Ontario has become the first province to reject the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
After an hour of spirited discussion Dec. 1, the provincial legislature passed Motion 36 rejecting “the differential treatment of Israel, including the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.”
Introduced by Thornhill Conservative MPP Gila Martow, the motion passed by a vote of 49 to five, with almost half of the 107 members of the legislature absent, including Premier Kathleen Wynne, who was in Asia on a trade mission. Only the NDP members in the house voted against the resolution.
It came six months after the Ontario legislature voted down a proposed private member’s bill that would have called on the province to stop doing business with companies that support BDS. That measure, which was a proposed law rather than the more symbolic motion that passed Dec. 1, was defeated by a vote of 39 to 18.
Drafted by Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies president Avi Benlolo, the proposed bill last spring was criticized as too ambitious and vulnerable to court challenges.
Wynne, who was leading a trade mission to Israel at the time, said, “I entirely oppose the BDS movement,” but added that freedom of speech is “something that all Canadians value and we must vigorously defend.”
In full, the latest motion, titled “Standing Firm Against Intolerance,” implores the legislature to stand “firmly against any position or movement that promotes or encourages any form of hatred, hostility, prejudice, racism and intolerance in any way; recognizes the longstanding, vibrant and mutually beneficial political, economic and cultural ties between Ontario and Israel, built on a foundation of shared liberal democratic values; endorses the Ottawa Protocol on Combating Anti-Semitism; and rejects the differential treatment of Israel, including the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.”
In an emotionally charged address to the legislature, Martow recalled how as a university student, she once found a swastika daubed on her dormitory door.
She sloughed it off and “put a positive spin on it,” she said. She thought it was “just a way to get under my skin. I forgot about it.” But she recalled the incident as a way of reminding MPPs of the anti-Semitism faced by university and college students because of BDS.
“Students incur hostility and see demonstrations that demonize the Jewish community and Israel,” she said, her voice choking. “That affects their psychological well-being and makes it difficult for them to continue their studies. We would not be here supporting the Ku Klux Klan on our campuses, so why are we allowing [the] BDS movement and other anti-Jewish and anti-Israel organizations to have demonstrations and use our campuses, which are taxpayer-funded?”
Martow said the issue is not about freedom of speech.
“The boycott movement is actually not just boycotting Israel. It’s boycotting voices. It’s telling people, ‘You cannot support Israel.’ It’s telling people, ‘You cannot do advocacy work on campuses.’”
Martow noted, to cheers, that last February, the House of Commons endorsed a motion condemning “any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad.” It passed by a vote of 229 to 51.
She said the U.S. Congress has also passed a similar resolution, as have 16 U.S. states. “BDS is failing. It will continue to fail. It has failed,” she said. “BDS is the negative way of doing things.”
Also speaking briefly in support of the motion were Liberal MPPs Glen Murray and Michael Coteau, Tory MPP Lisa MacLeod, and Liberal Mike Colle, one of the co-sponsors of the failed BDS bill last spring, who called BDS “an insidious attack on Jewish people.”
Tory MPP Julia Munro said boycotting Israel is “thinly-veiled anti-Semitism. It is not pro-Palestinian. It is simply anti-Israel.” She said only economic co-operation can lead to peace.
In his maiden speech to the legislature, Sam Oosterhoff, the 19-year-old who replaced former Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak as the MPP for Niagara West-Glanbrook, recalled a Yiddish proverb: “The world rests on the tip of the tongue.”
The proverb “reminds us that words matter,” Oosterhoff said. The BDS movement “is poison to those engaged in it and poison to the well-being of the Palestinian people and our ally, the State of Israel.
“BDS is vindictive, short-sighted and fails to improve the lives of either Palestinians or Israelis,” Oosterhoff went on. It is “steeped in anti-Semitic discrimination” and has created a “toxic” environment on university campuses.
It has also led to increasing attacks on Jews, said Oosterhoff, citing audits by B’nai Brith Canada and Toronto police.
Ontario does not support the BDS movement “or any other positions or movements that attempt to divide our society,” said Liberal Steven Del Duca, the minister of transportation. “Rejecting the boycott of Israel is in keeping with Ontario and Canadian tradition.
“Our government does not support this boycott movement because we believe that only open, constructive dialogue, negotiation and co-operation will lead to the much-desired just peace in the Middle East,” Del Duca stated. “The problem with the one-sided nature of the BDS movement stems from the fact that it targets and singles out the Jewish community as a collective.”
The government is aware “that some proponents of this movement include individuals who espouse anti-Semitic, racist and hate-filled views,” Del Duca said, and it opposes those “who spread hatred and fear under the guise of free speech.
The only MPP who voiced opposition to the motion was Jagmeet Singh of the NDP. He called for the free expression of dissent. “We should allow that discourse to happen in a free and democratic society.” He also said hate speech is “unacceptable” and anti-Semitism “must be denounced.”
However, “we cannot support a motion that in effect bans the right to dissent. That is one of the most fundamental rights in any society The right to criticize… is something we must protect. We can’t conflate anti-Semitism with a movement that seeks to influence a government to change its course of action.”
At a Queen’s Park press conference prior to the vote, Martow and Del Duca joined representatives of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs to urge Ontario to pass the motion, describing the BDS movement as harmful to Israel and anti-Semitic.
Sara Lefton, CIJA’s Toronto vice-president, said more than 12,000 Ontarians signed an online petition urging passage of the resolution.
CIJA Toronto co-chair Berl Nadler said the BDS movement “rejects and negates the very idea of a Jewish state.” Its founders “have openly declared that their goal isn’t a peaceful resolution of the conflict, but rather the total destruction of Israel.”
B’nai Brith Canada praised the motion’s passage in a statement. ““This is a tremendous victory in the fight against BDS,” said CEO Michael Mostyn.
Groups opposing the Ontario resolution included the Canadian Arab Federation, Independent Jewish Voices Canada, the Canadian Arab Lawyers Association, and Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, all of which spoke out against the silencing of what they termed a peaceful form of protest.