In the days following the defeat of a private member’s bill that targeted the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, the opinions regarding its impact and the possible fallout for the Liberal party whose members voted almost entirely against it, are as varied as one might expect.
On May 19, a bill called “Standing Up Against Anti-Semitism in Ontario Act,” drafted by Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies president and CEO Avi Benlolo, Liberal MPP Mike Colle and Conservative MPP Tim Hudak, was defeated by a decisive 39-18 vote.
The bill identified the BDS movement as “one of the main vehicles for spreading anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel globally and is increasingly promoted on university campuses in Ontario… leading to intimidation and violence on campuses,” and called on the government to abstain from doing business with companies that support BDS.
Tory MPPs voted for the bill, while NDP MPPs voted against it. Colle was its lone Liberal supporter.
Colle said before the vote took place, he was led to believe that some members of his caucus would vote in favour of the bill, but he suspects that an email campaign by BDS organizations “to intimidate and persuade” MPPs caused a change of heart.
“A lot of people in the legislature are fair-minded people, but once you get these hundreds and hundreds of emails and you get attacks saying you’re against free speech… how do you respond to that?” Colle said.
Benlolo said he was surprised by the Liberal’s decision to vote against the bill, because it was “contrary to the message we were getting back, and based on the fact that [Ontario Premier Kathleen] Wynne was in Israel, promoting trade and so forth.”
While in Israel on a trade mission in May, Wynne said, “the BDS position is certainly not mine, nor is it that of our government, and I entirely oppose the movement. In fact, I stand firmly against any position that promotes or encourages anti-Semitism in any way.”
Benlolo predicted that there would be political fallout for the Liberals based on their vote against the bill.
“That really sent a cold chill to the community and we are still digesting what took place here,” Benlolo said.
Colle said some have speculated that the bill, introduced while Wynne was in Israel, was a “set up.”
“Some people thought it might have been an attempt to embarrass her. I’ve been trying to tell people it wasn’t that at all,” Colle said.
“At least the premier was the first [leader] of any province to go to Israel and set up an extensive trade mission and denounce BDS there. No one has ever done that before. I want to work on that and build on that.”
Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ (CIJA) CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel said he didn’t think the bill was “the wisest approach,” to address the BDS movement.
“There is a temptation to try to duplicate the American experience in a number of different states that have gone ahead with anti-BDS legislation,” he said.
“We, frankly, counselled against it… because we felt it wasn’t a constructive way to engage in the discussion about this.”
Fogel speculated that the Liberals and NDP were uncomfortable with the legislation insofar as it imposed restrictions on free speech.
“I think that for Canadians in general and Ontarians in this particular case, issues of free speech are fundamental and any initiative that is perceived to be limiting the ability of people to articulate freely their views presents something problematic.”
Nelson Wiseman, University of Toronto political science professor, said he didn’t think there would be any fallout for the Liberals for voting against the bill.
“The bill was introduced, I believe, to get traction among pro-Israel voters, which includes the overwhelming majority of Jews. The issue of Israel or BDS is not an issue for voters in Ontario elections whether they are Jewish or not,” Wiseman said.
“I do not think there is much significance to the bill. I am hard-pressed to think of any companies refusing to do business with Israel.”