Presentation to Vancouver Public Library Board, 2 Nov. 2011
My name is Anne Roberts and I am representing the Seriously Free Speech Committee, a group of people in this region who work to ensure – and encourage – free and open debate about the contentious issue of Palestine and Israel. Seriously Free Speech began in 2008 as a defense organization for three activists who were being sued by Canwest for putting out a parody of the Vancouver Sun and its one-sided Middle East coverage and support for Israel.
The letter that you received from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver — and the even more strident letter from the Simon Weisenthal Centre — are prime examples of why our group’s work is necessary to defend the right of free speech.
The federation urged city council and the library board to shut down a discussion of Palestinian statehood that involved an analysis of the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Their reasons: 1) the discussion is intensely political; 2) it is hostile to Israel; 3) no political propaganda either for or against Israel should be allowed in the library. As well, the Federation charged that the event would 4) endanger people’s safety and physical security.
I fully support the Federation’s right to find the event’s subject matter upsetting. I support their right to offer opposing views on the debate, either at the event itself if open to the public — or at their own events. As it happens, six Israeli supporters attended the meeting in question and took part in the debate.
However, I am outraged that the Federation would attempt to block the rights of others to discuss these issues. It seems to me especially egregious to try to shut down free speech at a public library. If not at a library, then where are citizens in a democracy to be exposed to a full range of ideas and opinions??
It is also important to say that there has been no history of physical confrontation at such events and – innuendo aside – ordinary citizens have never had cause to worry about their physical safety at or near such events.
If this were an isolated case, the Seriously Free Speech Committee would likely not be here tonight. After all, the VPL responded to a complaint in full accordance with its policies. We congratulate the VPL for upholding the Canadian Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Statement on the library’s role as a public space for the discussion of ideas.
But what is terribly worrying to us – and to the other groups here – is that the Jewish Federation’s complaint is part of a growing and now widespread international campaign across Canada, indeed throughout North America, Europe and around the world to shut down supporters of Palestine and critics of Israel.
Because this complaint is not an isolated case, it is important to carefully consider the whole picture. We have to know how and why freedom of speech is being attacked in order to defend it.
Over the past few years, there have been a number of disturbing examples in which groups have been accused of bringing politics where it doesn’t belong, of using words that are inappropriate or disturbing, and – most threatening of all – of being anti-semitic. Some recent attacks:
Pressure was put on administrators at several Canadian university campuses to prevent students from participating in Israeli Apartheid Week.
An exhibit of children’s art reflecting their experiences during bombardment of Gaza was canceled by Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland, Ca. due to pressure by two pro-Israel organizations.
A campaign, including threats of lawsuits, was launched to stop the UBC Social Justice Committee, a student group, from giving a donation to the Canadian Boat to Gaza
Shaw Cable demanded that the term “ethnic cleansing” and “Israeli apartheid” be bleeped from video recordings of speakers before being allowed to be shown on the so-called community channel as a result of anonymous complaints.
Instead of dealing with the rights and wrongs of occupation, racial and religious discrimination, collective punishment and other such matters, Israel’s supporters have developed a strategy to shut down, to silence, to intimidate those who are critical of Israel. Instead of debating the issues, Israel’s supporters are trying to avoid a debate altogether.
A dangerous part of this strategy is to expand the definition of antisemitism to include criticism of Israel. Pro-Israel groups are increasingly pressuring governments, universities, organizations to adopt such a broad definition. Criticism of Israel would be virtually banned.
Israel’s supporters developed this strategy as a response to the growing criticism and opposition to Israel’s policies and practices in the occupied territories and within Israel. Although these tactics are sometimes successful, increasingly people of integrity and conscience are speaking against such attempt at censorship and in support of the democratic rights of all of us.
Thank you for listening to this presentation.
Anne Roberts, Co-chair, Seriously Free Speech Committee