Soul-searching for Canada's Greens after 'Israel Boycott' vote

Soul-searching for Canada's Greens after 'Israel Boycott' vote
Analysis: Green Party leader Elizabeth May has taken a strong anti-boycott stance, despite her party voting to endorse the global BDS campaign against Israel, writes Jillian Kestler D'Amours.
6 min read
15 August, 2016
The Greens' Elizabeth May said she'd consider surrundering the party leadership over the boycott [Getty]

Only a few days after Canada's Greens became the first federal party to endorse the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, leader Elizabeth May says she is reconsidering her future with the environmentalist-oriented party.

May, who has been at the helm of the Green Party since 2006, has been strongly opposed to the BDS resolution since it was first put up for debate ahead of the party's annual convention in early August.

But since the motion passed, May has come out even more vehemently against it, and she says stepping down might be one way to have the policy reviewed - and eventually overturned.

"I'm struggling with the question of whether I should continue as leader or not, quite honestly," May last week told CBC, Canada's national broadcaster.

"I'm quite certain most of our members don't support this policy, but weren't fully engaged in the consensus-building process we normally would have had," said May, who said she was taking time off to consider her options.

Political pressure

Is May buckling under external pressure? And does this signal a more disturbing reality about how far the debate over Israel-Palestine can go in Canada?

"I sort of sense that she's doing this very public soul-searching just to sort of convince people that the Green Party shouldn't be taken for some sort of radical, leftist, pro-Palestinian entity," said Thomas Woodley, head of advocacy group Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME).

Read more: Canada's Green Party adds BDS support to official policies

Woodley said it was surprising that May would take such a strong anti-BDS stance since Canadians that blindly support Israel do not vote for the Greens, anyway. May is currently the party's only elected representative in parliament.

But that hasn't stopped pro-Israel groups in Canada from condemning the party and describing the BDS motion, and a second Green Party resolution that sought to strip the Jewish National Fund of its charitable status, as "outrageous".

In his criticism, however, Shimon Koffler Fogel, head of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), made a distinction between the party and its leader. "Green Party leader Elizabeth May was right to oppose this toxic initiative as well as the disturbing assault on JNF, in keeping with her longstanding rejection of BDS," Fogel said in a press statement.

The image of Canada acting an honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians was shattered during the tenure of Stephen Harper

But according to Woodley, May remains fully aware of the issues and the human rights abuses suffered by the Palestinians. "She's not appalled by this resolution. We've talked to her about these issues," he said.

"I think politicians privately may be much more attuned or much more receptive to what BDS is really all about than they may be comfortable expressing publicly."

Despite what he described as May's "waffling" on the issue, he said the Green Party was "a great place for the political institutions within Canada to start thinking and talking seriously" about BDS and Palestinian human rights.

"I don't think it was a diversion from core Green Party expectations. I think it's a significant step. I wouldn't be surprised to see resolutions like this coming up in [New Democratic Party] conventions and eventually other parties in the future," he said.

Canada-Israel ties

The image of Canada acting an honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians was shattered during the tenure of Stephen Harper and his Conservative government. Under Harper's direction, Canada took an unabashedly pro-Israel stance at home and abroad.

Read more on the BDS campaign
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- 'Ramadan Tov' campaign boycotts Israeli products during holy month
- Jordan BDS activists rally against 'pro-Israel' parliament  
- Israel prevents prominent BDS campaigner from travel
- Comment: All for BDS, once and for all

Ottawa cut funding to Canadian non-profits working for Palestinian human rights issues and to the UN agency supporting Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), and publicly supported virtually every Israeli government position, even as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pursued anti-democratic legislation and launched military campaigns that killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

For many, the election of Justin Trudeau's more centrist Liberals in October 2015 was cause for cautious optimism that Canada would take a more even-handed approach to the Middle East.

But Trudeau's government has so far done little to shift Canadian policy.

In fact, the Liberals joined the Conservatives in backing a symbolic parliamentary resolution in May that condemned the BDS movement and any individuals or groups that supported it as being "anti-Israel" and discriminatory.

BDS remains a taboo for all mainstream political parties in Canada, according to Hamed Mousavi, a former international politics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa now based at the University of Tehran.

"Nevertheless that is no longer the case within Canadian society and especially in university campuses where the BDS movement has become a legitimate form of resistance," Mousavi told The New Arab.

Mousavi said the Green Party's BDS resolution was evidence that the conversation on Israel was changing in North America. But in order to be successful, the movement must translate a shift in the national debate to the application of actual economic pressure.

"The movement has been successful in bringing the issue of occupation and Palestinian rights into the public discourse, something that is unprecedented in the West, at least on this scale," he said.

"This is why the Israeli government and Zionist groups around the world are working hard to vilify the BDS movement. Had the movement not been effective then you would not have seen such a backlash from pro-Zionist groups."

The role of Canadian media

Dimitri Lascaris, the Green Party's justice critic and a sponsor of the BDS resolution, said "the atmosphere for frank discussion about the Israeli government’s human rights abuses has been extremely repressive" in Canada.

He said mainstream Canadian media outlets had played a role in creating and sustaining this repressive environment. In reports on the BDS resolution, Lascaris said many if not all omitted any substantive discussion about the underlying issue: Israeli human rights abuses.

Getting BDS and the issue of Palestinian rights into the Canadian press at all was a victory

The headline chosen by national newspaper The Globe & Mail read, "Vote to support Israel boycott campaign divides Green Party", while the Ottawa Citizen instead got reaction from the Israeli ambassador to Canada: "Green Party's boycott Israel policy 'totally unhelpful' to peace, ambassador to Canada says."

Before the vote, the right-wing National Post published letters and opinion pieces condemning the motion and calling Green Party members "anti-Israel agitators".

"One would think that a newspaper that is supposedly reputable would inform their readers about the underlying reasons for the resolution having been brought forward. There's no discussion about that at all," Lascaris said about the news coverage.

"The mainstream media in the West is complicit in the suffering of the Palestinian people and it's time for us to call them out on it."

Still, Woodley said getting BDS and the issue of Palestinian rights into the Canadian press at all was a victory. And he added that human rights and advocacy groups must work to educate Canadians about the real nature of the movement.

"We wouldn't have dreamed two or three years ago that BDS would be discussed in parliament," Woodley said. "All of these things need to be seen as educational opportunities. And I think as much as there's misinformation out there, the fact that it's getting air-time is overall a good thing."

Jillian Kestler D'Amours is a journalist based in Canada. Follow her on Twitter: @jkdamours