Canada: Queers against apartheid beat censorship bid

Issue 
Queers against Israeli apartheid.

The board of Pride Toronto held a press conference on the lawn outside its offices on May 25 to announce the phrase “Israeli Apartheid” would be censored from the upcoming 2010 Pride Parade.

The decision, aimed at banning the Toronto-based activist group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid from the gay pride parade, set off a firestorm in the community.

This included refusals to take part in the festival and an open letter denouncing the decision by eight founding members who organised the first Toronto Pride parade in 1981.

The attempt to ban political speech at Pride Toronto fits a clear pattern — Israel’s public relations machine has tried to malign critics and silence dissent around the world for decades.

These attempts have recently reached new heights in Canada, in response to the success Palestine solidarity activists in Canada have achieved in recent years.

The first Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) — now an annual, international political gathering — was held on the University of Toronto campus in 2005.

The organisers of IAW have endorsed the call by Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law.

The BDS movement is modelled on the boycott campaign that helped bring apartheid to an end in South Africa.

The apartheid analogy has put Israel and its apologists on the defensive because it has garnered unexpected levels of support through BDS and other tactics that aim to challenge Israeli state policy.

On June 2 2009, the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat anti-Semitism (CPCCA) was formed “for the stated purpose of confronting and combating anti-Semitism in Canada today”.

However, most people involved in the BDS movement saw this as a thinly-veiled smear campaign against critics of Israel. The real goal of the CPCCA seems to be to conflate all criticism of Israeli state policy with anti-Semitism.

In fact, many believe it may try to amend Canada's anti-discrimination laws to label criticism of Israel as hate speech.

Outright censorship is not the only means in the Israel lobby’s toolkit for silencing opposition. In recent years, Israel has started a “re-branding” campaign to promote an image of itself as a modern, liberal society with open values while whitewashing its deplorable human rights record.

A key component of this campaign has been the promotion of Israel as a nation with a progressive outlook on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and interex (LGBTI) issues, especially in relation to its neighbours and Palestinian society.

There is truth in this, at least for the Israeli Jewish population, but claims that this is of widespread benefit to Palestinian queers and trans people (e.g. Tel Aviv as a “gay Mecca”) are unfounded. More importantly, that Israel recognises same-sex marriages performed in other countries does nothing to excuse the humanitarian disaster that has resulted from its siege and attacks on Gaza.

It was in response to this re-branding campaign that Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) formed.

Several members of QuAIA also marched against South African apartheid during the 1980s in solidarity with South African anti-apartheid activist Simon Nkoli, who was a black gay man.

Even then, critics disparaged their presence in Toronto’s Pride parade, pointing to relatively greater acceptance of homosexuality in the white South African community compared with blacks living under apartheid.

Today, queer activists have begun to label this type of expropriation of the LGBTI struggle to distract from other human rights abuses with the term “pink-washing”.

QuAIA also endorses the Palestinian civil society call for BDS, and in particular a September 2009 initiative to boycott LGBTI leisure tourism to Israel.

This campaign was initiated in response to the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association’s decision to hold a tourism conference in Tel Aviv in coordination with an Israeli LGBTI group, Aguda, despite the Palestinian call for the boycott of Israel.

To challenge the re-branding campaign, QuAIA took its message to the 2008 and 2009 Pride festivals in Toronto, marching without incident. The Israel lobby responded to QuAIA’s presence with outrage and initiated a smear campaign against the group.

Israel lobby groups tried to portray QuAIA as an anti-Semitic hate group, despite the fact that many of our members have histories of anti-racist activism and many are Jewish.

After the 2009 parade, a propaganda film was made against QuAIA by a local gay Jewish lawyer and self-proclaimed “gay activist”. The film was distributed to city councillors to try to convince them to pass a city resolution that threatened to defund Pride Toronto unless they banned our group from marching in 2010.

Eventually, it was revealed through a freedom of information request that a small group of city bureaucrats, councillors and pro-Israel lobbyists colluded to eject QuAIA from the Pride parade. This was despite the fact they were aware QuAIA in no way violated the city’s anti-discrimination policy.

The Board of Pride Toronto still voted 4-3 on May 21 to ban QuAIA, giving in to this year-long smear campaign.

The fallout from Pride Toronto’s decision has been tremendous.

The queer community of Toronto was galvanised to confront Pride about censorship — after all, censorship has been previously used in Canada to force LGBTI individuals back into the closet. It has also brought forward other concerns about de-politicisation, corporatisation and fair representation of less privileged communities within the LGBTI umbrella.

After a month-long community organising effort, Pride rescinded the ban on June 26 — a significant victory for free speech and the Canadian Palestine solidarity movement.

The realisation seems to be spreading in the LGBTI community that our identities and rights are being used as an excuse to deny the identity and rights of another people, halfway across the globe.

Well before QuAIA formed, Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism were championing the message of queer solidarity with Palestine in San Francisco. In the wake of the ban against QuAIA and the huge attention it has received, at least four new groups have formed worldwide with a similar message.

A channel of communication has begun to develop between queer activists in Palestine and those in the Palestinian diaspora. The two main Palestinian LGBTI organidations, ASWAT and al-Qaws, have released a joint statement condemning Pride Toronto’s banning. A new queer Palestinian group has formed endorsing the call for BDS.

In the end, QuAIA invited the Palestinian director of al-Qaws to visit with QuAIA during Pride — she will be marching with us in the upcoming parade.

The claim some in Canada make that “the Palestine/Israel conflict has nothing to do with the queer struggle” is further deflated every day.

So it seems that while LGBTI people in Palestine have begun speaking out for themselves and their people, LGBTI activists in the West are starting to realise they cannot allow their struggles to be co-opted by Israel's colonization schemes. And here in Toronto, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid will not be silenced. QuAIA marched in this year's Pride Parade on July 4, and our demand for justice for all Palestinians, queer and straight alike, was voiced.

[Reprinted from Electronic Intifada. Savannah Garmon is an activist for transgender and sex worker rights and is active in the Palestine solidarity movement. She carried a sign in Toronto’s upcoming Pride Parade reading: “This trans woman is against Israeli apartheid and queerer than you”.]