Links: Is boycotting Israel a hate crime? And in defense of Elizabeth May

We’re back after a week off to make room for last week’s debate on the federal budget. Just Matt this week. Ian and Niya will be back next week!

From Matt: Is boycotting Israel a hate crime? The Harper government thinks somaybeThis story began with a speech at the United Nations by Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney (responsible for Canada’s police and spy agencies), in which he stated that Canada has a “zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination including in rhetoric towards Israel, and attempts to delegitimize Israel such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.”

The CBC’s Neil Macdonald followed up with Public Safety Canada by email to clarify what Blaney had meant by “zero-tolerance”. They initially tried to refer Macdonald to Foreign Affairs Canada, but eventually responded by listing the hate crime laws in Canada – some of which have been enhanced by the government’s recent anti-cyber-bullying bill (C-13). Macdonald (and several NGOs participating in BDS) took this as an indication that the Harper government was prepared to prosecute or harass them under hate laws. The government has since denied this intent.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, as its name suggests, calls for boycotts of Israeli goods, services and events – in order to pressure Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank and to grant equal rights to Arab Israeli citizens, among other goals. The movement has gained support among certain religious groups (e.g., the United Church), NGOs (e.g., the Canadian Quakers), labour unions (e.g., CUPE Ontario), government officials (e.g., several foreign ministers in the E.U.) and prominent academics, including physicist Stephen Hawking. Canada has signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel pledging to fight the BDS movement. Prosecuting BDS supporters under hate laws is not without precedent in Western countries – having been done successfully in France, for example.

Do I think the Harper government would actually try to prosecute someone for BDS under hate crime laws? No, I don’t…at least not right before an election. Given Canada’s free expression laws, it seems unlikely that BDS prosecutions would survive a Charter challenge, and they would undoubtedly generate a ton of bad press for the Conservatives (look at the kerfuffle even the notion that they might try has caused). But do I think they deliberately hinted at this type of action with the intent of scaring opposition into silence? Absolutely I do.

What do I think of BDS in general? Hard to say. I am not currently participating in BDS myself, but I absolutely think that people should have a right to participate if they want to. I also think that Israel has a lot to answer for in holding up the peace process – with the prospects looking even grimmer after the recent election. For the moment, I would like to see the government of Canada remain neutral on BDS – neither encouraging nor discouraging it. I think we have more to offer as mediators than as either sanctioners or cheerleaders of Israel. The U.S. and E.U. might be a different story though, given their much higher trade and military influence. They could (and should) try mediating more aggressively (e.g., as former Israeli cabinet minster Yossi Beilin suggests here). If that fails, they might consider tying further military aid to de-escalation in the West Bank and cooperation in the peace process.

In defense of Elizabeth May. The Internet and newsrooms across the country have been abuzz with talk of Elizabeth May’s bizarre and uncharacteristically profane Parliamentary press dinner speech on Saturday. As in the U.S. version of this event, the speeches by party leaders are supposed to be light, humorous and self-deprecating. May’s speech had a few laughs, but came off as a bit more of a disorganized and exasperated partisan diatribe. She started by referencing the fact that the event was being held on Aboriginal land; she criticized Harper for not attending press dinners while in office (and for omnibus budget bills and other authoritarian tendencies); she made a convoluted joke comparing her desire to participate in the debates to Freudian penis-envy (which actually might have been funny had she delivered it differently); and she closed by welcoming home Omar Khadr (stating that he has “more class than the whole f—ing cabinet” as Transport Minister Lisa Raitt escorted her off-stage).

Unsurprisingly, the media has been all over her since – some even asking her if she will resign as Green party leader. I definitely agree that May messed up – so does she. But people also need to lighten up a bit and cut her some slack. Throughout her tenure, Elizabeth May has consistently been one of the most respectful, hard-working, thoughtful, down-to-Earth and well-spoken MPs in the House. She has spent much of the last 48 hours apologizing (and doing so sincerely), rather than being evasive and waiting for the story to blow over – as others in her position have done. If we want our politicians to be real people – not perpetually scripted partisan robots – we need to allow them to sometimes be…real people.

Also, if you listen to May’s speech, it actually wasn’t all that bad – aside from being not funny. She definitely shouldn’t have made the comment about Khadr being classier than the cabinet (…although Khadr’s post-release comments were pretty classy …and cabinet is on a pretty un-classy run of late), and the Freud joke was told in a way that sounded more crude and sexist (and incomprehensible) than it was meant to; but the rest of her speech was pretty on target, even if she chose the wrong audience. May should be allowed in the debates; Harper should come to the press dinners (like every other PM before him has); his omnibus budget bills are pretty egregious; and he does generally owe Canadian institutions more respect. If May came off as exasperated in her speech, maybe it’s because she had good reason to be.

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