On December 1, Progressive Conservative MPP (Member of Provincial Parliament) Gila Martow introduced Private Member’s Motion 36 to the Ontario legislature, condemning the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The motion passed by a vote of 49-5.

The BDS movement, launched in 2005 by Palestinian unions, NGOs, and grassroots associations, calls on civil society organizations and persons of conscience to apply boycott and divestment initiatives against entities enabling the Israeli occupation. The movement also calls on governments to impose sanctions until Israel complies with human rights norms.

In specific terms, the campaign demands that Israel: end its military occupation of Arab land; terminate its system of discrimination against its Palestinian citizens; and respect the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

For supporters, BDS is a non-violent tactic to pressure Israel into accepting a rights-based framework for peace. According to Motion 36, it is a front promoting anti-Semitism.

To be sure, the motion is a non-binding, formal denunciation. But, it is not difficult to appreciate why activists are concerned over its potential force as grounds for future legislation against BDS initiatives.

This is not the first time a Canadian legislative body has considered anti-BDS measures. Canada’s Parliament already voted to condemn BDS in February 2016. In May 2016, the “Standing Up Against Anti-Semitism in Ontario Act” (Bill 202) was introduced at the Ontario legislature. Its aim was to prohibit public bodies from doing business with persons or entities supporting BDS. It also sought to prevent university campuses from supporting the movement. According to Tim Hudak, then a Progressive Conservative MPP and a sponsor of the bill, BDS is the “insidious new face of anti-Semitism” and must be opposed on these grounds.

During its second reading, Bill 202 was defeated 39-18. Still, Kathleen Wynne, the Premier of Ontario (head of provincial government), expressed her commitment to crafting an anti-BDS measure acceptable to a greater number of legislators. Although Motion 36 is not the product Wynne’s own efforts, its passing may embolden the Premier to carry through on her promise.

While a sensible discussion over the terms and merits of BDS is more than welcome, Ontario’s parliamentarians have chosen to slander a human rights movement, purely to protect a trade partner and stop BDS’s increasing momentum. Aside from the threat posed to freedom of expression and association, these stunts are concerning on several levels.

First, in targeting BDS, Ontario sends the message that Palestinians have no legitimate options for challenging settler-colonial rule. Armed resistance is condemned across the board and Canada has already blocked Palestine’s attempts to realize its rights through international forums. Palestinian advocates for non-violent resistance, such as Issa Amro and Abdullah Abu Rahma, have been jailed by Israeli authorities without even a word of protest. For its part, the cosmetic, moribund “peace process” has done little but reconfigure Israeli control over the 1967 territories.

Secondly, conflating opposition to government policy with anti-Semitism impermissibly chills debate over Israeli state violence and Ontario’s role in normalizing military occupation. Once the line is blurred between principled critique and hate speech, the cost of speaking out can become too high.

Finally, as the recent American presidential elections demonstrated, racism, including anti-Semitism, remains a powerful mobilizing tool. For this reason (among others) it must be exposed and condemned. If careless accusations of racism are thrown around, however, then the public will increasingly respond with skepticism. Racism will be transformed from a social-political reality to a discursive instrument muzzling debate. This is a disservice to those actually suffering from racism. It also undermines the necessary fight against ethnic chauvinism.

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