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Reflections on Palestine Advocacy in Canada

Panel II-14, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
Palestine activism has been growing in popularity since the early 2000s, quickly becoming a key feature of Canada’s contemporary social movement landscape, and integrated into broader struggles against racism, imperialism, and colonisation. This mobilisation has not been limited to Palestinian and other diaspora Arab constituencies, but has often been led by students, labour unions, and church groups, as well as significant members of the Jewish community. Despite the relative successes of the movement, organising around Palestine has continued to be controversial, and activists continue to face significant obstacles and challenges. These include apathy, political condemnations, legal sanctions, smear campaigns, and threats against their freedom of expression. This panel explores the dynamics and complexities of Palestine advocacy in Canada from the 1970s until today. The participants reflect on that relationship through topics like community politics and activism in Canada, migration out of Palestine into exile in Canada, and orientalism and critical race theory. The panellists also illuminate the breadth and depth of Palestinian life in Canada, and Jewish community engagement. In their reflections, the panellists develop a map of different sites for activism, including universities, the media, cultural institutions, and Jewish, Muslim, Arab, and Christian organizations. Throughout the presentations, the panellists’ papers will be connected by common themes of dispossession, otherness, and the accounts of people challenging those processes in search of a better and fairer world. Ultimately, Palestine activism serves as a 'canary in the coal mine', an early indicator of the constraints (and opportunities) facing social movements in Canada. All combined, the panellists’ research touches on fields such as Canadian Studies, Middle East Studies, Activism, Social Justice, and beyond.
International Relations/Affairs
Political Science
  • Dr. Rachad Antonius -- Presenter
  • Dr. Maurice Jr. M. Labelle -- Presenter
  • Dr. Yasmeen Abu-Laban -- Presenter
  • Dr. Abigail Bakan -- Co-Author
  • Dr. Jeremy Wildeman -- Organizer, Chair
  • Nadia Abu-Zahra -- Discussant
  • Mira Sucharov -- Presenter
  • Dr. Emily Regan Wills -- Presenter
  • Dr. Yasmeen Abu-Laban
    Co-Authors: Abigail Bakan
    The UN World Conferences Against Racism (WCAR), involving both state and non-state actors, held six global events from 1978 to 2021. In each conference, attention was drawn to oppressive and racialized practices, including violation of international law, of the state of Israel towards Palestinians. And, at each event, major states – such as the US and Canada – walked out or boycotted amidst charges that challenges to Israel’s policies were “antisemitic”. Our research on UN conferences indicates that such charges were not substantiated. In this paper we pursue this issue, an apparent paradox in the UN system and more widely reflected in public policy and discourse. We ask: how can anti-Palestinian racism and antisemitism – understood as anti-Jewish racism – be understood and opposed in a unified movement of solidarity? Drawing on documents and primary interviews conducted with stakeholders related to the UN WCAR events, and our joint work as Jewish (Bakan) and Palestinian (Abu-Laban) scholar-activists, we identify two key dynamics that hamper effective solidarity. First, anti-Palestinian racism has been largely unnamed, instead commonly operative under coded tropes, stereotyping Palestinians as “terrorists” or “antisemitic”. Efforts to resist anti-Palestinian racism are commonly silenced. Second, antisemitism, unlike anti-Palestinian racism, is widely named and discussed but in ways that commonly conflate anti-Jewish racism with critiques of Israel’s colonial policies toward Palestine and Palestinians. In the post-World War Two period antisemitism has been condemned internationally, heavily influenced by the horrors of the Holocaust and the systemic antisemitism of the Nazi German state regime. However, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, efforts to promote the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism have led to rising assertions linking criticism of the policies of the state of Israel and antisemitism. To break these problematic dynamics we argue that anti-Palestinian racism needs to be more widely named and framed as a specific form of racism. We further argue that the ubiquity of the term “antisemitism” needs to be unpacked, its multiple meanings identified, and that antisemitism specifically as anti-Jewish racism demands clarification and effective resistance. We conclude by considering how solidarity across difference can be forwarded, challenging the divide-and-conquer tactics of hegemonic states. Drawing reflexive notes and lessons from our joint collaboration as well as activism, we advance a call for an analytic that centres solidarity as praxis. This approach combines theory and practice, including attention to positionality as well as structures of power.
  • Dr. Maurice Jr. M. Labelle
    This paper explores the ways in which Sami Hadawi (1904-2004) re-presented the Palestinian revolution in Canada. As the exiled East Jerusalemite and inaugural director of the Institute of Palestine Studies in Beirut settled in Toronto and became naturalized in the early 1970s, he was confronted with a historical Canadian tradition that prejudicially misrepresented Palestinian peoples, their nationalism, as well as the process of decolonization that they engendered. The moderate Hadawi witnessed how mainstream Canadian society demeaned the nascent Palestinian revolution as nothing but inhumane terrorism. Unable and unwilling to remain silent, the recently retired Palestinian-Canadian became one of a handful of public intellectual in Canada whose newfound life-mandate was to re-orient Canadian mis-representations of the Palestinian revolution. Using his private papers, privately published memoir, and writings, this paper examines how Hadawi integrated the Palestinian revolution into the Canadian public sphere, as well as critically unearthed interconnections between the two nations.
  • Since the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993, a tacit international consensus has emerged that points to a two-state solution as the optimal outcome. Lack of agreement on the scope of refugee return, though, as well as Israel’s continued building of West Bank settlements, among other developments, have cast this endgame into doubt. In all this, the identities and preferences of Diaspora communities are germane in framing these policy conversations. One of the key engines of influence shaping Canada’s approach to the question of Palestine is the workings of the Israel lobby. This cluster of organizations, including the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) at the helm, and backed to greater or lesser degrees by a host of other organizations, attempts to shape Canadian policy directions in ways that prioritize Israeli security and prosperity as they perceive it. This perception typically accords with the Israeli government’s general positions, as when CIJA situates its activities in a belief that Canada and Israel have a set of “shared values and shared interests.” To understand the impact and activities of the Israel lobby in Canada, it is necessary to shine a light on the dynamics of mainstream Jewish community discourse, from which the Israel lobby derives much of its funding and its main policy directions. In this essay, I will argue that a sometimes tacit and sometimes explicit adherence to the two-state solution as the only feasible policy solution has meant that rather than work towards change and rather than press to bring such a solution about, the Israel lobby in Canada has ended up shoring up the status quo. In other words, as long as that solution remains remote, these Israel-oriented organizations can claim to want change, but not do anything concrete to bring that change about. Any discourse emanating from any network of grassroots and organized institutions carries its own tenor of values and preferences, including suggested policy directions for the country in which it operates. The Jewish community in Canada is no exception. Examining how the organized Jewish community operates in reflecting and shaping attitudes around Israel is relevant to understanding the flow of domestic ideas upwards towards government policymaking.
  • Dr. Emily Regan Wills
    Canada is home to nearly 45,000 Palestinians, including those born there and abroad. Like many diaspora groups and ethnic communities, Palestinian Canadians engage in a variety of forms of community organization, some of which focus on success in Canada, others on political and social goals for Palestine, and still others which blur the lines between over-there and over-here. This paper uses a transnational migration studies lens (Levitt and Glick Schiller 2004) to analyse two National Capital Region-specific Palestinian-Canadian organizations, the Ottawa Palestinian Festival and the Association of Palestinian Arab Canadians, which use different tactics to engage with Palestinian-Canadian identity, the politics of Palestine, and the policies and practices of Canadian multiculturalism. The varying strategies pursued by Palestinian-Canadians reflect the many possible pathways towards anchoring a transnational Palestinian community-in-practice (Regan Wills 2019) in a Canadian context.  
  • Dr. Rachad Antonius
    What are the external factors of success in the history of Palestinian advocacy in Canada? By “external”, we mean the factors related to the context of the advocacy work, and not to its modalities of mobilization. We will argue that external factors play a much more important role than the modalities of mobilization, and when these external factors permit some progress, they constitute a favorable environment for a better organisation of the advocacy work, and for a more efficient leadership. We will draw on two sources of information. a) Our personal experience over five decades of involvement in national (Canada) and local (Quebec) efforts at advocacy. We participated, since 1974, in the work of the major organisations that played this mobilization role: the Canadian Arab Federation, the National Council on Canada Arab Relations, NECEF, and CEAD in Quebec. The author was not in a central leadership role in these organization, but he played a supporting role as an actor and a resource person, that gives him an overall view of what has been accomplished. b) We will also draw on the documentation accumulated throughout this period, both relating to Canadian involvement in the (asymmetric) Israeli Palestinian conflict, and to the work of these organizations. We will argue that two factors in particular play an important role in the success of advocacy: the existence of a national project in Palestine that has a strong internal legitimacy, and the existence of an international context that presents some openings for Palestinian civil society. A secondary result will be to lay the ground for a future project of writing the history of Palestinian advocacy that would recognize the roles of some of the key figures and organizations in that history.. On the basis of that reflection, we will be in a position to reflect on the priorities of advocacy efforts and on the type of issues that would offer a better chance for making progress on the issue of human rights and political rights of Palestinians.