A number of Toronto organizations — including Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA), Faculty for Palestine, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, Students Against Israeli Apartheid, Independent Jewish Voices (Toronto), the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Women in Solidarity with Palestine, and Labour for Palestine (Toronto) — recently protested an award gala where actor Morgan Freeman was given the ‘Key of Knowledge.’ They have now released this follow-up statement. 

Earlier this month, the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University (CFHU) awarded Morgan Freeman the ‘Key of Knowledge.’ Emceed by popular Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, the gala celebration has become the subject of powerful international criticism, with Desmond Tutu and anti-apartheid icon Ahmed ‘Kathy’ Kathrada adding their voices to those opposed to Freeman’s and Ghomeshi’s participation.

While the celebrities capitulated in this instance, the global movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel only got stronger. In the lead up to the event, a petition asking Freeman to step away gathered thousands of signatures. And as local Toronto organizers appealed to Ghomeshi to do the same with a letter campaign and creative action held outside the gala venue, Ghomeshi’s facebook page lit up with comments by disappointed fans and his social justice audiences.

A video by Toronto filmmaker John Greyson expresses the movement’s concerns and demands by using Stevie Wonder’s music to ask Jian and Morgan to ‘say No!’ It warns that the CFHU is making cynical use of them to paint a progressive face on Israel’s brutal and illegal oppression of Palestinians.

During the May 6 event held at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, a Global News interviewer asked Freeman: what was it like when you first met Nelson Mandela? Freeman responded: “Try to imagine what you would say to God if you happened to be in the same room that he walked into.”

Freeman’s glowing praise suggests he regards Mandela with high esteem, but his actions proved otherwise. The actor dismissed a letter written by Ahmed ‘Kathy’ Kathrada, a former prisoner who served 18 years with Madiba (Mandela) on Robben Island. Kathrada, surprised to learn that Freeman was accepting the ‘Key of Knowledge’ award from an apartheid university sent him an open letter stating:

“What immediately came to mind were the words of Madiba: ‘…But we know too well that our freedom isn’t complete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’ I would have hoped that before you accept the award, you would have paid a visit to Palestine….Last Friday, I returned from Palestine….I came back convinced that Israel is indeed an apartheid state. And in certain respects it is worse than apartheid.”

Freeman has also dismissed several letters written from Palestinian civil society, BDS activists from within Israel, BDS South Africa, Palestinian students from Hebrew University, the Dorothy Cotton Institute, and a from the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation (which is a coalition of 400 U.S organizations), and several Canadian organizations. These letters all strongly urged Freeman to decline the award.

Similarly, in the weeks leading up to the event, Toronto organizations wrote to Ghomeshi asking him to step off the stage and to respect the PACBI call for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions complicit in land theft, and apartheid.

On the evening of the gala, a creative action mounted outside the Toronto Centre for the Arts urged Ghomeshi and Freeman to ‘Pull the Plug’ on apartheid. Protesters from Faculty for Palestine, the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, Students Against Israeli Apartheid, Independent Jewish Voices (Toronto), the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Women in Solidarity with Palestine, and Labour for Palestine (Toronto) hoped to deliver to Freeman a petition signed by 8,300 people from 83 countries (along with more than 60 organizations from Austria, the UK, Canada, Cyprus, Ireland, Jordan, Malaysia, Morocco, Puerto Rico, Sweden, South Africa and the United States). But security guards kept them well away from the venue’s doors.

The activists nonetheless performed a collective reading of a powerful letter to Morgan Freeman by Palestinian students of Hebrew University, and Ryerson sociology professor Alan Sears of Faculty for Palestine made the following appeal:

“The Palestinian people have faced a systematic regime of unfreedom, indeed an attempt to erase them as a people for over 65 years. Israeli universities, including Hebrew University, have played a central role in this regime, providing everything from military technologies through to the specific role of geography departments renaming former Palestinian villages as part of their erasure.

We are here to remind Morgan Freeman and Jian Ghomeshi that they are crossing a picket line called by the Palestinian people to attend this award ceremony. While it is great to honour the remarkable accomplishments of Morgan Freeman, there is no honour in apartheid.”

BDS supporters around the world have echoed PACBI’s simple demand: “Don’t accept an award tarnished with apartheid and colonialism.” And now not only are anti-apartheid icons Desmond Tutu and Ahmed Kathrada asking Morgan Freeman to explain his decision, but more and more public figures are joining the boycott.

In November 2012, Stevie Wonder cancelled his scheduled performance at an Israeli Defence Forces fundraiser in Los Angeles after receiving appeals from Desmond Tutu, Roger Waters, civil rights figures in the U.S., the BDS movement and eventually from the U.N. And on May 7 — the day after Morgan and Ghomeshi took to the CFHU stage — renowned physicist Stephen Hawking threw his support behind the BDS movement as well, and withdrew from a conference being held at an Israeli university in Jerusalem.

Regarding this decision to change his mind, Hawking stated: “I have received a number of e-mails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”

As happened in the struggle against South African apartheid, such cultural and academic boycotts by high-profile figures will inspire others to follow. Ghomeshi and Freeman can only hope that someday they will get another chance to stand up to apartheid too.


You can watch a video of the May 6 protest outside the awards gala here