Easy on the sweeping accusations of prejudice

Bigotry in its various forms is something that we as a society need to call out when we see it. But when government accuses a segment of its citizenry of holding prejudicial views it should do so carefully and avoid painting with a broad brush.

Bigotry in its various forms is something that we as a society need to call out when we see it. But when government accuses a segment of its citizenry of holding prejudicial views it should do so carefully and avoid painting with a broad brush.

The Yukon Party caucus failed to exercise such caution last week when it issued a press release essentially accusing everyone who supported the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – known as BDS – against the state of Israel of a form of anti-Semitism. The release quoted Premier Darrell Pasloski saying: “there is growing international recognition that the BDS movement is veiled anti-Semitism.” It went on to note that several other individuals, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, agreed with that assessment.

Pretty well everyone has an opinion about the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It is among the most hotly contested political issues on the planet.

This has always been perplexing to me. Its prominence in political discussions and its coverage in the media are vastly out of proportion to the amount of land or the number people involved relative to other international conflicts. By all estimates more people have been killed in the Syrian civil war in the past five years than in the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict going all the way back to 1948.

And most of the people killed in the conflict died early on. The number killed in the last two decades is dwarfed by the number killed in other conflicts that receive a tiny fraction of the coverage – including the wars in Darfur and Algerian. Even the Houthi insurgency in Yemen (who has heard of that one?) has claimed more lives in recent years.

Nonetheless, the conflict enjoys significant in public discussion. As a result, the BDS movement has picked up steam in recent years in response to what is seen by some as a callous disregard on the part of Israel for Palestinian civilian lives.

Personally I have problems with the BDS movement. Unlike its supporters I am sympathetic to the difficult security dilemma that Israel finds itself in, and I think the country’s critics fail to offer much in the way of solutions likely to lead to peace.

Proponents of BDS generally advocate an end to the occupation, a return to 1967 borders, and (most problematic) a right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced way back when the modern state of Israel was created in 1948. They believe that if Israel were to do so peace would somehow break out.

Call me skeptical. There are certain factions within the Palestinians that have never shown any interest in peace. Debates on who is to blame in prolonging the conflict often come down to a chicken-and-egg discussion about whether Palestinians are simply rebelling against an occupation or whether the occupation arose because of attacks against Israel. I think it’s a bit of both, but enough of the latter to preclude peace so long as more extreme factions amongst the Palestinians refuse to disavow intentional targeted attacks on Israeli civilians.

Having said that, I am loathe to so strongly impugn the motives of everyone who believe this to be the roadmap to peace as the Yukon Party and others have done. It is not as if there is nothing in the conduct of Israel that could provide a non-bigoted explanation for such passionate opposition.

One can be concerned about the amount of “collateral damage” being suffered by innocent Palestinian civilians in the course of Israel’s battle against militant factions. Most Palestinians are not terrorists, and Israel has both a moral and legal obligation to do its best to ensure that innocent civilians are not killed in the process of defending itself. To note that Israel has, from time to time, failed to live up to that obligation is a fair and reasonable observation.

Moreover, the continued expansion of settlements into areas internationally recognized as being for the Palestinians under a future peace is simply inexcusable – something even the most pro-Israel western governments grudgingly acknowledge.

There is nothing inherently “anti-Semitic” in having these concerns. I share them. We should all be concerned about the welfare of innocent men, women and children living in horrible conditions caught in the crossfire of an intractable conflict that has been going on for generations.

Are some involved in the BDS movement motivated by anti-Semitism? Absolutely. Anti-Semitism is a common phenomenon, and different people arrive at their views in different ways.

But casting all of those who support BDS as bigots because some are? This is the same type of blanket stereotyping that has gotten us in trouble in the past. I can confidently say that many of the people I’ve encountered over the years who strongly and passionately support the Palestinian people lack a hateful bone in their body, and can provide a reasoned defence of their views.

Perhaps more concerning than the decision to cast aspersions on those who support BDS, was the gratuitous notation at the end of the Yukon Party’s press release which states: “France outlawed the BDS movement in 2003 and Great Britain recently announced plans to become the second major European nation to take that step.”

This was the most perplexing part of the release. What purpose could possibly be served by pointing this out? What is the Yukon Party trying to say here? When placed in the context of the rest of the release it would seem to be suggesting that such bans are a good thing. Is this something that the Yukon Party thinks Canada or the Yukon should emulate? We should hope not.

Agree or not, advocating for the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of a country involved in armed conflict is among the clearest of exercises in free expression, unquestionably protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The public government of this territory ought to be far more reluctant to level such a strong, blanket accusation against Canadian citizens exercising their rights.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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