Demonstrating a commitment to consistency, the Harper government recently suggested that it boycotting Israel is a hate crime, and that the RCMP should take a “zero tolerance” approach to groups advocating for any such boycott. Predictably, libertarians and regular people went berserk. Doesn’t the Charter protect the right to refuse to buy something? What’s this all about?
The Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement started in 2005 and urges boycott, divestment, and sanctions as means to combat Israeli “occupation and colonization of Arab lands occupied in June 1967,” to “dismantle the Wall,” to recognize “the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality,” and to respect, protect, and promote the “rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.” Although there have been reports of violence at some BDS protests, it is clear that the movement is, in theory, non-violent. Obviously, then, it should be banned in Canada.
Why? Last January, former Cabinet Minister and long time Billy Mays impersonator John Baird signed a memorandum of understanding that labeled the BDS movement as “the new face of anti-Semitism.” The CBC reports that Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney then associated boycotting Israel with anti-Semitic hate speech and violence like the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. The message was equal parts clear and illogical: if anti-Semitic terrorists boycott Israel, all those who boycott Israel must be anti-Semitic, and may be terrorists.
Sure, like every movement to ban something or free someone, a few bad apples are going to join in for the wrong reasons. Those people might vote Liberal just to spite Tom Mulcair for having a beard. They might vote Green in Quebec just to annoy strategic voters. They might vote Conservative because they don’t like poor people. The list goes on. So who are the bad apples causing BDS-related trouble in Canada? The United Church, the Canadian Quakers, and several university organizations headline the list of Canadian groups who endorse, in whole or in part, principles of BDS. Dangerous anti-Semites, no doubt.
The list of maniacs grows if you include international individuals and groups. Stephen Hawking, by many accounts the smartest person alive, joined the BDS movement in 2013. Several South African businesses joined as well- and those guys know apartheid. Does this mean that BDS is objectively right? No, not at all, but it does show that not everyone who supports it displays vitriolic, violent contempt for Jewish people.
Still, the federal government may press for persecution of BDS supporters on the grounds that they violate Canada’s updated hate laws, which now protect against hatred based on “national origin.” Surely, then, Canadians who advocate for full or partial boycotts of Iran, the DPRK, Syria, or Russia should face similar punishment. Uh-oh, that would mean we’d have to charge the Government of Canada with a hate crime. So yes, the idea that boycott should be illegal is utter nonsense.
Further, in case you’re wondering, it violates the Charter to remove a person’s right to peacefully protest in a respectful manner. Unfortunately, that probably won’t stop Harper and Co. from forging ahead and spending public money on court battles against boycotters who challenge charges on the grounds of Charter violation. Harper’s government has always been willing to spend public money fighting the Canadian Constitution, so there is little reason to think that will change for this case. Canadians who don’t want to see another court battle (even one they will win) should take notes. If you want to protest something this government supports, don’t. If you want to speak out against a government position, don’t. And if you want to eat at Arby’s, that’s a self-hate crime…you won’t go to jail, but it’s still unadvisable. Welcome to our blissfully free, liberal-democratic society.