Conservatives Pushing to Criminalize Israeli Boycott

From People’s Voice

The Harper government is signalling its intent to crack down against the movement for Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. But it remains to be seen whether criminal penalties will be imposed against BDS activists before the October 19 federal election.

This controversy has been building up for several years, as the Conservatives make Canada the most vocal international supporter for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. PM Harper and his cabinet ministers have become increasingly shrill in their backing for the policies of the Netanyahu government. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is moving in the opposite direction, in support of full Palestinian statehood, and recognizing that Israel’s racist policies resemble the apartheid system created by the minority white South African regime which held power until 1993. Last month, 16 European foreign ministers denounced the “expansion of Israeli illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories,” demanding that any imported goods originating in the settlements be distinctly labelled.

Here in Canada, there is rising support for the Palestinian cause, particularly in the wake of Israel’s bloody military assaults against Gaza, the growth of settler communities on expropriated Palestinian areas, and the “apartheid wall” which slices the shrinking Palestinian areas of the West Bank into ever tinier, unsustainable chunks.

The Harper Tories have condemned public opposition to these racist policies as “hate speech.” The Conservatives and their allies (and many leading Liberals and NDPers) have spoken out strongly against campus events to mark the annual Anti-Israeli Apartheid week, and in particular against the BDS campaign which was begun in 2006 at the request of Palestinian non-governmental organizations.

Last January, in one of his final actions before jumping Harper’s ship to begin a new life in the corporate sector, Canada’s previous foreign affairs minister, John Baird, signed a “memorandum of understanding” with Israeli authorities in Jerusalem. The MOU pledged to combat the BDS movement, which it calls “the new face of anti-Semitism.”

Speaking a few days later at the United Nations, Canada’s Public Security Minister, Steven Blaney (the official cabinet point person on Bill C-51), claimed that boycotts of Israel were the same as anti-Jewish hate speech and violence, such as the terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket in Paris. Blaney said the Harper government was taking a “zero tolerance” approach to BDS.

Not surprisingly, since Blaney is responsible for federal law enforcement, his speech set off alarm bells among groups that support the BDS campaign or specific boycotts as a tactic to oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Many pointed out a change last year to the Criminal Code definition of hate speech, adding the criterion of “national origin” to race and religion.

Micheal Vonn, a lawyer for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, says the expanded definition is clearly “a tool to go after critics of Israel.” Civil liberties groups argue that boycotts are a long-recognized type of political expression, and therefore a constitutionally protected form of free speech.

Bill C-51 added to the tensions, with its extremely broad definition of terrorism, including “undermining” the national security of another country – a term which in the current political context many activists understood as a reference to Israel.

On May 11, senior CBC News Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald reported that the Conservatives were preparing to use hate crime laws against advocacy groups that encourage boycotts of Israel. While the government has disputed Macdonald’s report, a clear pattern has been emerging.

The federal government does have the authority to assign priorities to the RCMP, such as pursuing certain types of hate speech. Blaney’s aide Josee Sirois wrote to CBC News, pointing out that provisions in the Criminal Code criminalize the promotion of hatred against an identifiable group, including any section of the public distinguished by “among other characteristics, religion or national or ethnic origin.”

However, any resulting prosecution would require an assent from a provincial attorney general, and would undoubtedly face a legal challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Moreover, Parliament will soon break for the summer and the fall election campaign, making it difficult to bring in specific legislation on this topic.

Still, this does not mean BDS supporters (including this newspaper) have nothing to fear in future, especially since the federal Liberal and NDP leaders also oppose BDS. Even Andrew Weaver, the BC Green Party MLA, recently denounced a pro-boycott billboard on Vancouver Island as “hate speech.” (See the May 16-31 PV for details, including a photo.)

Speaking to the media, Tyler Levitan, a spokesman for Independent Jewish Voices, one of the most prominent pro-BDS organizations in Canada, rejected the “hate propaganda” label, and pointed out that BDS is a passive and non-violent movement against complicity in Israeli policies.

At this point, it appears that none of the major parties will oppose the Conservative push to criminalize support for the BDS campaign. It will be up to the Communist Party’s candidates and those of some other smaller parties to stand up for free speech, including the right to criticize the racist policies of the zionist Israeli state.

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