BIAC stands up for Palestine organizing at Vancouver Public Library

The Vancouver Public Library remains an open space for public discourse on Palestine, BDS, occupation and apartheid, despite the efforts of some to silence discussion. On November 2, 2011, BIAC members attended the Vancouver Public Library Board meeting, to respond to letters received by the Library from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and others, demanding that the Library cancel BIAC’s September 18 event, Beyond the Palestinian Statehood Initiative. The Seriously Free Speech Committee and Independent Jewish Voices also presented at the Library Board, as did the BC Civil Liberties Association and the BC Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee.

While an audience before the Library Board had initially been requested by the Jewish Federation in opposition to the library’s hosting of BIAC’s event, the Federation’s representative failed to attend the Board meeting, and it was announced that they would seek to attend a later meeting. However, the five organizations present took clear positions in support of intellectual freedom at the public library, thanking the Library Board for its commitment to intellectual freedom and diverse viewpoints’ and communities’ access to the Library’s space.

The Library responded throughout to such letters by replying with its commitment to intellectual freedom, and that all groups had a right to rent library space. Those who sought to shut down the event (including the Simon Wiesenthal Centre) also tried to appeal to city politicians to silence free expression at the Library.

The presentations from Seriously Free Speech, IJV and BIAC made clear that this incident and attempt to suppress speech at the Vancouver Public Library was far from isolated and part of an ongoing effort to silence organizing and events related to Palestine, referencing the cancellation of a Gaza children’s art show at the Oakland Museum of Children’s Art, attacks on Israeli Apartheid Week on Canadian campuses, and multiple similar incidents.

BIAC’s presentation is below and can be downloaded here, as are all of the presentations from other organizations – Independent Jewish Voices, Seriously Free Speech Committee, BCCLA and BC Libraries Association Intellectual Freedom Committee.

November 2, 2011

Dear Vancouver Public Library Board Members,

The Boycott Israeli Apartheid Campaign was the organizing group that put together the September 18 event, “Beyond the Palestinian Statehood Initiative.” Our teach-in included three speakers and an extensive discussion period, both in break-out circles and in a full-group discussion session. Our three speakers addressed three key topics: the meaning of the Palestinian Authority’s statehood initiative in the United Nations and its implication for the Palestinian movement; Canada’s oppression and dispossession of Native and Indigenous peoples, and its connection to Canadian foreign policy, particularly in regard to Palestine; and the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, an international response to a 2005 call from Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with fundamental human rights demands.

BIAC has been organizing in Vancouver since 2007, and many of its members have been organizing, both on solidarity with Palestine and around a number of other social justice issues, for much longer. During that time, we have organized forums, events, teach-ins, and protests at numerous venues throughout the city, including the Vancouver Public Library and many Vancouver-area community centres and other public spaces. The purpose of the public space and the public square – of which the Vancouver Public Library is very much a part – is to provide a location for public discussion, debate and interplay on the issues of our time, not a location for silence and repression. It is because the Library is a vital space for diverse and important social and political discussions that BIAC chose to host its discussion at this location.

Indeed, those who oppose our event and the views expressed by our speakers were hardly frightened or cowed – multiple supporters of the Israeli government and its policies attended the event and engaged in strident debate both within the discussion groups and in the general discussion, as well as videotaping and photographing our speakers and attendees without asking for or securing permission.  It is quite concerning to note the numerous references made by opponents of freedom of expression and association at the Library to “safety,” “security,” and “risk.” It is difficult to see how a forum with three local speakers in a community venue would in any way pose a threat to “security” or create a “risk,” unless the mere discussion of Palestine is somehow to be deemed dangerous and threatening. Of course, the event itself proceeded entirely without incident, as would be expected, and it is difficult to see these comments as anything other than an attempt to threaten or frighten the Library from its expressed commitment to intellectual freedom.

The opponents of freedom of expression also seem to believe that adherence to the foreign policy ideals of Stephen Harper and his government should be a requirement for rental of space at the public library, as Mitchell Gropper notes that “all levels of government in Canada recognize Israel as a good friend and an important trading partner” as an alleged reason that events about Palestine should be censored in the Vancouver Public Library.  It should be obvious to all that disagreement with the Government of Canada is a perhaps singularly invalid reason to deny access to public space and that such a denial would be fundamentally incompatible with democracy.

Indeed, the Boycott Israeli Apartheid Campaign calls for the boycott of Israeli goods and products. We have engaged in advocacy and campaigning around Israeli products stocked at the Mountain Equipment Co-Op, as well as Israeli shipping company ZIM in Deltaport. The boycott of goods and products is a time-honoured tradition of political and social protest, as well as an economic/material method of expressing a social and political opinion. The BDS movement is inspired by past boycotts motivated by social justice issues, including the boycott of apartheid South Africa, its goods, products, and institutions, as a collective global expression of solidarity with the South African movement struggling for freedom and for an end to apartheid.

BIAC in Vancouver, and the BDS movement globally, is committed to building a similar boycott movement in response to the 2005 call from Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. The call reads as follows:

“One year after the historic Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) which found Israel’s Wall built on occupied Palestinian territory to be illegal; Israel continues its construction of the colonial Wall with total disregard to the Court’s decision. Thirty eight years into Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza Strip and the Syrian Golan Heights, Israel continues to expand Jewish colonies. It has unilaterally annexed occupied East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and is now de facto annexing large parts of the West Bank by means of the Wall. Israel is also preparing – in the shadow of its planned redeployment from the Gaza Strip – to build and expand colonies in the West Bank. Fifty seven years after the state of Israel was built mainly on land ethnically cleansed of its Palestinian owners, a majority of Palestinians are refugees, most of whom are stateless. Moreover, Israel’s entrenched system of racial discrimination against its own Arab-Palestinian citizens remains intact.

In light of Israel’s persistent violations of international law; and

Given that, since 1948, hundreds of UN resolutions have condemned Israel’s colonial and discriminatory policies as illegal and called for immediate, adequate and effective remedies; and

Given that all forms of international intervention and peace-making have until now failed to convince or force Israel to comply with humanitarian law, to respect fundamental human rights and to end its occupation and oppression of the people of Palestine; and

In view of the fact that people of conscience in the international community have historically shouldered the moral responsibility to fight injustice, as exemplified in the struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa through diverse forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions; and

Inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid and in the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to injustice and oppression;

We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.

These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

It is this call, and the global movement in support of it, to which the state of Israel and its supporters have responded with such fury, including various attempts to silence discussion of Palestine across Canada, in particular the attempts to ban, silence or penalize Israeli Apartheid Week on campuses across Canada. This approach was recommended by an Israeli think tank, the Reut Institute, specializing in strategic studies for the benefit of the Israeli government, as it warned that the exposure of the reality of Israel’s oppression and occupation of the Palestinian people and Palestinian land by international activists was causing an international shift in public opinion.

Israel refuses to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people. It was built on the dispossession of the Palestinian people and the theft of Palestinian land, and has only continued, strengthened and extended its policies of racism, land theft, denial of refugees’ right to return, and apartheid since 1948.

Indeed, South African fighters against apartheid, from Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela to Ronnie Kasrils, have made the link between apartheid in South Africa and apartheid in Palestine – and the need for international solidarity to defeat and isolate that apartheid system, in Palestine as in South Africa.

That South African activists and leaders are moved to speak on apartheid in Palestine should not be surprising. Far from what the supporters of the Israeli state argue, rather than BDS advocates “singling out” Israel, BDS is part and parcel of a comprehensive approach and understanding of human rights and international solidarity. BIAC members and BDS activists around the world are the same people who also stand against racism and oppression in our own communities, struggle for public housing and public transit and and to end homelessness, to support gender justice and women’s, queer and trans liberation, to stand with Indigenous and Native self-determination and sovereignty, to defend the earth and stop the Tar Sands, to call for an end to Canada’s involvement in war in Afghanistan and in NATO, for economic justice, for workers’ rights. We are the same activists who support workers’ struggles in Colombia, or health workers in the Philippines. And because we have an integrated and internationalist vision of social justice, we stand for the liberation of Palestine and against the apartheid regime which has oppressed the Palestinian people for over sixty years.

It is, in fact, those who would silence voices of dissent and solidarity who “single out” Israel by seeking to place that state, that regime, and that government above and outside the social justice movement and human rights framework, while it is the BDS movement that demands that Israel – like all powerful governments and corporations – must be held accountable for its war crimes and violations of fundamental rights.

Indeed, one of the main presentations at our event, by a BIAC organizer and Indigenous activist, focused on the relationship between Canada and Israel as viewed through the lens of settler colonialism – exposing Canada’s own settler colonial nature and the reality of indigenous dispossession, land theft, and the denial of indigenous rights – while calling upon the Palestinian rights movement to fully recognize that Canada and Israel, far from being worlds apart, are, in fact, held together by a common interest in the subjugation of indigenous people that must be fiercely opposed, and that the self-determination, sovereignty and rights of Native and Indigenous people in Canada is fundamentally linked to the struggle for liberation and justice in Palestine.

It is also worth noting that any mechanism to silence activism and discussion around Palestine is also an attempt to silence the Palestinian and Arab communities in Vancouver. The BIAC event included a Palestinian speaker and a number of Palestinian and Arab participants, and it is important to note that the silencing demanded here by the opponents of freedom of expression is also a silencing of communities speaking to their own struggles, histories, demands and narratives and therefore, fundamentally itself an expression of racial and national oppression.

Thank you to the Vancouver Public Library for your expressed commitment to maintaining a space for intellectual freedom and public discourse, a fundamental and long-standing commitment which we have every expectation will continue.


Charlotte Kates
Boycott Israeli Apartheid Campaign

Comments are closed.