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Daily News Analysis

Exposing the Falsehoods Surrounding Quds Day Rallies

Michael Keefer

On March 20, 2019, the Toronto City Council held hearings into the annual Quds Day rally in Toronto that is held in the last week of Ramadan every year. Pro-Israeli Zionist groups have alleged the rally “spreads hate” and have called for banning it. A number of submissions were made to the City Council both for and against the Quds Day rally. We reproduce below the submission by Prof. (Emeritus) Michael Keefer to City Council in support of the rally.

To: The Hon. John Tory, Mayor; Executive Committee Members; and Toronto City Councillors

Subject: EX29.42 - “Hate Sponsored Rallies such as Al Quds Day”

1. Problems of focus

How could any citizen object to a City Council initiative aimed at ensuring compliance with Canadian law against hate crimes and the dissemination of hatred, and at moving toward the estimable (if utopian) goal of making Toronto “a hate-free city”?

Regrettably, this initiative is aimed exclusively at banning Al Quds Day rallies: that is the only example given in any of the City documentation that I have seen of a supposedly “hate sponsored” political rally. As will be shown below, this view of Al Quds Day rallies rests on misrepresentations of facts. No less importantly: This initiative risks diverting the attention and the resources of law enforcement officials away from the very real threat posed to the safety of Torontonians by the hate-mongering exponents of far-right-wing ideologies. The mass murders that have shocked us all during the past several years have without exception been perpetrated by white males whose deliberately terrifying acts were inspired by violent and hateful far-right-wing ideologies. These events include:

  • the March 2019 mass shooting at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand (50 murdered, another 50 wounded);
  • the October 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (11 murdered, 7 wounded);
  • the April 2018 van attack in north Yonge Street, Toronto (10 murdered, 13 wounded);
  • the January 2017 mass shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City (6 murdered, 19 wounded;
  • the June 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina (9 murdered, one wounded).[1]

The above list, going back just four years, would be longer by one entry had the police in Halifax, Nova Scotia not managed in February 2015 to frustrate a plot by three well-armed far-right-wing terrorists who intended to carry out a mass shooting in a Halifax shopping mall.[2] But if the attention and resources of the Halifax police had been diverted into suppressing peaceful rallies by supporters of Palestinian rights, these terrorists might have managed to kill many people.[3]

2. Problems of fact

In my opinion, those members of City Council who believe that Al Quds Day events are “hate sponsored rallies,” or “hate-fests” (another cliché in common circulation), have been misled.

Let us be specific: such terms as these amount to accusations of antisemitism. I have myself attended an Al Quds Day rally, and have on two occasions been an invited speaker at Al Quds Day community dinners in a Toronto-area community centre. I can therefore speak with direct knowledge on this subject. At the rally and during the community centre events I heard well-reasoned, evidence-based, and passionately expressed criticisms of the behaviour and the policies of the state of Israel in relation both to the people of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem), and also to the Palestinians who make up some 20 percent of the population of Israel proper. I heard detailed expositions of the manner in which the state of Israel systematically violates such central documents of international law as the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. And I heard detailed expositions of the manner in which members of the public can help to right these wrongs through community organization and through support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The clear emphasis was on exerting peaceful pressure on the state of Israel to conform to the requirements of international law, and on urging our own government to fulfill its commitment as a signatory of the Fourth Geneva Convention by ensuring that the terms of that Convention are respected by all states.

At no point did I hear overtones of antisemitism, or any suggestion that Jews as a people might be responsible for the wrongs committed by a state. I heard instead repeated expressions of hope that people of conscience in many different communities may be able to work together to bring justice and peace to all of the people of Israel and Palestine.

Some City Councillors may believe that they are taking action to suppress antisemitism. I would reply that they are doing no such thing. They are instead making an elementary category-error, mistaking criticisms of a state (criticisms that all of us in a democracy have the right to formulate, as loudly and directly as we choose) with slurs against an entire people. This is an embarrassing error to make. (Does anyone believe that people who disapprove of Angela Merkel's government hate all German-speakers, that those who dislike Vladimir Putin must be Russophobes, or that people who supported boycotting South Africa a generation ago to help peacefully to bring an end to the system of apartheid were thereby expressing hatred for white South Africans?) Councillors who conflate criticisms of the Israeli state with antisemitism, and act on the basis of that error, are endangering the free speech rights of their fellow citizens.

3. Questions of Canadian and international law

On questions of law that have a bearing on the present issue, I would propose first that City Council give earnest attention to the statements made by Joseph Hickey, the Executive Director of the Ontario Civil Liberties Association, in a letter to Council dated 26 November 2017. Mr. Hickey remarks that Councillor James Pasternak's request for a prohibition of “hate sponsored” public demonstrations on city or provincial property “would impose prior restraint on unknown expression that has yet to be made, on the basis of assumed emotional motives of demonstrators, and reactions of participants and observers. The contemplated prohibition is a violation of democratic values and would strip individuals of their fundamental human rights of freedom of expression and freedom of association. It is unconstitutional, and a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Canada has ratified...”

Lawmakers must consistently and duly reject using the bogeyman of “hate” as a pretext to suppress the constitutional rights of citizens, which has become too common a knee-jerk reaction in devising ways to censor expression that one finds distasteful or emotionally threatening. Canada’s Criminal Code already has provisions that amply and constitutionally deal with crimes involving occurrences and threats of actual harm to specific actual persons.

I would add to this that some matters relating to the public discourse which Councillor Pasternak and others may find “distasteful or emotionally threatening” can be clarified by reference to international law.

First, there is no question in international law about the illegality of the state of Israel's continuing occupation of Palestinian territories conquered in the 1967 war; about the illegality of its so-called separation wall; about the illegality of its ongoing expropriations and theft of Palestinian land, water resources, and offshore gas; about the illegality of its ongoing colonization and settlement of East Jerusalem and the West Bank; and about the illegality of its infliction of collective punishment on the population of Gaza through a merciless blockade.

Secondly, when an occupation is illegal, there is no question in international law about the right of the population living under that occupation to resist, by the means of its own choice. Palestinians living under Israeli occupation have repeatedly chosen to direct their struggle into peaceful channels. But in the West Bank and East Jerusalem they have been subjected to increasingly violent repression, and in Gaza to repeated and devastating aggressions by the occupying power.

There is, finally, something profoundly disturbing about the notion of Toronto City Council imagining it can override the Canadian Charter's guarantee of freedom of expression and association—and can then calmly draw a veil over the facts of international law that Mr. Pasternak and some others seem so urgently to desire that we should never dare to speak about on city sidewalks, or city streets, or city parks, or public squares—or perhaps, indeed, anywhere.

4. My expertise

I am a Professor Emeritus at the University of Guelph, a former President of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English, and (since 2010) an associate member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

I have professional expertise that is of direct relevance to the matter under consideration. I am the editor and part-author of Antisemitism Real and Imagined (2010), a book described by Gerald Caplan in The Globe and Mail as “indispensable,” “important and timely”; by Holocaust survivor Suzanne Weiss in Socialist Voice as “timely and effective”; by Yanis Varoufakis in Science and Society as “erudite, passionate, sensitive and committed”; and by Brian Campbell in Columbia Journal as “explor[ing], in a historically balanced fashion, an attempt to suppress free speech which will set a precedent in Canada and internationally.” I have more recently published scholarly essays on closely-related subjects:

“Criminalizing Criticism of Israel in Canada: A Hate-Propaganda Trojan Horse in Bill C-13.” Seriously Free Speech Committee (6 April 2014), and Independent Jewish Voices (30 April 2014). This essay was SFSC's and IJV's joint submission to the Parliamentary Committee reviewing Bill C-13. It has also been published as “Criminalizzazione della critica d'Israele in Canada,” trans. Oscar Mina, in Eurasia: Rivista di Studi Geopolitici (17 May 2014).

Hard Truths for Canada about Israel and Palestine (Toronto: LeTonnelier Media and ColdType.net, 2015), 136 pp.

“Resisting McCarthyism: From the 'PC Wars' to the 'New Antisemitism'.” TransCanadiana 8 (2016): 226-58.

“Knowing and Not Knowing: Canada, Indigenous Rights, Israel and Palestine.” Presented at the Canada and Palestine Symposium 2019, University of Ottawa (22 February 2019).

(Michael Keefer, D.Phil.

Professor Emeritus, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph)

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