This past year, we witnessed weeks of hand-wringing over student concerns with the actions of University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, followed by an outcry over the Lindsay Shepherd incident at Wilfrid Laurier University. Yet amidst this widespread conversation about free speech and academic freedom, there has been a glaring blind spot: the repression of pro-Palestinian activism.
I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in 2015 when I became involved with pro-Palestine organizing at the University of Toronto (UofT.) Activists at UofT have been fighting to raise the issue of Palestine on campus for years, with some success among students, by encouraging targeted divestment at the institutional level.
The administration, through the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation, invests millions of dollars in companies that profit or participate in resource extraction, private prisons, and technology used in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Activists have raised this concern at various Canadian university campuses. When a vote took place at the student union level at McGill University, for example, everyone from local columnists to the Prime Minister had something to say on the subject. The government had taken a side, and universities were expected to toe the line. Activists at UofT and McGill are consistently subjected to disruptions, censorship, and the misrepresentation of both themselves and their cause. There is indeed a free speech problem on Canadian campuses. But it's not the one you think it is.
Much of the surveillance and intimidation of pro-Palestine students and staff focuses on the campus activities of those advocating for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement — also known as BDS.
Students who engage in pro-Palestine activism are often faced with incredible obstacles to their free expression on campus.
BDS is a nonviolent campaign that grew out of a 2005 call from a broad coalition of over 100 Palestinian civil society organizations, with the objective of building a movement for Palestinian rights using similar tactics as South African activists in their fight against Apartheid.
This information is publicly available, yet the government continues to smear the movement and its supporters, despite several key points of similarity to Canada's own official positions on Israeli violations of international law.
Students who engage in pro-Palestine activism are often faced with incredible obstacles to their free expression on campus. There's evidence of university administrations deliberately preventing pro-Palestine students and staff from organizing at Canadian schools.
The intimidating atmosphere faced by pro-Palestine activists on campus is also the product of serial anti-BDS actions on the part of Canadian governments at various levels, which employ strategic misinformation against those in support of Palestinian human rights.
In 2015, then Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney announced to the United Nations General Assembly that the Canadian government would exercise "zero tolerance" toward activism that was critical of Israel, particularly that associated with the BDS movement. Minister Blaney's speech was publicly rebuked as a threat to free expression. Still, the principle has carried through.
In May 2016, Ontario Members of Parliament Tim Hudak and Mike Colle proposed Private Member's Bill 202, which sought to compel the Province of Ontario to immediately defund, divest from and terminate all contracts with businesses or universities that engaged with the BDS movement.
Activists rallied at the provincial parliament in Toronto to oppose this attack on free speech. The bill was defeated in its second reading.
The bill was premised on a foundational misrepresentation of the movement. In the text of the bill, Hudak and Colle employed a definition of the BDS movement that directly contradicted publicly available information on the movement's website. In misrepresenting BDS as an attack on businesses "owned by" or "affiliated with" Jewish people in Canada, the politicians could be said to be lying to their constituents.
These are largely symbolic attacks, but they have a chilling effect on free speech, rendering the issue of ongoing Canadian support for Israeli violence against Palestinians nearly untouchable, despite its salience for many Canadians.
This trend is common south of the border. In 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that compelled the state government to sever ties with firms that had been found to divest from or boycott Israel. Cuomo soon released a "blacklist" of companies that supposedly supported BDS, sending the message that any engagement with BDS was being "monitored" by the government. Critics called it a "McCarthyist scare tactic designed to silence political speech."
American campuses are feeling the most pressure. The U.S. Senate recently passed a bill enabling the State Department to investigate university students and staff that publicly criticize Israel with the full power of the state. That level of intervention constitutes a serious threat to freedom of speech.
Beyond the legislative threats made by the government and university administrations, there are numerous incidents of off-campus groups engaging in intimidation, such as the far-right Jewish Defence League.
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StandWithUs, which boasts a budget of over $4 million and close affiliations with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is another example. More than half of their budget is devoted to advancing pro-Israel revisionism on campuses. StandWithUs has come forward as a key player in harassment campaigns against pro-Palestine faculty at North American universities, including launching legal attacks on individual researchers who they believe to promote an anti-Israel agenda. In addition, websites like Canary Mission and Campus Watch operate as surveillance mechanisms for monitoring and targeting students and staff who are publicly critical of Israel.
There is plenty of sympathy among pundits and politicians for folks like Shepherd and Peterson. Yet it appears that none can be spared for those Palestinian students on Canadian campuses who object to the well-documented fact that Canadian universities are investing their tuition funds in firms that help support the occupation of their homeland.
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