DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News. In August of this year, the Green Party of Canada adopted at its biannual convention a policy in which it endorsed the use of boycott, divestment and sanctions as a means of bringing an end to Israel’s decade-long illegal occupation of Palestinian Territories. The party’s members voted at the convention to adopt the policy despite the opposition from the party’s leader, Elizabeth May.
Promptly following the adoption of that BDS policy in August, the party came under intense attack from the mainstream media and from pro-occupation groups, and after the convention in August Elizabeth May briefly raised the prospect even of resigning from the leadership, but decided to remain leader when the party’s federal council called for a special meeting at which the members would be asked to revisit this boycott, divestment and sanctions policy. That meeting was held in Calgary, Alberta, just this past weekend, and at that meeting, over 84% of those present voted to replace the BDS policy with a motion calling for targeted sanctions on the State of Israel. The policy had the full support of the party’s leader, Elizabeth May.
Now here to discuss these developments with me are Diana Ralph and Dr. Tarek Loubani. Diana Ralph is a founder and steering committee member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada. She is a lifelong activist and author and a retired social worker at Carlton University in Ottawa, Canada. Diana, thanks for joining us.
DIANA RALPH: You’re welcome. Nice to see you.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: We’re also joined today by Tarek Loubani, a medical doctor and a Palestinian refugee living in Canada. He works as an emergency physician in the London Health Sciences Centre in London, Ontario, in Canada, and in the Shifa Hospital in Gaza. In 2013, Dr. Loubani traveled to Egypt with Canadian filmmaker John Grayson. The two had traveled to Cairo planning to go to Gaza, and in Egypt they witnessed a violent protest where Dr. Loubani tended to the wounded, and they were arrested when they asked police for directions. They spent 53 days without charge in an Egyptian prison, but were ultimately released and allowed to return to Canada.
Thanks for joining us, Dr. Loubani.
TAREK LOUBANI: Thanks for having me, Dimitri.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, before I explore with the both of you what happened this past weekend in Calgary, I think it would be useful for us just to review what the policy actually says – the policy that was adopted. This new sanctions policy calls for Palestinian leaders to recognize Israel and for Israel to recognize the State of Palestine. It expresses support for the use of consumer boycotts, institutional divestment and government(?) sanctions as a means of ending violence and oppression. Although the policy makes no reference to the BDS movement, the policy expresses support for the three goals of that movement, which are the right of return of Palestinian refugees, equality for Palestinians living in Israel and the end of the Occupation.
It calls for economic sanctions on Israel as a means of pressuring Israel to end its illegal occupation and settlements and its siege of Gaza, and as a means of giving the Palestinian people a sovereign state. In particular, it calls for a complete ban on the importation of settlement products, as well as an arms embargo on the State of Israel. It calls for the government of Canada to divest from companies that profit from the Occupation and lastly it calls for the Canadian government to urge the International Criminal Court to prioritize its investigation into potential Israeli war crimes against the Palestinian people.
One other thing I should mention is that Diana Ralph and Tarek Loubani and myself, we are all three of us members of the Green Party of Canada and attended the General Meeting in Calgary this past weekend.
With that, I’d like to start with you, Dr. Loubani. Days before the Green Party meeting in Calgary, you were in Gaza, and I’d like you to describe for us briefly what the conditions are like in Gaza today, and how you as a Palestinian refugee living in Canada feel about this policy that the party adopted this weekend.
TAREK LOUBANI: In terms of the situation in Gaza right now, things change quite quickly – very rapidly – and so, even as little as six months ago looked like maybe there would be a little bit of movement, especially in reconstruction after the war, the war in 2014, by the way.
had finally started to come in, things had finally started to improve every so slightly.
This time, when I was there, you could feel that things were worse. Since Avador(?) Lieberman(?) took his post in the Israeli Cabinet, there have been arrests of NGO workers, there’s been a lot of pressure tactics. I was interrogated for about eight hours. I was strip-searched – both going in and coming out – in Ben Gurion. So, really, the situation there for me was terrible. For my patients it was quite odd, because now of course they’re not allowed to exit for medical care, and there are lots of permits especially for sick patients that have been revoked. And for the general population, walking in the streets you can tell Gaza’s a place where you can see the effects of the siege moment to moment. You look in the fruit stalls, you look in the stores, you see the electricity and all of those were terrible. November’s supposed to be when we get the “most” – in quotation marks – electricity, about eight to ten hours a day. We were still only getting four to six hours a day.
The situation really is dire, and isn’t improving, which everybody expected it would after the war, even a little bit, especially this far out after it’s clear that the Palestinians have been punished for their involvement in the War of 2014.
When I was talking to people, they were heartened by a few developments. They’ve looked at Canada for a while as a dishonest broker, especially since they withdrew funding in 2006 after the Palestinians dared to elect Hamas. So when they saw the reinstitutement of funding, while I was there, people started to think, oh, maybe something’s happening in Canada here. And I…
DIMITRI LASCARIS: I’m sorry. This is a decision of the Trudeau government to restore I believe about $26 million of funding to the UN agency that takes care of Palestinian refugees, is that right?
TAREK LOUBANI: Yes, the United Nations relief work agency that had been de-funded by the Harper government in 2006, even though all of its work is basically feeding and ensuring the health of refugees.
The people there had already been looking and a little bit hopeful that Canada might be able to go back to some of the roles that it did possess before. Never fully honest broker, but never quite so bad as it was before the election of the Trudeau government. When they heard about this revolution, people messaged me, and they said, “Wow, this Green Party of yours!” We talked about it. I was very clear that for a number of reasons I myself don’t support BDS. It’s illegal for me to support BDS, or else I’d never be allowed back into the Gaza Strip. We talked about it. We were very clear that the motion doesn’t endorse BDS, the movement.
However, people are just excited by the idea, Palestinians are excited by the idea, that a mainstream party in Canada is moving in the right direction. Is this a perfect resolution? No. Is this the resolution that I would want? No. But is this resolution really meaningful? Yeah. Is this a big step? Yeah. Is this almost – I mean, I wouldn’t say an earth-shattering improvement in the Canadian political landscape, but it definitely is causing . Yeah. It’s meaningful.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And Diana, please tell us a little bit about your organization, Independent Jewish Voices, and its mandate, and also how Independent Jewish Voices views this new sanctions policy from the Green Party of Canada.
DIANA RALPH: Independent Jewish Voices formed in 2008 as the national Canadian organization to give Jews of conscience a place to stand up against the Israel lobby and to say that we support Palestinian rights. In 2009, we formally endorsed the BDS movement, and since then we’ve been active in a range of boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns across Canada.
I was thrilled by the resolution. I was thrilled by its pa… the previous resolution that passed in August. We were ecstatic about that. And then really shaken when the party was coming out against it, and insisted on calling this convention in Calgary in December ostensibly to defeat it.
You and members of the… well, you were no longer on the Shadow Cabinet, but you and others on the Shadow Cabinet pulled together this exquisite resolution. I mean, I agree with Tarek, it’s not perfect, but it goes so far beyond what was passed in August. You’ve already laid out all the many things that it does, and the original resolution only dealt with the Occupation. This one deals with all three demands of the movement, and calling for suspension of military aid and settlement labeling and divestment. These are really important things.
It was quite exciting to be at that convention and, in spite of all of the heavy lobbying that the Canadian… the Council on Israel and Jewish Affairs, which is Canada’s main Israel lobby organization and B’nai Brith had tried, in spite of all that, I think what the convention showed was the weakness of the Israel lobby. They weren’t able to bring out more than about 40 voters who were against BDS, and the vast majority of the people who came were for BDS. It’s interesting that this was one of the largest conventions that the Green Party has ever had, and in Calgary, in December, on short notice? It really shows that this is an issue of grave importance to the people of the Green Party.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And you mentioned two organizations that often purport to represent the Jewish community in Canada, B’nai Brith and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and of course, they have a different view about this resolution. They have suggested, even outright asserted, that resolutions of this nature manifest anti-Semitic sentiment, and of course, regrettably this attitude seems to be reaching into the halls of power. The Canadian Parliament and more recently the Ontario Legislature adopted policies condemning BDS and coming very close to equating them with anti-Semitism. How do you respond – and I should also add that the US Senate just passed a Bill called the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which goes along with similar lines. How do you respond to these various arguments that have been made by pro-Occupation groups and by Western governments that support for sanctions on Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism?
DIANA RALPH: Let me first of all talk a little bit about these organizations. The Council on Israel and Jewish Affairs is a completely unaccountable cabal of originally formed by 12 millionaires and billionaires who are solidly pro-Israel no matter what. They were very heavily into the Harper government, the right wing Harper government in Canada, and they and B’nai Brith… well, I just want to say, in CIJA, the Council on Israel and Jewish Affairs, essentially took over and replaced the Canadian Jewish Congress, which had been a relatively democratic and representative organization of Jews in Canada. CIJA doesn’t represent anybody. Certainly doesn’t represent the vast majority of Jews in Canada. Similarly, B’nai Brith used to be a human rights organization, with a lot of credibility, and it too was taken over by the Israel lobby, I forget in which year, about ten years ago, and has become nothing but a pro-Israel lobby organization which viciously attacks anyone who stands up for Palestinian rights as anti-Semitic.
Let me just define what anti-Semitic actually means. Anti-Semitism really refers to discrimination or prejudice against Jews, or putting down Judaism. It has nothing to do explicitly with the State of Israel. The Zionist lobby has attempted to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. In fact, there is no evidence of any rising anti-Semitism, with the first demintion(?), in Canada. In Canada and in all Western countries, anti-Semitism has been outlawed and Jews are no longer oppressed. There’s certainly prejudice that some people carry against Jews, and if very few people within the BDS movement have expressed anti-Semitic views and we have dealt with them and tried to correct them – often successfully – and condemned them when we couldn’t. But overwhelmingly the BDS movement has bent over backwards to make it clear it has no animus towards Jews, and in fact there are many Jews and Jewish organizations internationally that support the BDS movement.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Tarek, another criticism you hear leveled against those who advocate for sanctions on Israel as a means to pressure it to comply with international human rights law, and particularly this is criticism that’s leveled at the BDS movement is that the movement ends up… or the use of sanctions and boycott in particular ends up damaging, hurting the interests of Palestinian workers and businesses. How would you respond to that criticism?
TAREK LOUBANI: would it be okay for me to comment for a moment on the idea of anti-Semitism, as well. It’s always important for us to remember that the fears that are given voice by groups like CIJA and B’nai Brith are founded. There is such a thing as anti-Jewish racism, AKA anti-Semitism. These things are active, and so I think it behooves us, as well, Diana mentioned that we always deal with these things, but there is foundation there. The idea is that the conflation of bona fide anti-Semitism with anti-Israel work that happens essentially opposing the government of Israel ends up causing more anti-Semitism because people who might not really know what’s going on will take these messages and say, okay, well, if I oppose Israel then I should oppose Jews. So, unfortunately, that narrative is really going both ways, and you see it in the movement. You see people who are just new to it who will, especially in Arabic, you know, use the term Jews instead of Israelis, or something like that. And I think that even when I speak to my counterparts from CIJA or B’nai Brith or people who show up, I don’t try to deliver it to them as something that’s just good for me, let’s not conflate these two, but I try to deliver it to them as something that’s also good for them. Don’t conflate the two because you start creating and almost breeding more bona fide anti-Semitism with that perspective.
Back to your question as to what exactly the Palestinians think. Well, look, you have to remember that the Palestinians called for BDS. The Palestinians had two options before them. They had the option of armed resistance, which they exercise, and the option of non-violent resistance, which they exercise and have exercised for longer and in a more hardened way. Truly the Palestinians are well-versed in non-violent resistance. They have been since the very early parts of the Palestinian struggle, as far back as in the ’20s and the ’30s against the British. And they know what they want. They’re asking for this.
So, maybe – maybe – there’s a case to be made that the economy is affected or something like that, but I don’t presume to tell people who are oppressed or people who are suffering what exactly their route to salvation is. And so if the decision that they’ve made is to go on hunger strikes, I as a doctor can tell them you’re hurting yourself. But I can’t argue with the effectiveness of that tactic. If they as a people tell me that I want boycott, I want sanctions, I want divestment, I can argue whatever I want. I actually think it’s not accurate. But anyway, however, at the end of the day, if this is the Palestinian hunger strike, then who are we to tell them no?
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Right. Well, as we all know, the three of us, at least, this resolution, this policy, the sanctions policy, will now go to the full membership of the Party in an online ratification vote, and I hope we’ll be able to have you back after that vote is concluded to talk about the result and where we go in Canada in terms of the Palestinian solidarity movement. Thank you very much for joining us.
DIANA RALPH: You’re very welcome.
TAREK LOUBANI: Thank you so much for having us.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.