Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre attempted to distance his administration from anti-Israel and what Jewish groups have described as anti-Semitic content at the World Social Forum (WSF), but fell short of condemning the international event as a whole.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), B’nai Brith Canada and the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center had appealed to Coderre to dissociate the city from the six-day event, which concludes Aug. 14.
The city continued to be listed as a “partner” on the WSF website as of Aug. 11, in recognition of the $30,000 grant it contributed.
Speaking at the city’s Aug. 10 executive committee meeting, Coderre said, “Associating with this event does not mean that we confirm everything said there. Like the government of Canada, we are against BDS [the boycott, sanctions and divestment campaign against Israel].
“We must be proud to have a gathering of progressive forces and we cannot be in agreement with everything that is said. Things that are condemnable are going to be condemned,” he said, underlining the stand he has taken against anti-Semitism and mentioning that he and Toronto Mayor John Tory are leading a mission to Israel and the West Bank in November.
Coderre noted that some 1,400 activities are scheduled throughout the WSF and “no one can speak in the name of” all those participating.
The WSF website lists more than 9,500 registrants from around the world and there are events open to the public. Most activities are “self-managed” by the more than 1,200 “civil society “groups from 118 countries said to be represented.
Montreal, as well as the Quebec government, was apparently eager to host the WSF here, because organizers promised it would attract 50,000 participants. This is the 12th edition of the WSF since 2001 and the first held in a major industrial country. The choice of Montreal was made after a series of student protests in 2012 that became known as the “Maple Spring.”
The provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs gave a $100,000 grant under a program to promote Montreal’s image internationally. The government is now coming under fire from on of the opposition parties, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), to withdraw that money, because it says the anti-Israel positions being given a platform at the conference are incompatible with Quebec policy on BDS.
Several sessions scheduled are concerned with BDS or alleged violations of Palestinians’ rights by Israel. They include two of the 22 “grandes conferences,” described as addressing issues central to the WSF’s social justice objectives.
Arab-Israeli Knesset member Bassel Ghattas was scheduled to speak at an Aug. 11 conference titled “Palestinians Under Apartheid, Occupation and Siege,” while BDS movement co-founder Omar Barghouti, who lives in Israel, addressed the BDS session via Skype on Aug. 12. He said he could not obtain a visa.
Coderre’s statement, which was applauded by CIJA, follows efforts by the federal government to downplay its association with the WSF. At its request, the government of Canada logo, indicating it was a “partner,” was removed from the WSF website on Aug. 5.
The extent of federal involvement remains unclear. Montreal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather (Mount Royal) said he could find no evidence of government money going to the WSF, only support from the Public Service Commission of Canada, an independent agency.
WSF co-coordinator Carminda Mac Lorin confirmed the conference received subsidies for seven summer interns working on the event’s planning. The government of Canada logo remains in the WSF’s printed program book.
Housefather and Toronto Liberal MP Michael Levitt (York Centre) denounced the promotion of BDS at the WSF on the eve of its opening, as well as “anti-Semitic” images that were on its website.
Specifically, they were referring to a cartoon depicting a stereotypical Jewish caricature regurgitating an Uncle Sam who, in turn, coughed up an apparent Islamic terrorist, which offended Jewish groups and was pulled before the WSF began.
The cartoon was used to publicized sessions on “Terrorism, Wahhabism, Zionism” to be given by Seyyed Ali Mousavi, an Iranian citizen, which was cancelled. On Aug. 11, it was reported that Ali Mousavi was among at least 200 prospective WSF participants refused visitor visas to Canada.
Despite Housefather’s explanation, the Conservative opposition continued to take his government to task for its “sponsorship of [an] anti-Semitic conference.”
“We are deeply concerned by this Liberal government’s decision to waste Canadians’ hard-earned tax dollars in a conference that promotes hate speech and intolerance,” foreign affairs critic Peter Kent stated Aug. 9. He wants an investigation into who authorized the funding.
Among the speakers who cancelled their WSF appearance at a late stage was unsuccessful U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
D’Arcy McGee Liberal MNA David Birnbaum stated on Aug. 10 that his government does not support BDS. The $100,000 grant from the Fonds d’initiative et de rayonnement de la métropole – the provincial fund to promote Montreal – was extended before the WSF’s 2016 agenda was known, he said.
“While our government has welcomed and supported the overall event, as have the other levels of government, universities, union and community organizations, that is not predicated on the specific program of events, which was not shared in advance of the sessions.”
Birnbaum deplored the BDS movement as a “morally and intellectually bankrupt attack on a single, democratic nation. It is a clear impediment to peace in the Middle East, and our government in no way supports it.”
At a press conference Aug. 10, CAQ MNA Nathalie Roy said that it is “absurd and unacceptable to commit public funds during this period of budgetary constraints to an event that is bringing together organizations which have goals and histories that are questionable.” She pointed out that one of the participating Canadian groups, Palestine House, had its federal funding cut in 2012 owing to the Harper government’s assertion that it supports extremism.
The official opposition Parti Québécois has not criticized the provincial support, and some of its MNAs are reportedly participating in the WSF, including leadership hopeful Véronique Hivon.
Several groups that receive public funding remain “partners” of the WSF, including McGill University and the Université du Québec à Montréal, where many activities were being held.