By Frank Barat
‘I will support Israel whatever the cost,’ recently said Stephen Harper, Canadian Prime Minister. When it comes to Israel, Mr Harper could not be more clear. He is not hiding behind pragmatic statements like his neighbour Mr Obama, who despite his active and blind support for Israel on a day to day basis (diplomatic, financial, military, moral) always, at least when making public statements, tries to fool people by saying how much he wants peace and how much the Palestinians deserve a State.
Mr Harper is, when it comes to Israel, a pretty unique politician: He tells the truth.
His statement was in my head when I landed in Montreal, on a very cold Sunday afternoon. How do Canadians feel about being ‘governed’ by someone who is ready to support a foreign, far away country, whatever the cost might be, including for the people who ‘elected’ him as Prime Minister.
Having been invited by various student groups to give talks, during Israeli Apartheid Week, in 4 Canadian cities about the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, a popular tribunal created in 2009 to expose third parties complicity in Israel’s violations of International Law, gave me a great opportunity to try to answer this question.
Montreal is cold. Very cold. When the great organiser of my tour told me to take some warm clothes, before I left London, I did. What I did not realise, or thought enough about, was that the warm clothes I had were for a Northern Europe type of weather. Warm clothes for London and warm clothes for Montreal are two different things. When she asked me, watching me freeze waiting for a bus, if I had put 2 pairs of socks on, I felt like I was in fact not much more intelligent than those people who arrive at Heathrow airport in London, in February, wearing shorts, t-shirt, sunglasses and an ‘Australia’ cap.
The opportunity to get inside an auditorium, for a screening of ‘Tears of Gaza’ organised by Cinema Politica, was therefore very much welcomed.
The room was packed. Probably the biggest turn out for a political film I had ever seen. A staff member of Cinema Politica introduced the film, and warned the audience that some scenes in the film were very graphic and very hard to take.
In spite of the warning, the audience was not ready for what was to come.
I saw at least 15 people live the auditorium crying, and one man, in the middle of the film, fainted and was taken out of the room. A woman left yelling “why are they doing this, why?”.
I stayed, not because I enjoyed it, but because the people in the film deserved me to stay and listen to their story. I stayed, because sometimes, you do need to get punched in the face really hard to understand how terrible things really are. Watching this film made me think and change the way I see things. The death toll in Gaza, during the massacre of December/January 2008-2009, killed a lot more than 1400 people. It did because this number does not take into account the people that have been psychologically killed. The youth that has lost the will to live. (A Lancet study, a few months after the Israeli invasion, came to the conclusion that 70% of the under 16 in Gaza-amounting to 50% of the population- had ‘lost the will to live’.)
This film and the people in it were in my head when I gave my first talk at UQAM (Universite du Quebec a Montreal) in front of an audience made of students, activists, artists and people from the local community.
During the whole presentation, what stroke me was the way everyone was actively listening. People took notes, nodded, smiled, raised their eyebrows and the room remained still when I gave some examples of Israel inhuman treatment of the Palestinian People.
The Q&A lasted longer than planned and a lot of people, from various backgrounds asked very interesting and challenging questions. What was also very interesting was that the only 2 ‘Israel supporters’ present, even if they asked questions, remained calm, polite and hardly challenged the main message of my talk: Israel is an Apartheid State.
During the next few days, I felt same level of intensity from the audience in every city I was given the chance to talk.
In Kingston a small town in Ontario known for its university and its prisons, where young student and teachers from Queens University, listened to my over long talk and where the Q&A lasted more than 1 hour.
At University of Ottawa campus, where I shared a panel with a great Palestinian academic, Rabbab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, who spoke about women and gender issues in resistance movements and dedicated her talk, on International Women’s day, to all the women that are on the front lines and are undeniably one of the biggest strength of the pro-justice movement right now.
Finally in Toronto, at a time when Gaza was being bombed (more than usual) again and was in everyone’s head, where I sat next to Faisal Bhabha, a Canadian human rights lawyer who lived in Palestine for 2 years, for a talk titled “A People’s interrogation of Law and Human Rights”.
This week in Canada was one of the more intense and interesting I have spent in the last few years. It gave me a great insight of the pro-justice movement in this part of North America and before anything, reinforced my opinion that the pro-justice, pro-Palestine movement was growing in terms of quantity, quality and variety of people involved.
The numbers/statistics speak for themselves.
When Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) was created, in Canada, in 2005, only a few cities were involved. In 2012, in part thanks to the emergence of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, more than 120 cities, all over the world, had daily events, film screening, workshops and talks taking place during a whole week. Most talks I took part in were attended by a great number of people and the great cultural events in Ottawa and Toronto were packed.
What was, in my opinion, even more telling than the numbers above was the type of people involved. The audiences were incredibly mixed. People from all backgrounds, all walks of life, all ages, all ethnicities made the events challenging, interesting and often exhilarating. Young students came with their parents. Faculty teachers interested in the Palestine question attended with their kids. Artists, lawyers and academics were always present in numbers. The positive energy coming out of every single room I was in was simply incredible. The overwhelming feeling I left with was one of empowerment.
It is thanks to such initiatives that Palestine is still the issue. Despite the active role that our governments and the mainstream corporate media play in helping Israel pursue its oppression of the Palestinian People in total impunity, the People once again, are the ones making the agenda, making history.
Palestine has become a symbol of what is wrong with the world we are living in but also a symbol of what is possible when people unite, resist, stand together in solidarity and at the end of the day, make their governments irrelevant.
This movement, with a very simple message calling for justice, freedom and equality for all, is getting more globalised and internationalised every day and will prove unstoppable.
Stephen Harper will one day regret his words.
Unfortunately for him, it will be too late.
– Frank Barat is a Human Rights activist based in London. He is one of the coordinators of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, a popular tribunal created in 2009 to expose and examine Israel’s impunity in regards to its treatment of the Palestinian People. He has edited two books; ‘Gaza in Crisis’ with Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe, and ‘Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation’ with Asa Winstanley. He has also participated in the book ‘Is there a court for Gaza?’ with Daniel Machover.