Skip to main content

Dismantling of the security wall that cuts off Palestinian communities from Israel is one of the demands of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that has been condemned in a parliamentary vote.Baz Ratner/Reuters

Parliament has voted by a wide margin to condemn the growing international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign being waged against Israel for what is alleged to be the Jewish state's failure to accord equal rights to Arabs in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

The motion, introduced by the Opposition Conservative Party, called for the House to "reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel," and the government to "condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad."

The governing Liberals mostly supported the motion, making the final tally 229 in favour of condemning the BDS movement with 51 opposed. The NDP voted against the measure, not because it likes the BDS movement, Leader Tom Mulcair said, but because it doesn't like to see the stifling of free expression. Only the Bloc Québécois argued that the BDS campaign constitutes legitimate criticism of Israeli policies.

Israel is increasingly concerned with the successes of the boycott and divestment efforts. In 2014, foreign direct investment in Israel dropped 46 per cent from the previous year, in part, a United Nations report said, because of BDS efforts.

These initiatives are taking hold at North American universities, churches and trade unions, where many institutions are dropping investments in Israel or Israel-connected companies. In Europe where hundreds of academics and entertainers are personally boycotting Israel, major companies such as telecom Orange and water company Veolia are pulling out of Israeli ventures, and some EU governments are putting warning labels on products produced in Israeli West Bank settlements.

Israel's reaction has been to launch a worldwide campaign by its overseas missions and supporters to discredit the BDS movement.

In the course of Canada's parliamentary debate, many virulent charges were levelled against those who seek to boycott Israel. Are they well founded?

Is the BDS movement anti-Semitic?

Jason Kenney, a former Conservative cabinet minister, insisted "the BDS movement represents a new wave of anti-Semitism, the most pernicious form of hatred in the history of humanity."

Some BDS supporters, no doubt, are anti-Semitic, but most people and organizations have signed up in response to the movement's goals stated in its 2005 manifesto, in which it calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel "until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights."

Specifically, the non-violent punitive measures are to be maintained until Israel ends "its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and [dismantles] the Wall" (a reference to the security barrier erected to cut off Palestinian communities from Israel); recognizes "the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality," and protects "the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194."

These goals are not dissimilar from Canada's official positions on Israeli occupation, settlements and human rights, and are not, on the face of it, what most people would consider anti-Semitic.

Does the BDS movement seek to destroy the State of Israel?

Mr. Kenney argued in the House that the new anti-Semitism "often takes the form of a kind of ideological fusion between movements of the extreme left and Islamist movements that seek, together, to obliterate the Jewish democratic State of Israel."

The BDS movement is supported by many people, including Jews and Israelis who want to see Israeli policies toward Palestinians change and do not want to see the destruction of Israel.

Those who are legitimately concerned about the potential impact on Israel point to the BDS movement's call for protecting the rights of Palestinian refugees under UN Resolution 194 to return to the homes and properties they left in 1948 in what is now Israel. The concern is that if all these refugees and their descendants (numbering in the millions) were to return, they would overrun the Jewish state, and Israel would cease to exist as we know it. Fair enough.

However, these rights have been understood in formal and informal negotiations between Israel and Palestinians to be ones that would be implemented only gradually and offered alongside alternative compensation, such as settling in the new Palestinian state or in a third country such as Canada.

The important thing to note about the reference to UN Resolution 194 is that this resolution calls for "negotiations" with Israel over the terms by which the Palestinian rights to return would be implemented. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative also refers to Resolution 194, even as it offers full recognition of Israel.

"BDS is a non-violent human-rights movement that seeks to end Israel's regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid," said Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human-rights advocate and co-founder of the BDS movement, stressing the limits of the movement.

"If the goals of BDS, namely freedom, justice and equality for the Palestinians, would 'destroy' Israel, what does that say about Israel? Did they destroy South Africa or Alabama? The only things they really end in all these situations of oppression are injustice and inequality."

Is it unfair to single out Israel?

This was another popular refrain in Parliament – that the BDS movement's singling out Israel from among all nations is proof of its anti-Semitic nature.

Yes, the BDS campaign singles out Israel, quite naturally. It was started by a group of Palestinians, including Mr. Barghouti, to elicit help in dealing with Palestinians' biggest problems. It was not intended to solve all the problems of the world. Just as the worldwide campaign against apartheid in South Africa did not address the ills of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, or the dictatorship in Somalia, this BDS movement is uniquely tailored to safeguarding Palestinian rights.

The fact that this anti-BDS parliamentary motion passed is ridiculous, says Diana Buttu, a Canadian-born Arab Israeli and former adviser to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

"Canada follows international law and correctly labels Israel's colonization of the West Bank as illegal," she notes. "BDS aims to hold Israel accountable for its illegal acts," she points out, "yet the government passes a resolution condemning those who aim to uphold international law and Canadian foreign policy?"

"It's nuts," Ms. Buttu said.

Interact with The Globe