The horrendous killings and taking of hostages of hundreds of Israeli civilians by Hamas fighters in the Gaza Strip is generating a lot of sympathy and concern across political spectrum in Canada and that makes sense.

What is worrying is the lack of a similar response to the call by the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for 2.3 million Palestinians to desert their 365 square kilometer urban enclave in Gaza ahead of a possible military invasion designed to obliterate the Hamas presence by land and air.

Where would these refugees (descendants of an earlier group of expelled Palestinians from the new state of Israel in 1948) go is not clear as their enclave is surrounded by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean.

There is one lonely Canadian voice, MPP for Hamilton Centre Sarah Jama, who tweeted for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas to avoid war. She is being opposed by her own party, the NDP, which used to make this kind of declaration as a matter of course.

Already, there is fresh Israel aerial bombing of Gaza and the decision has been made to keep fuel, water, food and electricity out of the enclave which relies on the outside world for most basic essentials. The World Health Organization is reporting that medicines are running out too.

The problem is that we have seen before Israel efforts to punish Hamas in Gaza through a combo of tightened supplies and aerial bombardment since the siege by the Jewish state began in 2007. 

And so, in the words of one observer, the situation has been sadly “normalized.” 

The political climate in Canada has historically been very pro-Israel, and so jumping on board lately to support Israel post Hamas attack under the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau is not surprising.

All of this made things challenging for the approximately 45,000 people of Palestinian origins living in this country.

I have met Palestinian Canadians who prefer to call themselves Jordanian or Lebanese to avoid harassment and possible loss of employment. 

Now, a few articulate voices have emerged who are open about their Palestinian identity. They include Saeed Teebi, the celebrated author of Her First Palestinian and Other Stories and Mark Muhannad Ayyash, who teaches sociology at Mount Royal University in Calgary and is a columnist for Al Jazeera. 

I approached Samer Abdelnour, a Toronto born academic of Palestinian origins for his perspective.

He is the co-author of a chapter, Exclusion and Exile, in a forthcoming collection of articles, Canada as a Settler Colony on the question of Palestine, edited by Jeremy Wildeman and Mark Muhannad Ayyash.

Abdelnour says he gained a fuller appreciation of how challenging the situation is for Palestinians living in Canada after moving to the UK and becoming a senior lecturer in the University of Edinburgh School of Business.

“Moving outside Canada I have had the opportunity to better understand the anxieties of speaking out, the degree to which Palestinians here self censor, ” he stated.

“There is tremendous hostility in Canada to anybody who speaks of Palestinian rights or is perceived as being critical of Israel and its practices with regards to human rights and the occupation,” he explains.

In contrast, Abdelnour continues, “In the UK and other places where I have lived, there seems to be more space and room for discussing the issue of Palestine.” 

He blames the popularity of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism among governments at the federal and provincial level for the negative political climate in Canada.

Although the IHRA was also adopted in the UK, it really has taken hold in Canada, he explained.

A number of scholars in Jewish studies have attacked the IHRA for its Israel only orientation (and in effect downplaying the more traditional form of antisemitism) including Antony Lerman, the British author of Whatever Happened to Antisemitism: Redefinition and the Myth of the Collective Jew (2022). He writes that Irwin Cotler, the special envoy appointed by Justin Trudeau to preserve Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism played a role in the formulation of the IHRA, along with the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

Among the eleven examples of antisemitism provided by the IHRA is the assertion that Israel constitutes “a racist endeavour.” 

This specifically targets the Palestinian historical narrative of the Nakba where 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or displaced from their homeland by Zionist militias in the founding in 1948 of the Jewish state of Israel.

To be called an antisemite for citing the Nakba is classic anti-Palestinian racism, says Abdelnour.

It is an academic rite of passage for Abdelnour to experience APR style microaggressions.

“When I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto I was elected to serve as a member on the Governing Council representing my campus. During that time another member of the council repeatedly made anti-Palestinian comments to me, including advocating for mass murder of Palestinians. I was still young at the time and didn’t feel I could address his bigotry within the council, and so chose to withdraw from the position,” he stated.

More recently, Abdelnour was approached by a colleague at a conference who reacted negatively to an essay he had published on Israel’s military industrial complex. 

“Rather than discuss the work however, he proceeded to engage in genocide and (Israel) Apartheid denial, as well as tokenization and belittling the Palestinian condition,” he added.

Unfortunately, local Palestinians in Canada will find themselves having to carefully navigate past the raw emotions still festering after the Hamas attack in order to express their own unique perspective. It may not be easy, just as it was hard to talk about root causes following the 9-11 attacks on the twin towers in Manhattan in 2001. 

Editors note 2023/10/16: It was reported in this story by that a Hamilton NDP MPP in the Ontario legislature Sarah Jama in a tweet this week called for a ceasefire in face of an impending Israeli military invasion threatening the besieged people of Gaza following a brutal Hamas attack. Her party, the NDP had not at the time taken a position. But this changed on Saturday, October 14 when delegates at the federal NDP convention in Hamilton indeed called for such an action as part of an emergency resolution on the crisis.
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