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.

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

Toronto Pride. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org His personal biography can be viewed here: www.petertatchell.net/biography.htm

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation