POLITICS
01/16/2019 12:55 EST | Updated 01/16/2019 17:16 EST

Trudeau Says He Will 'Continue To Condemn The BDS Movement' At St. Catharines Town Hall

He was pressed about a remark in his apology for turning back the MS St. Louis.

Tara Walton/CP
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a town hall at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., on Jan. 15, 2019.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has given a full-throated defence of his condemnation of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement during a historic apology for how Canada turned away Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust.

"I will continue to condemn the BDS movement," Trudeau said during a town hall at Brock University in St. Catharines Tuesday night.

The movement, a focus of debate on many university and college campuses, calls for economic boycotts of Israel's goods and services over its treatment of Palestinians.

A man in the audience rose to thank the prime minister for his formal apology in November for the shameful 1939 government decision to send the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner carrying 900 German Jewish people, back to Europe.

Earlier: Trudeau backs Conservative motion blasting BDS movement

Trudeau's remarks in the House of Commons, which came less than two weeks after a gunman attacked worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue, also addressed the scourge of modern anti-Semitism.

Among the examples the prime minister cited was Jewish students who "still feel unwelcome and uncomfortable in some of our college and university campuses because of BDS-related intimidation."

The comment was denounced by at least 236 academics who see BDS as a non-violent way to protest Israel's policies.

"I believe, to my consternation, that you equated the BDS movement with anti-Semitism," the man said, noting the opposition of many scholars. "Will you take this opportunity today to retract your condemnation of the BDS movement?"

After thanking the man for his question, Trudeau said the anti-Semitism that was commonplace decades ago still exists, as evidenced by hate crimes against Jewish Canadians.

"We need to understand, as well, that anti-Semitism has also manifested itself not just as in targeting of individuals but it is also targeting a new condemnation or an anti-Semitism against the very state of Israel," he said.

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The prime minister added that Canada must be very careful "not to sanction this new frame around anti-Semitism and undue criticism of Israel."

To support his case, Trudeau pointed to the so-called "Three Ds" test for separating criticism of the Jewish state and anti-Semitism: demonization, double standards, and delegitimization of Israel.

"When you have movements like BDS that single out Israel, that seek to delegitimize and in some cases demonize, when you have students on campus dealing with things like Israel apartheid weeks that make them fearful of actually attending campus events because of their religion in Canada, we have to recognize that there are things that aren't acceptable, not because of foreign policy concerns but because of Canadian values," Trudeau said.

Liberal MP Michael Levitt, chair of the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group, shared a clip of the exchange on Twitter and praised the prime minister's words.

In 2016, Liberal MPs backed a Tory motion in the House condemning the BDS movement as something that "promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel." Then-foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion called the motion a failed attempt to divide the House.

Though the motion passed easily by a vote of 229 to 51, three Liberal MPs — Larry Bagnell, René Arseneault, and Nick Whalen — voted against it. Arsenaut later told iPolitics "it restricts too much of freedom in Canada to criticize any state."

NDP and Bloc Quebecois MPs also voted against the motion over concerns about free speech.

NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière said at the time that New Democrats don't support the BDS movement and believe there are "far more effective" ways to help Israel and Palestinians.

"However, just because we do not support it does not mean that the House can condemn people who peacefully support another idea," she said. "We will find a solution through informed debate and engagement, not by condemning people or disrupting dialogue."

Current NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, a former member of Ontario's legislature, spoke out against a similarly successful push to condemn the BDS movement at Queen's Park in 2016.

"Peaceful demonstrations, discussions, debate, discourse, whether we agree with them or not, if they are expressed towards the criticism of a government or its policies, are absolutely, within our democracy, something appropriate, whether we agree or disagree," Singh said at the time.

With earlier files