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November 9, 2010

The Montreal BDS conference: Stepping up the pressure on Israel

by Sid Shniad *

Israel Wall

In late October, the growing Palestine solidarity movement got a big boost, thanks to the convening of a huge, spirited international conference in Montreal that focused on building the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign to force Israel to comply with Palestinians' human rights and abide by international law. Attended by six hundred people from all walks of life, all ages, and a variety of ethnicities that included participants from Quebec, Canada, and the world, the conference was an uplifting experience for participants.

Set on the campus of the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM), the conference took place from Friday evening, October 22 through Sunday afternoon, October 24. The opening panel on Friday night featured keynote speeches by Areej Jaafari, a young woman activist from the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem; Palestinian thinker and human rights activist Omar Barghouti, founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI); and Steven Faulkner, international officer for the South African Municipal Workers' Union. The rest of the conference was divided into educational workshops and sectoral organizing sessions.

Educational workshops included Apartheid 101 -- Lessons from South Africa; Indigenous struggles from Turtle Island to Palestine; Access to Health Care Under Apartheid; Israeli Apartheid as a Feminist Struggle; Popular Resistance to Israeli Apartheid; Land and Environment under Israeli Apartheid; Canada and its relationship to Israel; and Jewish support for BDS.

Presenters included representatives of the Stop the Wall Campaign, Palestine; the British Committee for Universities in Palestine (BRICUP); US feminist organization CODEPINK and hip-hop artist Invincible from Detroit, along with Jewish Voice for Peace from the States and Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning sessions took took the form of sectoral workshops focusing on Labour and Trade Union Support for BDS, Academic Boycott and Divestment, Consumer Boycott Campaigns, Community Organizations, Cultural Boycott, Queer Organizing for BDS, and Ending Governmental Support for Israeli Apartheid. The workshops brought together conference participants from across Québec and Canada to reflect on what they have accomplished so far, to learn from past and current campaigns and initiatives, and to coordinate on future work so that we can make the most of the ongoing momentum for BDS against Israeli apartheid.

For me, the conference had two highlights: the speeches by the keynoters on Friday night, and the labour workshops on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. On Friday night, Areej Jaafari provided insight into life on the ground in a refugee camp today, giving at the same time a sense of the tremendous determination that ordinary Palestinians possess to have their rights acknowledged and respected. Then Stephen Faulkner gave a rousing trade union greeting and proceeded to focus on the tremendous strides that the BDS movement has made in combating Israeli intransigence as well as the difficulties that continue to confront the movement. Palestinian leader Omar Barghouti concluded the evening with a brilliant, understated but tremendously upbeat description of where things have been with respect to BDS and where they are going.

On Saturday morning, I sat in on a workshop featuring Fabienne Presentey from Independent Jewish Voices Canada and Sydney Levy of Jewish Voice for Peace in the States. Both gave overviews of what is happening in their respective organizations and in the broader Jewish communities in the two countries, as well as the prospects for progress on the BDS front. Of particular interest was the responsiveness to their presentations from non-Jewish participants in the workshop, who expressed a combination of delight and relief at hearing from Jews on this subject while describing difficulties and frustrations they have experienced at the hands of those who have labelled them anti-Semitic for criticizing and organizing against Israel.

The Saturday afternoon labour workshop featured representatives from the Quebec college teachers' union, CUPE Ontario, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and Stephen Faulkner from the South African Municipal Workers' Union. Filled with lively discussion as well as brass tacks organizational matters, the workshop laid the basis for concrete inter-union educational work rooted in the expansion of existing solidarity efforts. The participants from CUPW and the Ontario CUPE were very well-informed, frank and analytical in their presentations and provided inspiration for other unionists seeking to advance solidarity with Palestine within the trade union movement.

Sunday morning featured an excellent workshop with author Yves Engler and activist Harsha Walia, describing the historic and contemporary involvement of the Canadian government in promoting apartheid both in the treatment of indigenous people in this country and in the support for such behaviour in Israel.

There was a great deal of excitement and valuable information provided and shared by the participants in the Montreal conference. Palestinians should take heart.

* Sid Shniad is a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.