Controversy over first event reveals much about what lies ahead: some personal reflections
Vegans for BDS is an international network of animal activists that emerged in the period following the Palestinian Animal League (PAL)’s first international solidarity conference held in Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine, in the spring of 2018. The solidarity conference focused on the needs of the Palestinian animal rights movement and was unique in bringing together the political projects of animal liberation and ecology within the national liberation struggle. For several years, a network has been built by activists in Spain, Brazil and the UK to support the important work of PAL internationally. This network continues to grow and develop and is an important base of international support for the animal liberation struggle in Palestine. But as the network has grown considerably with experienced activists urging a more comprehensive involvement with solidarity work, we have moved to transform parts of that network and build an independent solidarity movement of animal liberationists contributing to the BDS campaign. Following the examples of past organizations such a Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, we can bring a unique contribution to the BDS campaign from our own movement, as well as finally offer an organized political response to the prevalence of Zionism-white supremacy and anti-Palestinian sentiment in the animal advocacy community.
Vegans for BDS has been building capacities in different cities in Europe, North America, Brazil and Australia over the past year. Some of the challenges that lie ahead can be distilled from one of the first public events from Vegans for BDS, held this past week in Toronto.
The Panel Event
On Thursday August 8, Vegans for BDS with Animal Liberation Currents magazine organized a panel discussion on Palestinian solidarity and the animal liberation movement entitled “No Veganwashing Israeli Crimes!”. Despite a loud and determined attempt by a number of anti-Palestinian extremists to disrupt the event, which resulted in a delay of over 20 minutes, the event went ahead and was mostly a success, even with last minute personnel changes and a few technical challenges.
The event was attended by about 50 people, virtually all of whom remained engaged with the analysis presented throughout the evening. It was an unusual mix of animal advocates with only a tangential knowledge of Palestine, some experienced BDS activists, several Palestinians exploring veganism and some left animal liberationists with a specific interest in Palestine.
No event of this kind has been held previously in North America – nor perhaps anywhere.
A small Dabke dance troupe from Mississauga, ON gave a short performance to kick things off. An Arabic reading of the poem “Necessities” by the ancient Syrian poet Abū al-ʿAlaʾ al-Maʿarrī, was spoken by Suzie Wadi, who also introduced the panel participants.
A special solidarity statement, in conjunction with a land acknowledgement, was written and read by Emmy Legge. This statement affirmed an anti-colonial and socialist politics in the local organizing of Vegans for BDS, as well as acknowledging the often-fraught relationship between animal activists and First Nations peoples in Southern Ontario in recent years when animal advocacy and aboriginal self-determination has been in conflict.
Socialist historian John Riddell, who is also an active ally with Independent Jewish Voices, then led off the panel discussion with a short talk on the colonial nature of the Israeli state and some of its parallels with the emergence of the Canadian state.
Ahlam Haroun, the executive director of the Palestinian Animal League, presented over Skype. PAL works primarily in the West Bank, but is not able to reach Gaza due to travel restrictions by the occupying Israeli state. Ahlam is from the city of Hebron in the West Bank and recently became director of PAL after many years working in other capacities for the League. She spoke about the activities of PAL, the general goals of transforming Palestinian society – and the challenges of working under the occupation. The appeal to animal advocates to do their utmost to end the occupation of Palestine was perhaps the most emotive and urgent call to action of the evening.
For myself, I had the task of explaining term “veganwashing” and the use of “veganism” as it has been consciously weaponized by the Israeli state and its nation branding networks. I was only able to get through a partial introduction.
Danielle Williams is a music educator, performer and conductor who spent two years in the West Bank teaching at a music school. While there, she was involved in a volunteer capacity for PAL and helped organize the first international solidarity conference. After taking holidays in the US just after the conference, she was denied entry by Israel in July 2018 and deported back to the US. A subsequent attempt to return to Palestine through Jordan just a week before this event was also rejected by Israeli authorities. Danielle highlighted the need for animal activists to reject the use of veganism to wash Israeli crimes, the need to adopt a BDS framework and urged a thorough rejection of Zionism in the animal advocacy community globally. She outlined some of the growing work ahead for Vegans for BDS.
Each of us could barely scratch the surface of what needs to be explained and analyzed when it comes to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the struggles of an enormously important group of animal activists in Palestine, the weaponizing of veganism along with other “progressive” perspectives by the Israeli state to wash its violent ethno-state making – and the complexity of the BDS struggle. However, collectively, we hoped the panel was able to provide enough of an overview on these matters that few could come away without understanding that a new political intervention in the animal rights movement is arising – and which has many in the community deeply uncomfortable with having to face certain realities.
Many people stayed after the event to ask further questions, make personal connections to others and to become more involved in this kind of organizing. I was personally struck by how many people conveyed a disgust with attitudes in the vegan and animal rights communities and who felt a sense of exile from being able to participate in animal liberation activism as leftists.
At the heart of animal rights organizing is the principled demand for the full liberation of animals. The liberation of animals is profoundly political in its nature – not the least of which is the demands it makes on transforming society. Thus, it is a curious thing indeed to be observe that the notion that engaging in politics more broadly or building solidarity with other social movements is so commonly understood as a “distraction” or “sowing division”. This is as deeply worrying as it is confusing.
Clearly not all is well in the animal advocacy community.
A Building Controversy
Disruptions against Palestinian solidarity events are nothing new, but over the last couple of years in particular there appears to have been a precipitous increase in the frequency and the aggression by which Zionists and their white supremacist allies have targeted solidarity organizing. Palestinian solidarity organizing remains strong in the Toronto area. This year, as in previous years, activists have held many public events and rallies in support of Palestinian liberation. Almost all have faced Zionist counter-protests which have ranged from nuisance to the possibility of serious threat.
When our event was first announced in May, it immediately attracted attention from Zionists within the animal rights community in Toronto, although not of the kind that made an organized protest apparent. When a local, more established Zionist organization got wind of the event soon after, a soft, ad hoc protest appeared to form on a few social media pages, but again nothing that indicated exceptional menace. These developments were expected and carefully monitored. The venue was Friend’s House, the Quaker institution that accommodates events and meetings for a great many progressive organizations in the city on a regular basis. Friend’s House was the subject of a small, but clearly coordinated email campaign over the first few weeks, denouncing the event as “anti-Semitic” and demanding that Friend’s cancel the event booking. To their credit, Friend’s understood this to be a small organized write-in and held fast.
Our event was rescheduled from late June to early August in order to accommodate some new speakers schedules, but remained booked at Friend’s House.
In early June the Palestinian Youth Movement was to host its annual Ghassan Kanafani Resistance Arts Scholarship celebration at Trinity St. Paul’s Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts in Toronto (a United Church congregation). After an enormous amount of pressure was put on the church by Zionist organizations, including most especially B’nai Brith, using anti-Semitism and the spectre of Kanafani links to terrorism to drum up a moral panic over the booking, Trinity St. Paul’s cancelled the booking, leaving the PYM just days to find a new venue. Especially egregious was the participation of Cheri Di Novo in facilitating the cancellation – mostly by refusing to intervene where her input would have carried considerable weight. Di Novo is a long-time justice advocate, former politician and a minister at Trinity. She is featured in the documentary Protest and Prayer, a film in part about the work of activists in the Toronto Conference of the United Church to bring BDS to the church’s General Council. Di Novo gave her support to the 2003 BDS resolution that was approved by Toronto Conference, but has since done an about-face on BDS and Palestinian solidarity in general, including speaking against the important annual campus event Israeli Apartheid Week in the Ontario legislature during her time as Member of Provincial Parliament for Parkdale High Park. To add insult, she was actually on holiday in South Africa at the time and posting about visiting apartheid monuments on Facebook, but communicated her approval of the Trinity decision with Israeli consular officials.
By chance, a screening of Protest and Prayer by the group Just Peace Advocates was booked at Friend’s house for Thursday the 25th of July.
With a possible protest or disruption of our event on the horizon, we decided to inform Friend’s House that we were taking precautions with extra marshals at the event, and suggested that eventually a call to Toronto Police community liaison would be advisable to have any protestors that show up be kept to the South side of the street and not be allowed to enter. Unknown to us at the time, Just Peace Advocates was getting wind of a similar protest from the same group and made a similar call on the very same afternoon. The clerk at Friend’s House decided that without a formal procedure in place at the venue to handle protests or disruptions, the events should not go ahead. And thus, with less than 3 weeks to our event – and just days to go for the film screening – both were cancelled. We understand the sensitivity that Friend’s House needed to approach this situation, as well as the unique model of democratic input that Quakers bring to the community and the need to follow due process in their own institutional context. Nonetheless, with the Trinity St Paul’s cancellation of the PYM event and the film screening, ours became the third Palestinian solidarity event to be canceled in Toronto within 2 weeks due to pressure from Zionists.
With the event moved to OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto) in the last week or so, we made last-minute preparations to run the event and announced the change briefly on social media. Within less than 24 hours, the U of T Dean began receiving email form letters – again denouncing the event as anti-Semitic and suggesting that it be pulled. This led briefly to University administration asking unusually interrogative questions about our event but thankfully did not result in further action. The location was removed from social media until the day of the event, but this seems to have been beside the point – clearly an active surveillance of our event had been taking place
Facing the Disruption
On the night of the event we kept one of the two sets of doors to the classroom closed and used the other as the entrance to scan tickets. The event, although free, was ticketed through Eventbrite in order to have at least some ability to screen participants. Importantly, this proved ineffective, as perhaps as many as 20 organized protesters arrived – with valid tickets in hand for the event – intending to disrupt it. With help from some attendees, they were identified only at the last second: almost all had their tickets scanned and a few had already made it in to the classroom. Most were ultimately prevented from entering.
Initially taken aback by being refused entry with tickets in hand, the group attempted verbal subterfuge along the lines of “we are just here to learn” and insisted that they were not at the event to disrupt (this was clearly a lie). When they were still refused entry, they immediately erupted into their disruption from outside the doors of the classroom, replete with prepared talking points, chants, the use of cell phone video and printed placards. There was an attempt to physically move through the doors of the classroom which required a physical block of the door. The commotion in the hallway brought a stop to the ticket desk set up outside to admit participants and was fully disruptive. The chants were top-of-voice to try prevent any discussion from taking place inside. Signs were held up denouncing the event as the “sowing of division in the vegan community”. From the doorway, they screamed charges of anti-Semitism and verbally shamed attendees that they knew in person seated inside.
The available marshals for the event were almost overwhelmed and campus security was called immediately – and whose presence was ultimately required for the full duration of the event. The disruption of the event lasted well over 20 minutes and cut into time that may have been spent in Q & A. It also clearly rattled attendees to the event, some of whom were visibly upset, and others just arriving had to endure extra scrutiny on our part (in person, in the hallway) so as not to have further disruptions.
The protest was highly organized and coordinated. In addition to the aggressive confrontation, the protest group had prepared a significant amount of literature and talking points. No less than two separate, double-sided pages of text denouncing the event and stating clear falsehoods about BDS and Israel-Palestine – many simply hateful – were distributed. These were also plastered on multiple community boards in the hallways of several floors of the building. Tellingly, there was not a single reference to animals or animal rights in any of this material.
Of particular note were two highly repeated ideological claims from these extremists: that the event was by definition anti-Semitic and that it is sowing disruption in the animal rights community. The anti-Semitism gaslighting can only be expected to amplify as Zionist efforts to conflate any criticism of Israel precisely as anti-Semitism has begun to take concrete shape over the last 3 years. This centres largely around the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, which was adopted in 2016. This definition is unusual in the extent to which it embodies such a conflation. The Israel lobby has made it a priority to have the definition adopted at all levels of government. The Canadian government adopted the definition in June of this year, after which almost immediately a Vancouver council member introduced a motion to have the definition adopted for the city and all of its departments (the motion was referred to committee in a small and possibly temporary victory for solidarity activists). The Vancouver council motion was heavily shepherded by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) who is leading the effort in Canada. These types of measures are quasi-judicial and place solidarity activism in a legal grey area – technically they are not enforceable in law but carry an enormous significance in administrative practice which is very often indistinguishable from legal edict. This is especially true with the efforts to brand BDS as “anti-Semitic” and to prevent institutions that offer even passive support to the boycott the ability to engage economically with the state. Zionists’ claims of anti-Semitism are by now highly attuned to creating a social climate congruent with these emerging political realities. This has dangerous implications if left unchallenged. Accusations of anti-Semitism are particularly effective at shutting down debate because of their highly politicized inferences. But using it as a slur cheapens its meaning and does little to convey understanding as to what exactly constitutes anti-Semitism. This lets genuine anti-Semitism flourish. Germany, France and of course the US are leading these kinds of efforts against the BDS movement and it is driven by a well spring of Christian fundamentalism and the radical right – that is both virulently anti-Semitic and Islamophobic. The idolatry of Israel among the global far right, including where it has formed government, such as Hungary, Brazil and many other places, accrues precisely because of its success in building an ethno-state – and the ethnic cleansing, apartheid and other forms of violence required to realize and maintain it. Israel, for the far right, is inspiration. For Zionists, the high principle is protecting Israel from criticism, not fighting anti-Semitism.
As for sowing “disruption” in the animal rights community, this is a curious appeal to a “unity” that does not really exist in practice. That said, there is indeed a special kind of “unity” that exists in the animal rights movement: one that is defined precisely by a lack of any genuine political fissures. This is a state of affairs that is found in few, if any, social movements. It represents an ideological conformity wherein crucial debates about the nature of power, social organization, political strategy and capacity building cannot take place. Thus, the extremists that attempted to shut our event down are, in fact, correct in the assessment that “division” is being “sowed” – in direct opposition to the white supremacy and anti-Palestinianism they represent.
John Riddell, who has been a veteran of many Palestinian events where Zionists have attempted to disrupt them, relayed to me how much he was struck by not only the aggressiveness of the disruption, but also by the determinedness and the sheer entitlement on display from them. Suzanne Weiss, who is active with Independent Jewish Voices and is herself a Holocaust survivor, was also in attendance at the event and similarly taken aback. How to handle these kinds of disruptions is ultimately a political one. Exposing Zionism, its nature, strategies and agents, as well as its deconstruction as a branch of white supremacy, is vital and urgent. But Zionist counter-actions to Palestinian solidarity have been increasingly relying on physical confrontation, harassment and heightened intimidation – and this needs to be strategized in the solidarity movement. (This is not a matter for some distant future. The next major Palestine event in the city is the Toronto Palestine Film Festival. Just one month away, it should be an immediate focus of solidarity co-ordination.)
One of the central observations from our point of view is that all of the anti-Palestinian extremists originated from within the animal rights community in Toronto. From the time our event was announced, significant attention on our part had been focused on the more “mainstream” Zionist groups who had appeared, at least initially, to be planning a counter-demo. This focus was on the political circles around such people as Lauren Isaacs (the odious director of Herut Toronto and a fixture at anti-Palestinian disruptions) and some related organizations. None of this materialized. It was only Zionists in local animal rights circles.
Zionism in the Animal Rights Movement
To us, it is entirely unsurprising that the animal advocacy community in Toronto was the least help – and was in fact the source of most of the barriers – in organizing and promoting this event. Animal Rights Toronto, a Facebook group with over 10,000 followers and a significant resource for activist events, simply refused to post this event. In response to a written request over Messenger to post the event, they responded: “Sorry. We represent the whole of the vegan/AR community, and there are some who take offence to the event.” This is another scandalous denial of justice politics under the guise of “unity” – which only leaves Zionists and other reactionaries to dominate politics in the animal rights movement.
Similarly, York University Feminists for Animal Rights responded with the following:
“Hi there, thank you for reaching out. What we try to do with this club and specifically with the Facebook group is advocate and share an intersectional, pro-vegan, feminist message–advocating love and respect within those parameters. And as of yet, we are unsure whether or not this post and event is grounded in the same message and safe space we strive to create here. If you wish to give us more information on this we can speak more about it, but as of yet, it does not appear to fit in with the message we are advocating or the atmosphere we seek to create.”
No follow up on our part to discover what exactly was at issue was responded to. The pseudo-term “intersectional” has limited actual definition, but given its currency among millennials it needs to be engaged with. On the other hand, it is disheartening to find the definition of feminism equally confusing to some of its actual proponents.
The hollow “vegan” sites are, for the most part, explicitly anti-activist spaces on social media. Toronto Vegans allowed a post just once or twice in the entire 3-month lead up to the event, despite repeated attempts.
All of these sites – activist and otherwise – appear to be particularly degraded spaces for the communication of ideas.
It is rather the Palestinian solidarity groups, BDS organizations and other left networks – in particular our sponsoring organizations Socialist Project, Toronto BDS, Centre for Social Justice and the Canadian BDS Coalition – that were decisive in terms of support. The endorsements were relatively straightforward. Centre for Social Justice and Toronto BDS were the only organizations that provided even minimal donations to help cover costs – which included a flight for Danielle coming in from the US. Physical and organizational help were on offer and moral support was circulated our way, particularly with regard to the security of staging our event. Such alliances have been almost non-existent in the animal rights movement.
It goes without saying that when there is a genuine alignment of interest and clarity in political purpose, new bonds of solidarity are quite easily formed.
And for our part, this event brought much needed clarity as to where extremism is distributed within the animal rights community in Toronto. One of the principal instigators of this protest was Ariela Getrajhendler. Getrajhendler is not just a well-known Zionist activist in the animal activist community, but also in the wider Zionist movement in around Toronto, and whose activist circles include the Jewish Defense League. The JDL is an FBI-designated terrorist organization in the US. They have not yet acquired a comparative designation in Canada, where they are able to freely provide physical intimidation under the guise “security” to various Zionist protests – especially around Toronto. For weeks leading up to the event Getrajhendler had been discouraging activists in the animal rights community in Toronto from attending, suggesting that a planned protest was going to be significant and highly disruptive, and that attendance amounted to anti-Semitism. It has gotten back to us that many activists did not attend precisely because of the invective they would have had to face with Getrajhendler present. This is unacceptable silencing and intimidation from just one single person. One wonders what her students might feel – Getrajhendler can typically be viewed at Zionist protests in a black wig and sunglasses so as to prevent her possible outing as a teacher in the Toronto District School Board. Kerri Morrison and Sandra Schnurr, local Zionists in the animal activist community, helped draft the form letters against our event. Morrison was long ago blocked on social media for her incessant hasbara hate-trolling. Getrajhendler and Morrison have been particularly active over a long period of time. They frequently attend animal rights events and marches with Zionist paraphernalia in tow and hound any members of the animal rights community who express sympathy with the plight of Palestinians as anti-Semites. They also used an animal activist meeting last fall to do a “training on anti-Semitism” – whose main takeaway was that any criticism of Israel, its policies or its nature, is an act of anti-Semitic hate.
Along with them at the disruption were several well known “activists” in the animal rights community in Toronto, including Len Goldberg and Jenny McQueen, the latter of whom managed to enter the classroom with a sign saying “Here to support my Jewish friends”. We are aware of several others that participated in the disruption. Almost all are regular participants or hangers-on in various events such as the Save vigils, Direct Action Everywhere “disruptions”, Anonymous for the Voiceless “Cube of Truth” demos, or related gimmicks that make up most of what passes for animal advocacy in the city. None of these fanatics should have freedom of action in the animal rights movement to spew such anti-Palestinian hate. It speaks volumes about the local movement that they do. No other “leadership” figures in the animal rights movement in Toronto have moved to condemn the actions of this group. Judging from social media, a clear rift has opened in the animal rights community in Toronto over this event and in trying to grapple with the meaning of Palestinian solidarity.
If animal activists wonder why they are so persistently the “orphans of the left”, they would do well to start with serious self-reflection on the nature of what they are actually bringing to the struggle.
A Final Note
The disruption of Palestinian solidarity events is reaching the level of alarm and is not in any way confined to the city of Toronto. Clearly, part of this is the effect of the Trump administration’s open support of Israel’s cleansing of Palestine: it has bestowed Israel with an unusual sense of impunity that in turn carries over to the Zionist organizations that help manage its bidding and strongly influence the actions of grassroots activists. For those on the receiving end of the anti-Palestinian wrath of Zionists and their white supremacist allies, it may be easy to interpret this as emboldened carte blanche. But a more careful nuance should be kept in mind. The successes of the Palestinian solidarity movement internationally – and especially the BDS campaign – have succeeded in de-legitimizing Israel, even as the economic impact of BDS is still only in its early stages. What can seem as triumphalism is often in reality a desperate move to prevent any reasoned discussion on Palestine from taking place – which would inevitably lead to a critical interrogation of Israeli policies. That is exactly what was attempted in our case.
The disruption at our event may offer a small lesson to the solidarity movement as it grows and is able to make gains among different constituencies. Where forms of white supremacy, such as Zionism, can operate thoroughly unaccustomed to challenge in particular niche social spaces, a kind of combustible vessel is created around these spaces. Filled with hate, it will blow with the right heat or with the first puncture.
Anti-Palestinian sentiment has been a de facto political reality in the animal rights movement. Further, our event has revealed that the animal rights community in Toronto has been a space within which serious strands of reactionary politics have flourished. Open Zionism has had hegemony in this community for many years without any political challenge. As this event represents the first signs of an organized political opposition, the fury of anti-Palestinian extremists is fresh and raw and explosive. Though we may have lit a match, they will have free reign no longer.
It is Palestine that will be free.
Updated August 14