| Scenes from the Peoples Circle for Palestine at Kings College Circle on the University of Toronto campus May 10 2024 Photo by Can Pac SwireFlickr | MR Online Scenes from the People’s Circle for Palestine at King’s College Circle on the University of Toronto campus, May 10, 2024. (Photo: Can Pac Swire/Flickr)

Righteous student activism and evolving anti-Palestinian reprisal in Canada

Originally published: Canadian Dimension on July 4, 2024 by Joshua Sealy-Harrington (more by Canadian Dimension)  | (Posted Jul 11, 2024)

It’s been a (deservedly) judgmental summer for Israel, as its public support in Canada declines and given its ongoing, precipitous collapse to the status of a pariah state.

On May 20, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced that there are reasonable grounds to believe Israeli leaders have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza. And on May 24, the International Court of Justice concluded yet again—on the heels of earlier judgments in January and March—that Palestinians in Gaza face a real and imminent risk of genocide (due to the particular risk posed by the current offensive in Rafah, the Court ordered Israel to immediately halt its military offensive there, which it has belligerently defied). These significant cases are testing the integrity of our supposed liberal international legal order.

International cases, however, have domestic counterparts closer to home. On May 31, the Honourable J. Michael MacDonald, a former Chief Justice of Nova Scotia tasked with investigating a group of Toronto Metropolitan University law students who proactively called out Israel’s relentless atrocities, concluded that the students’ pro-Palestine letter “should not have been characterized as antisemitic” by their own administration or by overzealous lawyers, was “a valid exercise of student expression” and, further, that “none of the students who participated in the letter were found to have breached” the university’s Student Code of Non-academic Conduct.

This is an important victory for Palestinian solidarity specifically and academic freedom in general. But it is crucial to appreciate that this victory involved significant costs and remains incomplete.

Fighting—and beating—the tide of anti-Palestinian racism

Canadian media, including the national broadcaster, are profoundly anti-Palestinian. Consequently, early biased reporting on the law students uncritically repeated specious claims that this group of mostly racialized women were rape supporters, literal terrorists, and antisemites. Media’s amplification of this hyperbolic propaganda—alongside its shameful amplification by their own dean—foreseeably resulted in devastating consequences for the students’ livelihoods, health, and safety. They received death threats, were harassed and doxed, lost jobs, and experienced depression and anxiety—unfortunately common consequences for Palestine activists. But thanks to courageous support from principled community members and genuinely progressive justice organizations (such as the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and Independent Jewish Voices) and academic organizations (including TMU’s faculty association and the Canadian Association of University Teachers), these misrepresentations were, eventually, corrected.

What was perhaps most onerous was ensuring that the investigator understood the difference between anti-Zionism (a legitimate political belief) and antisemitism (an illegitimate racial hatred). This essential conceptual distinction—endorsed by many progressive Jews—was made all the more difficult as the law school administration defamed the students as antisemitic while simultaneously refusing to commit to a definition of antisemitism (an opacity tactic adopted by other anti-Palestinian institutions).

Pro-Israel activists in Canada and America often conflate anti-Zionism and antisemitism to insulate Israel from critique under the guise of racial justice. And this “dangerous conflation” is typically institutionalized using the heavily criticized International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. Indeed, the IHRA definition was specifically advocated for in this investigation, both by TMU law faculty administrators (who claim to support “dialogue” while opposing anti-Zionist expression) and by external stakeholders (who “suppress Palestinian perspectives and legitimate criticism of Israeli apartheid”). Such advocacy is inevitable because one must collapse Israel with Judaism to characterize anti-Israel speech as anti-Jewish. Truly, pro-Israel activists cannot help but collapse the two when advocating for the IHRA definition of antisemitism in order to, in their words, prevent “discrimination against … Zionists” (emphasis added).

Demystifying the IHRA’s “bait-and-switch”

Do not be fooled by the largely unobjectionable “working definition” of antisemitism included in IHRA, which reads:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

The bait-and-switch occurs, rather, in the “illustrative examples” listed after the definition. Pro-Israel activists pretend that they, and the IHRA, are in theory open to criticism of Israel. But through a tactical perversion of antisemitic tropes—what Em Cohen helpfully calls “tropeification”—in practice the IHRA prohibits essential critiques of Israel. Many of the so-called illustrative examples supplied with the IHRA definition function as distortions, shifting focus away from actual antisemitism toward anti-Zionism, thereby insulating Israel from critique rather than protecting Jews from hatred. Indeed, of the 11 illustrative examples, seven focus on Israel explicitly.

For instance, the IHRA’s “contemporary examples of antisemitism” include, most notably, “claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” This, in turn, is used to slander mainstream human rights critiques of Israel by credible organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as antisemitic. If we follow this grotesque perversion of logic on the IHRA’s part, then even the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem would appear to be antisemitic. It must be stated in stark terms: the IHRA definition is being used to characterize factual and legal descriptions of Israel as antisemitic—certainly an Orwellian exploitation of the term if ever there was.

But other, more controversial entries in the IHRA’s list of “illustrative examples” must also be addressed, for they, too, are weaponized to silence important critiques of Israel. One such example is the criticism, even when empirically documented, of pro-Israel lobbying—including lobbying for the IHRA specifically (how convenient!)—which is characterized, deceptively, as exploiting “the myth about … Jews controlling the … government” and must therefore be considered antisemitic. Another IHRA example is zealous critique of Israel’s “unprecedented destruction” of Gaza. This is dishonestly characterized as a “double standard” and thus antisemitic, even as Israel benefits from a genuine double standard, namely Western powers’ assertive response against Russian aggression in Ukraine, as compared to their bottomless support for Israel (or more than one double standard: indeed, the ongoing protests against Israel in Western countries are clearly motivated not by antisemitism but by how our governments are conspicuously complicit in Israel’s atrocities, in ways distinguishable from atrocities committed by other, non-allied states). A third example identifies South Africa’s claim against Israel before the International Court of Justice, which subsequently found a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza; these facts are said to constitute the use of a “blood libel … to characterize Israel” and should therefore be deemed antisemitic. It must be said, however, that “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” (a fourth “illustrative example”) should surely not be cast as antisemitic at a moment when even prominent Jewish intellectuals, confronted with the horrors of Gaza, find themselves morally compelled to make such a comparison precisely because of their identity and experiences as Jews. As the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, who is Jewish, explained only three months into Israel’s now nine-months-long genocide, merely describing the situation in Gaza becomes antisemitic under the IHRA definition:

The term “open-air prison” seems to have been coined in 2010 by David Cameron, the British Foreign Secretary who was then Prime Minister. Many human-rights organizations that document conditions in Gaza have adopted the description. But as in the Jewish ghettoes of Occupied Europe, there are no prison guards—Gaza is policed not by the occupiers but by a local force. Presumably, the more fitting term “ghetto” would have drawn fire for comparing the predicament of besieged Gazans to that of ghettoized Jews. It also would have given us the language to describe what is happening in Gaza now. The ghetto is being liquidated.

In brief, the TMU law students’ letter supported Palestinian resistance and liberation while opposing Israeli colonialism, occupation, apartheid, and genocide. Under IHRA, the Palestinians’ right to resist as provided under international law can be characterized deceptively as “justifying the killing … of Jews in the name of radical ideology” and thus as antisemitic. And that is precisely how pro-Israel groups attempted to defame the students. As Justice MacDonald noted, however, the letter did “not refer to Jewish people or Judaism, nor [did] it explicitly or implicitly equate Israel’s actions with those of Jewish people.” Yet the students continue to be defamed as antisemitic all the same (see examples here, here, and here), even after the report’s clear exoneration of them.

| Scenes from the Peoples Circle for Palestine at Kings College Circle on the University of Toronto campus May 10 2024 Photo by Can Pac SwireFlickr | MR Online

Scenes from the People’s Circle for Palestine at King’s College Circle on the University of Toronto campus, May 10, 2024. (Photo: Can Pac Swire/Flickr)

Crucially, Justice MacDonald affirmed the unique importance of free expression at universities, particularly during times of crisis. Also crucially, he recognized that pro-Israel activists—including “unelected communal groups who spuriously claim to speak for all Jews”—do not hold a monopoly on Jewish opinion, especially while it experiences its “greatest transformation … in half a century.” Accordingly, Justice MacDonald refused to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, disentangled anti-Israel and anti-Jewish expression, and characterized anti-Israel expression as protected political speech—an uphill battle, especially given the well-documented censorship of pro-Palestinian speech in universities (a setting in which even the IHRA definition’s own author has said it should not be applied).

The evolving battle for Palestinian freedom: From “hate” to “incivility”

McCarthyist suppression of Palestinian and allied dissent is expanding rapidly. Sham hearings are being held in Parliamentary committees and sham task forces are being formed at universities to institutionalize the very conceptual collapse that Justice MacDonald prudently resisted. Worryingly, these cynical attempts to conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism have spread across the private sector and, worse, public institutions, including the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, and the Supreme Court of Canada. Pro-Israel groups are even trying to ensure that the Canadian Human Rights Commission dare not consider—let alone defend—the human rights of Palestinians. Indeed, they don’t want anti-Palestinian racism as a concept to exist at all.

The strategic collapse of Israel with Judaism produces a singular effect (whether intentional or otherwise): fomenting a racist “moral panic” to distract from what has been recognized as a “textbook case of genocide” in Gaza where Canada is diplomatically and militarily complicit. As Isabella Hammad cogently explains—while critiquing Zadie Smith’s caricature of pro-Palestinian words as “weapons of mass destruction”—hyperbolic critiques of Palestinian solidarity are obfuscatory:

This focus on the speech used tο support Palestinian rights does more than obscure the context in which protesters are speaking; it also obscures the reality about which they speak. I believe in the power and importance of language. But what is happening is not primarily about language. Words are not weapons of mass destruction: when we encourage others to use language with care, we should be sure to do the same ourselves. Some metaphors are inappropriate in some contexts. The context here is a quantity of ammunition dropped on Gaza that is equivalent to more than three times that of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A high proportion of those bombs were U.S.-made and supplied. Those bombs were not made of language, and they certainly were not metaphors.

At times, the strategy of collapsing anti-Zionism and antisemitism is overt: for example, Liberal MP and former public safety minister Marco Mendicino recently called for the criminalization of speech that associates Zionism with racism, which would threaten not only progressive activism across Canada, but also support for democratically passed resolutions at the United Nations and a long past and present of Jewish anti-Zionism. Even acclaimed Israeli academics like Ilan Pappé and Raz Segal have, like the TMU students, experienced outrageous reprisal, including FBI interrogations and revoked academic appointments, for their scholarly critiques of Israel. With esteemed Israeli intellectuals—and award-winning Jewish filmmakers and journalists—all experiencing reprisal for their critiques of Israel, “outside” critiques from Black, Brown, and Indigenous anti-Zionists may confront even greater retaliation (indeed, my own solidarity with Palestine as a Black scholar has generated significant racist reprisal). But the strategy of equating Israel with Judaism can also be carried out more subtly. And we must be prepared for both overt and subtle tactics of censorship as Israel’s genocide continues unabated.

To criminalize calling someone a racist—whether they are a Zionist or not—would obviously violate the Charter right to free expression (a genuinely embarrassing policy proposal undoubtedly influenced by pro-Israel lobbying). But what about labelling critique of Israel “uncivil” or “incendiary”? This is an additional route taken by pro-Israel activists in recent months and shamefully endorsed by the editorial board of the Globe and Mail, which completely obfuscates how Israel’s livestreamed genocide is predictably—and importantly—generating proportionately passionate critique and disruptive protest. Amia Srinivasan recently addressed notions of proportionality when describing an Oxford colleague’s fleeting hesitation before signing a letter supporting the pro-Palestine encampment at the university:

He had talked it over with his partner, who is of Jewish heritage. They both had reservations about the letter’s claim that Israel is committing genocide; he thought that thus far Israel’s actions were better described as “ethnic cleansing,” though he believes the risk of genocide is real. “But I don’t think,” he finished, “it would be morally or politically proportionate for me to let that reservation stand in the way of expressing solidarity with a student action that I think is overwhelmingly justified.” He signed the letter.

Whether you quell Palestinian dissent—or, quite frankly, advocacy for basic human rights—by calling it antisemitic, or uncivil, is immaterial: the consequence is identical. If you support Palestine, or simply democracy, such subtle strategies should be of grave concern. Many pro-Israel advocates call support for Palestine uncivil, just as reactionaries can call any other group challenging state oppression—such as Black or trans activists—“uncivil” too.

Civility, here, is a bad faith tactic of censorship, not a good faith commitment to courtesy. But even if the issue really was civility, its most pronounced absence is with those who support, not oppose, Israel’s atrocities in Gaza. To quote Macklemore in his latest pro-Palestinian anthem “Hind’s Hall”: if the issue were truly civility, “where does genocide land in your definition, huh?” Further, invoking civility against anti-genocide activists is deplorably racist: if “civility” is what comes to mind when Palestinians and their allies process the grief of over 15,000 murdered and over 20,000 missing Brown children, please reflect on where Palestinian humanity fits within your conscience. As Sari Edelstein elucidates, during a genocide “respectability” must be exposed as “cover for acts of utter barbarism.” How else could we be nine months into pedantic scrutiny of student prose while the State of Israel proudly advertises that “there are no innocent civilians” in Gaza and its national security minister proudly boasts about his intent to turn Israel’s torture camps into death camps?

The fight for Palestinian freedom—as well as for Canadian democracy—will be long and arduous. And it will require our collective resistance to evolving tactics of censorship. The TMU law students, and all the students setting up encampments around the world (including in Israel), have had an immense impact. They are inspiring resignations by civil servants and prefiguring a world based on relationality and care. But they are also being met with harsh legal reprisal, as well as physical and chemical assaults. It is now imperative for those with institutional power to carry the baton forward. Journalists, lawyers, professors, administrators, unions, and politicians can be bystanders no longer. No matter your politics on Palestine, racist backlash against Palestinian solidarity threatens “the very existence of the independent university in North America” and, relatedly, the integrity of our liberal democracy. As Nadia Abu El-Haj notes regarding pro-Palestinian student activism at Columbia:

Even if you don’t agree with the students’ politics, you need to recognize that this is a serious political movement and that they’re doing an awfully good job. It’s a generation that understands the genocide in Gaza as the great moral crisis of our time.

The TMU law students spoke out presciently in the first month of Israel’s carpet bombing of Gaza. And there is still time for you—for everyone—to join them. Please be brave. Please support calls for Palestinian liberation (which is part of, not separate from, Jewish humanity). And please demand material action from the Canadian government to stop the merciless slaughter in Gaza, including cooperation with the International Criminal Court, a complete arms embargo on Israel, and recognition of Palestinian statehood.

Those with the least power have spoken up for justice. Now it is time for those with the most to follow their lead.

Joshua Sealy-Harrington is an associate professor and chair of Equality Law at the University of Windsor, Faculty of Law and a proud board member at the Community Justice Collective.

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