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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

From vilification to criminalization

Conflating Palestine solidarity with antisemitism can only produce distorted results

Middle EastWar ZonesHuman RightsSocial Movements

Pro-Palestine demonstration in downtown Toronto, January 21, 2024. Photo by John Pinel Donoghue.

It has become almost routine for people who express solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people to be subjected to ugly intimidation tactics from Israel’s supporters. A depressingly long list exists of those who have endured false accusations of antisemitism, often linked to threats to their employment or attempts to deny them venues or platforms.

Since the current genocidal assault on Gaza got underway, however, we are seeing a redoubling of efforts to take this McCarthyist process further still, with even moderate criticism of Israel now treated as anti-Jewish hatred. Those mounting the charge are extending their efforts into the realms of criminal law and the policing of public protests.

Proscribing protests

In Toronto, as in many other cities, Palestine solidarity activists have used the tactic of hanging banners at highly visible locations; for obvious reasons, overpasses that span major road arteries have often been selected for this purpose.

According to Global News, Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw stated that “many, particularly members of Toronto’s Jewish community, are feeling increasingly unsafe amid the ongoing protests.” He, therefore, took it upon himself to ban pro-Palestinian protest actions at the Avenue Road overpass over the highly trafficked Highway 401.

It is true that a significant number of Jewish people live in the vicinity of this overpass, but the protest has actually involved mobilizing members of the local community. More to the point, no evidence has been presented to suggest that any threats or hostility have been directed towards Jewish people who live in the area. It is simply a prime location from which a banner can be seen by large numbers of the travelling public.

That a police chief should take it upon himself to decide that constitutionally protected rights of assembly and expression can be arbitrarily extinguished at a given location on flimsy and vigorously disputed grounds is alarming in the extreme. That such a dictate should be applied to members of a racialized community who are challenging a grave injustice is nothing short of reprehensible.

The police reaction to a January 13 action to challenge the chief’s edict was telling in this regard. When people marched to the overpass to protest this outrageous ban, they found that “the event was ‘selectively obstructed’ by Toronto police officers.”

Three people were arrested and charged by the police but the basis on which they were targeted is clear from Eglinton-Lawrence & Don Valley 4 Palestine’s observation that “white-presenting people not wearing the keffiyeh were allowed full freedom of movement by the police.”

It is also clear that the suppression of democratic rights being enforced at this location is an ominous indication of the direction that the police are taking with regard to Palestine solidarity actions. With no attempt at subtlety, Demkiw has let it be known that his “officers would increasingly be ‘applying a criminal lens’ when policing protests in the city.”

Moreover, a police spokesperson acknowledged that, while this particular overpass is the only one immediately affected, “this in no way precludes officers from directing demonstrators off of other overpasses or bridges if they determine that protests are posing an unacceptable risk to public safety.”

Of course, the police view that expressions of Palestine solidarity are linked to antisemitic hate incidents and that they make Jewish people feel unsafe is precisely the message that has been consistently put forward by supporters of Israel, particularly since the assault on Gaza began. It is disturbing, then, to see that those who advance Zionist perspectives are able to influence the way in which police forces conduct themselves.

On X (formerly Twitter), the pro-Israel Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, announced that it is “pleased to partner with Brantford Police and bring antisemitism education to its police officers and other staff.” It noted further that “the Ontario government is providing $22,600 in funding to support a one-day training course that will discuss the history of antisemitism in a modern and historical context.”

It should go without saying that hate crimes against Jewish people and communities should be vigorously opposed, but there are realistic grounds to fear that the Brantford police officers who undergo this training session will be led to believe that conduct of their counterparts in Toronto at the Avenue Road overpass is the kind of approach they should be taking. Conflating Palestine solidarity with antisemitism as the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center clearly does can only produce such distorted results.

These developments come on the heels of the arrest of Wesam Khaled in Calgary last November for chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” at a protest. Though the charges were subsequently dropped, a line was crossed when this step was taken by the police. An arrest was made and an accusation of “hate motivation” levelled on the assumption that support for Palestinian liberation should be treated by the state as a criminal matter. We are going down a very dangerous path here.

We have seen efforts by governments in France and Germany to ban or crack down on protests against the genocide in Gaza. These measures have been massively and successfully defied but they reveal a growing desire on the part of governments in the West to criminalize and repress Palestine solidarity.

Pro-Palestine protesters unfurl banners on a bridge overpass over Highway 401 in Toronto. Photo from X.

Criminal sanction

It would be naïve to discount the danger here in Canada of an outright curtailment of the right to take to the streets in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. Influential voices have been raised in support of just such a course of action. Last October, the National Post thundered against a situation where, in its view, “Canada will soon be entering week two of the largest and most sustained pro-terror protests in its history without a single measurable sanction or consequence for the organizers.”

If support for an anti-colonial struggle is being described by mainstream media in such terms, a serious threat to the democratic right to assemble is clearly looming. The following month, Ontario Premier Doug Ford addressed a gathering called by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center and told the appreciative audience: “You see some of these rallies … I call them hate rallies going down our streets trying to intimidate our Jewish communities.” The Toronto police chief evidently took the Premier’s words to heart.

In December, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution that “clearly and firmly states that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” Husam Marajda, an organizer with the US Palestinian Community Network (USPCN), responded to this, noting, “It’s super dangerous. It sets a really, really bad precedent. It’s aiming to criminalise our liberation struggle and our call for justice and peace and equality.”

A couple of months prior to this vote in the US, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) held a conference in Ottawa titled “Antisemitism: Face It, Fight It.” Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) was “appalled by many of the conference speakers, several of whom, or whose organizations, peddle in Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian racism and even antisemitism… Many are associated with movements that support Israeli apartheid and regularly accuse those advocating for Palestinian human rights of antisemitism.”

CIJA’s CEO, Shimon Fogel, had set the stage shortly before in an article in the National Post in which he was quoted as saying, “We want to hear leadership in the political sector declare that anti-Zionism equals antisemitism.”

The strength and resilience of the present international upsurge of Palestine solidarity is a source of hope and an indication of what is possible. However, our fully justified optimism shouldn’t lead us to disregard the threat that also exists. The intensification of efforts to intimidate and stifle the emerging solidarity movement may signal a growing uneasiness among the pro-Israel forces, but it is all the more dangerous for that.

From the perspective of those who work to enable Israel’s crimes, it is time to pull out all the stops in defaming and silencing supporters of Palestinian liberation. The growing number of people of conscience taking to the streets won’t be shut down by the familiar false allegations, so Israel’s allies are turning to criminal sanction and repressive police action to squelch the right to assemble and speak freely in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

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

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