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Palestinian protesters escape from tear gas fired by Israeli troops during a protest at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel on Friday.
Palestinian protesters escape from tear gas fired by Israeli troops during a protest at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel in August. - The Associated Press

On Nov. 27, Halifax-based Canadians, Arabs and Jews for a Just Peace (CAJJP) will be holding a panel discussion on the topic: Why Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel are not anti-Semitic. 

On the face of it, calling for a boycott against a country, or a product, is not a major, contentious issue: it’s a reflection of people’s expression of free will regarding an ethical issue. 

In the 1980s, a major international boycott was successfully launched against apartheid in South Africa. A couple of years ago, following the decision by Heinz to abandon its ketchup-making facility in Leamington, Ont., some Canadians initiated a boycott of Heinz ketchup. Today, while it’s not formally organized, I know (and I’m sure you do as well) many people who are boycotting travel to and products from the U.S. because of the policies and practices of the Trump administration.

Returning to the topic of the Nov. 27 panel discussion, some might cringe slightly when reading it. That could be because matters of intellect and emotion collide when addressing Palestinian rights issues against the horrific historical backdrop of anti-Semitism.

The BDS campaign was launched in 2005 by 170 Palestinian civil society groups representing virtually every sector of Palestinian society. The decision was rooted firmly in a commitment to non-violence and in international law regarding the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.   

The BDS call was made on the one-year anniversary of a historic advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The court ruled that Israel’s separation barrier was illegal, that Israel had to dismantle it “forthwith” and offer reparations to those it had harmed, and that every signatory to the fourth Geneva Convention – meaning nearly every state in the world – was under an obligation to ensure Israel complied with international humanitarian law.

But Israel ignored the ruling, and neither the PLO nor the international community made a real attempt to enforce the court’s findings. In Canada’s case, successive governments have recognized the violations of Palestinians’ rights, but have done nothing. According to Ingrid Jaradat, a founding member of the BDS campaign, “If there had been action on the part of the international community to implement the ICJ ruling, there wouldn’t have been a BDS call.”

Because the BDS movement gradually developed momentum internationally, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu decided by September 2014 to launch a frontal attack on it.  Speaking to American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, he said: “I think it's important that the boycotters must be exposed for what they are; they're classical anti-Semites in modern garb.”

This conflating of support for BDS with anti-Semitism was then actively engaged by the Israeli government’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs.  Not only has it taken a lead role in lobbying foreign governments, but it has also outsourced much of its anti-BDS activity internationally, helping to establish and finance front groups and partner organizations.

In February 2016, the Conservative party opposition in the House of Commons introduced a motion that “the House reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel, and call upon the government to condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad.” 

During what passed for debate, criticisms of BDS supporters were shrill, with former Conservative MP and now leader of the United Conservative Party of Alberta, Jason Kenney, appearing to speak from Benjamin Netahyahu’s script:  “The BDS movement,” he proclaimed, “represents a new wave of anti-Semitism, the most pernicious form of hatred in the history of humanity.” 

The motion passed, supported by all Conservative members and most Liberals. 

A year later, in February 2017, an EKOS public opinion poll on Palestine and Israel issues revealed that Canadians feel that both the federal government and the media are biased in favour of Israel. Specifically, 78 per cent also believe that the call for a boycott of Israel is reasonable.

So it is in the context of majority Canadian approval – and general political and media condemnation – of BDS that the panel discussion is being held on Nov. 27.  It starts at 7 p.m. in Room 255 in the Sobey Building at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

Brian O’Neill is a member of CAJJP.  He lives in Boutiliers Point.

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