The battle over Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) has reached ‘the 905’ as the Town of Markham, a suburb just north of Toronto, has decided to take its own swing. Councillor Howard Shore introduced a motion calling on the Town of Markham to ban IAW and to pressure York University to do the same. The motion was first debated in Mar. 2011 and will be brought to council again on Apr. 11, 2011.
The motion itself is quite puzzling because no IAW events take place in Markham; IAW is campus-based and Markham has no universities. This begs the question of why the Town of Markham is proposing to ban an event that does not take place within its jurisdiction. The answer to this question, I believe, sheds light not only on the situation in Markham, but also provides important context to the attacks on IAW and pro-Palestine activism across Canada.
Playing to their base?
The most obvious answer to the question of why Markham is the new flashpoint for debates about IAW is that it is a conservative town, with a large and vocal pro-Israel community. It is no coincidence that this motion would come forward in a town that has elected conservative, pro-Israel representatives at both the provincial and federal level.
The riding of Thornhill is located in Markham; their MPP Peter Shurman put forward the non-binding resolution to condemn IAW in the Ontario Legislature in 2010. Although it is unusual for an MPP to address a city council, Shurman made an appearance at the Markham council session to speak in favour of this latest motion.
Thornhill MP Peter Kent has an equally pro-Israel track record on the federal level. During Israel’s brutal military assault on Gaza, Kent, as Junior Minister for Foreign Affairs, blamed the war entirely on Hamas. As Israel killed over 1,400 people in Gaza, Kent’s support never wavered. In Feb. 2010, Kent gave one of the most pro-Israel statements in Canadian history when he declared that “an attack on Israel is an attack on Canada.”
Both Kent and Shurman enjoy popular support in their ridings, in large part due to their fierce campaigning on behalf of the State of Israel. It is very likely that Howard Shore, the councillor behind this motion, is hoping to gain popularity among pro-Israel voters by taking up the fight against IAW.
The business of apartheid
While there is a compelling case to argue that this motion is simply a manoeuvre to pander to the pro-Israel base in Markham, there are certainly other factors at play. One central issue is economic ties between the Town of Markham and Israel.
Shore has boasted of the plans for Markham to send a trade delegation to Israel in order to intensify their economic cooperation. This delegation is in partnership with York University, which is not surprisingly targeted by Shore’s motion. It is no coincidence that as Markham is set to increase its trade relations with Israel, they are moving to silence any criticism of their important business partner.
This particular tactic is not new or unique to Markham. In 2010, shortly after the condemnation of IAW, Premier Dalton McGuinty went on a highly-publicized trade mission to Israel. In Manitoba, a province with strong economic ties to Israel, attempts have also been made to condemn IAW provincially. The Town of Markham’s motion is simply the first attempt at the municipal level. Attacking Palestine solidarity activism has now become a key element of any efforts to strengthen trade with Israel – crush dissent so that you can carry out business as usual.
Veolia and the global BDS campaign
In 2005, York Region, which includes the Town of Markham, privatized its transit by contracting services out to Veolia Transport. All bus routes in Markham are now run by Veolia under the name VIVA.
Veolia is a French multinational corporation that is one of the main targets of the global movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli companies and companies that profit from Israeli apartheid. Veolia is part of a consortium that is helping to build and operate the Jerusalem Light Rail system, which links illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank with Israel. The rail line is explicitly designed to further entrench the annexation of these illegal settlements by creating another layer of permanent infrastructure. Veolia also operates other settlement infrastructure projects. For instance, it runs bus services for Israeli settlers on Israeli-only roads throughout the West Bank. These roads have decimated Palestinian towns and villages by stealing their land for construction. Since they are Israeli-only, these roads cut villages off from each other and force Palestinians onto dangerous, often unpaved back-roads. Through its subsidiary TMM, Veolia also collects refuse from illegal settlements and buries it at the illegal Tovlan landfill site in the occupied Jordan Valley.
The Town of Markham’s anti-IAW motion was put forward when Veolia and York Region were making headlines because transit workers with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 113 were in a strike position against Veolia. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Town of Markham would move to condemn IAW and the BDS movement, at a time when their links with one of the main BDS targets in the world was front page news.
The privatization of public services such as transit should always be met with outrage. When this privatization involves a company that is violating international law by building and maintaining illegal settlement infrastructure, that outcry should be amplified. Condemning BDS as anti-Semitic is a move to curtail criticism of Markham’s attacks on the public sector and its support for Israeli apartheid.
As the attacks on pro-Palestinian activism and IAW increase, activists are debating an appropriate response. We have spent a lot of time and energy fighting back on the issue of free speech and academic freedom. This has been very successful in some instances: Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) won the right to march in Pride last year, George Galloway won the right to speak in Canada, and IAW has continued to grow across the country in spite of all of these attacks. Even Bernie Farber, the CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, now admits that banning IAW is an attack on free speech that is unpalatable to Canadians. He pushed to amend Shore’s motion from a banning of IAW to a condemnation.
When these attacks happen, people who may not be informed about Palestine can plainly see the injustice of the censorship and they become sympathetic with those being singled out. It is our job as activists to take those people who are moved by the gross violation of civil liberties beyond the question of censorship to the question of Palestine. To do so, we need to link the repression we face to issues of Canadian complicity in Israeli apartheid.
So when we talk about repression, we need to constantly emphasize that censorship is a power relationship that is never neutral. Repression is about maintaining the status quo and in Canada that status quo is uncritical support of Israel and billions of dollars in free trade between the two countries. In Markham, that status quo is trade missions and multi-million dollar contracts with Veolia. The Markham motion proves that censorship is always political and just as consistently a move by the powerful. Our fight must therefore focus not on issues of repression and lack of free speech, but on the power structures that facilitate and thrive on that repression.
Jenny Peto is an activist with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. She holds an MA in Sociology and Equity Studies from the University of Toronto.