MY POINT … AND I DO HAVE ONE: supressing debate: Ontario’s language politics

The Ontario legislature – like most political bodies representing a diverse range of opinions – is a place where it’s hard to achieve consensus. One in five children in Toronto go to school hungry in the morning and asthma and cancer-causing coal power generate much of the province’s electricity, but no consensus can be found among the provincial political parties to address such dire issues.

Yet last week, the members of Ontario’s Provincial Parliament put aside their partisan rivalries to pass a private member’s bill condemning the sixth annual Israeli Apartheid Week – a series of lectures, workshops, and events about the nature of Israel as an Apartheid system, which begins on university campuses on Thursday.

Ontario New Democratic Party Member of Provincial Parliament Cheri DiNovi – normally one of the few legislators to use her brain instead of pandering to populist wisdom – explained that debate on the Middle East is encouraged, but using the term “Apartheid” was beyond the pale of acceptability.

Her explanation echoed opinion articles appearing across the country last week that voice a disingenuous and paternalistic prescription: that young people should feel free to talk about Israel and Palestine, but only if you use the language that we outline for you. DiNovi recommended speaking of “occupation of Palestinian territory,” though I can’t imagine the Conservative Member, Peter Shurman, who introduced the bill, would agree with that description. Shurman is the same white, Jewish Conservative man who said that using the word “Apartheid” is not only offensive to millions of black South Africans who suffered through South African Apartheid, but also “close to hate speech.”

I’m not an expert in international law. Nor did I live under South African Apartheid and I’m certainly not a Palestinian living under Israeli control. And neither were, or are, Shurman, DiNovi, or any of the MPPs who voted in favour of this bill.

But I personally first heard the term “Apartheid” applied to the occupied Palestinian territories when Archbishop Desmond Tutu returned from an exploratory trip to the region almost a decade ago, echoing sentiments he had made a decade prior when he declared that if one changed the names of the places, “a description of what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank could describe events in [1989, Apartheid] South Africa.”

Tutu first came to international prominence as a black South African leader calling for divestment from businesses profiting from South African Apartheid and for the imposition of sanctions on his own country. In 1984, his efforts were rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize. Bishop Tutu later chaired the internationally praised Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which brought a rational and legalistic method of national closure to the irrational and barbaric period of Apartheid in South Africa. Certainly someone like Tutu is far better placed to make such a judgment than I am, than Shurman is, or than any of the readers of this column are.

This doesn’t mean the “Israeli Apartheid” debate is over. There are South Africans who disagree with the label, finding it an inappropriate use of their suffering. Similarly, there are Palestinians who remind us that F-16 fighter jets never bombarded black South Africans in their homes or laid siege to their cities, and that perhaps the term “Apartheid” is too weak. The debate over the use of the term “Apartheid” is far from over, and the ludicrous notion that the word “Apartheid” should be omitted from discussion needs to be rejected by all.

Rather, students and community members should check out this year’s lineup of speakers in Montreal – which include a member of the Israeli parliament, a former South African anti-Apartheid activist, aboriginal youth, journalists, and academics – and refuse to give in to the intellectual bullies’ demands to curtail a legitimate discussion simply because they don’t like its implications.

A full schedule of events for Israeli Apartheid Week in Montreal can be found at montreal.apartheidweek.org

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