It's the largest activist gather ing ever held in Toronto on the boycott-Israel project - 600 people at OISE for an evening and two days of plotting to do to Israel's occupation of Palestinian land what world outrage did to South African apartheid.
The conference, October 6-8, shows how much latent support there is for a shame-Israel campaign aimed at the way it deals with its occupied Palestinian population. But the gathering also reveals signs of how hard it will be to find a political vocabulary that the hardcore as well as the apprehensive can speak.
Hosted by the Toronto-based Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA), a newbie org formed to press for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (or, in activist lingo, BDS) against Israel, the affair welcomes participants from South Africa, Jerusalem, the U.S. and the UK. It also includes established local groups like the Canadian Arab Federation, Palestine House and the Jewish Women's Committee to End the Occupation.
"Maybe this conference will mark the beginning of a new era in our political struggle,' says Jamal Juma, who's travelled from Jerusalem, where he works with the Stop the Wall Campaign and with Palestinian agricultural workers.
But pitfalls as well as potential are on full display here in this room of Jews, Christians, Muslims and others. In a bid to summon some of the righteous outrage of an earlier political effort, there's much brandishing of South African imagery.
On display are pictures of white South African soldiers examining the pass cards of black civilians, next to images of Israeli troops sticking their guns in the faces of Arab women.
And, interestingly, South Africa has provided some of the strongest support for BDS, notably from the labour movement and progressive Jews.
"All of us reject the calumny that [criticism of Israel] equals animus against Jews or is dismissive of the Holocaust,' says Salim Vally, a university lecturer from Johannesburg on opening night. "In fact, the opposite is true.'
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) last month called for a boycott of Israeli goods - a decision inspired by a similar resolution supporting divestment passed last May by the Ontario division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
But before unions climbed onto the BDS bandwagon, there was a very mainstream presence in the campaign: church groups. In the U.S., it's the Presbyterians who have taken up the Palestinians' cause. In Canada, the faith leader has been the United Church. Earlier this year, the major denomination ventured into the Middle East political minefield.
Alas, that did not go well.
The original United Church proposal called for divestment from institutions that profit from the occupation. But that sparked a campaign by supporters of current Israeli policy, and in August the church altered the resolution so it became an "ethical investment' strategy. It bans dealings with groups "that engage in violence' against Palestinians as well as any organization or government "that refuses to recognize the legitimate rights of the state of Israel.'
"The United Church is doing a bit of a balancing act,' Richard Chambers, who serves on the church's ethical investment committee, tells a Sunday afternoon session. "Part of the challenge is being true to Palestinian demands to end the occupation while maintaining a dialogue with our faith partners.'
Karin Brothers, a United Church layperson who has been active in the BDS effort, remains hopeful even though the official church climb-down was proclaimed by B'nai Brith as a victory. Among members like herself there's still widespread support for divestment, she says, though it's a semi-ceremonial call, since Israel produces few products for this market.
Certainly, this kind of very well-meaning, middle-class Canadian is central to Canada's support for the South African anti-apartheid cause. Then prime minister Brian Mulroney took an international leadership role in the campaign that culminated in the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990.
But these truths seem lost at this gathering, where activists go out of their way to knit the Palestinian struggle into an overarching narrative of anti-imperialism and anti-corporate globalism.
It's hardly the kind of talk that will go over well in the pews of the 2,000 United Churches across Canada.
And while coalition-building often means agreeing to disagree on certain points as the price of working together, here speakers sometimes go out of their way to isolate potential allies.
For example, conference organizer Rafeef Ziadah not only slags NDP foreign affairs critic Alexa McDonough for belonging to the Canada-Israel Inter-Parliamentary Group, but also lights into Noam Chomky and other allies who do not support the right of Palestinians to return to their lands and properties, a popular motif here.
To clarify: Chomsky said supporting such a demand would be to "dangle hopes that will not be realized before the eyes of people suffering in misery and oppression.'
"Justice is never the best option of the colonizer, but the only option for the colonized,' Ziadah sniffs.
As if to make their chances of success even more remote, organizers have decorated the front of the OISE auditorium with a three-panel banner that reads, "One Person, One Vote, One State' - a call for the Jewish state to become a non-religious federation of Jews and Arabs.
Many in the room would no doubt agree with the view that a state should not privilege one religious faith over another, especially when the favoured faith displaces an indigenous population that always lived on that land. "Why doesn't this mean anything to anybody?' Juma asks plaintively after detailing the routine humiliation of Palestinians.
But whereas South African apartheid was a question of black and white, the Israel-Palestinian situation is a far more tangled affair in which the legacy of the Holocaust looms large. There were few defenders of South African apartheid other than some Afrikaners who profited from it. But Israel has many defenders and will have greater success in its campaigns against those not disciplined in their criticisms of it.
For example, Anita Bromberg, human rights coordinator for B'nai Brith, tells me after the conference that to use the word "apartheid' in relation to Israel is "not to engage in debate but to [hold] pre-conceived notions and unfairly attack a democratic state.'
The task is to find the moral bottom line that skittish middle-class Canadians can sign onto. Judging by this past weekend, that work has only just begun.