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

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.