Image of a pie chart with title
Top purveyors of anti-Palestinian racism, as per a 2022 report from Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME). Source: CJPME.

The Deep Roots of Today’s Anti-Palestinian Racism

“The earliest mention of ‘terrorism’ in a [U.S.] federal statute, in 1969, dealt specifically with restricting humanitarian aid to Palestinians and inaugurated a pattern of rendering Palestinians synonymous with terrorism.” 

This is from a report published in February by Palestine Legal and the Centre for Constitutional Rights, titled Anti-Palestinian at the Core: The Origins and Growing Dangers of U.S. Antiterrorism Law.

The authors detail the various methods the U.S. and Israel used to label Palestinian refugees — who had been expelled from historic Palestine in the 1948 Nakba (the catastrophe) and again in 1967 after the Six Day War — as terrorist threats. 

Then-New York congressman Leonard Farbstein said as much in a 1969 speech when he claimed United Nations refugee camps for Palestinians were “being used for training purposes and the young children for whom the schools are being built and who are being fed and clothed are being trained as terrorists in these refugee camps.”

Today, pro-Israel advocacy groups, pundits, and politicians are using similar talking points to justify withholding funding from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the largest aid agency in Gaza by far. In January, Canada, the U.S., and other nations cut off funding to UNRWA. Following mounting public pressure and a lack of evidence that UNRWA employees had played a role in the Oct. 7 attacks, as Israel claimed, the European Union and then Canada announced they would resume funding. 

The authors of the Anti-Palestinian at its Core report also point out that six of the eight nations the U.S. has ever officially designated as state sponsors of terrorism are in the Middle East and North Africa, and for each of those six, “accusations of sheltering or supporting Palestinian liberation movements played a major role in their blacklisting.”

Those countries have included Iraq, Libya, South Yemen, Syria, Iran, and Sudan.

A key condition for removing Sudan from the list in 2021 was that it had to recognize Israel as a nation and normalize relations with it.

Source: Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

Shutting down solidarity 

Accusing Palestinians of being terrorists, or accusing those who show solidarity with Palestinians of being terrorist sympathizers, is at the heart of what the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association (ACLA) defines as anti-Palestinian racism.  

It’s “a form of anti-Arab racism that silences, excludes, erases, stereotypes, defames or dehumanizes Palestinians or their narratives,” the organization said in a 2022 report. 

This form of racism seeks to shut down any kind of conversation about, much less any solidarity with, Palestine or Palestinians. It can include being treated by employers and governments as a threat for no reason other than being Palestinian. It denies space for Palestinian voices, perspectives, and lived experiences, often leading to self-censorship.

In December, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) released a report that found over 500 instances of anti-Palestinian racism in statements from non-profit organizations, media, and governments throughout 2022.

The report found that one of the “most significant mechanisms” of anti-Palestinian racism is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism — both because it “threatens to suppress Palestinian perspectives” and because it’s officially been adopted by Canada’s Liberal government and numerous provinces, including Ontario. 

“Critics have long warned that IHRA conflates antisemitism with criticism of Israel, and for that reason, it is seen by many as a threat to political expression about Israel, including forms of activism in support of Palestinian rights,” the report notes.

Source: Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

Racist political consensus 

The fact that the Liberals have adopted the definition is “extremely dangerous, harmful, and controversial,” says Dyala Hamzah, associate professor of Arab history at the Université de Montréal, because it severely restricts people’s ability to criticize Israel’s government and its actions. 

But it’s nothing new.

There is “something continuous when it comes to Palestine-Israel,” says Hamzah, who is Palestinian, referring to how successive Canadian governments have supported Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land while demonizing those who criticize it. 

Like their previous Conservative counterparts, Trudeau’s Liberals have made this clear by continuously favoring Israel over Palestine in international trade, including updating the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement, and approving weapons exports and imports. (The Canadian government recently announced a pause on new arms export approvals, though existing approvals remain in effect.)

Likewise, his government’s powerful support for a Conservative motion to denounce the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement in 2016 was also meant to shut down Palestinian solidarity.

“What this tells me is that there is a cross-partisan agreement that Palestinians have been, since the start, the sacrificial lamb that was necessary to allow Israel to be born, to thrive, and to continue to exist,” says Hamzah. 

Denying, defaming, and erasing

CJPME’s report found that some of the most common examples of anti-Palestinian racism include silencing or excluding Palestinians; defaming Palestinians as antisemitic, terrorists, or terrorist sympathizers; and erasing Palestinians and their history.

This can include denying the existence of Palestine and Palestinians or denigrating Palestinian society, as happened recently when B.C. legislative assembly member Selina Robinson said Palestine was “a crappy piece of land” before Israeli colonization.

“Non-profit organizations — several of them self-defined as pro-Israel — were the worst offenders, producing two-thirds (67 per cent) of the recorded examples of APR [anti-Palestinian Racism],” the report states. “Media organizations were responsible for most of the remainder (33 per cent), with statements from other miscellaneous purveyors of anti-Palestinian Racism comprising the rest.”

The CJPME report, which only covers 2022, does not capture the everyday experiences of anti-Palestinian racism that many people face in Canada, like being called a terrorist for wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh (scarf) in public. 

Ignoring violence against Palestinians and those supporting Palestine

Since Oct. 7, there have been over a dozen instances of people across the country being physically violent to or making threats toward pro-Palestinian protesters. This included a man in Thornhill attacking people with a nail gun in March at a protest and yelling, “Every fucking Palestinian will die!” 

A few days later, also in Thornhill, a woman wearing a keffiyeh was kicked hard in the abdomen by someone holding an Israeli flag. The woman had been part of a group protesting against the illegal sale of land in the occupied West Bank that was being promoted by a local synagogue. 

The moment was captured in multiple videos. It took pro-Palestinian protesters pressuring the police for over an hour for the person to be arrested. Police also arrested two other pro-Israel protesters.

One pro-Israel protester not arrested that day made a throat-slitting motion towards the pro-Palestinian side seven times in a short exchange caught on video. In December, at a protest at the Avenue Rd. overpass of Highway 401, pro-Israel protester Nicole Ziegler was seen on video making the same throat-slitting gesture. Ziegler was later arrested and charged with uttering threats/death or causing bodily harm.

Almost no politicians have denounced these instances of violence aimed at Palestinians and their supporters. 

This pattern extends to Gaza, as Israel continues its bombing and ground invasion campaign. Politicians and pundits here rarely humanize the Palestinians killed by Israel, and they portray pro-Palestinian protests as dangerous and hateful, full of supposed “terrorists” or “terror supporters” and “antisemites”, and they call for their deportation. 

The CJPME report authors recommend that governments, nonprofits and other organizations include anti-Palestinian racism in their anti-racism materials. 

They also urge Canadian media to take special care when reporting on Israel-Palestine, as poor reporting can often be a source of anti-Palestinian racism, contributing to the prevalence of racist stereotypes about Palestinians. 

Asked how she’s able to handle the daily onslaught of anti-Palestinian racism, professor Hamzah says, “By constantly pushing back, pushing back, pushing back.”

This article appeared in the 2024 May/June issue.