Last night, I went to the University of Toronto’s George Ignatieff Theatre, plunked down my $5, and, along with about 130 other interested observers, walked into a 2-hour panel discussion called “Exposing Israeli Apartheid and the Violation of Palestinian Rights: A public forum on the second anniversary of the Gaza massacre.”
Speakers included Khaled Mouammar (head of the defunded and marginalized Canadian Arab Federation); gay activist Tim McCaskell; and Jenny Peto, who, by this point, really needs no introduction. The Toronto Star‘s Antonia Zerbisias was originally on the speaker’s list, but withdrew for mysterious reasons, and was replaced by an earnest U of T undergrad named Vivien Douglas from “Students Against Israeli Apartheid” (not to be confused with McCaskell’s group, “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid”; or Peto’s “Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid”).
As someone who’s familiar with both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate, I didn’t expect to hear any new arguments. But it is always interesting to see activists in their native habitat, as it were — preaching to their own.
Mouammar started off the proceedings with a speech about the evils of Canada, not Israel — dwelling at great length about all the ways that his CAF had been mistreated by Stephen Harper’s government.
Then came McCaskell, who focused on the controversy surrounding the 2010 Pride march. A lot of what he said was new to me, because he resisted the opportunity to simply bash Zionists, and spoke more broadly to the dysfunctionality of the Pride organizers, whom he described as “weak, politically immature, incompetent opportunists.” He also spoke at some length — though often cryptically — about tensions between Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and an allied faction known as “The Pride Coalition for Free Speech,” which marched separately in the parade. (McCaskell complained that the “big yellow signs” of the Free Speech contingent somewhat overshadowed QAIA.)
In general, McCaskell comes across as articulate and humane — even if his politics are quite radical. His motivations, I believe, mirror those of a lot of older anti-Israel activists trying to recreate the sense of tilting against evil windmills that lent energy and meaning to their younger years. His experience as an anti-South-African-Apartheid campaigner, in particular, seems to have seeped deeply into his political DNA. (In fact, he lapsed into mini-speeches about South Africa at several points during the eventing). The campaign against Israel allows him to recycle the same slogans and sense of moral righteousness.
Vivien Douglas then took the floor. Like a lot of young campus activists, she speaks in the code phrases with which she’s been programmed — referring casually to the Gaza War as a “slaughter” and “massacre.” She also attacked the University of Toronto for cozying up to Israel and for making life difficult for Israel Apartheid Week activists. She reached her state of highest dudgeon when she recited how U of T president David Naylor had travelled to the hated Zionist state where he’s reached out a hand of friendship to Israeli universities. Several cheeky Israel supporters who’d snuck into the back of the room clapped wildly at this — making it clear that they were applauding Naylor, not Douglas. This earned them a “warning” from the event moderator, who told us that anyone who received three warnings would be asked to leave.
Then came Jennifer Peto. Give the woman credit: She is a tough nut who has not at all been intimidated by criticism from this newspaper, from the Ontario legislature, or even from her own brother (whom she referred to, by the way, as a “pro-Israel racist fanatic”). She said a few ludicrous things (such as that “[Palestinian] violence is a result of apartheid — when Apartheid ends, the violence ends,” which completely ignores the half-century of Arab violence against Jews that preceded the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza). But overall, like McCaskell, she came across as a highly intelligent (if misguided) activist who could effectively communicate her dogma, and think on her feet, in any debate about the Middle East.
Perhaps more interesting than the speakers themselves was the crowd — which was disproportionately female, almost entirely white, and (by my casual observation of whose arm was wrapped around whom) heavily populated by lesbians.
This was not entirely surprising to me: Anti-Israeli activism has attained a sort of cult following among Toronto gay activists, who otherwise would be twiddling their activists thumbs in a country where gay marriage is legal and uncontroversial. But it is an interesting phenomenon nonetheless: anti-Israel types like to make a very big deal of the broad “community” and “coalition” they are forming. McCaskell, in particular, spoke (naively, I thought) about how queer anti-Israeli activism was allowing gays to forge links with Arabs and Muslims (He can prove this point to my satisfaction by holding a Gay Anti-Israel rally in any Arab or Muslim country of his choosing). Yet when it came time to hold an anti-Israel meeting in downtown Toronto last night, just about the only people who came out were seven or eight dozen campus rainbow-flag types.
In fact, self-delusion is a pronounced strain among radical anti-Israel types more generally. Every speaker last night spoke of the anti-Israel BDS movement — “boycott, divestment and sanctions” — as a sort of tidal wave that was gaining strength every day, and which would ultimately destroy Zionist apartheid. Vivien Douglas in particular spoke of the “huge progressions and successes” of the movement — then added that she did “not have enough time to list them.”
Actually, she did have time — because the movement has been a complete failure. Not a single major Canadian institution of any type has boycotted Israel. In fact, BDS supporters can’t even successfully sanction a single Israeli store or product because (as happened in Toronto last year in response to an attempted Israeli wine boycott), pro-Israel types flood in and buy up the product in question. The Israeli economy is booming compared to those of other nations, and every mainstream Canadian politician has declared himself Israel’s friend.
Only in the somewhat pathetic shadow world of BDS activism is the opposite true. That’s what makes these meetings kind of sad, more than anger-inducing.
One more thing to add: The most bizarre part of last night’s meeting was when the moderator announced that in the Q&A session, she would be enforcing an “equity policy” in her selection of who was permitted to ask questions — with preference given to women, visible minorities and gays (which was kind of ironic given the composition of the room). Sure enough, when the Q&A began, a white man aged about 60 was first to the microphone. But the moderator made a great show of instead picking a black man sitting in one of the back rows and asked him to come to the mic. So we all waited while this affirmative action pick ambled over to the microphone to toss Peto a softball “question” about how she had “inspired” other academics.
Then a woman said she wanted to ask a question, and the mortifying process was repeated. Finally, the man at the mic — who had been patient thus far — shouted out “Am I invisible?” Even some members of the crowd declared “Let him speak!” and the moderator looked unsure of what to do — before (naturally!) threatening the man with expulsion from the room for his impudence. (Eventually, he was allowed to ask his question.)
The fact that this man had to wait there at the mic, merely because of the colour of the skin, while others got to speak before him — why it reminded me of that thing they once had in South Africa … Apar… Aparth …
What’s that word I’m looking for?