Sunday, July 23, 2006

Thoughts on Yesterday's Montreal Demonstration Against Israeli Aggression

At least two thousand people – possible many more than that – came out to protest Israeli aggression, marching through the drizzling rain in downtown Montreal yesterday. Media reports than “1,000” were there are bullshit, but i can’t be sure exactly how many there were, as this was the most densely packed demo i have ever been at – and like any densely packed material, it flowed slowly through the streets…

The demonstration was mainly made up of members of Montreal’s Arab communities, but not completely so – there were also many of the regulars from the anarchist scene, the Maoist RCP-OC had members interspersed in the crowd, and i noticed a few Trots, albeit without any of their regular calling cards (i.e. not a copy of The Militant or Socialist Worker to be found). But this was clearly a protest grounded in the Arab immigrant communities, i assume especially the Lebanese, as the latter form by far the largest Arab community in Montreal.

The level of politics seemed to toggle between anti-war sloganeering and nationalism, all with an obvious anti-zionist spin. There were so many flags – mainly Lebanese, some Palestinian, but also a number of Fleur-de-Lys and Maple Leafs – and most signs being the kind that simply called for an end to the killing, some taking a more direct aim at Israel, with signs like “Shame on You” or “End Israeli Apartheid”.

This makes sense given why people are out marching. This is not an abstract “maybe there’ll be a war” like the metropolitan peace movements in the 80s were protesting, nor is this a protest against somebody else’s predicament, like the various demonstrations against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The majority of these people were out protesting the destruction of their homeland, of the land where many still have family and friends, and they were protesting this while it was actually going on. In such a context falling back on simple “Stop the Violence” type sentiments makes sense.

As for nationalism – well, isn’t the appeal obvious when a country is being bombed so viciously? Children are being killed because they are Lebanese – so the defiant desire to (as one woman’s sign read) “Rally To Our Flag, Our Nation, Our Glory” isn’t tough to figure out.

Furthermore, people should notice that racist politicians and radio talk show hosts have already being playing the “real Canadian” card, implying that “dual citizen” Canadians are somehow less deserving of rights or respect than their pure bred neighbours. We heard this most disgustingly in bipartisan remarks made as Canada bungled its evacuation of Canadian citizens from Lebanon. In what could be a situation of literal life or death, with an estimated 40,000 Canadians in Lebanon, MP Garth Turner has argued that evacuees should be separated out depending on if they share Lebanese citizenship, with only the “pure” Canadians being the ones who should be saved, or at least the ones who should be saved first. (Of course, this is avoiding he truly painful fact that either evacuation amount to saving “our” citizens so that Israel can safely murder anyone who is left without causing too much of a diplomatic kerfuffle.)

So in a situation where people are not only under attack in Lebanon, but also face racist discrimination here in Canada – all the more reason why nationalist sentiments should come to the fore. While i don’t support it, i don’t necessarily oppose it, or at least not in the form i saw it expressing itself yesterday.

car flies canadian, quebecois, lebanese and palestinian flags at yesterday's demo

What is more problematic, though again very understandable in a sad kind of way, was the Canadian and Quebecois nationalism in evidence. I’m talking about the ones saying Harper has “betrayed” us, or that Canada should not turn its back on its past as noble peacekeeper, or the Quebec and Canadian flags … in other words the wrapping oneself in imperialist flags insisting that the “real Canadian” or “real Quebecois” national interests and values lie with the Lebanese victims of imperialism.

This fosters dangerous illusions.

Canada is a nation founded on settlerism and invasion, just like Israel. Anti-zionists are fond of describing Israeli policies as “apartheid”, pointing out the similarities with the draconian racial controls which existed in South Africa until 1991, but what some may forget is that South Africa itself was merely perfecting and sharpening the lessons learned from the colonial experience around the world, including Canada, which had its own “pass laws” for Indians – indeed, in 1902 a South African delegation visited this country to study these laws…

Nor is this ancient history. Check out the situation at Grassy Narrows. Check out the struggle people have had to wage outside of Caledonia, at Six Nations. This is the country where indigenous women comprise 2% of the population, but 46% of those in maximum security prisons. This is the country tuberculosis rated 17 times higher amongst indigenous people than settlers.

This is the country which claims the maple leaf, and this is the flag some people are holding up in opposition to the Israeli flag, as the “good country” which should be standing up against “the bad one”.

As radical leftists, what we have to point out is that Harper’s tacit support for Israel is not an aberration, nor is it a “scandal” or a “betrayal” – it is merely the logical and consistent expression of his right-wing politics on the world stage.

Opposing a progressive “Canadian” or “Quebecois” nationalism to zionism also muddies the waters as to what the latter is, and why we should oppose it. Unlike those who hold that zionism is “worst than the nazis” or “the most racist ideology ever” – opinions which are as ahistorical as they are anti-semitic – zionism is in fact nothing more or less than the ideology of turning the Jewish people into a new colonialist nation.

In this zionism is certainly racist, and certainly reactionary, and certainly must be opposed 100% - but it is also certainly in the same category as Canadian nationalism or American nationalism. Or even certain varieties of Quebecois nationalism. The idea that a group of people – call it a nation or an ethnic group or whatever – should take a piece of land, subjugate those who live there or force them to flee, and found a new nation on the bones of its victims is not one which was thought up by Theodor Herzl – he was merely trying to apply the lessons of European world conquest to his own people, hoping for a Jewish colonial State in the same way that England and France and Belgium and the other Euro-powers had set up “their” colonial states.

Opposing zionism while embracing Canadianism is a defensive move by a community which is currently under attack from the former, and realizes it may be able to defend itself with the latter. This is what i call “protective politics”, where people adopt symbols or claim values out of desperation, because they realize that this may be what it takes to save some lives.

However, embracing one form of colonialist nationalism in order to oppose another makes no sense as a political line for the left. For us, we must try to push the level of struggle beyond anti-zionism to anti-canadianism, to a more general and explicit and radical anti-colonialism.

For instance, rather than adopting the highly dubious “Star of David equals Swastika” imagery which was visible in some sections of the demonstration, i think it would make more sense to put forward a “Down with Canada – Down with Israel” or some such. (This is of course leaving out the stupid ambiguity of such imagery in general – for the Star of David is the symbol for all Jews, including those who are anti-zionist…)

The linkage of zionism with nazism is really just a way of saying “fuck you” to Israel’s most vocal supporters, most of whom are Jews and will obviously get upset by this amalgamation. But on a political level it does nothing to clarify the nature of this conflict or our reasons for opposing the zionist settler state – which should be because it is colonialist. It makes much more sense to connect our opposition to Israeli crimes to our opposition to Canadian crimes against the First Nations.

About which i guess i could write more, but this post is getting long enough… so you’ll have to wait til some other day…


  1. Very well said, K, and you gave me something to think about... Indeed, it is colonialism that is the problem, and that makes Canada not that much different, even if the violence is not on the same scale now...

  2. I too was disturbed by the Québec and Canadian nationalism, and also by the demo spokespeople repeatedly leading the crowd in cheers of "Merci Québec". I also found the politicians speeches opportunistic and for this reason offensive, and the affected communities in struggle under-represented on the demo stage at the Place Guy-Favreaux. I heard the number reported by the CBC was 10,000, while the organizers' estimate announced was 100,000 (unlikely). I would say it was -- at its high point -- closer to 20,000 people. A final observation on the nationalism of Lebanese-Canadians. I struggle with the question of whether all nationalisms are created equal -- and whether they are equally destructive (or similarly constituted through racist processes of "Othering"). But as the demo ended and some young demonstrators got into their cars -- sporting Lebanese flags -- to cruise boulevard St-Laurent, the whole thing reminded me more of the recent World Cup fever than a protest of a genocide in progress.