The House of Commons this month voted overwhelmingly to condemn BDS, the movement that aims to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.
The motion, put forward by Conservative members of Parliament Tony Clement and Michelle Rempel, reads fairly simply: “That, given Canada and Israel share a long history of friendship as well as economic and diplomatic relations, the House reject the BDS movement, which promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the state of Israel, and call upon the government to condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad.”
The Liberal government backed the motion while the New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois opposed it, leading to a lopsided 229-51 victory.
A handful of Liberal MPs abstained and two voted against, but the vast majority of government members backed the Conservative motion. Two NDP MPs abstained from their party’s otherwise monolithic opposition to the motion. Both are Vancouver-area MPs – Vancouver Kingsway’s Don Davies and Port Moody-Coquitlam’s Fin Donnelly.
Supporters of the motion expressed views that have been prominent in these pages in recent weeks: that BDS unfairly targets one side in a conflict, that it is counterproductive and possibly based on bigotry. Opponents of the motion took a more novel approach.
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said, “This goes against the freedom of expression we hold so dear in our society … to call upon the government to condemn someone for having that opinion, that’s unheard of.” He said the motion “makes it a thought crime to express an opinion” and contended that it is fair to disagree with BDS and still debate its arguments.
We like to think that you would be hard-pressed to find a more thoroughgoing defence of free expression than has appeared in this space over the past 20 years, and even longer. We have routinely taken a stand for open expression when some readers and community leaders urged variations on censorship. Yet the NDP leader’s defence of free expression is confused at best.
The motion does not make it illegal to support BDS. If it did, we would be out with our figurative pitchforks and torches opposing it. What the motion does is condemn a despicable idea. And here is where so many people who claim to support free expression in principle actually screw it up in the execution.
Mulcair argued that we should be able to debate BDS. That is precisely what Parliament did through this motion. He argued that his party does not support BDS, merely free speech. Leaving aside that several unions that support the NDP also support BDS, and that the NDP is the natural home in Canadian politics for anyone else who believes in BDS, his circumlocution on our sacred freedoms provides a tidy cover for avoiding the real issue that could paint his party into a corner: some – a few? a lot? a majority? – of his party members and MPs do, in fact, support the BDS movement. So, to avoid condemning BDS and perhaps alienating party members and supporters, he cloaked himself in a non sequitur of free expression, debasing the very value he claimed to be defending.
Too often, when unpopular views are expressed, those who might be counted upon to contest them abdicate that responsibility, defaulting to the argument that bad ideas are protected by our values of free expression. Indeed, they are. But so, too, are good ideas!
Supporters of BDS absolutely have a right to express their views. And, although it seems difficult for Mulcair to comprehend, so do its opponents. Every Canadian has a right to express their opinion within limitations around which our society has largely developed a consensus. Elected officials not only have a right, but an obligation to do so. A parliamentary motion condemning a terrible idea does not detract from anyone’s right to express and support that bad idea. In fact, it is the embodiment of free speech in action.