Official Canada still refuses to acknowledge the Nakba, an event which has been described by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe as an act of ethnic cleansing. The Trudeau government proclaimed in 2019 that “Canada is proud to stand with Israel. We will continue to oppose efforts to isolate Israel internationally, and work to expand the trade and security relationship between our two countries.” That “trade and “security” relationship is the main justification for Canada’s de facto approval of Israel’s continuous violations of international law; from its routine bombardment of civilians in Gaza to its annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, to name only two examples.
Canada’s Middle East policy is especially troubling since the United States recently acknowledged both Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as national capital and its annexation of the Golan Heights. What’s more, the US position on Israel’s West Bank settlements has shifted from official disapproval to public musings about their possible legality. Over these developments looms President Trump’s co-called “Deal of the Century”, a plan that dooms any hope of Palestinian emancipation.
The word Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) is used by Palestinians and others to describe the period between 1947 and 1949, when over 700,000 indigenous Arabs were driven from their homes during Israel’s comprehensive Operation Dalet—a self-described “cleansing” to make way for the creation of the nascent state of Israel. Since the Nakba is both dismissed and intentionally excluded from the mainstream narrative, most Canadians receive a narrow version of history; one that facilitates the further marginalization of the Palestinian people, whose identity has been intentionally diminished by the Israeli state.
In Canada, Nakba Day will be celebrated by groups like Canadians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East, Independent Jewish Voices Canada, and the Canadian Palestinian Association. Fortunately, an NDP MP Niki Ashton broke political ranks in 2018 by attending a rally for Palestinian self-determination and acknowledging the Nakba in a Facebook post. For this she was predictably accused of supporting terrorism by B’nai Brith Canada.
For decades, Canada’s corporate media has enabled and justified the federal government’s blanket support for the Israeli state and its West Bank proxy, the Palestinian Authority. Trudeau’s 2019 commitment to fight “anti-Zionism”, openly condemns those who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which includes many Canadian and Israeli Jews. As well, Trudeau’s remarks suggest that BDS supporters are anti-Semitic without clearly defining Zionism or acknowledging conflict among its various factions.
Among those who benefit from this stance are Canadian and Israeli government-sponsored organizations like the Canada-Israel Industrial Research & Development Foundation (CIIRDF), which provides administrative support and channels public funds to businesses operating in one or both countries. Other government bodies like Defence Research and Development Canada (an agency of the Department of National Defence) and Export Development Canada are also deeply involved in facilitating business ties between Israel and Canada.
In 1997, Canada signed the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement for political and economic reasons–but the agreement notably includes the West Bank as a place where Israeli customs law applies. As Yves Engler writes, “Canada’s trade agreement is based on the areas Israel maintains territorial control over, not on internationally-recognized borders.” Therefore, Canada’s official claim that it “does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967” is irrelevant, considering existing trade policy.
Operation Proteus is the Canadian military mission in the West Bank, part of the US Security Coordinator Office in Jerusalem and aid to the Palestinian Authority. Behind the façade of peace enhancement, Canada is committed to supporting and training the security forces of the Palestinian Authority, a collaborationist administration whose governance of the Palestinian areas of the West Bank primarily serves the interests of local elites and the Israeli state. Like the former colonial powers, Israel realizes the strategic value of recruiting indigenous peoples to police each other.
It is also worth noting that Canada provides direct military assistance to Israel by allowing Canadian-Israeli dual nationals to serve in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Some dual nationals exploit a legal loophole in the 1985 Foreign Enlistment Act to join the IDF (technically a foreign army). These Canadians serve in a wide variety of IDF units, including battalions whose members refused to serve in Gaza or the West Bank due to their commanders’ brutal approach to Palestinian civilians. The Canada Revenue Agency also offers charitable status benefits to organizations providing financial and moral support to active duty IDF soldiers. Conversely, most pro-Palestinian groups in Canada are either considered terrorists (Hamas) or supporters of terrorism.
Before writing this article I contacted the following individuals and organizations to request comment on the historical significance of the Nakba: B’nai B’rith Canada; the Canadian Jewish Congress; the Canadian Christian College; Canada’s ambassador to Israel; the Israeli embassy in Ottawa; Prime Minister Trudeau and other federal party leaders. Only John Young, president of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, responded to my queries and actually used the word Nakba in his written reply. Not surprisingly, B’nai B’rith Canada claims that acknowledging the Nakba encourages anti-Semitism.
Dominant Canadian voices continue to portray even peaceful Palestinian resistance as a dire threat to Israel’s security and cast such defiance as support for terrorism. This stance is abetted by historical amnesia and the conflation of anti-Semitism with even the most reasonable criticism of the Israeli state’s conduct.
For the time being, official Canada may easily dismiss growing public unease with the behaviour of the Israeli state. Until global Palestinian rights advocacy becomes impossible to ignore, Israel will continue to define the scope of the conflict while falsely portraying itself as a vulnerable state facing existential threats.
Morgan Duchesney is an Ottawa-based writer and martial arts teacher whose writing has appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, Humanist Perspectives, the Leveller, Adbusters and the Victoria Standard.