None of us looked to see if they had ordered extra sandwiches for the OSSTF District 12 January 18 council meeting, but then this crowd was not here to eat. The room that Thursday night was packed to capacity with teachers who had never come to a council meeting before but had turned up with one express purpose: to vote down a motion that would ask provincial OSSTF to examine ways to support the growing international call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
Many of these newcomers to council had been prompted to come by a series of B’nai Brith e-mail “action alerts” that had been sent out around the country and reported in the national media before the final drafts of the Israel-related motions had even been completed. The “action alerts” were themselves part of a larger intimidation campaign of B’nai Brith that deluged the District 12 office with angry e-mails and phone calls, many so abusive that the secretarial staff were sent crying and the office had to turn off their phones.
To their credit, in a press release and in a strongly worded rebuke to B’nai Brith’s that they posted on their website, the District 12 executive made it clear that motions belong to the movers, not the executive, and that no amount of bullying was going to pressure them to shut down a democratic debate.
A great deal of the hysteria generated by B’nai Brith and the media concerned a section of an earlier motion requesting that provincial OSSTF develop “curricular materials for the classroom” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Bringing hate into the classroom” is how this proposal was spun. Though we had withdrawn the motion several days before the January council meeting, OSSTF has a long history of developing material for classroom use, be it on Columbia or international labour issues (such as sweatshops in Guatamala), and all materials must comply with OSSTF policy on peace and global education issues. These materials are, of course, always optional resources since it is the Ministry of Education that develops curriculum, not the union.
The pro-Israel teachers who had turned up that night found natural allies in another equally large contingent of teachers who simply wanted no part of any motion that would embroil the union in Mideast politics. Together, they had come not to debate, but to shut down debate. And that is what they did. Invoking a common procedure of Robert’s Rules of Order, as soon as the motion was presented by the mover, someone went to the mike and called the question. (This procedure, if it is endorsed by the house, effectively closes debate and and puts the motion straight to a vote.) The house agreed, a vote was called, and the motion was soundly defeated.
In fact, the crowd voted down every human rights motion on the agenda, including one on Darfur, and another one asking OSSTf to endorse an Amnesty International report on the Occupied Territories. They even voted against a procedural motion that would have put on the agenda a motion that OSSTF should have no Middle East policy.
Dialogue, discussion, intellectual engagement, debate – all the things one would normally expect teachers to promote – were efficiently and decisively shut down. When every human rights motion was finally defeated, the room burst into applause.
Yes, teachers applauded the shutting down of debate.
The pro-Israel crowd that turned up for the vote can take comfort in the fact that they had lots of support from the Jewish Defense League, a FBI-classified terrorist group that is banned in Israel yet which mysteriously operates openly in Canada. Throughout the meeting, JDL marchers were demonstrating outside the District 12 office, handing out flagrantly racist flyers and pictures of suicide-belted babies with captions in bold that read, “Children are not born to kill. They’re taught to kill.”
The group of us who had drafted the boycott motion had no illusions that it would pass, and as we expected, it went down in flames. Out intention, however, was to build on the momentum started by CUPE and the United Church this summer. Though our motion failed, thanks to the free media publicity that preceded it, we have kept the international campaign of Israel boycott, sanctions, and divestment in the news, thereby normalizing debate around BDS in the general culture. In that respect, we were successful.
Much to the dismay of Israel and its supporters, the international campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel is growing, and it’s happening at the popular level.
The movement, which obviously takes its inspiration from the successful campaign of the 1980s that brought down apartheid in South Africa, has emerged over the past year as a result of a number of factors.
First, there has been a gradual realization among Palestinians themselves and their allies in Israeli human rights groups that the 40-year occupation of the West Bank is so entrenched that a viable two-state solution may no longer be possible. The orchards and fields that once formed the backbone of an agrarian economy are long gone and cannot be restored. In their place are the “settlements,” which are in many cases mid-sized cites with shopping malls, Blockbuster video stores, shopping districts, and suburban style monster homes. Over $260 billion dollars has been invested in settlement infrastructure. No one is going to be able to turn this back into farmland.
Second, as a result of these “facts on the ground,” the Palestinian national movement has begun reassessing its long-standing goal of a two-state settlement and looking at a one-state solution as the only real option left. In 2005, The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, along with over 170 Palestinian unions, political parties, and organizations, issued a call for a global campaign of boycotts and divestment from Israel similar to those brought against apartheid South Africa. So Palestinians themselves are asking the international community for a boycott. Because Israel has spent the last decade extricating itself from its dependency on Palestinian labour by bringing in guest workers from Thailand and Easter Europe, the argumnt that a boycott would hurt Palestinian workers is now moot.
Third, Palestinians have known for a very long time that they cannot liberate themselves alone. When they’ve tried non-violent resistance, such as the general strikes of the sixties or the thosands of unarmed demonstrations since — and let’s remember that most Palestinian resistance has always been non-violent — protesters have been met with live ammunition, the destruction of their homes, and the expropriation of their lands. Violent resistance has simply invited harsher reprisals. Passive resistence has been tried to, such as we saw this summer in Gaza when hundreds of people gathered around houses of individuals targetted for Israeli assassinations. This brought condemnation from Human Rights Watch — against the Palestinian leaders for encouraging civilians to put themselves in harm’s way!
Palestinians therefore desperately need help from the international community — from governments if possible, but state support has always proven fickle.
In Canada, the campaign for BDS is picking up steam at the popular level as a response to widespread frustration over the reorientation of foreign policy in favour of Israel that began with Paul Martin, accelerated under Stephen Harper, and occurred without public debate. In this sense, popular frustration over Canada’s shift in Israel policy mirrors a much more widespread alienation from the larger political establishment whose policies and priorities are increasingly being directed by unelected corporate elites, not by democratic imput.
Israel lobbying in Canada has indeed come under increased corporate control in recent years, particularly with the creation of umbrella organizations like the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA) that have centralized Israel advocacy and placed it more firmly under corporate control. This restructuring has only deepened the democratic deficit of Jewish representative institutions as the diversity of Jewish opinion and the multiplicity of Jewish experience is submerged beneath the unified chorus of a handful of Jewish millionaires and CEOs with deep connections in Canada’s two major political parties.
The corporatization of Israel advocacy is also why BDS is a labour issue and why it has emerged so forcefully in unions. It has no single agenda. Some campaigns target only the occupation, while others are broader and aim at a one-state solution. BDS is a peaceful, non-violent way for ordinary people to do something to end a conflict that governments are either unable to stop or unwilling to intervene in because it means telling Jewish voters what they don’t want to hear: that only Israel can end the violence.
Our words of advice to those who find a campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions “offensive”? Get used to it. As Karen Carpenter said, we’ve only just begun.
* Educators for Peace and Justice is a collective of public school teachers from across the Greater Toronto Area.