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People take part in a pro-Palestine rally in Montreal on Nov. 12.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Calgary police charging a pro-Palestinian demonstrator with allegedly causing a hate-motivated disturbance has ignited a national debate over whether a chant shouted by tens of thousands of Canadians over the past month should be outlawed as hate speech.

As the conflict between Hamas and Israel stretches into its second month, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” has become a Rorschach test for people’s views on why and how Canadians are voicing their support in public for the Palestinian people.

Many of the protesters decrying Israel’s actions say the phrase is an explicit political demand for equal rights for Palestinians within Israel’s borders and the occupied territories – with no consensus on whether this needs to happen in the context of a single secular state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean or within two separate countries.

Many Jewish organizations in Canada see the call-and-response chant as a chilling exhortation to destroy Israel and its people. The Calgary Jewish Federation welcomed the arrest of someone “publicly inciting hate” and hoped it would set a precedent for other police departments to do the same. The Toronto-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs characterizes the phrase as genocidal and one that calls for “death to all Jewish people in Israel, Canada and everywhere.”

Meanwhile, some academics worry this charge signals a new Canadian crackdown on the political free speech of pro-Palestinian demonstrators that echoes restrictions in Europe, where some cities and countries have banned these protests altogether.

Alejandro Paz, a Jewish faculty member of the University of Toronto and an expert on Israel in the Middle East, said Calgary police are criminalizing legitimate speech that is not antisemitic or hateful.

“For me, as a scholar, as someone for whom all the people between the river and the sea are very important, this means that there will be freedom and equality for all,” said Dr. Paz, adding that he witnessed Israelis use a similar chant at massive pro-democracy protests in Tel Aviv this spring.

Until now, the authorities have not weighed in on the complex question of whether its utterance in public is a hate crime.

That’s in large part because the Canadian Criminal Code only identifies four actual hate crimes: three hate propaganda offences (advocating genocide, publicly inciting hatred and willfully promoting it) as well as mischief at religious or cultural sites. Police need their provincial attorney-general to sign off on any charges of advocating genocide or willfully promoting hatred, and only a handful of these cases have made it to court over the past decade.

Instead, on Nov. 5, Calgary officers policed an alleged hate incident the way most of these cases are pursued in Canada: by charging Wesam Cooley with a standard crime (causing a public disturbance, in this instance) and then appending a hate motivation to the offence. If the system functions as it’s intended to, a judge will decide later if the alleged bias that police say motivated the rally organizer to disturb the public has been proven and then hand a heavier punishment to Mr. Cooley, if he is found guilty.

Calgary police won’t explicitly say which phrase netted Mr. Cooley a charge, just that, beforehand, officers discussed “some of the language and signage” at past City Hall protests with the organizers of the rally and those leading a counterprotest in support of Israel happening across the street. In a statement released after his arrest and charge, the department said Mr. Cooley then kicked off the rally by acknowledging this prior conversation and proceeding to “repeatedly use an antisemitic phrase while encouraging the crowd to follow along.”

“We will continue to police behaviours, not beliefs,” the statement said.

Mr. Cooley deferred comment to his lawyer Zachary Al-Khatib, who told The Globe and Mail his client will defend himself “on the basis that there is nothing hateful about calling for freedom and equality,” but that he hopes the arrest was a mistake that police will correct soon.

“None of us – no matter our stance on this conflict – should want our society to be a place where political speech is criminalized,” Mr. Al-Khatib said in an e-mailed statement. “Ideas and political slogans should be debated and decided in the public square.”

In a public Facebook video livestreamed by another Calgary activist, Mr. Cooley is seen ending his opening speech at the rally by saying police had just informed him the Alberta government is contemplating classifying the chant as a form of hate speech, to boos from the large crowd. Officers, he says, had assured him no one would be arrested that day but he warns his fellow protesters to “beware and be conscious of the fact that we are under attack here just like we’ve seen criminalization of Palestinian solidarity already in France, in Germany.”

Given the climate, he says, he won’t fault anyone for not joining in, before launching into the defiant cry of “From the river to the sea” six times, which is answered by the crowd each time.

This English chant first became popular among the Palestinian diaspora in the 1960s. It then gained in prominence ahead of the 1993 Oslo Accords when Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization embraced it as a way to symbolize the dream of equality for his people as well as Jewish Israelis, according to Ruby Dagher, a University of Ottawa professor who researches conflict and the Middle East.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party also echoed “river to the sea” phrasing in its founding charter as a way to say his government doesn’t recognize Gaza or the West Bank, according to Dr. Dagher, who was a Canadian government analyst overseeing Ottawa’s international aid to those occupied territories from 2007 to 2011. Still, she acknowledged that the phrase can be terrifying to Jewish people especially since Hamas has also placed the phrase in its charter as a call to erase Israel.

Becca Wertman, director of research at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said its use by Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, both of which Canada considers as terrorist organizations, leaves no room to interpret the 10 words as anything but a rejection of the two-state solution and a call for the elimination of Israel.

“I don’t see how that’s anything but a one-state solution with no Jewish state,” said Ms. Wertman, who once worked in Israeli politics and now tracks antisemitic incidents across Canada.

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