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Ontario NDP’s expulsion of Sarah Jama is a flagrant betrayal

The voice that the party wants to silence must be heard loudly and clearly

Canadian PoliticsMiddle EastWar ZonesHuman Rights

Sarah Jama and Ontario NDP leader Marit Stiles. Photo courtesy Marit Stiles/X.

There can be few on the left in Canada who remain unaware of the vile treatment of Sarah Jama, an elected member of the Ontario legislature, in response to her condemnation of Israel’s horrific assault on Gaza. When her comments came to the attention of those determined to stifle expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian people, Jama was subjected to the standard charges of hate mongering.

The Doug Ford Tories hastened to join the attack and launch a process of censure that now prohibits her from speaking in the Legislature. Ford himself groundlessly accused Jama of supporting “the rape and murder of innocent Jewish people,” prompting Jama to launch libel action. She is clearly the victim of patently false accusations, feeding a climate of threat and intimidation.

Jama was elected to represent her Hamilton constituents as a member of the NDP, a party that some might have expected to defend one of its own from such a despicable attacks and, for that matter, to show principled solidarity with the Palestinian people. Sadly, any such hopes appear to be misplaced.

Anxious to appease Israel’s supporters, NDP leader Marit Stiles pressured Jama into issuing an apology. But when she persisted in calling out the oppressive nature of the Israeli state, she was removed from the party’s legislative caucus. Those who should have defended her and echoed her views turned on her in an act of unforgivable betrayal.

A chronicle of NDP cowardice

I was an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) during the 1990s, when the Bob Rae NDP government was in power. The bitter memory of how that government turned on public sector workers and poor communities during its time in office lingers to this day. Throughout that period, I would often point out that “a traitor is worse than an enemy.” The attack on Sarah Jama brings those words to mind.

As Rinaldo Walcott pointed out in Canadian Dimension, Jama’s purging and silencing demonstrate that “Black, marginalized and oppressed people do not join [settler-colonial] institutions under conditions that might change them but rather under conditions that make clear their support is to reproduce the ongoing white supremacist foundations of those organizations.” The rush to drive out Jama, who is also a respected advocate for the rights of disabled people, in order to appease defenders of Israeli apartheid, puts those words into sharp focus.

A statement issued by the Hamilton and District Labour Council (HDLC) fully defends Jama’s right to speak out on Palestine in ways that actually explore the colonial oppression that is at the heart of the matter. It recognizes that the betrayal of Jama didn’t come out of nowhere, declaring: “For decades, the party has done everything it could to quash any discussion of the apartheid and occupation at every convention and Council meeting…” The statement further suggests that the NDP “does not deserve to have a member of Sarah Jama’s calibre in their ranks” and promises to “work to ensure she is re-elected whether she stands under a party banner or not.”

It is very likely that Jama’s honest brand of activism would ultimately have put her at odds with the deal making and pragmatic adaptation typical of the parliamentary arena even if she had not offended the agents of Israel’s interests. Still, it isn’t surprising that it was the issue of Palestine that sparked the attack on her. NDP leaderships have a long history of strictly curtailing and punishing expressions of solidarity with Palestine. More than 20 years ago, Svend Robinson, then the federal NDP’s foreign affairs critic, was removed from the Middle East file over his statement that Israel military was engaging in state-sponsored terrorism in the occupied territories.

A glance back at the 2015 federal election campaign reveals this very familiar pattern of NDP representatives being censored and pushed out due to comments critical of Israel or sympathetic to Palestinian resistance.

Candidates who mentioned Israeli war crimes were purged and, in a particularly revolting display, the Indigenous mayor of Clyde River, Jerry Natanine, was removed as NDP candidate for Nunavut because he raised the question of war crimes and dared to suggest that “I often side with the Palestinians because of all the hardship they are facing and because nothing is being re-built over there.”

If we move ahead to the recent NDP convention in Hamilton, we see Jagmeet Singh and the leadership of the federal party ducking and weaving so as to offer just enough progressive content to appear sensitive to Palestinian suffering, without any recognition of a liberation struggle against colonial dispossession. As it was, police had to be summoned to the convention to contain a protest by Palestinian supporters who thought a party of the left should be ready to rally to an anti-colonial struggle, especially at a time when Israel’s colonial project is advancing with unrivalled brutality.

In the end, a resolution was adopted that did take issue with the “total siege of Gaza which is prohibited under international law” and called for a ceasefire. Absent, however, was any recognition of the millions of displaced people confined in Gaza under intolerable conditions. The merit of the Palestinian cause and Israel’s oppressive role went unacknowledged because telling the truth would be too radical a step for the NDP leadership.

Silencing Palestine

It is beyond shameful that, as the collective punishment of Gaza unfolds, Jagmeet Singh should have agreed to speak at a bogus antisemitism conference in Ottawa devoted to the marginalization and criminalization of Palestinian solidarity.

In participating in this event hosted by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Singh certainly didn’t win any new votes for his party. What he did do was publicly demonstrate that the NDP won’t challenge the false equation of anti-Zionist views or support for Palestinian resistance with hate speech and bigotry. He was prepared to share a platform with “a slate of well-known anti-Palestinian speakers. Despite appeals for him to reconsider and even as Palestine supporters protested outside.

“Amidst the horrors in Gaza,” remarked Bruce Katz of Palestinian and Jewish Unity, “it’s abhorrent the NDP leader would speak alongside individuals advocating policies tantamount to crimes against humanity.”

This readiness to stifle support for the Palestinians and retreat before Israel’s enablers is all the more perplexing and disturbing because Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza is unleashing a progressive wave of solidarity. We are seeing a surge of protests and other actions all across Canada. How can Stiles and Singh not bow their heads in shame when they see high school students walk out to condemn Israel’s brutality and call for a free Palestine?

The shocking decision of the Ontario NDP leaders to remove Sarah Jama from the legislative caucus qualifies as a defining act of betrayal. There are those on the left in Canada who long ago concluded that the NDP will never function as the political arm of the struggles of workers and communities under attack. There are many, however, who entertain hopes that this could be possible. The statement by the Hamilton and District Labour Council is but one of a number of expressions of solidarity with Sarah Jama coming from within the NDP itself. These voices reflect a growing realization that, in these harsh and challenging times, a timid ‘lesser evil,’ controlled by parliamentarians and functionaries, can’t provide the political alternative working class people need, or adequately express vital principles of international solidarity.

We should support the demand for the reinstatement of Sarah Jama; but were she to decide to continue sitting as an independent MPP and to run for office independently of the party that has cast her aside, she would deserve full support. The voice that Doug Ford and—even more shamefully—Marit Stiles want to silence must be heard loudly and clearly.

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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