In late 2019, New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh finally broke his silence on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a Palestinian-led call that seeks to put pressure on Israel to comply with international law. In a roundtable discussion with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Singh told the influential lobby group, “I don’t believe [that BDS is] a path to peace,” and “it is not [the NDP’s] path forward and it will not be.”

Even worse, Singh repeated several common falsities often levelled against the BDS movement: he suggested criticizing Israel too much (whoever gets to determine such a thing) “has to indicate antisemitism”; he said the boycott of Israel has a “similar pattern of behaviour” to Nazi boycotts of Jews in the 1930s; he accused the movement of creating “tension,” “division” and an “unsafe climate” on university campuses.

Pro-Palestinian advocates were taken aback by these comments. In a press release, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) said they were “disappointed” by Singh’s “puzzling” words, warning that “Singh and the NDP will not win support by distancing themselves from the BDS movement” but will only “attract voters by taking principled positions.”

Sheryl Nestel of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) also noted Singh’s “disconcerting lack of understanding of the plight of the Palestinian people,” adding, “The NDP leader’s aim, it seems, was to quell any concerns that CIJA and its supporters might have about the possibility of his extending solidarity to the Palestinians.”

Singh’s disavowal is a perfect example of NDP leadership turning its back on anti-racist social movements and their own party members at a time when party support for non-violent action against Israel is needed more than ever.

Mixed Signals

CJPME, IJV and many others have expressed surprise over Singh’s disavowal of the BDS movement, interpreting his comments as a reversal or backtracking from previous positions. In truth, Singh’s position on BDS has been ambiguous for years, and this lack of clarity has fostered a lot of cautious optimism.

During the NDP leadership race in 2017, much was made about Singh’s principled opposition to an anti-BDS motion the previous year as an Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP), when he spoke in defence of the “right to dissent” and against conflating criticism of Israel with hate speech. (There was less attention, however, to the fact that immediately following this debate he accepted a free trip to Israel with CIJA).

More importantly, in response to a joint CJPME-IJV leadership questionnaire in August 2017, Singh claimed that he was open to considering several components of BDS, including a ban on products from Israeli settlements and imposing targeted sanctions against Israel. Based on these responses, CJPME awarded Singh a strong “A-”, noting that “with Singh as leader, NDP policy on the Middle East might become more progressive, but not quite as energetically or assertively as it would under [Niki] Ashton.”

Since Singh became party leader in October 2017, however, the NDP has given mixed signals on Palestine. At the NDP convention in 2018, the party leadership organized to block a popular resolution that would have included a ban on settlement goods. Despite being endorsed by 28 riding associations and the youth wing, the party successfully prevented the resolution from even making it to a debate on the convention floor, in a heavy-handed move that was widely celebrated by pro-Israel groups.

Since then, however, the NDP has advocated for the labelling of settlement goods, and its Members of Parliament (MP) have repeatedly stressed this point during debates over the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA). In one such debate, NDP MP Don Davies suggested sanctions might be a legitimate response to the occupation, noting that “one has to ask what tools exist at our disposal to help persuade an occupying force to cease that occupation.”

The NDP’s actions during the 2019 federal election also seemed to offer some hope for progress. Although the party dropped a candidate over comments comparing Israeli actions to those of Nazis for which she had apologized, a dismissal condemned by IJV, they stood behind other candidates who publicly supported BDS, despite fierce pressure from right-wing pro-Israel groups including B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of the Simon Weisenthal Centre.

Many activists were also enthusiastic about how the NDP responded to a questionnaire from the Canada Palestine Association, as their answers affirmed the right of Canadians to participate in BDS, and expressed support for each of the movement’s three goals: end to the occupation, equality within Israel and right to return for Palestinian refugees. Impressed with these answers, IJV remarked that the NDP “hit just about all the right notes short of an all-out endorsement of BDS.”

Overall, however, commentators have struggled to summarize the party’s position.

The “Canadian Muslim Voting Guide,” prepared by a research group at Wilfred Laurier University and released during the 2019 election, deemed that the NDP “needs improvement,” noting that “Singh has made important statements that highlight the oppression of Palestinians by the Israeli State but has not clearly aligned his support with the BDS movement.”

CJPME similarly assessed that “the NDP’s position on BDS under Jagmeet Singh’s leadership has yet to be determined,” and awarded the party a “B” grade.

In retrospect, Singh’s comments to CIJA, made only a few months after the election, have exposed this cautious optimism as a misjudgement.

Global Climate of Repression

Singh’s recent disavowal of BDS couldn’t have come at a worse time.

More than 52 years into Israel’s occupation, in which millions of Palestinians are subjected to a brutal military dictatorship, the prospects for justice are exceedingly dire. The peace process has failed, and United States president Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” threatens to consolidate Israel’s existing system of apartheid, at best offering Palestinians a semi-autonomous Bantustan that would continue to suffer under colonial domination. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seized upon this moment to promise the immediate and unilateral annexation of all West Bank settlements, which is most likely to happen after the March 2 elections.

Although the International Criminal Court has announced its intention to investigate Israeli war crimes, its work will likely be blocked by Netanyahu with the help of international allies, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. With the failure of diplomatic and institutional strategies, there’s a necessary role for civil society to intervene and put pressure on the occupying power through boycotts and other non-violent means.

At the same time, we are in the midst of a global counter-movement against Palestinian solidarity activism, which seeks to repress and silence the BDS movement and other critics of Israel. The current threat to freedom of speech on pro-Palestinian activism is severe.

In the United States, more than 28 states have enacted repressive anti-BDS laws to date, and federal legislation threatens to impose criminal penalties on those who boycott Israel. With Trump’s recent executive order on “Combatting Antisemitism,” universities are opened up to federal investigations if pro-Palestinian activism takes place on campus.

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised to ban public institutions from boycotting or divesting from any foreign countries, although the proposed law appears to be specifically motivated by the desire to stop BDS.

In Canada, the repression of pro-Palestinian voices is not new. We’ve seen almost two decades of heavy-handed crackdowns against Palestinian activism on university campuses, with administrators expelling students, banning posters, shutting down clubs and in one instance, forcing an independent student newspaper to publish a defence of Zionism. Pro-Israel organizations have also led smear campaigns against boycott supporters, accusing them of antisemitism and/or supporting terrorism.

More recently, pro-Israel groups have been pushing to go further and legislate away the right to boycott Israel. In the 2019 federal elections, B’nai Brith Canada issued policy recommendations asking all parties to “support the adoption and implementation of legislative initiatives preventing racist boycott activities such as BDS,” and to “work to prevent BDS-related activities from taking place on public property.”

In 2016, a private member’s bill moved by Conservative MPP Tim Hudak and drafted by the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre that would have banned public institutions from supporting BDS failed to pass the Ontario legislature. In the same year, both the federal and Ontario legislatures passed non-binding resolutions, which symbolically condemned the BDS movement and its supporters.

While anti-BDS initiatives are usually led by conservatives, Trudeau has also contributed to this political climate by repeatedly and falsely equating BDS and criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Most worryingly, in June 2019 the Trudeau government announced that it would implement the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism across all levels of government.

Civil liberties organizations in Ontario and British Columbia “strongly oppose” the IHRA, noting that it’s “extremely vague” and “open to misinterpretation,” and fearing that “if adopted, the IHRA definition will serve to severely chill political expressions of criticism of Israel as well as support for Palestinian rights.” Even the lead drafter of the IHRA text, Kenneth Stern, opposes how it has been “weaponized” by the political right in such a way as to “suppress political speech.”

While it’s unclear exactly how the IHRA will be applied by the government, comments from key supporters indicate it’s expected to play a role in undermining the Palestinian solidarity movement. In a celebratory press release, CIJA stated that the IHRA “explicitly recognizes that anti-Zionism — that is the delegitimization and demonization of the Jewish state — is a clear and unequivocal expression of antisemitism.”

In an op-ed published in the Canadian Jewish News, Liberal MPs Anthony Housefather and Michael Levitt explicitly point to BDS and Israeli Apartheid Week — an annual event on campuses that features educational workshops and builds solidarity with Palestinians — as initiatives that will be identified as antisemitic under the IHRA. This development poses a real threat to free speech and political expression in Canada.

Not Enough

To his credit, Singh has consistently opposed the criminalization of BDS, including in his conversation with CIJA. However, even on this front his words are quite troubling. Far from stating a strong defence of the right to boycott Israel, Singh responded to a question on the CIJA podcast about why the party continues to “lend shelter” to BDS supporters by complaining that he’s “in a bit of a tricky position because I do believe in defending the right of thought and speech,” and that while he doesn’t support BDS “I haven’t taken that next step to say that it should be banned as a thought.” Singh further equivocates: “It creates a bit of a moral conundrum of where to draw the line of limiting thought.”

These comments are disheartening. If Singh supports the right to boycott, it’s only begrudgingly so. The harmful effects of these remarks are aggravated by his endorsement of the IHRA — though only in an educational, non-legally binding sense — which gives support to the false notion that most criticism of Israel is antisemitic.

Supporters of Israel have, for years, been building a political reality in which expressing solidarity with Palestinians through a boycott of Israel is socially intolerable, possibly even illegal. This entire effort rests upon the fiction that the BDS movement is somehow discriminatory and motivated by anti-Jewish hatred, rather than a legitimate political expression motivated by a concern for Palestinian freedom.

Manufacturing this political consensus has required producing all kinds of bad-faith distortions and fabrications about the goals and activities of the movement, which are designed to insulate Israel’s occupation from the possibility of any meaningful challenge.

Singh’s comments not only feed into these narratives, but appear to indicate that he actually believes them. The value of his limited defence of the “right to dissent” is undermined if Singh continues to echo and reproduce these smears against BDS, betraying the good-faith social movements that supported his candidacy, and further obstructing justice for Palestine.