Palestinians are under attack this week. The Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank faced a brutal assault from Israel’s occupying forces, the largest such attack since 2002. The camp was established after Israel ethnically cleansed 750,000 Palestinians from their homes between 1947 and 1949, an event referred to as the Nakba, meaning the “catastrophe” in Arabic.

Israel claimed the latest attack was necessary to fight “terrorists” in the area, referring to fighters belonging to the Jenin Brigade, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Fatah. Conflict with those groups comes amid a ramping up of Israel’s military occupation, attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians and brutal living conditions imposed as a result of Israel’s restrictions on movement.

As reported by Al Jazeera, Israel’s latest attack forced 3,000 Palestinians to flee the camp. At least 10, including children, were killed, and dozens more have been injured. The Israeli occupation forces used tractors to enter the camp, destroying roads and homes in the process, and targeted sewage lines and water tanks. Four health centres and a school were closed as a result of the attacks. Meanwhile, eyewitnesses said that Israeli forces blocked health workers from accessing the wounded, and targeted journalists. Israel’s forces withdrew on Wednesday, but have since launched airstrikes on Gaza.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, 153 Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed so far in 2023, already surpassing 2022 as the deadliest year for Palestinians since 2005.

Amid the ongoing suffering long imposed on Palestinians, which has ramped up under Israel’s current far-right government, solidarity groups around the world, including in Canada, have renewed calls for Israel-allied governments to take action that goes beyond words of condemnation. Canadian military exports to the state of Israel in 2022 were valued at more than $21 million, prompting calls for a ban on such exports, for example.

One Canadian group undertaking solidarity work with Palestinians is Independent Jewish Voices - Canada (IJV), who celebrated their 15th anniversary at a conference held in Toronto last month. The Maple spoke with Corey Balsam, IJV’s national coordinator, to discuss his organization’s work to date and its future plans.

The following interview was conducted before Israel’s recent attack on Jenin. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Alex Cosh: I'll start by asking you about your 15th anniversary event that you recently held in Toronto. How did it go, and what were some of the key takeaways from that event?

Corey Balsam: The event, I would say, was a big success. We weren't sure about doing an in-person conference, because post-COVID, people are really used to just getting their political education and doing their political organizing from the comfort of their couch. But we aimed for about 200 people in the space, and I think that's about what we got, maybe a bit more. So that was great. It felt really good to be back in person and to make those connections, both between members of IJV from across the country, and with other allies and supporters that were there.

The conference was titled “Anti-Racist Solidarity And The Fight for Justice in Palestine.” That's where IJV focuses: On Palestine solidarity, and anti-racism broadly; being allies on a number of fronts. So the conference really reflected that in terms of themes.

AC: It's interesting that you mentioned the ability to meet in person again, and to have these events in physical spaces. I guess it's kind of fortuitous timing, because on the question of Palestine liberation, it feels like we're at a pretty critical juncture right now, where we have this fascist government in Israel, but also it does seem like there are opportunities to push for tide changes in public opinion more broadly. Did that pan out in the conference? Were you feeling that it was good to have this in-person presence at such an important moment?

CB: Yeah, absolutely. Being in person, I think, just allows for so much more in terms of making those connections, and allyships that are built. We can do that so much better than just through Zoom calls, which are often very ‘business’-oriented. I wish we came out with the answer to addressing or seizing the current moment; that's been a big question mark for us in the last six months or so. How to seize the moment considering the fascist, far-right government in Israel, more vocal opposition from more mainstream liberal Zionist groups, and what is clearly more discomfort from the Canadian government.

But I think it's an interesting time, and we'll see how the rest of the year pans out. We're looking to see some potentially significant changes from Canada. Not a revolution, for sure, but some movement in the right direction, I hope.

AC: Things must feel very different now to how they did when IJV first got started back in the mid 2000s. Could you tell us a bit about why and how IJV got started, and perhaps offer some contrasts between the climate for this kind of activism then versus now?

CB: When IJV was founded in 2008, I was just finishing my undergrad. I was actually a founding IJV member at that time. A big part of what IJV attempted to achieve was unity among the various small Jewish organizations that were working as Jews in solidarity with Palestine. And I've been given different estimates and seen different lists, but there were apparently about 20 different groups across the country, local groups, that were doing this type of work as Jews against the occupation, or against Zionism.

The idea was to form a sort of united organization in which those groups would, for the most part, become chapters. We’ve also built really close allyships with Palestinian groups, unions and other Palestine solidarity groups. So the result of all this is that the movement is much more united, much more connected. That's probably the big difference between now and 2008.

In terms of climate, there is probably more openness in Canadian society, and especially among progressives writ large, for this type of work.

AC: I’ve spoken to Jewish friends and colleagues who are doing this kind of activism, and something they speak about is a sense of difficulty in broaching these conversations with their communities and with their families, because of the huge influence or the outsized influence that pro-Israel groups have. Can you tell us a little bit about IJV’s work in terms of providing a space for independent-minded Jewish people to have these conversations and to feel a sense of community in an otherwise challenging environment?

CB: This speaks to one of the main reasons we’re doing this work as a Jewish organization: to offer that alternative for Jewish people who don’t feel represented by Jewish establishment organizations and who want to engage in Jewish life in a way that doesn’t require supporting and defending Israel. It might be celebrating a Jewish holiday, but in a way that links with issues like Indigenous solidarity or Palestinian liberation. These opportunities are super important for a lot of our members, especially on campuses, where the options are otherwise very much on the Zionist, pro-Israel side of the spectrum.

I don't know if everyone fully appreciates the importance of IJV’s independence as an organization, considering how centralized the institutional Jewish community has become in Canada. Funds for Canadian Jewish orgs are predominantly raised through centralized campaigns like the United Jewish Appeal in Toronto and the Combined Jewish Appeal in Montreal. Those funds are split between Jewish community organizations here, projects in Israel, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which serves as a lobby group for both the institutional Jewish and for Israel. If you're in that fold, and you want to benefit from some of those funds, you have to hold certain lines. But if you cross those red lines, like we do, for instance by supporting Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and questioning Zionism, then you're totally out. Not only do you not get funding, you're not welcome.

I think there are actually a number of organizations that do get funding from that system, and that otherwise might be more publicly critical of Israel, but toe the line, because they depend on that funding. And so we're relatively poor, given these choices, but of course rich in that we are true to our principles and beliefs.

AC: Things have been terrible for a long time for Palestinians. But it's really ramping up now, to the point where even some Israel-friendly politicians can't really hide it or dismiss it or downplay it like they have in the past. We've seen some vague statements of disapproval from the Trudeau government. What are your main areas of focus given this really dire situation that we see in Israel? And in a related question, how do you distinguish yourselves from other groups? Because we've seen liberal Zionist groups kind of try to capitalize on this moment, with language like, ‘this isn't the real Israel, this is an aberration.’ So how do you address the situation on the ground, but also kind of distinguish yourself in an effective way from these other organizations?

CB: In terms of the situation on the ground, as you've mentioned, it makes it much easier these days to make the case because the masks are off; Israeli ministers are not just openly anti-Palestinian, which has seemed to be okay, according to our politicians, but are also homophobic, and even openly fascist. So that opens up opportunities. Otherwise, we honestly don't focus much on the sort of everyday crimes that take place, just because it's overwhelming. We try to focus where Canada is connected and complicit, where there's some opportunity for us to have an impact.

On the defensive front, we’re pushing back against the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which is the main tool these days to shut down the movement and silence activists and supporters of Palestinian justice. As a Jewish organization, that's something that we've taken up in a very significant way leading to significant results, much more so than pretty much anywhere else in the world on this. Of the institutions like cities, unions and faculty associations that have publicly rejected the IHRA definition globally, a majority so far are in Canada.

Our other main campaign is called Together Against Apartheid, and the idea with that is really to to pick up on the momentum of having Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch etc. coming out and saying that Israel is practicing the international crime of apartheid. We’re helping to mainstream that even further and push people to action.

We have a pledge basically promising to not shy away from calling a spade a spade, saying that Israel is practicing apartheid. We've gotten something like 20 politicians, which, of course, is a small number, given the number of politicians in Canada, but it's significant, given the taboo nature of using the word in association with Israel. From there we can do a lot of educational work; we can go deeper in terms of a critical, decolonial analysis. As a result we’re seeing a shift in paradigm from a ‘two sides’ conflict to one in which there's a very clear power dynamic at play.

It's interesting what's been happening with some of the Zionist organizations. I wouldn't paint them all with the same brush, but there has been some movement, including in Canada, towards our camp. I've long been fascinated by the U.S. context, where you've had much more dialogue between Jewish Palestine solidarity groups and some liberal Zionist organizations, because some have come out staunchly against the equation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, against the IHRA definition, very vocally, whereas here, we haven't had that.

There's been a much bigger gap between IJV — basically the Jewish left — and other Jewish organizations that engage politically on Israel-Palestine. For a very long time, liberal Zionist organizations here have basically just sided with the establishment and CIJA, with very slight differences. But in the past few months, we have seen liberal Zionists take a more oppositional stance toward CIJA. But not only that: Also calling for the Canadian government to boycott meetings with what they call the extremist faction of the Israeli government, for example.

Where we come in is really to say there is no non-extremist faction in the Israeli government. We don’t want to go back to Benny Gantz or Naftali Bennett, or someone else like that, who brags about how many Arabs they’ve killed. That's one way we differentiate ourselves, also with respect to the ‘pro-democracy’ movement in Israel that was really getting a lot of attention in the winter and early spring. I found that fascinating, the pickup that it got, given the fact that there's really never been democracy for what's now half of the population in the territory that Israel controls, plus the 20 per cent of the Israeli citizens who are Palestinian, and are therefore treated as second-class or third-class citizens.

So we published an open letter to Canadian Jews concerned about democracy in Israel. The idea was to speak to those people, many of whom might share values with us, not from a position of shaming or superiority or political purism, but in a sort of compassionate way, saying it's not an isolated issue and it's part of a broader system, and making the case about Israel really never being a democracy.

I think we're going to see more people come over to our side as time progresses and the nature of Israel as an apartheid state becomes more and more evident.

AC: You mentioned Parliament earlier: Within the NDP now it's really not the taboo subject that it once was to put out pretty strong positions on Palestine. Heather McPherson has been calling for a ban on arms sales to Israel, and to engage with the Amnesty report and the Human Rights Watch report. It's quite a step change from even 10 years ago, where these conversations didn't really happen in Parliament. What's your strategy for engaging with parliamentarians? And now there's this kind of beachhead within the NDP caucus and even among some Liberals, what's the strategy for growing that or at least maintaining it in the years to come?

CB: I agree with you that the situation among parliamentarians is much, much better. The NDP is better than it's ever been, at least for as long as I've been involved. At least at the federal level, there seems to be more comfort engaging in these issues. I think for the most part, the NDP caucus is pretty much on side. And as you said, the Liberals, I think, are more divided than ever on this. Some have suggested that at least 50 per cent of the Liberal caucus are onside. Not all of these people, of course, are going to sign our Together Against Apartheid pledge, but quietly in the back rooms are moving at least in our direction, and are for the most part sympathetic. So that's really positive.

We've been trying to engage more and more with these people and to grow our list of relationships with politicians, because so much of this is about relationships and access. CIJA has dozens of staff, and that makes a difference. We just don't have that and we can't try to replicate that. We simply don't have the resources. But we do have a lot of people involved and engaged. We're a national organization, so we're doing more to encourage members to get in touch with their local politicians and push them on these issues. I've been doing a lot of work at the national level to meet with different politicians and have them take strong stances as best as possible. Now there will be a study in the foreign affairs committee on actions Canada can take to promote peace and human rights in Israel-Palestine, which we really pushed to have passed. So that does present an important opportunity for at least the conversation to happen. How it will go, however, is anyone's guess.

AC: Palestine solidarity is a big part of your work, but also there's a very important component to what you do in terms of Indigenous solidarity here in Canada. I guess this speaks to a broader theory of decolonization in your work. Could you maybe give us a brief synopsis of that guiding theory that you're applying to each of these different struggles?

CB: As an organization that is grounded in social justice principles and also inspired by Jewish traditions like the idea of healing the world, there's an inherent critique of settler-colonialism. We recognize that in talking about the problems with the political Zionist project of creating a Jewish state on the ashes of Palestine, displacing the Indigenous populations, giving them lesser rights, etc., we also need to be doing that work here as well as settlers ourselves on Turtle Island.

So I think part of it is about consistency, but a lot of it as well is just about broader principles and decolonial politics. We now have a very active Indigenous solidarity committee within the organization and are looking to see how we can engage in a more meaningful way. We also have a number of local chapters that engage in Indigenous solidarity in different ways, and we're looking to really ramp up that work because it is really, really important.

Now, let's turn to the members' corner...

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