From a rural distance, the city of Toronto dazzles. It also puzzles me.
I gather that the municipal government there faces enormous challenges, and ever-shrinking resources. Same dilemma in the small rural county where I live.
How then do a few municipal councilors in Toronto get away with wasting so much time and public money on their perennial campaign to silence one apparently small but – judging by the degree of their hostility to it – surprisingly effective community group, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid?
Year after year a handful of councilors keep trying to silence it. No matter how many times they’re told by city legal staff that they have no legal grounds for doing so, no city legislation is being contravened, they keep trying.
When the majority of their fellow councilors fail to join their campaign, the determined few use executive fiat to delay or shut down debate. When they fail to bully city hall staff into producing an illegal legal decision, they dangle a bribe – really, what else can you call “a diversity bonus”? – if the Pride Toronto organization will do their dirty work for them by booting QuAIA from the big parade.
Year after year, intimidation, bullying, slippery maneuvers to short-circuit democracy. This is bizarre – isn’t it? Well, so it looks from a rural distance. Of course such things happen in small rural counties too, but somehow the stakes seem – well, smaller, less dangerous.
Then again, from a historical perspective this attempt to silence dissent is not unfamiliar to me. In 1968, my 24th year, homosexuality was still a crime in Canada, and still widely considered a mortal sin and a mental illness. That year, in a desperate bid to convert, I endured a year of electric shock ‘therapy’ at the hands of a psychiatrist. I would now call it torture.
Recovering in the early 1970s, I came out, became a gay activist and a writer. On a giddy summer day in 1981, I co-hosted Toronto’s first official Lesbian and Gay Pride Day, in Grange Park. By then it was no longer a crime but still an act of defiance to celebrate our Pride in public. Our grounds for pride: we defied fear and bigotry, we refused to be silent, and we demanded justice and equality – for all. We understood that human rights have no boundaries.
Then as now, some people, including some of our own tribe, told us to shut up, go away, stop ‘rocking the boat.’ But then as now, if a boat needs rocking, I’m with the rockers.
Which brings me – or took me – to Israel-Palestine. My latest book, Our Way to Fight, explores the lives of grassroots Israelis and Palestinians who defy the dominant politic to build grounds for a just peace in Palestine-Israel. It was from Jewish Israelis that I first heard the phrase “Israeli apartheid,” which they acknowledged with anguish. At first it was shocking to hear, but since then it’s been confirmed again and again by actions of the Israeli government, and by a range of eminent authorities on international law, including South Africans who know apartheid when they see it.
On my travels for the book, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem I met Netta Mishly and other young Israelis who’d been imprisoned for refusing compulsory conscription into the army. Just before entering military prison Netta declared: “I am not willing to be part of an organization committing war crimes in the name of humanism and democracy.”
When I met her, Netta Mishly had just returned from a speaking tour in the United States. At one event, she said, security had to escort her and fellow speaker Maya Wind to safety. “People were yelling and throwing things at us. Israel is doing very good PR work in the US, so many Jews there feel like Israel is theirs, they feel it belongs to them. I was quite offended by the arrogance of people who live so far away telling me, an Israeli, that by telling what I’ve witnessed and experienced I’m being disloyal to Israel and I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
It sounds remarkably similar to the Toronto councilors’ campaign to silence Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. In my experience this kind of arrogance is not unusual, it’s not limited to Israel’s backers, and it’s not exactly arrogance. When people feel they’re losing an argument, often they become angry and defensive, and do what they can to silence their antagonist, or failing that, to shut down debate.
It seems almost perversely ironic that the more these councilors try to suppress any criticism of Israel’s military occupation, the more attention they draw to its brutal realities: Every day more Palestinian homes bulldozed by the Israeli army, more Palestinian land stolen, more new Jews-only homes built on it, more olive groves burned by settlers, more Jews-only roads, more night raids on Palestinian villages, more non-violent protestors tear-gassed, shot with rubber-coated steel bullets, arrested and beaten, more Palestinians imprisoned without charge, more torture, more killing. Every day, more apartheid.
From a rural distance, having seen what I’ve seen, I can’t help thinking it’s about time Toronto’s elected representatives told the bullies among them: Enough – no, too much already – not one more day.