Canadian artists fear backlash for speaking on Israel-Palestine

Thousands signed petitions but many fear losing work or being labelled anti-Semitic

Documentary filmmaker and activist John Greyson, writer Rinaldo Walcott, and musicians Mustafa and Broken Social Scene are among the Canadian artists who put their names to petitions showing unprecedented support for the Palestinian cause during Israel’s bombing campaign on Gaza last month.

But sustained pushback from pro-Israel groups still prevents many from speaking out for the fear of losing work or being labelled anti-Semitic.

“It’s a decades old fear that’s been instilled in our industry,” says The Breadwinner actor Ali Badshah, who along with filmmaker Faran Moradi, artist Rehab Nazzal, and Independent Jewish Voices communications lead Aaron Lakoff spoke to NOW about the response from Canada’s arts community on Palestine following the forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah.

We’re discussing how, historically, producers would back away from film or television projects when someone involved speaks out against Israel’s actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Talents like Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and most recently Mark Ruffalo have walked back their criticism against what Israeli and international watchdogs, including Human Rights Watch, have called an apartheid state. We’re seeing the muzzling of voices here in Canada as well; when an industry that was quick to show off its solidarity with marginalized communities ran for cover.

Says Badshah, “There’s this huge fear that you’re going to get blackballed or something’s going to happen and you’re not going to be able to work anymore.

“As artists, we’re having to make a call: either our bank account or our integrity.”

Petitions for Palestine

“Complicity with Israeli war crimes is found in silence,” says a #MusiciansForPalestine petition organized by Canadian rapper Narcy. That petition drumming up support for a “Free Palestine” was signed by hundreds including Regent Park’s Mustafa as well as American names like NoName, Cypress Hill, Pharoahe Monch, Pink Floyd, Questlove and Black Thought.

Another petition signed by hundreds of Canadian artists and organizations called for a boycott of Toronto’s Koffler Centre of the Arts if the long-running showcase didn’t divest itself from the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation, which it points out has “explicitly Zionist” goals. Over 1,300 artists and cultural workers – including Greyson and Walcott – signed a petition to support the Palestinian people’s struggle against “military occupation, siege, colonization and apartheid through the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.”

“Recent events broke the silence,” says the latter petition’s organizer, artist Rehab Nazzal. She’s noticed how many more people are willing to voice their support than ever before.

Both Nazzal and Badshah say the Black Lives Matter movement was a catalyst in building more awareness for the struggle of oppressed people internationally. The rallying around a pro-Palestine cause has a lot to do with the increased BIPOC presence in media who are inherently more aligned with a pro-Palestine cause because of their own histories of feeling oppressed.

“The Palestinian struggle is part of the global struggle,” says Nazzal, “for freedom, decolonization, human rights, equality and dignity.”

Fear of speaking out

While the support for the petition is unprecedented, the silence in many quarters is still deafening.

Badshah points out that unions like ACTRA, the Directors Guild of Canada or the Canadian Media Producers Associations have not made any public statements of solidarity or even expressed concern for the lives being lost in Gaza.

“No one was posting about it,” says filmmaker Faran Moradi, questioning the “radio silence” in the filmmaking community while the situation in Sheikh Jarrah was intensifying.

As he gauged his peers, he learned that some didn’t feel they understood enough about the situation in Israel to speak up while others admitted to being too afraid.

“Specifically, a number of people said that they were afraid to speak up,” says Moradi, “because they were worried that they would be labeled either anti-Semitic or denied work.”

“That’s a very palpable and real fear,” says Aaron Lakoff at Independent Jewish Voices (IJV).

He argues that organizations like the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) have purposefully conflated support for Palestinian solidarity with anti-Semitism and paint a picture of “an incredible rise” in anti-Semitism. He also refers to well-funded websites like Canary Mission, which exists to dox anyone supporting the Palestinian cause. The site’s blacklist is mostly made up of people of colour, predominantly Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims.

The Canary Mission isn’t the only group doxing anyone critical of Israel. Republicans are getting in on the act too. A group called Stanford College Republicans posted old social media posts from American journalist Emily Wilder, amplifying her affiliation with pro-BDS group Jewish Voices for Peace. She subsequently was fired by the Associated Press (AP). According to AP, Wilder, who is Jewish, was fired for violating their social media policy.

“A lot of the time we actually forget the really powerful arms of Zionism are also supported by Christian Zionists or by white WASP Republican groups or white conservatives,” says Lakoff. “We have to remember that the goals of Zionism really do serve the goals of global white supremacy.”

Canadian reporters have felt vulnerable in this environment too. CBC, for instance, has produced critical coverage of Israel. Listen to Carol Off’s careful and incisive interview on As It Happens with Israel’s minister of foreign affairs’ policy advisor Michael Freeman, for example.

But other reporters at CBC say they were pulled from working on the stories related to Israel after signing a petition asking for “fair coverage” of the airstrikes on Gaza that killed hundreds of people.

CBC’s Chuck Thompson told Vice World News that the employees weren’t being reprimanded but the public broadcaster needed to place “editorial distance between signatories (of the letter)” and their coverage. The CBC is protecting its coverage from accusations that claim criticism of Israel is biased and anti-Semitic. Those accusations are a staple of organizations like Honest Reporting, which has criticized the reporting of most media organizations, including the CBC, CTV, Toronto Star, Globe and Mail and NOW Magazine, as biased on Israel.

“It’s a way to silence people,” says Nazzal, who along with Badshah points out how ridiculous it is to dismiss support for Palestine as anti-Semitic when Arab people are also Semites. Arab is Semitic, so as Badshah says, “anti-Zionism is pro-Semitism.”

Lakoff says some people may couch their anti-Semitism in solidarity with the Palestine cause, but that’s not what the mass international movement is about.

“It’s unfathomable and simply impossible that all of those people would be standing up in support of Palestinian human rights because they are motivated by a hatred of Jews. It’s just ridiculous.”

The responsibility of Canadian artists and arts organizations

While thousands of Canadian artists and small organizations have signed petitions in solidarity with the Palestinian people, larger organizations steered clear.

Is it too much to expect organizations to weigh in on crisis that’s happening on another continent? How many people in the arts community, for example, are speaking up about the atrocities in Tigray, Ethiopia?

Faran Moradi argues that the culture industry also has a responsibility considering how it perpetuates colonial concepts and stereotypes, particularly when it comes to Arab or Muslim people.

The real shock, he says, “is their deafening silence.”

“I’m not even necessarily saying that they need to come out and criticize Israel. At the very least, look at these communities that are in pain and be like, ‘Hey, we hear you. We understand that public perception towards you is negative; and it has been for a long time. And we are going to do what we can to try to change that, the same way that we’ve been doing for other marginalized groups.’”

According to Lakoff, Canadians should also feel compelled to counter the dominant narratives put forward by people and institutions that speak on their behalf, particularly government officials. Ontario’s education minister Stephen Lecce tweeted his support for Israel against Hamas. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stays silent as Israel commits human rights violations and flaunts international law.

And groups like CIJA claim that all Jewish Canadians stand with Israel, says Lakoff. “What that does is it gives the impression to the world that there’s this kind of blanket support within world Jewry for Zionism and for the state of Israel, which is simply untrue.”

Lakoff points to the Koffler Centre petition as a compelling example of why artists should rally. The petition to boycott the Koffler Centre stems from its connection to the United Jewish Appeal, the absence of Palestinian artists in its showcases and actions in the past – like the cancellation of a show by Reena Katz, a Jewish artist, because of her support of Israeli Apartheid Week, a series of lectures and rallies on the human rights situation in Palestine.

“I think artists see an opportunity here when there is this normalization to intervene and to rightfully demand of their galleries, their institutions, that we should no longer be supporting this normalization.

“These artists are simply saying we need you to cut the ties with the UJA because we – as Jewish artists, as Palestinians, as artists of any nationality or faith – should have the freedom to rightfully criticize Israeli apartheid.”


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6 responses to “Canadian artists fear backlash for speaking on Israel-Palestine”

  1. It’s NOT a given, as this article implies, that everyone should side with the terrorist forces that control the Palestinian people.
    Maybe the “deafening silence” you hear is people choosing NOT to unquestioningly jump on board the Hamas-backed BDS movement!
    Botfarms in Iran are trolling people everywhere, including Toronto’s art community, putting tremendous pressure on individuals to denounce Israel—the only democracy that honors LGBTQ and women’s right in the Middle East.
    Stop bullying those who disagree with you, grow up, and deal with people making an informed choice, Radheyan.

    • “the Hamas-backed BDS movement”

      Surely pro-Israeli trolls have more sophisticated talking points than this.
      They know BDS was called for by close to 200 civil society groups in Palestine,
      but still resort to playing the “terrorism” card as their best argument. Pathetic.

  2. First, This is a one sided and explicitly biased article. The only Jewish voice here is that of Lakoff, a member of a tiny fringe anti-zionist group. Second, why is it that you do mention that 150 deadly rockets launched by Hamas and PIJ fell in Israel before any Israeli response? And then 4,000 rockets were launched against civilian populations in Israel? Third, the intersectional equivalence placing Palestinians as equally oppressed as indigenous or Black peoples is false. Middle East history is unique and must be understood as such. One must feel sympathy for Palestinians, because they are the victims of their own dictatorial theocratic corrupt ruthless leadership and because of surrounding Arab states for which they are a tattered football to be kicked around. Remember Sept 1070 or Black September ? Fourth, the Free Palestine slogan means literally free of Jews, ie the subtext that is not so “sub” is Arab supremacist ethnic cleansing , the end of the Jewish state and no doubt the expulsion and extermination of Jewish people there. And following that would be the Christians (check the huge drop in the Christian population of Bethlehem since its been under Palestinian control) the Bahais, the Samaritans, and other minorities. So, when artists and musicians parrot the Palestinian slogans, they think they are being righteous and moral in supporting the underdog, but in fact they are supporting a religiously inspired ethnically supremacist movement. They are being useful western fools.

  3. “Israel—the only democracy that honors LGBTQ and women’s right in the Middle East.”

    True. It is also predicated on the notion that ALL of Palestine (and that includes territory east of the Jordan River) belongs to the Jews and only the Jews. And please don’t tell me the founders of Israel accepted the UN partition plan, because that’s a myth concocted for the feeble-minded.

    I did not discover this from Iranian “botfarms”, btw. Practically I’ve learned about the history of Israel has been gleaned from Jewish writers, not all of them “self-hating” either.

  4. Not all Canadian Jews support Israel. I don’t. And those who do are having a hard time defending it, not only because of the horrible things it has done, but because it is now quite clear that as a Jewish state, it has no room for anyone who is not Jewish. And that includes the people who were there before Israel came into existence, the Palestinians.
    I have a friend who is a Palestinian Canadian activist. When he started doing this work, his parents were afraid it would get them deported. They had been citizens for forty years.

  5. “How many people in the arts community, for example, are speaking up about the atrocities in Tigray, Ethiopia?”
    — Perhaps we are guilty of this, but for Canadians isn’t Israel a different kettle of fish?

    Our government explicitly backs Israel and claims “Israeli values (such as murdering civilians) are Canadian values.”
    Canada sells and buys arms to and from Israel, gets police training and even insists that product truth-in-label rules are trumped by a trade agreement that lets wine made in the illegally occupied territories be labelled “Made in Israel”.

    In addition, governments and educational institutions across Canada repeatedly suppress criticism of Israel as anti-semitic, and this week we learned that the Green Party leader won’t defend her caucus when slandered by her own adviser for opposing Israel’s bombing of civilians.

    If Canadian governments and institutions are similarly supporting atrocities in Tigray, I haven’t heard of it.
    Has NOW been suppressing this news?

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