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Israel row: The bid to defund Toronto LGBT Pride is straightforward censorship

The bid to ban pro-Palestine group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid as well as the slogan “Israeli apartheid” is a direct attack on freedom of speech and the right to protest.

Toronto Pride.
Toronto Pride. Photograph: Getty Images.

A group of Toronto city councillors will file a motion on 28 May to cut the grant to Toronto LGBT Pride unless the organisers agree to ban the participation of a pro-Palestinian activist group, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA). They also want to ban the use of the phrase ‘Israeli apartheid’.

The funding cut of $123,807 would jeopardise the future of Toronto Pride, just four week’s before the annual one million-strong downtown parade and a year before it is due to host the global lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) festival, WorldPride 2014.

According to Toronto journalist Andrea Houston, the move to withdraw city money from Toronto Pride is being spearheaded by councillors David Shiner and James Pasternak - the latter is seeking to have the phrase “Israeli apartheid” banned.

This proposed ban is supported by Anita Bromberg, from the Jewish human rights organisation, B'nai Brith. She added that there is no place for such language because Pride is not political: "This is a city-wide celebration. I am deeply offended."  

Francisco Alvarez, co-chair of Pride Toronto, says Pasternak and his colleagues are wrong to suggest that by allowing QuAIA to participate in the parade they are endorsing its viewpoint and should face financial penalisation.

“That is just not true,” he says. “We do not hold any view with regard to the Israel/Palestine conflict at all. We simply provide a platform for groups that are organized within our community to express their views, as long as they conform with the laws of the land ... It sounds to me that, since we won’t reject QuAIA, [Pasternak] is making a link that we are supporting their perspective. We support them as a community group. We support other groups as well.”

Another councillor, Frank Di Giorgio, told Canada’s leading LGBT news magazine, Xtra!, that the dispute is one of “competing rights.”

“The message that [QuAIA] sends out ... I believe in protecting rights, but I draw the line when you start protecting one right that infringes on another right. Then you have to look at it in closer detail ... I suspect we will try and use sanctions if we have to, like, for example, not providing funding if they don’t fall in line.”

The co-chair of Queer Ontario, Nick Mulé, believes councillors Di Giorgio and Pasternak are more interested in censorship opinions than protecting rights. It’s inaccurate to describe the dispute as one of “competing rights,” he argues, because the right to religious freedom doesn’t mean the right to suppress other people’s viewpoints.

“They are trying to shut down dialogue and infringe on freedom of expression,” he says. “QuAIA is not a people-hating group. Their message is a critical analysis of political policy. If we don’t have the freedom to critique policy, then we are really in trouble as a society.”

I agree. I am amazed that in a supposedly liberal democracy like Canada the country’s main Pride parade can be threatened with the removal of city funding because some councillors disagree with one organisation and one slogan.

Their demand for a ban is straightforward censorship. It’s a direct attack on free speech and the right to protest - and, some people might say, borderline blackmail.

Pride parades should be open to all individuals and organisations that support LGBT human rights. There should be no political vetting, unless the participants are homophobic, incite violence or oppose the human rights of others.

Lots of people may disagree with QuAIA and even find their rhetoric offensive. But in a democracy they have as much right to free speech as pro-Israeli groups. The main issue is not whether QuAIA is justified in its criticisms of Israeli policy but whether it has a right to freedom of expression.

QuAIA does not support violence against Jews or Israelis. It is merely protesting against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and the abusive, humiliating subjugation of the Palestinian people by Israeli soldiers and extremist settlers. This occupation and mistreatment hurts both straight and LGBT Palestinians, which makes it a legitimate concern for LGBT people everywhere who care for universal human rights.

I was proud to march with Queers Against Israeli Apartheid in the 2011 New York LGBT Pride parade. I found them passionate, idealistic and humanitarian. There were no anti-Semitic chants. They want a homeland for the Palestinians. They support a just cause: the human rights of LGBT and straight Palestinians.

Although many people find the apartheid accusation offensive, in the occupied territories Israel has an apartheid-style system of separate settlements and separate roads for Jews and non-Jews. Palestinians have their own segregated check-points and border-crossings, plus a separation wall which, whatever its supposed justification, divides two peoples based primarily on their ethnicity.

While pro-Israelis reject the apartheid analogy, it has been echoed by the Nobel peace laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He says the Israeli system in the occupied territories segregates two peoples and involves many different laws that discriminate against Palestinians, either by intention or default.

Some people question why the fate of the Palestinians concerns me. Well, I am a human rights defender who believes in the principle of universal human rights. To me, human rights are for everyone, including Israelis and Palestinians, whether gay or straight.

Human rights are about more than gay rights. I am not a gayist. I never judge any government or people solely on their stance on LGBT issues. It is important to consider all aspects of human tights, not just gay ones. By any standards, LGBT and straight Palestinians are being denied human rights by Israel, as well as by their own regimes.

Israel is gay-friendly. Very commendably, it has good equality laws for LGBT people: the best in the Middle East. Indeed, vastly better than the surrounding homophobic Arab tyrannies.

But there is a downside too. Although Israel likes to use its gay rights record to project a liberal image to the outside world, it refuses asylum to Palestinians fleeing homophobic and transphobic persecution.

The truth is that Israel’s LGBT-friendly democracy is, to a considerable extent, based on the conquest of the Palestinian people. No amount of progressive LGBT policies can justify Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, the building of illegal new settlements and the on-going seizure of Palestinian farms and houses. Moreover, some of the victims of these Israeli expropriations are gay Palestinians.

LGBT equality in a society based on the dispossession of the Palestinian people is not true liberation; it colludes with oppression. Queers Against Israeli Apartheid are right to expose the tainted rainbow flag that flies over Israel.

Peter Tatchell was a founding member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (UK) in 1982. He has repeatedly condemned human rights abuses by Israel and the Palestinians, particularly by the Hamas regime in Gaza. More information about his human rights campaigns: www.PeterTatchell.net