How rallying around divestments helped unify Canada’s pro-Palestinian movement

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The encampment of pro-Palestinian protesters at McGill University in Montreal is nearing the three-week mark, having survived heavy rains, a failed lawsuit to get them expelled and a sizeable counter-demonstration.

In an attempt to resolve the situation, the university said last week it was willing to host a forum to discuss the protesters’ main demand: that it divest from companies with ties to Israel.

But the student activists say they won’t leave without a firm commitment from the university to liquidate its investments in defence companies like Lockheed Martin, which they say are helping sustain the current Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip. 

“The encampment will continue as long as we don’t have concrete news of divestment,” said Ari Nahman, a student at nearby Concordia University who has been taking part in the protest.

Man jumping with tents in background
Student activists at McGill University in Montreal say they won’t leave without a firm commitment from the university to liquidate its investments in defence companies like Lockheed Martin. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Since the tents went up on McGill’s lower field, activists at at least nine other Canadian universities have also set up encampments, part of a global wave of campus protests against the war in Gaza.

The encampments at Canadian schools have followed months of protest marches, petitions, sit-ins and hunger strikes by pro-Palestinian movement activists since Israel’s military response to the Oct. 7 attacks. Some say the movement is stronger than it has ever been.

“There’s nothing in the past that meets the kind of support that Palestinians are getting today,” said James Kafieh, vice-president of the Palestinian Canadian Congress. “It is absolutely unprecedented. And it’s generational. It’s young people under the age of 40 who are leading the way.”

The current wave of protests is benefitting from 20 years of activism around a set of controversial demands known as boycott, divestment and sanctions (commonly referred to as BDS), while also drawing on newer concepts — such as settler colonialism — popularized by other social movements.

‘The window … has shifted’

Longtime activists say even though the Canadian government hasn’t done enough to pressure Israel to end its military offensive, which has killed upwards of 34,000 people, they’re surprised at small policy changes in recent months.  

Ottawa’s decision to pause permits for arms exports to Israel, for example, “is something that we couldn’t have imagined a year ago,” said Michael Bueckert, vice-president of the progressive advocacy group Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

Scholars of social movements agree the current wave of pro-Palestinian protests have been effective in raising awareness around calls to re-examine Canadian ties to the Israeli government.

A student encampment for Pro-Palestinian protesters is shown at the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver on Tuesday, April 30, 2024.
University of British Columbia is among nine Canadian universities that have seen encampments erected in recent days. (Chuck Chiang/The Canadian Press)

Until recently, calls for BDS were routinely met with criticism in Canada by politicians on all sides and ignored by major institutions.

“The window on this … conversation has shifted, I would say, quite dramatically in my lifetime, and in particular in the past 20 years or so,” said Roberta Lexier, a historian of progressive social movements in Canada who teaches at Mount Royal University in Calgary. 

“The ability of people to have this conversation now is at a totally different level than it was a few years ago.”

The origins of BDS

The BDS movement emerged in 2005 from a network of civil society organizations in the Palestinian territories.

It was a pivotal moment for Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation. Neither the Oslo peace accords of the 1990s nor the second intifada — a violent uprising that began in 2000 — had resulted in meaningful gains for independence.

In seeking new strategies, Palestinian activists noted the role an international boycott had played in helping end the system of white-minority rule in South Africa in the early 1990s.

A group of Canadian activists responded to the 2005 boycott call by organizing an event called Israeli Apartheid Week at the University of Toronto, which sought to make the comparison with South Africa explicit.

The inaugural event featured a photo exhibit of Palestinian refugee camps and lectures about Palestinian resistance. It was met with protests from pro-Israel campus groups; B’nai Brith Canada called the event a “hate fest” designed to delegitimize the Jewish state.

Since then, activists in cities across the world hosted their own versions of Israeli Apartheid Week.

In 2014, prime minister Stephen Harper called efforts to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa “sickening” and “​​the face of the new antisemitism.” The following year, then-Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau tweeted that the BDS movement and Israel Apartheid Week had “no place on Canadian campuses.” 

Default Caption Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives to address the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, on Monday January 20, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
In a speech to the Israeli Parliament in 2014, then-Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper called efforts to compare Israel to apartheid-era South Africa ‘sickening’ and ‘​​the face of the new antisemitism.’ (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But the issue gained traction among major unions, including the Public Service Alliance of Canada and Unifor, and was supported by other progressive causes, such as Idle No More and Black Lives Matter.

Whereas the early years of pro-Palestinian activism in Canada were driven mainly by Middle Eastern immigrants and informed by Arab nationalism, adopting the language of BDS and the anti-apartheid movement broadened support for the cause, says Hassan Husseini, a labour negotiator who has been involved in pro-Palestian activism in Ottawa since the 1990s.

“It mainstreamed the movement and gave it a great deal of strength,” Husseini said. “It became easier to make solidarity links with other groups.”

Adopting the language of settler colonialism

The younger generation of activists at the forefront of the current round of protests have retained the central demands of the BDS movement, while also adopting the language of settler colonialism. 

A once-niche academic concept, settler colonialism has been popularized in Canada largely through the work of Indigenous scholars and activists, who use it to refer to the system of power that depends on settlers displacing indigenous inhabitants to create a fundamentally unequal society. 

WATCH | Trudeau on campus demonstrations in support of Palestinians:

Trudeau on campus demonstrations in support of Palestinians

A group of McMaster University students in Hamilton set up an encampment on Sunday and say they’ll join protests at other post-secondary school campuses in support of Palestinians. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about the protests on Friday May 2, 2024, two days before the McMaster protest began.

For pro-Palestinian activists, settler colonialism can describe not only how Israel was formed in 1948 but also the country’s aspirations for the remaining Palestinian territories — Gaza and the West Bank.

As a McGill student in 2016, Sarah Shamy became involved in the BDS movement as a member of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, a longstanding activist group in Montreal. 

“When I was a student, people used the term Israeli apartheid,” said Shamy, now an organizer with the Palestine Youth Movement, one of the groups behind the McGill encampment. “Now, I think most people say the Zionist regime, the Zionist entity, the Zionist state.”

She said there is “this understanding about Zionism and around imperialism and settler colonialism that wasn’t as mainstream [back then] as it is now.” 

Some people who study social movements question whether the language of settler colonialism is helpful in swaying public opinion. 

“There is some polling that suggests that it’s actually pushing people away,” said Howard Ramos, a professor of sociology at Western University in London, Ont. 

Ramos said the language of anti-racism and anti-colonialism tends to be “us versus them” compared to the language of human rights, which can be more inclusive of different viewpoints. 

Protesters are pictured at a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of British Columbia near Vancouver, B.C on Wednesday May 2, 2024.
Many of the younger generation of activists at the forefront of the current round of protests have retained the central demands of the BDS movement, while also adopting the language of settler colonialism. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Labelling Israel as a settler-colonial state, and equating Zionism with a form of imperialism, has been criticized as antisemitic by a number of Jewish groups, who say it undermines Jews’ ancestral ties to Israel.

Placards and slogans at the encampments inspired by opposition to settler colonialism have left many Jews feeling uncomfortable.

“I have seen some very hateful things chanted,” said Avishai Infeld, an organizer with the Jewish student group Hillel Montreal, at a counter-demonstration near McGill last week. 

But some activists who are new to the pro-Palestinian cause say settler colonialism was a vital entry point for them.

Justine Abigail Yu, an organizer with Davenport for Ceasefire, a Toronto-based pro-Palestinian advocacy group, said she was first introduced to the concept by Indigenous writers who were critical of the Canada 150 celebrations.

Lots of Israel flags held by protesters.
Pro-Israel demonstrators protested last week near a pro-Palestinian encampment on McGill University’s campus in Montreal. (Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press)

When Israeli forces invaded Gaza, in response to the Hamas-led massacre on Oct. 7, 2023, which killed an estimated 1,200 people, Yu said she started researching the Israeli military presence in the Palestinian territories.  

“There were so many similarities that I suddenly started seeing” between Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, she said. “I think that’s how all this has opened up to me.” 

How will it end?

In the U.S., where the current wave of pro-Palestinian campus protests began, encampments have ended one of two ways.

At four universities — including Brown and Northwestern — administrators agreed to some of the students’ demands around divestment in exchange for dismantling the camps.

Other universities have used police to forcibly remove protesting students, giving rise to violent confrontations at places like Columbia and UCLA.

Police advance on demonstrators on the UCLA campus Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)
Police advance on demonstrators on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles on May 2, 2024. (Ryan Sun/Associated Press)

Whatever the ending in store for the encampments at Canadian universities, Bueckert expects to see a surge in support for BDS motions on college campuses this fall. 

“The encampments are … part of this bigger wave that I think is sort of inevitable anytime that there’s something big happening in the Middle East,” he said.

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