Does Harper want to criminalize criticism of Israel? Canadian civil society issues a warning

steven blaney at un

Canada’s Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney recently told a United Nations Assembly that Canada would show “zero tolerance’ towards the movement to boycott Israel. What does that mean? Mr. Blaney and Mr. Harper seem to think that criticizing Israel should be made illegal in Canada. Not everyone agrees. See more.

Almost 100 Canadian civil society organizations have spoken out against what appears to be a campaign by the Harper government to build support for criminalizing any criticism of Israel in Canada. The organizations issuing the warning include unions, civil liberty organizations and church groups.

In his speech to the Knesset in 2014, Harper said “Of course, criticism of Israeli government policy is not in and of itself necessarily anti-Semitic”. But actions speak louder than words, and based on the actions of his government, it appears that Mr. Harper would like to protect Israel from allegations that it continually violates UN resolutions, the Geneva Conventions and decisions of the International Court of Justice. Even discussing these violations, as Mr. Harper and some MPs see it, is hateful and anti-Semitic.

Some of the government actions so far include a dramatic speech by Minister Blaney at the United Nations in January, a special debate and vote in Parliament on February 24th which purposely conflated criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and a “Memorandum of Understanding” between Israel and Canada signed by then foreign minister John Baird.

So far, no specific legislation has been proposed or enacted, but it could conceivably try to use Bill C-13 which expanded the Criminal Code definition of ‘racial hatred’ to include hatred toward “nations”.

Harper’s special target appears to be the movement to boycott Israel, popularly known as the BDS movement.

Canada has taken a zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination including rhetoric towards Israel, and attempts to delegitimize Israel such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement,” Blaney said during his UN speech.

But if the Harper government thinks it will stop the criticism of Israel by threats or intimidation, it may backfire. Even before any charges are laid, civil society has indicated it will not be cowed. Resistance is growing for two reasons.

First – it would be a very serious assault on freedom of speech, a Charter right which Canadians hold dear, (and which this government claims to support).

In a statement entitled “Freedom of Speech and criticism of Israel”, one of the country’s most important civil liberties groups, The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) has spoken out. “The BCCLA joins many organizations in calling on the Canadian government to ensure that citizens’ Charter rights are protected in the context of political speech and legitimate political actions, such as boycotts, with respect to criticism of the state of Israel,” read its statement.

Second – and equally importantly – Canadian public opinion is slowly opening to a serious discussion of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

“(We) believe that perhaps our government should spend more time listening to why so many Canadians feel so passionately about this issue, instead of trying to shut them down, said a powerful statement by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) which represents 3.3 million Canadian workers. The CLC statement was endorsed by several of its biggest member unions including the Public Service Alliance, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Unifor and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.
In another significant move, dozens of other civil society organizations have signed a joint declaration initiated by Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV).it is not anti-Semitic to criticize the State of Israel,” reads the declaration. “Those who equate such criticism with a hatred of Jewish people are simply attempting to silence Israel’s critics. In the face of these actions on the part of the Canadian government, we must defend the right of people in a democracy to criticize any government’s behaviour and to participate in boycotts designed to alter that behaviour if they choose to do so.”

Among the many signatories to IJV’s statement are church groups, student groups, Palestinian human rights support groups, The Green Party of Canada and many other organizations from Prince Edward Island to Victoria. According to Tyler Levitan, who coordinated the declaration, there are currently 80 signatories to the declaration.

The Harper government’s intentions on this issue seem clear. But it’s not clear that Canadians will allow it to restrict our freedom of speech in order to defend the State of Israel against any criticism.


  1. Great to know that civil liberties and human rights groups are united to defend freedom of speech in Canada! Democratic traditions in our country are deep and Harper will not be able to change that easily!

  2. Excellent review of the issues surrounding attempts by the Harper Govt to use “hate speech” laws to stifle any and all criticism and use of BDS against Israel and it’s policies towards the Palestinians. The Govt should spend greater effort towards encouraging Israel to move quickly towards a just and viable “two state resolution” as envisaged by international and Canadian policy for years and supporting civil society efforts in this regard. Irt is very concerning that independent Canadian policy on Israel Palestine has been made conditional on a vague Mou which this Govt unwisely signed in its rush to demonstrate absolute unconditional support for Israel.. It is time for Canada to get back to an independent and balanced and effective policy on ME.

  3. I try not to buy stolen goods or even goods that seem very likely to have been stolen. Can Harper argue with that?

  4. Some of us already boycott goods produced in the West Bank settlements. Not
    that it will make much difference to the economy but might call attention to the injustices of the Israeli position that would not be tolerated here.
    As with so many issues the Harper government acts out of ignorance and exercises what amounts to an abuse of power.

    1. Omar Barghouti of the BDS national committee argues that the settlements are a product of Israeli policy. “The settlements are a crime, but the criminal is Israel”, he told me. “Don’t just boycott the crime, boycott the criminal.”

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