Groups closely aligned with the far-right Israeli government have declared “lawfare” on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in Canada.
Lawfare, as it is commonly known, is the use of legal methods and the courts to damage an opponent, usually with the intent of winning a political or public-relations battle.
Recent events in Canada’s parliament, the Ontario Legislature and on Canadian campuses reveal the increasingly forceful trajectory of this strategy.
As predicted by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and opposition MPs, the Canadian Parliament’s controversial condemnation of BDS back in February has served to bolster the Israel lobby’s efforts to target groups and individuals who promote BDS as a means of achieving equal rights between Israelis and Palestinians.
Back in July 2015, then opposition MP, now Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau wrote that BDS is “not about our shared Canadian values of respect, openness, and engaging with each other.”
But, has Parliament’s condemnation of BDS done anything to further the cause of respect and engagement?
In fact, it was almost immediately followed by several offensives by Israel advocacy organizations that have chosen not to engage with the substance of the concerns of Canadian groups and individuals who are trying to hold Israel accountable for its occupation of the Palestinian territories and other violations, but to take the more convenient path—widened by Parliament—of imposing a chill on them.
From an aggressive push against a York University campaign that even Israel advocacy groups admit does not single out Israel, to the failed anti-BDS motion at the Ontario Legislature, Canadian supporters of BDS have found themselves increasingly under attack.
After a protest calling for weapons-divestment at York University in February, Hillel Ontario CEO Mark Newburgh told the Canadian Jewish News that “They [the protesters] were chanting numerous slogans about the university divesting from weapons manufacturers. There were no chants about Israel, and there were no chants about Jewish students.” Yet the far-right Jewish Defence League (JDL) staged a counter-protest “to stop incitement to murder Jews,” according to the JDL’s Facebook page.
In May, a private member’s bill to stop the Ontario government from doing business with companies that back BDS was defeated. Progressive Conservative Tim Hudak and Liberal Mike Colle brought forth the motion, which lost by 39-18 in a free vote. That same week, Ontario premier Kathleen Wynn stated, “I entirely oppose the BDS movement” but added freedom of speech is “something we must vigorously defend.”
More recently, Hasbara Fellowships Canada filed a lawsuit with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal against the student and faculty associations at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Durham College (UOIT and DC).
Hasbara’s national director, Robert Walker, claims that his Israel advocacy group was discriminated against when it was denied participation in “Social Justice Week.”
An email to Walker from the assistant of UOIT and DC’s faculty association explained that because the Student Association (SA) passed a BDS motion at their last annual general meeting, it would be against the motion to provide resources to a group that is “closely tied to the state of Israel.”
According to the National Post, Walker stated in his filing that “I was perceived as being ‘tied’ to the state of Israel because I am Jewish and work for a Jewish organization.”
However, Hala Elatawani, president of Students for Justice in Palestine, the group that lobbied the Student Association to endorse BDS, said, “Hasbara Fellowships is not a religious or cultural group. It’s a political group that was founded partly by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and it describes itself as an Israel-advocacy organization that runs Israel-advocacy training programs.”
Mariam Nokerah, VP of University Affairs at the SA, stated, “Walker says his group was ‘banned’, but Hasbara Fellowships isn’t even a student club on this campus. It’s an organization external to our UOIT and DC community. They wanted to use student funds, space and resources without having been invited. And the SA is accountable to its members. In addition, the group’s objective of supporting Israeli military policy in the occupied territories conflicts with the mandate of Social Justice Week.”
When asked where they think BDS advocacy is headed in Canada, Elatawani and Nokerah are both optimistic about its growth, but say they are preparing for difficult challenges ahead.
“Criticism of Israeli policies and its military occupation is not anti-Semitism,” Elatawani insists.
“The sooner we can untangle the two, the sooner we’ll realize freedom, justice and equality for both, Palestinians and Israelis.”