Anti-Palestinian racism permeates Canadian institutions, critics say

Feb 14, 2024

Anti-Palestinian racism permeates Canadian institutions, critics say

A recent report detailed over 500 instances of anti-Palestinian racism in 2022 from nonprofit organizations, the media, and governments, but notes the scope of the problem is likely much wider when individual accounts are taken into consideration
Screenshot from CTV News report about Selina Robinson’s “controversial” remarks about Palestine.

Referring to pre-1948 Palestine as a “crappy piece of land with nothing on it” — as former BC NDP Minister of Postsecondary Education Selina Robinson recently did — is not just a sign of ignorance but an expression of the anti-Palestinian racism (APR) that critics say runs deep within our institutions and across political party lines. 

Robinson made the comments at an online panel discussion with Jewish politicians hosted by B'nai Brith Canada at the end of January. Following widespread public backlash and chastising comments from BC Premier David Eby, she stepped down on Feb. 5.

“[Then]-Minister Robinson’s words and actions reflect an explicitly colonial, anti-Indigenous, and anti-Palestinian worldview, which erases Palestinians to justify their dispossession,” Thomas Woodley, president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), said in a statement before Robinson stepped down. 

While anti-Palestinian racism is nothing new, the term was only officially codified in 2022 by the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association (ACLA). They define anti-Palestinian racism, in part,  as “a form of anti-Arab racism that silences, excludes, erases, stereotypes, defames or dehumanizes Palestinians or their narratives.” 

Identifying it

Last December, CJPME released a report that found over 500 instances of anti-Palestinian racism in statements by nonprofit organizations, media and governments in 2022.

“Non-profit organizations — several of them self-defined as pro-Israel — were the worst offenders, producing two-thirds (67 percent) of the recorded examples of APR,” the report states. “Media organizations were responsible for most of the remainder (33 percent), with statements from other miscellaneous purveyors of APR comprising the rest.”

Source: Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East

Some of the most common examples of anti-Palestinian racism include: silencing, excluding, or defaming Palestinians as antisemitic, terrorists, or terrorist sympathizers, as well as the erasure of Palestinians and their history “through the misrepresentation of geography and population numbers.”

The report’s focus on online comments from nonprofit organizations and government institutions means the study is “necessarily limited in scope,” says Woodley, because it does not capture the experiences of anti-Palestinian racism that many Palestinians in Canada face in their daily lives. As a result, “the problem of APR is likely much more serious than indicated” in the report.

A distinct form of racism

While anti-Palestinian racism is a “form of anti-Arab racism” and may intersect with forms of Islamophobia, they are all “distinct conceptual categories,” the ACLA report states. Though these might intersect for someone who is a Muslim Palestinian, for example, they may not apply to a non-Muslim person supporting Palestinians who may nevertheless be subjected to anti-Palestinian racism.

“Using Islamophobia as a proxy for anti-Palestinian racism is unwise and unhelpful,” the CJPME report notes, because it “assumes that the only discrimination faced by Palestinians is Islamophobia,” and because it wrongly pits Muslims against Jews rather than focusing on the “Palestinian struggle against oppression and colonialism.” 

“Both of these shortcomings misrepresent or ignore the destructive impacts of anti-Palestinian racism, and contribute to the broader suppression of Palestinian identity and narratives.”

That distinction is reflected in the B.C. Muslim Association’s letter on Feb. 3 urging Robinson to “publicly [recognize] that she has engaged in a pattern of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism,” (emphasis added).

Across Party lines

Dyala Hamzah is an associate professor of Arab history at the Université de Montréal. She says that while there’s “no doubt” Robinson’s words are examples of anti-Palestinian racism, she’s not an outlier. 

“We see something continuous when it comes to Palestine-Israel” policies across the political spectrum, she says. 

For instance, she notes that while the Liberal government’s current plan to evacuate Gazans is limited to only 1000 people who have family in Canada, the plan to help Ukrainians at the height of their war with Russia was open to all Ukrainian nationals.

Source: Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East

“You cannot be a country thriving on a policy of immigration and choose your immigrants,” she says, noting that there is a “sizeable population of Arabs and Palestinians” in Canada affected by that preferentialism. 

“There’s always been a deep-seated racism towards non-white European people in Canada. … It was nurtured in Canadian and Quebec schools since the 19th century, through the 20th century and into the 21st century.”

On Jan. 11, Immigration Minister Marc Miller went on air to try to clarify that the cap was flexible. That 11-minute segment on CBC’s Ottawa Morning Show was laden with at least seven references to “security” and four mentions of “terrorists” and “terrorism.” By contrast, Miller mentioned “humanitarian” once and uttered the word “ceasefire” twice. 

Hamzah is unequivocal in her assessment: “Yes, this is racist.”

‘Extremely dangerous, harmful and controversial’

Hamzah says that, in fact, the situation for Palestinians has worsened under Trudeau's Liberals. 

She points to his renewal of the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA), his continued selling of arms to Israel, his government’s “crushing” support for the Conservative motion to denounce the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement, and the decision to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) “extremely dangerous, harmful and controversial” working definition of antisemitism. Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Alberta have also adopted it.

“This is a pattern that you see from the Harper administration through the Trudeau government. It’s exactly the same policies and politics vis-a-vis Palestine and Israel,” she says. “Nothing has changed.”

CJPME’s report notes that IHRA’s definition of antisemitism is “one of the most significant mechanisms of APR today … [as it] threatens to suppress Palestinian perspectives.”

Source: Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East

“Critics have long warned that IHRA conflates antisemitism with criticism of Israel, and for that reason, it is seen by many as a threat to political expression about Israel, including forms of activism in support of Palestinian rights,” it states. 

“Policies like [IHRA’s definition of antisemitism] which suppress Palestinian perspectives should be understood as a form of state-sponsored APR.”

Hamzah says that’s already happening across university campuses, where professors and staff are choosing to self-censor to avoid becoming targets of the vitriol against Palestinians. 

Resistance is not futile

Muhannad Ayyash is an author and professor of sociology at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. He says he’s seen “all sorts of efforts to silence and attack…anybody that is talking about Palestinians or the Palestinian experience.” 

“People are very concerned,” he says, referring to Palestinian and non-Palestinian colleagues who have expressed fear of speaking out. 

Like Hamzah, Ayyash is one of the few who have chosen not to remain silent — “whatever the consequences.”

But he understands that he is “privileged” to be a tenured professor with the academic freedom to do so. 

Others like grad students, sessional instructors and people on short-term contracts are making “calculations across the board,” he says, on whether it’s worth it to risk their jobs and education.

But “you can be fearless and strategic at the same time,” he adds. “You have to go, ‘Okay, well, if I say this, I will lose my job and won’t be able to say anything for years. So, how do I balance this out?’”

For his part, Ayyash will use his platform to continue supporting “Palestinians and their aspirations for freedom.”

“They can call me whatever name they want. I will not be silenced by their tactics,” he says.

‘Crippling sanctions’ needed

Hamzah agrees, saying the only way she can deal with the relentless attacks is by “constantly denouncing it — by pushing back, pushing back, pushing back.”

But as important as it is to resist anti-Palestinian racism in people’s daily lives, Hamzah says only an end to Israel's policies of apartheid in Palestine will bring about lasting change for Palestinians globally. 

While "relentless mobilization" is important, she says, only "crippling sanctions" against the state of Israel will make that happen.

“What is it going to take for people to get it? What’s worked in South Africa can work in the case of Israel,” she says. “But it needs political will, and it needs an end to complicity, duplicity, fear and self-censorship.”

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