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The Ottawa Protocol: Direct Threat to Campus Free Speech, Research, Action

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The Ottawa Protocol: Direct Threat to Campus Free Speech, Research, Action

Canadian Foreign Policy

By Bahtman and Terry Greenberg

On Nov. 8-9, 2010, the Inter-parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (ICCA), met in Ottawa and released the Ottawa Protocol, which builds on the foundations of its founding London Declaration in February 2009. The ICCA is an ad-hoc organization of parliamentarians around the world who claim to unite on the basis of combating the “New Anti-Semitism” which Canadian MP and founding member Irwin Cotler explains speaks to “the discrimination against the right of the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the family of nations - the denial of, and assault upon, the Jewish people's right even to live - with Israel as the 'collective Jew among the nations'.”

Canada played a leading role in the ICCA’s establishment and the Canadian delegation was led by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenny as well as International Steering Committee Chair Irwin Cotler.  The ICCA’s London Declaration and Ottawa Protocol are its major products thus far.  Critics of the ICCA claim that the organization is more concerned about blocking criticism of the state of Israel rather than genuinely focusing on real anti-semitism and racism.

The London Declaration and its Ottawa Protocol seek to establish a standard for the censoring of free speech and critical thought on Middle-Eastern politics and directly target university campuses. The London Declaration Article 25 resolves that “education authorities should … protect students and staff from illegal antisemitic discourse … including calls for boycotts.”

Although the Ottawa Protocol stipulates that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, it also adds that, “singling Israel out for selective condemnation and opprobrium – let alone denying its right to exist or seeking its destruction – is discriminatory and hateful.” According to Irwin Cotler, the Canadian representative on the ICCA steering committee, ideological anti-Semitism is associated with the conflation of Zionism with racism. Cotler points to the UN Human Rights Council as evidence of institutionalized ideological anti-semitism as this body “singled out” Israel for human rights abuses.  Cotler, a professor of law, describes this process of using sophisticated legal channels to single out Israel for criticism “lawfare”.

The logic of the Ottawa Protocol frames those who focus on Israeli state policy as racist. It includes a clause that states criticism of Israel is acceptable, but then follows that singling out Israel for criticism is hateful.  This contradictory messaging sets precedent for the erosion of free speech in the media and especially on university campuses.

The onus of responsibility ought to be on Israel for de-legitimizing itself through its sovereign actions, but the logic of the Ottawa Protocol places the burden on students, activists, journalists, and academics that speak about human rights abuses. The Ottawa Protocol has arisen particularly within the context of the growing BDS campaign and global revulsion for the disproportionate use of violence by the militarily powerful Israeli state.   In its 2008/2009 assault on Gaza, controlling of aid resources allowed into Gaza, and the crushing of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla leading to the death of 9 unarmed activists, Israel has certainly singled itself out within the international community as human rights abusers. (But to avoid singling out Israel, it should be noted that Iran commits human rights abuses too....)

Following the logic of the Ottawa Protocol, particular highlights to these abuses may in and of itself be considered “hateful” or “anti-Semitic”.  In contrast, Kevin Neish – a survivor of the Gaza Flotilla raid – clarifies, “When I oppose Zionism and I speak against Israeli government policy, I am not being anti-Semitic. I am being anti-racist. I am being anti-oppression. I’m being anti-bully.”

It is worth noting that within Israel, peace-activists routinely denounce their government’s human rights abuses. Ought these Semitic activists also be charged with Anti-Semitism? French activists, as Michael Keffer identifies, are already before the courts for distributing BDS leaflets.

At the Ottawa Conference, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff, and over a dozen Members of Parliament gave blessings to the work of the ICCA. “We should seek to end the parade of one-sided anti-Israel attacks at the UN.” Ignatieff told the ICCA, a few hours after Harper clarified that “moral ambivalence” is unacceptable. He dismissed a UN Human Rights Council report criticising Israel last month and told the ICCA in Ottawa that so long as Israel is “singled out for condemnation, I believe we are morally obligated to take a stand.”

Condemning the Israeli bombardment of civilians is not expressing hatred of Jews. Defending the rights of Palestinians is not hateful.  Arguing that Israel practices a form of ongoing colonialism based on empirically observable fact is not racist.A consistently under-appreciated component of those parliamentarians who support Israel no matter what the issue, is the fact that many of the most poignant indictments of Israeli state policies comes from Israeli citizens and Jewish people who take a stand in opposition to conflation of the state of Israel to Judaism.

Anti-Semitism and all forms of racism is a stain on human existence that is not alien to Canada. Ottawa has employed anti-Chinese head taxes, banned publications in “communist” languages,refused Jewish refugees sanctuary from the genocidal Nazi regime, and continues to ignore the human rights demands of the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.   At such a time of rampant racism, one must turn a critical eye to the work of the ICCA and the Canadian parliamentarians who unite to put the foreign policy agenda of a foreign state above Canadians’ right to freedom of speech, research, and freedom to stand opposed to all forms of racism, including when necessary,  the singling out of the state of Israel (or Sudan, or Iran, or Canada...) to hold it to account for its crimes.  As Joanne Naiman notes, “What we have learned through history is that if we’re not vigilant, those with power will take away our rights.” The Canadian parliamentarians who are participating in this direct threat to campus freedom of speech must be exposed, repudiated, and most importantly, stopped.  

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