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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Keffiyeh bans and the fragility of apartheid supporters

Schalk: The moral panic over a simple piece of cloth is a defensive and paranoid response to Israel’s growing isolation

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastWar ZonesHuman RightsSocial Movements

Independent Ontario MPP Sarah Jama wearing a keffiyeh. Photo by Liam Casey/CP

On April 25, independent Ontario MPP Sarah Jama wore a keffiyeh, a checkered scarf traditionally worn in parts of the Middle East, during question period in the Ontario legislature. Speaker Ted Arnott demanded that she leave. Jama refused, and according to CBC, “Arnott said he was not prepared to remove Jama by force.”

After the incident, the speaker’s office “named” Jama—who was elected in 2023 as the member of provincial parliament for Hamilton Centre with 54 percent of the vote—thereby restricting her ability to participate in the legislature. In Queen’s Park, Arnott explained: “As a result of being named, the member, for the reminder of the day, is ineligible to vote on matters before the assembly; attend and participate in any committee proceedings; use the media studio; and table notices of motion, written questions, and petitions.”

The speaker’s effort to punish Jama, followed by the naming, were justified on the basis that she violated the ongoing keffiyeh ban in the legislature.

The ban not only applies to elected officials, but also members of the public. Visitors have been refused entry solely because they were wearing keffiyehs.

Although the keffiyeh is an important symbol of Palestinian culture, Speaker Arnott banned it from Queen’s Park on the grounds that the garment is “intended to be a political statement.” Arnott’s claim is so dubious that the leaders of all parties in the legislature, including even Conservative Premier Doug Ford, are calling for him to reverse the ban. Despite publicly claiming to oppose the ban, however, Ford has allowed his caucus to veto NDP-led efforts to overturn it on two occasions.

While the provincial NDP wants to reverse the keffiyeh ban, it must be remembered that the party previously ejected Jama from caucus for making statements critical of Israel following Hamas’s October 7, 2023, attacks. Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles ordered Jama to withdraw her statement, but she refused. Following this, Doug Ford falsely asserted that Jama “publicly support[s] the rape and murder of innocent Jewish people,” prompting Jama to sue the premier for libel. As I wrote at the time:

Instead of supporting their MPP, the leadership of the Ontario NDP abandoned Jama to Ford’s baseless smears. The party then kicked her out for having the audacity to defend herself and her political positions … The NDP cannot be allowed to forget that, as a genocide loomed in Gaza, they expelled a critic of Israeli violence while their party leader spoke alongside a man who compared Palestinians to cockroaches. We must remember whose alliances the NDP values, and whose it discards.


More broadly, the Queen’s Park keffiyeh ban is part of a wider international effort to stifle public expressions of support for Palestinians. These efforts are perhaps most aggressive in Germany. On April 12, for example, German police detained and deported Ghassan Abu Sitta, a British-Palestinian doctor who had volunteered in Gaza. Sitta was on his way to a Palestine conference in Berlin, where he planned to share his first-hand experiences of the genocide with attendees. However, the conference didn’t take place, as Berlin police shut it down.

In the United States, professors like Jodi Dean and students like Asna Tabassum have been punished by university administrators for expressing pro-Palestinian views. And as campus protests against the genocide in Gaza spread like wildfire, the Biden administration, state governments, and college executives have responded by demonizing the demonstrators and sending militarized police onto campuses, endangering students and faculty.

State repression against the protestors is clear for the world to see: the tasers, the pepper spray, the violent arrests. But attacks on pro-Palestine students and faculty haven’t broken their spirit.

The inability of the state to shut down the protests has contributed to a tsunami of lies about their demands, and flatly absurd claims that the students are antisemites, “terrorist supporters,” or useful idiots for America’s adversaries. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested the protest movement has “a Russian tinge to it,” while Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League, claimed the student groups are Iran’s “campus proxies.”

Western efforts to repress public expressions of solidarity with Palestine—from wearing keffiyehs, to organizing educational conferences, to protesting on campuses—have been accompanied by a shameless media effort to obfuscate Israel’s gruesome crimes against Palestinians.

A leaked New York Times memo instructed staff to avoid the words “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “occupied territory” in reports on Gaza, even though the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found plausible evidence that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians, and despite the fact that the United Nations views Israel as the occupying power in Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.

In Canada, the situation is similar. People who express pro-Palestinian views have been suspended from work and school. Meanwhile, the CBC has consistently featured more Israeli than Palestinian guests, while using sanitized language to describe the Israeli military’s indiscriminate slaughter of Palestinians. And while refraining from subjective terminology to describe Israeli violence, the CBC straightforwardly categorized Hamas’s October 7 attacks as “brutal” and “vicious,” motivated by “barbarism” and “inhumanity.”

On April 26, the National Post published a piece by Michael Higgins describing the mass graves of Palestinians at two hospitals in Gaza as a “vicious Hamas lie.” Over six days of digging around the Nasser and al-Shifa hospitals, Palestinian Civil Defence officials have found almost 400 bodies. The dead include women, children, and elderly people. Their corpses show signs of torture and execution, and it appears some were buried alive.

What do these desperate efforts to demonize Palestinians, their culture, and those who show solidarity with their suffering reveal? The moral hollowness of those who make the accusations, of course, but something else too.

Apartheid supporters are deeply afraid.

What’s to fear about a Palestine conference in Berlin? What’s to fear about students in the US exercising their rights to demand an end to genocide? What’s to fear about a piece of cloth in the Ontario legislature?

Israel’s Western backers know they are losing. They know that, despite the carnage the Israeli military is unleashing on Gaza, it is not any closer to defeating Hamas. They know that Israel is quickly becoming a pariah state, and as its global reputation sinks like an anchor, it’s dragging down Western credibility with it.

What’s more, Western governments know their own populations don’t support their anti-Palestinian policies. Most Canadians want the killing to end. Most Americans disapprove of Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Rallies across North America and Europe have brought out consistently massive numbers. In Canada, this popular mobilization eventually led the House of Commons to pass a resolution vowing to end arms sales to Israel—although the initial NDP proposal was watered down, and the Trudeau government has since announced it will not revoke existing arms export permits to Israel, which numbers in the hundreds.

Western governments and apartheid supporters are afraid because most people in the West do not support Israel’s actions. Their fear has led them to commit acts as brutal as the attacks on protestors at US universities, and as petty as the banning of the keffiyeh in the Ontario legislature.

The simultaneous brutality and pettiness of apartheid supporters reveals a key fact. They know most people are against them. They know how fragile their position is.

Fragility does not mean weakness. Israel’s backers are not weak—after all, they comprise the media class and repressive apparatuses of most Western states. But they are fragile. The majority of the world sees their cruelty and inhumanity, and it is producing cracks in the Israeli state.

As public pressure builds, and as we refuse to let the brutality and pettiness silence us, those cracks will spread.

Owen Schalk is a writer from rural Manitoba. He is the author of Canada in Afghanistan: A story of military, diplomatic, political and media failure, 2003-2023 and the co-author of Canada’s Long Fight Against Democracy with Yves Engler.

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