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Banning Palestine support rallies. Could it happen in Canada?

Israel and its avid promoters have taken to waging an unrelenting, promiscuous and permanent war of position at every turn

Middle EastWar ZonesHuman RightsSocial Movements

Thousands rally in Melbourne in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. Photo by Matt Hrkac/Wikimedia Commons.

In the immediate wake of the recent events in Israel-Palestine, conservative and even centrist politicians all over the West have denounced rallies organized in support of the Palestinians and many have suggested prohibiting them and some have done so.

Ontario’s Doug Ford has called such assemblies “reprehensible and disgusting.” Québec’s François Legault decried them as “shameful.” Prime Minister Trudeau condemned the rallies for “glorifying violence.” Federal Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre denounced them as “disgusting celebrations.” Vancouver’s Mayor Ken Sim said, “I condemn any glorifying of the indiscriminate violence from this weekend.”

Even Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow, an NDPer, tweeted on X (formerly Twitter) that “The rally to support Hamas [sic] at Nathan Phillips Square today is unsanctioned, without a permit and I unequivocally denounce it.”

Other X users chastised Chow, reminding her: “Just to be clear: THERE ARE NO PERMITS IN TORONTO FOR RALLIES [emphasis in the original]. There is no permit to apply for, no authority that can issue it, no application you can fill. Not even for private property. Olivia knows because Jack [late federal NDP leader Layton] went to Supreme Court on this in 1984” (in fact, Layton was acquitted in a lower court on Charter freedom of expression grounds from a charge of trespassing after distributing leaflets for a trade union in a mall). Chow has since walked back her words.

A notable exception was Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, who carefully sympathized with both Israelis and Palestinians. But Adam Zepp, community relations committee co-chair of the Jewish Federation of Edmonton, poured scorn on the mayor’s words as “unacceptable” and “disgusting.”

Although there is little evidence that the rallies in Canada were pro-Hamas or cheered the Hamas attacks—or expressed anything other than sorrow—these politicians deliberately insisted that the gatherings, organized to voice support for the Palestinian cause in general, were really expressions of delight in the violent Hamas-led incursions into Israel a few days before. This is akin to denouncing current pro-Israel rallies as automatic evidence of support for Israel’s right-wing government and its plan to undermine the Supreme Court. Both would be wilfully incorrect.

Of course, Canadian institutional Jewish organizations and their supporters were doing their own disinformation about the rallies, thereby egging the politicians on. B’nai Brith Canada called the demonstrations “hateful.” Especially offensive to them was the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free.” B’nai Brith insisted that it is “a dangerous slogan that is commonly understood as a call for the ethnic cleansing of Jews and dismantling of the Jewish State.” B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn “called on police across the country to pre-emptively shut down these pro-terror rallies… The celebration of depraved acts of terror on Canadian streets must be unequivocally condemned and immediately stopped.”

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) denounced “rabid pro-Hamas demonstrations.” At a conference held a week after the Israel-Hamas war began, CIJA pushed for “leadership in the political sector [to] declare that anti-Zionism equals antisemitism.”

Toronto City Councillor James Pasternak, long pro-Israel, called on the mayor and police chief to prevent the rallies from taking place. His colleague, Councillor Brad Bradford, tweeted that the mayor and police should “prevent an unlawful pro-Hamas rally from taking place on public municipal property.” According to the Toronto Sun, Deputy Police Chief Lauren Pogue explained that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the large crowds at the rallies and public safety concerns all made it difficult to “enforce a group not having a permit.”

Take note of the Canadians’ words “preemptive,” “shut down,” “unsanctioned,” “unlawful rally,” and “permit.” We will come back to them shortly.

In much of Europe, such constraints on assembly are now a fact. France has banned pro-Palestine demonstrations and used tear-gas and water cannons on spontaneous participants in Paris on October 12.

Police in Vienna banned a demonstration there because the protesters were about to use the slogan “From the river to the sea etc.”

In the UK, Home Secretary Suella Braverman warned that waving the Palestinian flag might be a criminal offence and said “I would encourage police to consider whether chants such as: ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ should be understood as an expression of a violent desire to see Israel erased from the world.” Police made arrests at rallies in London and some other centres.

In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned that mayors could act to prevent demonstrations that appeared to favour the Hamas incursion into Israel.

In the above countries and others, rallies have taken place despite proposed or actual restrictions. But by far the most draconian limitations have taken place in Germany, the most zealously pro-Israel state in the West. That country hews tightly to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism insisting that most (and especially Palestinian) critics of Israel, are antisemitic.

I recently visited Berlin—and what I saw I didn’t like.

Photo courtesy Palästina Kampagne/@nakba_75

Germany, as must be remembered, has the most tortured relationship with Jewry, and its association with Israel bears the indelible stamp of Germany’s responsibility for the murder of six million of them in the Holocaust. The right and centre of German politics are devoutly pro-Israel. But even many on the left, unlike their anti-colonial counterparts across the world, are apprehensive of finding fault with Israel. And some far-left groups, sometimes imbued with “anti-Deutsch” beliefs that reject all forms of German nationalism, champion the Israeli cause with gusto, eliciting much head-scratching from political analogues abroad.

But it goes further than that. German authorities make it abundantly clear that state sponsorship or funding will be withdrawn and/or censure imposed if there is any “antisemitism” in public events like concerts, art shows, displays and meetings. “Antisemitism” can mean any featuring of a Palestinian speaker or theme or symbol, even when accompanied by Jewish ones. More than any other place, in Germany “Palestinian” is synonymous with “antisemitic.” It is assumed that the mere presence of Palestine is a direct negation of the Jewish state. Even private organizations often self-police in this way.

Demonstrations, vigils, slogans and even the public display of symbols like the keffiyeh and the Palestinian flag are streng verboten (strictly forbidden) in Germany. Before the recent war in Israel-Palestine, German authorities had banned any show of solidarity with Palestine, even by Jews. A German Jewish group, Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden in Nahost (Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Near East), celebrating its 20th anniversary and analogous to Independent Jewish Voices Canada and the US-based Jewish Voice for Peace, has for some time been targeted for its views.

The German authorities forbade any manifestations on Nakba Day 2022 and 2023 (May 15) and this year proscribed no fewer than seven observances of the day. As Jüdische Stimme explains, even seemingly innocuous activity was stopped:

A cultural event that took place on May 13 [2023] at Hermannplatz [Berlin] and at which our board member Udi Raz was supposed to speak was restricted to the extent that there were no political statements allowed—no speeches or statements, not even political literature on the bookstall.

Police allowed a Palestinian cultural festival on May 13 but disallowed political speeches, banned Dabka dancing, and banners featuring Palestinian political prisoners, chants like “Free Palestine,” books about Palestine and information on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Only one rally was permitted on May 15, in the name of Jüdische Stimme and clearly labeled as joint Jewish and Palestinian. However, police disrupted even that one, harassing and attacking participants, and arresting twelve. The 400 people gathered under the banner “Jewish Berliners demand the right to commemoration also for Palestinians!”

As Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported:

Several protesters testified to a calm atmosphere at Saturday’s rally and that one of the organizing groups, Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, read out the police guidelines before the event commenced. However, police entered the crowd during the speeches and “move[d] between us in lines,” said artist Adam Broomberg. “Their intention to break up the peaceful meeting was clear. They pointed video cameras in our faces and began to violently push us backward,” he added.

A report by Human Rights Watch observes:

In Berlin… police banned several Nakba Day protests planned for May 13-15. When people took to the streets anyway, police responded forcefully, shoving and dragging several demonstrators, and detaining scores for up to two hours, according to witnesses, lawyers, and video footage reviewed by Human Rights Watch. In one clip, an officer tells a woman she is being held because she shouted ‘Free Palestine.’

Police issued a scurrilously false report on the arrests, insisting that the rally was antisemitic and those detained had attacked the Jews in the gathering.

During the current Middle East conflict, defiant demonstrators played cat-and-mouse with police staging pop-up flag-waving and spray-painting in Berlin’s Hermannplatz in the middle of a largely Arab and Muslim neighbourhood. In a local coffee shop, I personally encountered five cops warming themselves, one of them looking quizzically at local anti-cop graffiti. Armed police are everywhere—in uniform and I have no doubt in plain clothes too.

All of this restrictive activity comes despite the guarantee in the German constitution of freedom of speech and assembly. Of course, the catch comes in reference to the “rules” which allow exceptions in the pursuit of public order.

A similar disjuncture between advancing and withholding civil liberties exists in Canada.

As much as representatives of some institutional Jewish organizations would seem to prefer shutting down rallies, could restrictions similar to those in Europe be imposed in Canadian cities? Of course, the question is both political and juridical.

First, juridical. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects assembly and expression. These protections can be overridden in three ways.

The first exception is if an otherwise illegal act, like impeding traffic, property damage, or assault, or a hate crime, are committed while the assembly or expression is taking place.

Second, violating these freedoms can be allowed if it passes muster under the Charter’s Section 1, “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Forty years of Canadian court decisions have set a very high bar for this clause, insisting that government actions “minimally impair” Charter freedoms and that harm to the public of allowing the freedom to operate clearly outweigh harm to those whose Charter rights might be diminished by that operation. In a common example, disallowing an individual from yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre may well be an acceptable violation of Charter rights of free expression if it might save the greater community from burning up in the theatre. However, in the Jack Layton case mentioned above, the court nearly 40 years ago decided the public’s right to distribute information about a union strike outweighed the inconvenience and privacy of the Eaton’s department store.

Would the courts rule the right of Canadian supporters of Israel to avoid disparagement of that country trump the right of critics of Israel to communicate with the public? One wonders.

The third way that Charter protections can be bypassed is through the notwithstanding clause. A government with enough votes in the legislature can ignore an actual or expected negative Charter court ruling by invoking this clause. Québec used it pre-emptively in 2019 to impose Bill 21, prohibiting public-facing public servants from wearing religious symbols at work. Ontario Premier Doug Ford tried this regarding striking education workers in November 2022 and then backed away. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe is currently using it to implement a naming and pronoun policy in public schools there.

While the notwithstanding clause is available, it is controversial. Governments that use it can be seen as bull-headed and disrespectful of the courts. And that’s one place that political considerations can arise. If a government feels it has enough political support among the voters, it can act with relative impunity.

And that brings us to the political question. Does the political will exist to support relevant governments banning pro-Palestinian gatherings?

In the heat of the Hamas “surprise” attack in Israel, public opinion may have swung toward it. But as Israel pounds Gaza, thousands of Palestinians die, and Israel’s “right to defend itself” becomes a sick joke, and as peaceful pro-Palestine rallies continue, that tendency may fade.

To listen to the Jewish institutional organizations like B’nai Brith and CIJA, and watch their behaviour in the recent crisis, they definitely appear to favour some such prohibition. Perhaps not a permanent ban on public protest against Israeli attacks on Palestinians, but certainly proscription of demonstrations that offer support or comfort for Palestinians amid Israeli casualties.

Is this a “good look” for institutional Jewish organizations, some of them with past histories of championing human rights? No, it is not a good look at all. But the B’nai Briths, CIJAs and Wiesenthal Centres of this world appear to have long since abandoned any pretence of actively promoting civil liberties for all. When the current crisis has passed with many thousands buried, displaced, ethnically cleansed, it will besmirch their reputation, an “own-goal” as it were. But they care not.

Israel and its avid promoters have taken to waging an unrelenting, promiscuous and permanent war of position at every turn, blocking events, attacking and maligning opponents and even academics and journalists attempting to report fairly on Middle Eastern affairs. The attempt by a pro-Israel judge and donor in 2021 to prevent University of Toronto law school from hiring human rights scholar Valentina Azarova is just one notorious example. Most of these attacks are given cover by false accusations of antisemitism. Events since the latest conflict began have only intensified that phenomenon.

So one might fairly say that those purporting to represent Canadian Jews are less and less concerned with what constitutes a “good look” and more and more with defending the indefensible, Israel über Alles.

Despite the uncertainty of bans on public demonstrations, here are some reasons to be apprehensive that such a possibility could become reality:

  1. Governments in other countries as devoted to freedom of assembly and expression as Canada have banned or partially banned demonstrations.
  2. Jewish leaders in Canada have called for demonstrations to be shut down.
  3. Jewish leaders pursue with a vengeance those who dare to express sympathy with Gaza and Palestine and will likely continue to do so.
  4. Canadian politicians still outdo one another to side with the Israeli position.
  5. Right-wing politicians like Doug Ford and Pierre Poilievre and various municipal elected officials would dearly love to curb or regulate public protests.
  6. Politicians of all stripes and the pro-Israel organizations are viciously attacking and calling for the disqualification of fellow lawmakers, like Ontario NDP MPP Sara Jama who dare express solidarity with Palestinians.

Larry Haiven is Professor Emeritus at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.


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