Politics

Liberals denounce and agree with Tory motion condemning Israel boycotters

All parties agree BDS tactics against Israel bad policy, but that's about all they agree on

Mideast Israel SodaStream

One of the initial targets of the BDS movement, SodaStream built a new factory deep in Israel's Negev Desert next to the city of Rahat, to replace the West Bank facility that had become a symbol of exploitation. (Dan Balilty/Associated Press)

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So, the Trudeau government intends to join with the Conservatives next week and condemn the United Church of Canada and the Quakers, along with every other organization and individual participating to any degree in a boycott of Israeli goods and services.

Blanket government condemnation is not a very sunny thing to do, and the Liberals, quivering with outrage, are making it clear they really don't want to do it.

But they are going ahead because, apparently, they're being bullied, the poor daisies.

It's just not fair, the things you can be forced to do when you have a parliamentary majority.

There is no doubt, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion declared in the House of Commons Thursday, that most of the organizations and individuals supporting the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement are doing so in good faith, believing it will somehow force an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its control over Gaza, and maybe some sort of peace deal.

But BDS, said Dion, is not government policy. And "those people, of good faith, we will not convince them of their error by banging them on the head, by hitting them with condemnations of all types, by intimidation, or by invectives. We have to speak to them with respect."

There is also, added the minister, the small matter of freedom of speech and debate.

Dion denounced the Conservatives' opposition day motion — which would "condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad"  — as just more "politics of division."

The Tories, he said, are just "bullies" who want to turn the defence of Israel into a partisan issue. They'll portray anyone who votes against their motion as "dissidents."

"It's not us who wrote this motion," Dion complained, "but we have to vote yes or no."

So, um, yes. Reluctantly, yes.

The 'zero tolerance' business

Justin Trudeau's Liberals have actually been quite consistent in publicly opposing BDS, a movement begun by the Palestinians 11 years ago as an alternative to armed struggle.

But the Liberals would really rather not make a big deal of it.

Question Period 20160216

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion said the Liberals would rather convince than condemn those who support an Israel boycott, but the party will be voting for the Tory motion in any event. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The new government, for example, removed from the Foreign Affairs website the "memorandum of understanding" signed by Stephen Harper's foreign minister a year ago in Jerusalem.

The MOU was a proclamation of diplomatic war against BDS, which it described as "the new face of anti-Semitism."

The former public security minister, Steven Blaney, followed up a few months later with a warning at the UN that Canada had adopted a policy of "zero tolerance" toward BDS.

The Tories have not flinched from those positions.

In speeches supporting their motion, one Conservative MP after another conflated BDS with "the new anti-Semitism," "attacks on national origin," growing hatred of Jews everywhere, desecration of Jewish cemeteries, intimidation of Jewish university students, hatred of peace, and just plain old hatred.

Dion, trying hard to walk in Liberal sunshine, protested that no, some BDS supporters are respectable people, some in fact are Jewish themselves, and should not be ostracized. We must all speak to one another respectfully, he protested.

Free speech

But the Conservatives were on a full-court press.

"There is a time and a place for nuance and there is a time and a place to take a stand," declared Calgary Tory Michelle Rempel, one of the first MPs to signal an interest in the party leadership. "I hope that all of my colleagues in this place will find their spine, stand up, and do that."

Caucus 20160203

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel was one of the co-authors of the opposition motion. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Tory MP Tom Kmiec, also from Calgary, advanced the rather novel argument that Israel is the greatest, in fact singular, benefactor of the Palestinian economy: "Israel invests heavily in Palestine and the rest of the world typically does not."

(The fact that Israel has complete control over all Palestinian imports and exports went unmentioned.)

Kmiec stated flatly that the Israelis have offered peace, and the Palestinians have rejected it. And further, that one of the main Palestinian figures behind BDS, Omar Barghouti, has rejected the two-state solution. (As did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, before trying to walk the statement back, but that went unmentioned, too.)

It went on for hours, and was not the most enlightening debate.

At one point, the Tories accused NDP leader Thomas Mulcair of supporting BDS because some BDS supporters held a rally outside his Montreal campaign office in September.

To be clear, Mulcair is an ardent supporter of Israel, opposes BDS, and has disciplined NDP candidates who publicly criticized the Jewish state.

"If anything, we regard him as an adversary," BDS organizer Tyler Levitan told me in an email.

Mulcair was not in the House for the debate, but said in a written statement that, to his party, this is a question of free speech.

"Let's be clear," Mulcair said, "the Conservatives are proposing to limit what topics Canadians are allowed to debate. That's not the role of government. This goes against our fundamental freedoms and the NDP will be voting against it."

The Liberals are less clear. By the end of the day, after being asked what happened to the Harper-era "memorandum of understanding," a spokesman for Dion said its removal was "a routine web glitch," and that it had been restored. He later said the MOU stands.

Meaning, presumably, that BDS represents the "face of new anti-Semitism" is the position of this government, too.

And in the House, when asked by the Tories whether the entire Liberal caucus would be voting yes on the Conservative motion, the response was that it would be up to Justin Trudeau.

And whatever he decides, judging from Dion's complaining today, he would presumably rather not make the decision. Prime ministers, after all, hate being bullied.

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