The recently deposed British Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has claimed that those participating in the massive protests taking place across the country in solidarity with the Palestinians are “hate marchers.” Meanwhile, here in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford told an audience that had been assembled by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre that “I call them hate rallies, going down the streets, trying to intimidate our Jewish communities…”
At present, the message is being driven home that condemnation of Israel is a form of hate speech, if not an actual hate crime. The erratic mogul of X (formerly Twitter), Elon Musk, has imperiously declared that “As I said earlier this week, ‘decolonization,’ ‘from the river to the sea’ and similar euphemisms necessarily imply genocide.”
River to the sea
Early in November, after shouting the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” Wesam Khaled was arrested by police in Calgary. He was charged with causing a disturbance with hate motivation also being applied. After his arrest, the police issued a media release that asserted “He then proceeded to repeatedly use an antisemitic phrase while encouraging the crowd to follow along.”
The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service subsequently decided that a successful prosecution was not to be expected and the charges were stayed, but a line has clearly been crossed and the call for a free Palestine has now been treated by law enforcement in Canada as a criminal and hateful act.
Indigo CEO Heather Reisman created and runs a foundation that provides free tuition to immigrants to Israel on condition that they serve in the Israeli military and has previously been the target of pro-Palestinian protests on that basis. However, the police response to a November 10 action where an Indigo store at Bay and Bloor Streets in Toronto was plastered with posters and splashed with paint, was certainly not commensurate with an alleged act of “mischief to property.”
As if some desperate armed criminal gang were being taken down, “gun and drug” style dawn raids were set in motion to arrest 11 people in their homes, in a shocking display of state power. Based on a blinkered assumption that Reisman has been targeted because she is Jewish, enormous police resources have been devoted to treating the incident as a grievous hate crime.
The police in Calgary and Toronto are operating under the same assumption as the Centre of Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). At an “Antisemitism: Face it, Fight it” conference held in Ottawa in October, Shimon Fogel, the CEO of CIJA, stated that “We want to hear leadership in the political sector declare that anti-Zionism equals antisemitism.”
There’s a big problem for me and a lot of other people here. I hate all forms of racism and that means I abhor any hostility or prejudice directed at Jewish people because they are Jewish. Yet, I also firmly oppose the propositions and practical consequences of the political ideology of Zionism. This emerged in the 19th century as a manifestation of nationalism but, once the dispossession of the Palestinians became its objective, it became irretrievably colonialist and racist and an adjunct of imperialism.
The founding father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, suggested that the state he wanted to establish would be part of “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” That sounds utterly racist to me, and what is being advocated there is a vision for a settler-colonial project that I can only deplore.
When Joe Biden declared that “if there were not an Israel, we’d have to invent one,” he embraced Herzl’s pernicious vision and suggested that the agenda of domination and exploitation in the Middle East and North Africa that the US presides over relies on Israel as a beachhead for its interests.
When I consider the long process of Palestinian dispossession, including the massive exercise in ethnic cleansing at the heart of the 1948 Nakba, it evokes in me deep feelings of outrage. Knowing that there are some 5.9 million registered Palestinian refugees living across the Middle East, compounds my anger with intense sadness at this enduring injustice.
The situation facing those Palestinians who remain within the boundaries of historic Palestine is intolerable. Amnesty International described Israel as having maintained a “continuing oppressive and discriminatory system of governing Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)” that constitutes “a system of apartheid,” and Amnesty affirmed that “Israeli officials committed the crime of apartheid under international law.”
Even when it comes to the Palestinians living within the state of Israel itself, who have been accorded a grudging and inferior brand of citizenship, Amnesty stresses that Israel’s governing system works “to privilege Jewish Israelis in distribution of land and resources, and to minimize the Palestinian presence and access to land.” This too is blatant racism that contravenes everything I believe in.
The genocidal onslaught that has unfolded in Gaza these last weeks is a horrific intensification of decades of oppression. Some 1.7 million of Gaza’s inhabitants are refugees, driven there from the north after the creation of the state of Israel. The impoverished and densely packed population has been blockaded for 16 years, frequently subjected to bombardment and incursion.
At this terrible moment, the people of Gaza face a slaughter of unprecedented proportions and their smouldering misery has become a torment of death, near starvation and an incipient second Nakba. What can we feel in the face of this but burning hatred for a state that would commit such crimes and utter contempt for those who would try to justify them?
I should point out that my opposition to settler-colonialism applies across the board and includes the variant at work right here in Canada. On this stolen land, Indigenous people were also displaced with massive violence and the crimes were justified in racist terms. Canada doesn’t simply have a colonial legacy but its present day relationship with the Indigenous population is thoroughly colonial in nature.
Although the colonial project is further advanced here than in Palestine, it is clear that the fundamental injustices at work in a settler state generate ongoing instability and resistance that can only be resolved by building a post-colonial society that recognizes and respects Indigenous sovereignty. In the meantime, behind empty promises of reconciliation, the Canadian form of settler-colonialism remains as inherently racist as the one in the Middle East.
Of course, all settler states, including Israel and Canada, claim not to be colonial in nature, but the pretexts are always revealingly racist in character. Israel’s leaders and supporters proffer a variety of evasions and justifications including the notion that their project is an exercise in self-determination. Ancient history and religious tradition are employed to this end but the dispossession of an entire people that was undertaken to create Israel can only rest on Herzl’s colonialist assumption that a superior civilization would replace an inferior one.
Although the Zionist project had been in the making for many years before the Nazi Holocaust unfolded, it is sometimes suggested that, in light of this genocidal crime, European Jews who went to Palestine could not be colonizers because they were victims fleeing persecution. Yet, here too, racist assumptions are operative.
An unspeakable horror was inflicted on Jewish people. However, this took place in Europe, and the Palestinians were completely blameless. Accepting that they should pay the price with the loss of their homeland relies, once again, on the constructed racial hierarchy that is at work in all forms of settler-colonialism.
Over these last few weeks, as a formidable Israeli military machine has mounted an industrialized killing operation against hundreds of thousands of trapped people in Gaza, I have echoed the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” I don’t agree for a moment that this is an expression of antisemitic hatred or an incitement to genocide.
To me, as for many others, this popular slogan speaks to the replacement of the existing apartheid state by a free, secular Palestine to which those driven into exile can return, and where all who now reside there can live as equals. I believe this idea has much more to do with love than hate, but if supporting the struggle for a free Palestine is a hate crime, I’m a remorseless repeat offender and the thought police might as well come and get me.