Justin Trudeau Conflating BDS With Anti-Semitism Is Dangerous

On November 7, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a well overdue apology on behalf of all Canadians for the rejection of the MS St. Louis in 1939. Canada’s refusal to allow more than 900 refugees, mostly German Jews fleeing Nazism, to disembark at Halifax was only one part of a systematic government effort to keep refugees out of Canada. Of the 907 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis, 254 would later be murdered in the Holocaust.

As Trudeau rightly pointed out, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are still rife, and even growing. However, for many Canadian academics watching the apology, it came as a disappointment when Trudeau included the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), active on university and college campuses, among his examples of anti-Semitism today.

BDS is a non-violent international movement that calls on individuals and governments to put economic pressure on Israel to comply with international law regarding the autonomy, rights and welfare of Palestinians living under occupation.

This movement fights Israel’s policies, not the identity of its inhabitants, and no state’s actions are beyond criticism. By conflating peaceful protest with hate crimes, Trudeau sends a dangerous message, and threatens to weaken Canadian campuses as democratic spaces for dialogue as well as dissent.

Many university and college faculty members across the country were deeply disturbed by this part of Trudeau’s speech. We quickly circulated an open letter expressing our dismay, which has collected 236 signatures in just four days. These include signatories in Quebec, Ontario, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, as well as some Canadian scholars currently living abroad.

This letter appears below. As Canadian scholars, we urge Trudeau to retract his wrong-spirited comments that demonize the work students, community members and activists have done to bring about a just peace in Israel-Palestine.

"Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

This letter concerns Canada’s recent apology for turning away the MS St. Louis in 1939. First, thank you for acknowledging Canada’s complicity in the murder of hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. On the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, and after the recent terrorist attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, it is more important than ever to pay close heed to Canada’s own history of bigotry and to recommit to preventing such tragedies from ever happening again.

For this reason, we must register our deep disappointment with your apology’s inclusion of condemnation for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) and your equation of BDS with the worst kind of hate crimes. This troubling conflation does nothing to stop actual anti-Semitism, but instead only targets and misrepresents peaceful advocacy for Palestinian human rights. By equating the BDS movement with anti-Semitism, you help to perpetuate a chilling, anti-democratic climate on campuses, one in which dissenting voices and peaceful protest are not welcome.

We also echo the sentiment of Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV), who note that « [t]his apology comes within a week of an announcement by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) of plans to substantially increase deportations of migrants by 25-35%. »

The turning away of the MS St. Louis was a crime and a tragedy, one that was committed – let’s be frank – by white settler Canadians. It is shameful to try to displace the heavy burden of accounting for white Canada’s complicity in the Holocaust onto the peaceful, grassroots work of students, faculty, and community members active in the BDS movement today. Moreover, as IJV notes, even as the Liberal government apologizes for the rejection of the MS St. Louis in one breath, with the next it promises to increase that very practice, sending yet more people to torture and death.

For these reasons, your apology rings hollow. What might have been a meaningful step on the way to real accountability and human rights protection is instead a missed opportunity and major disappointment.

Sincerely,

236 Canadian Academics"

Here is the full list of signatories.

Sarah Ghabrial is an Assistant Professor of History at Concordia University in Montreal. She was previously a Postdoctoral Fellow in History at Columbia University in New York.

Elena Razlogova is an Associate Professor of History at Concordia University in Montreal. She is the author of The Listener’s Voice : Early Radio and the American Public (2011).

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