Opinion: Decolonize Palestine at UBC

Dr. Hicham Safieddine is an Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Canada Research Chair in the History of the Modern Middle East.

Gaza is burning. It is a children’s graveyard, and the digging hasn’t stopped, courtesy of the Israeli military machine. On Tuesday, a despairing director at the New York office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights wrote in his letter of resignation: “Once again, we are seeing a genocide unfolding before our eyes and the Organization that we serve appears powerless to stop it." 

Why, in the face of daily footage and mounting evidence, is there such a callous denial, nay, persistent silencing and demonizing of those speaking out in Canada, the US, and Europe? What logic allows or enables pro-Israeli groups on and off UBC campus to label the calling for an end to the killing and the dismantling of the system of occupation and apartheid at its root as hate speech? 

Under current circumstances, denial is not a simple act of othering that we can debate in classrooms. It is a matter of life and death for millions of Palestinians. When “peace-loving” Canada and other pro-Israel regimes, including fascist governments in Europe, oppose or abstain during a General assembly vote calling for a ceasefire, it is giving Israel a green light to continue the mass slaughter.

If government policy is dictated by Machiavellian calculations of power, what is the excuse of academic institutions like UBC for failing to live up to their mandate of supporting efforts at decolonizing education? Why did UBC’s interim president choose to condemn the Hamas operation on October 7 but remain silent in the fact of Israel’s ongoing atrocities? Why are students rightly encouraged to speak out about decolonization and anti-racism in relation to other struggles but are faced with intimidation or silence in the case of Palestine? Why is it frowned upon to suggest a moral equivalence between oppressor and oppressed unless we are discussing Palestine?

The answer lies in Palestinian exceptionalism. It is a sign of how entrenched the Zionist narrative remains in Canadian public perception and political power. The road to decolonize the discussion around Palestine is still rough and rugged. Those calling to decolonize Palestine are not even accorded a so-called balanced approach. When respected public figures like Ontario MPP Sarah Jama, a black woman activist for disabled rights, call for an end to occupation and Israeli apartheid, they are censured by the Canadian mainstream left and right alike. 

Meanwhile, vile and hateful speech by Israel government officials and their Canadian allies depicting Palestinians as “human animals” goes unpunished. We must not be surprised at such an archaic language of racial supremacy. The inhumane logic of colonialism, which is still at work in the case of Palestine, has in the past operated in similar fashion elsewhere. As Martinique author Frantz Fanon told us more than half a century ago, the dehumanization of the colonized leads the colonizers to describe them using zoological terms. 

An important step on the road to decolonize the debate around Palestine at UBC  — and elsewhere in Canada — is to confront the pernicious attack against pro-Palestinian voices under the false accusation of antisemitism. This accusation predates October 7 by decades. Its primary target has included non-violent activists calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions. According to its inverted logic, calling for an end to racial discrimination based on legalized ethno-religious supremacy and advocating for a single state for all its citizens is hate speech. The arsenal of hyperbolic and fear-mongering language used to hide the absurdity of this claim will not make it any less paradoxical or whitewash Israeli crimes. The apartheid emperor has no clothes, and it is incumbent on us to expose it without apology or hesitation.

The unfortunate instrumentalization of antisemitism, such as the adoption of the flawed IHRA definition to shame and even criminalize those who oppose Israeli apartheid, has several connotations. It reflects the long-held Zionist ideology of conflating Zionism with Judaism. It also shows that Zionists have lost the argument and are scandalously using a discursive sledgehammer to demonize their opponents. It finally exposes the complicity of federal, provincial, and local governments in perpetuating anti-Palestinian prejudice. 

In the context of Palestine, zero tolerance for antisemitism must be coupled with zero tolerance for its instrumentalization to suppress Palestinian rights. That is the consistently humanistic position to take.

More importantly, it is not incumbent on the colonized, the brutalized and the oppressed to constantly undergo a moral litmus test in the court of Western public opinion when this West’s moral pedestal lies at the lowest rung of Dante’s inferno. As historians know all too well, Global North states have a centuries-long history of horrific crimes against the peoples of the Global South and their own racialized populations. These crimes extend to every corner of this globe including the very land UBC is built on. The contemporary record of these states, as the people of Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq know all too well, is no better.

Since October 7, a new wave of McCarthyism has risen against pro-Palestinian voices across the “democratic” West. Many academics and even physicians are feeling its reverberations in Canada. Rather than instil fear, it must embolden us to continue to speak truth to power until we are heard. This is especially true in a place of critical learning like the university. Public educators have a duty not to remain silent even at the risk of intensified suppression of the right to criticize Israel. In due course, history will absolve them the way it absolved their predecessors. The fact that more than 125 UBC faculty members and over 1000 students, staff and other community members signed a letter in response to the UBC president’s letter is a heartening sign in this regard.

Students facing intimidation for supporting justice in Palestine also deserve faculty support and administrative protection from constant harassment and demonization. Students with opposed views might hopefully be encouraged to overcome their fears or prejudices and question some of their assumptions about the struggle for Palestinian liberation. Unlearning is the first step to learning. This cannot happen in a hostile climate. The history of colonization in Palestine did not begin on October 7. Understanding that history, which is part of the global history of colonization, as well as the rich precolonial history of co-existence, is a necessary step to making sense of the future. 

At present, the priority is to end the Israeli slaughter and large-scale destruction of Gaza by calling for a ceasefire, permitting the unconditional entry of humanitarian aid, restoring power, safeguarding hospitals, and eventually facilitating a prisoner’s exchange (Yes, there are thousands of Palestinian prisoners, including dozens of children, languishing in Israeli jails). Time is something historians can afford, not millions of Palestinians stuck in the line of unrelenting Israeli fire.

This is an opinion letter. It does not reflect the opinions of The Ubyssey as a whole. You can submit an opinion at ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion.

Dr. Hicham Safieddine is an Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Canada Research Chair in the History of the Modern Middle East.

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