian Middle East policy.

He notes for instance that Dion in his new ministerial appointment has already staked out opposition to the growth of Israel-Jewish settlements in occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, which are described as illegal under international human rights law.

Dion made his statement following the end of an 18-month freeze on Israeli settlement construction but the response in the Israel lobby was not necessarily positive, the Canadian Jewish News reported on Feb. 4.

Here, the foreign affairs minister was attempting to be more balanced and neutral than his Conservative predecessors who held the same job, says Levitan.

Dion refers to "continued Israeli settlements" rather than to exisiting Israeli settlements or the expansion of the exisiting Israeli settlements. "I believe this was worded strategically," the IJV spokesperson adds.

Pros and cons of anti-BDS motion

Dion was one of the first MPs that Thomas Woodley, president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, met after his organization got started in 2004 and so he has a warm spot for the veteran politician.

His is also an organization that supports BDS and is thus targeted by the motion passed in the House of Commons.

But Woodley sees only positives when an under the radar issue like BDS gets the attention of parliamentarians for a full debate. He says that few exceptions, the mainstream media has ignored the movement and failed to explain its background or rationale to readers when any controversy crops up.

"Nobody five years ago had heard of [BDS]. It is the best thing that can happen."

The anti-BDS parliamentary motion will have no legal impact on the Charter rights of BDS advocates in Canada, says Cara Faith Zwibel, director of the fundamental freedoms program, at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

But she does have a concern. "If you have a government and a majority of parliamentarians expressing the view that individuals and groups that engage in a form advocacy are to be condemned, then that has a potentially chilling affect."

NDP MP Hélène Laverdière echoed this concern in Parliament. "It is not the role of Parliament to limit topics Canadians are allowed to debate, or to condemn opinions," said Laverdière. "[T]he motion is not about BDS; it is about the politics of division and freedom of opinion."

NDP leader Tom Mulcair, who has been vocal about his support for Israel and opposition to the BDS movement, also stated to the CBC "the Conservatives are proposing to limit what topics Canadians are allowed to debate. That's not the role of government."

In the final tally on Monday, 229 MPs voted for the anti-BDS bill and 51 against. The latter included Mulcair and his party, three Liberal MPs and the Bloc Québécois. Twelve Liberal MPs refused to vote.

Dion did not vote because he was absent and involved in discussions in Berlin and Istanbul on issues involving the fight against ISIL and support to Somalia. He also met the Syrian opposition, a ministerial spokesperson stated.


Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated Green party leader Elizabeth May opposed this motion when May was not present for the vote. We regret this error.

The NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière could not be reached for an interview before publication time.

Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton-based freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected].

Photo: flickr/ Heri Rakotomalala

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