During its annual conference that will take place January 5-8 2017, the Modern Language Association will consider and engage in debate regarding two resolutions. One resolution calls for the MLA to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions and support the work of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The other resolution asks that the MLA not boycott Israeli institutions. If either of the resolutions passes, the resolution will be voted on by the whole MLA membership in 2017.
Canadian members of the MLA may think that they do not need to be involved in the fight between pro and anti BDS groups, because Canada is not involved in support for Israel to the same extent that the United States is, and because the Canadian government and civil society does not take as a hard a line against BDS activism on university campuses and elsewhere.
Both assumptions are wrong.
On February 23, 2016, the Federal Government of Canada passed a motionFederal Government of Canada passed a motion Federal Government of Canada passed a motion originated by the Conservative party that calls on the government to “condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad.” That motion seeks to curtail free speech about Israel, Palestine or the BDS movement. This is an unusual step to take against a peaceful civil rights movement in Canada.
Surprised yet that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who swept to power by opposing many of Stephen Harper’s policies about civil liberties as un-Canadian, strongly endorsed the motion? You shouldn’t be. Trudeau has gone on record as an opponent of BDS. The Canadian government told the UN General Assembly in January 2015 that BDS was a form of anti-Semitism. In November 2015, Canada voted against all proposed resolutions supporting the rights of Palestinians in the UN Security Council. Trudeau himself has publically stated that the BDS movement “has no place on Canadian campuses” in response to the wide endorsement of the BDS movement by students at universities across the country.
The province of Ontario has now taken more steps to condemning BDS activism, attempting in May 2015 to pass a bill that would have created a government blacklist of BDS supporters. That bill was defeated, but another condemning BDS did pass December 1, 2016.
To recap, the governments of Canada and of Ontario have equated BDS and any critique of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism and the promotion of hatred, charges that have been refuted soundly in a Canadian context (Abu-Laban and Bakan 2012). They have actively moved to silence BDS support and eliminate free speech for those who want justice for Palestinians achieved through peaceful means. This is part of a long movement in Canada “to regulate the public space and discourse on Israel/Palestine” (Bakan and Abu-Laban 2016, 166). With February’s vote, Prime Minister Trudeau is now more conservative than Stephen Harper was about BDS. This is the Trudeau who voted for Bill C-51, not the one who welcomes Syrian refugees to Canada.
Like their American colleagues, Canadian MLA members live in a country where a nonviolent movement that seeks justice is condemned in the most unfair terms, and where free speech about BDS is actively curtailed. This is not the fair and tolerant Canada where many of us think we live.
Therefore, I encourage you to study the available material on Israel/Palestine found on the MLA Justice for Palestine site [link https://mlaboycott.wordpress.com/] and participate in the January 2017 MLA events connected to the issue. I ask you to vote with your conscience when it comes time to decide whether the MLA will support BDS or not. It’s your right to do this, no matter what some of our leaders might say.
Abu-Laban, Yasmeen and Abigail B. Bakan. “After 9/11: Canada, the Israel/Palestine Conflict, and the Surveillance of Public Discourse.” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 27.3 (2012): 319-340.
Bakan, Abigail B. and Yasmeen Abu-Laban. “Israeli Apartheid, Canada, and Freedom of Expression.” Apartheid in Palestine. Edmonton: U. of Alberta P., 2016. 163-180.