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Free speech on Palestine: Time to push back

Those who deny legitimacy to the Palestinian cause with bogus allegations of antisemitism must be confronted like never before

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastHuman RightsSocial Movements

At least 10,000 people rallied in Melbourne, Australia to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people in the face of ongoing attacks and aggression from the Israeli government, May 15, 2021. Photo by Matt Hrkac/Flickr.

Recent weeks have seen Israel’s agenda of colonial dispossession taken to a new level. Palestinians—whether they live in the occupied territories as refugees forced into exile or within the borders of the Israeli state—have forged a united resistance. A huge wave of solidarity has swelled in the streets of cities throughout the world, and Canada has been no exception, with inspiring protests in support of Palestine taking place across the country.

There is a strong sense that the arrogant brutality of the course Israel is on and the refusal of Palestinians to yield to it are producing an important opening for movements in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. As a recent article in Jacobin put it, “The world is finally seeing the truth about Israel, and the tide is turning in our favor.”

There are going to be many fronts to fight on as this movement advances. Omar Barghouti has made clear that now is the time “for meaningful international solidarity, especially in the form of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).” Italian and South African dockworkers have refused to load Israeli ships in solidarity with the Palestinians. In Ireland, the Dáil (parliament) has passed a motion declaring that illegal settlements in the West Bank constitute an act of annexation, while an amendment to the motion seeking to impose sanctions against Israel and expel its ambassador mustered significant support. Yves Engler’s recent column in Canadian Dimension details the scandalous abuse of charitable status in Canada by those who lend support to the oppression of the Palestinians and stresses the importance of challenging this.

There is a need for bold and wide-ranging approaches to Palestine solidarity at this time. However, we must also confront a major barrier that stands in the way of such forward movement. In the last few years, Israel’s enablers have made real progress in attacking the legitimacy of support for the Palestinian struggle by falsely equating it with antisemitism. The IHRA definition of antisemitism has been weaponized to advance this objective all over the world. Despite mobilizing significant opposition to this manoeuvre we have still found ourselves forced onto the defensive to a huge degree. False accusations of anti-Jewish hatred have seriously obstructed the work of left movements and activists.

The present moment provides us with a major opportunity to push back against the effort to discredit and stifle Palestinian solidarity in this fashion. The attack has unfolded across a wide front and our opportunities for a counterattack are many and varied. Normal and reasonable standards must be returned to the debate on Palestine so that one side is no longer able to silence its critics with unfounded accusations of hate speech. Curtailing the use of the IHRA definition as a means of policing debate would be a crucial advance in this regard. However, there are very specific situations and incidents unfolding that cry out for the strongest possible responses.

Israeli troops and Palestinians clash during a protest against the expansion of Israeli Jewish settlements near the West Bank town of Salfit. Photo from Shutterstock.

Climate of intimidation

The governing establishment at the University of Toronto is currently trying to ride out what has become an infamous hiring scandal. Essentially, there is strong reason to believe that there was interference in the hiring process for a new director of the university’s International Human Rights Program and that the chosen candidate, Valentina Azarova, was blocked following the intervention of an influential donor (a judge) who objected to her “academic work on human rights in Israel and Palestine.” So glaring is the offense that the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) council has concluded that it constitutes “a violation of institutional autonomy but it’s also censorship for the conduct of academic research.” CAUT has imposed a censure and its “72,000 members across Canada are asked not to accept appointments or speaking engagements at the school” based on the “politically motivated” decision not to proceed with the hiring. Not only is this a matter of a great injustice committed against Dr. Azarova, but it also raises troubling questions of academic freedom and free expression on Palestine.

The case of Javier Davila is another example. Davila is an educator employed by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) who functions as a Student Equity Program Advisor. In that capacity, he “…supports schools, educators and students in their anti-oppression activities.” This year alone, he has sent out resources on a wide range of issues, including Indigenous struggles, anti-Black racism, police abolition and the Holocaust. He recently distributed a package on Israel’s latest attacks on Palestinians. Right-wing Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy responded to this with one of her standard attacks. Rather than support its educator, the TDSB has unaccountably sought to appease Levy. It has distanced itself from the judiciously selected material he sent out to teacher subscribers, launched an investigation and placed Davila on home assignment. Other educators and parents have taken up a petition in his defence.

This month the far-right Jewish Defense League (JDL) came to confront participants in a pro-Palestinian protest in Toronto. An altercation occurred and, in its wake, a group of organizations that support Israel issued a statement declaring, “We condemn in the strongest terms these brazen acts of assault, intimidation, and hate targeting members of Toronto’s Jewish community and supporters of Israel.” Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Mayor John Tory both publicly supported the claim of anti-Jewish violence and denounced those they deemed to be responsible.

Video footage subsequently emerged showing that the elderly man who was the supposed victim of a physical attack had actually wielded a bat and ignored appeals to drop a knife that he was brandishing. He has now been identified as Greg Nisan, a member of a pro-Israel motorcycle club that was founded to “protect the Judeo-Christian way of living.” Even in light of this damning information, the premier’s statement was not withdrawn and the mayor’s office stated it would await the results of the police investigation. The readiness of leading politicians to accept this utterly false version of events and cling to their untenable positions rests on a systematic demonizing of Palestine solidarity.

Free speech

Each of these situations shows, in its own way, how urgent it is to shift gears when it comes to free speech on Palestine. At the moment, Israel’s enablers feel able to target those who express solidarity with Palestine, denying them employment, challenging their access to public platforms and even calling into question the very right to assemble and support the Palestinian struggle. However, the incredible developments of the last few weeks offer an opportunity to challenge this weaponization of antisemitism in ways that have not previously been possible.

The kind of outrageous attacks and shameless bias that I have presented here must be met with a powerful and decisive challenge. For this to happen, we must impel those who tend to be progressive except on the question of Palestine to stop sitting on the fence. We need political parties, trade unions and community organizations to commit to a clear and principled position in response to Israel’s apartheid regime. We are past the point where anyone who purports to hold progressive views and values can deny that the Palestinians face extreme injustices that demand redress.

We must all commit to creating a political climate where the politics of anti-racism and a clear opposition to colonialism can be put forward freely on Palestine. Political leaders who deny legitimacy to the Palestinian cause with bogus allegations of antisemitism must be confronted as never before. If there is an issue of legitimacy to be tackled, it is the claim of unrepentant apologists for Israel’s crimes, like the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), that they speak in the name of the Jewish community as a whole. These “obtuse and reactionary voices” can no longer be allowed to set the tone for public discourse.

If the tide is turning on the question of Palestine, then it is a time to take full advantage of this development. The determined and inspiring struggle of the Palestinians deserves an effective movement of international solidarity that pushes back against the slanders and false accusations. It’s time to claim the right to free speech on Palestine.

John Clarke is a writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). Follow his tweets at @JohnOCAP and blog at


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