Canada’s pro-Palestine encampments by students

Unlike the recent violence on American campuses, pro-Palestinian encampments at Canadian universities have been relatively peaceful.

Of the 15 encampments that have emerged across the country in recent weeks, only two — at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta at Edmonton — have been removed by police.

The latest encampment began on Sunday at the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM), just a few hundred metres from the first encampment at McGill University, which started on April 27 and has continued despite court injunctions calling for its removal.

The encampment that began on April 29 at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver has evolved into a mini-city.

A recent visit revealed over 100 tents spread across a co-opted football field, featuring a well-fortified canteen, a well-stocked library, a shrine to Aaron Bushnell, and even a community garden.

Outdoor library set up on the UBC campus
A shrine set up on UBC campus in memory of Aaron Bushnell who died after setting himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington DC in late February 2024

Now in its third week, the encampment reflects Vancouver’s diversity.

Stories from Canadian pro-Palestine students 

Yara and Ines, students from Lebanon and Morocco, expressed their support for Palestinians. “We’re here to show our support and let them know they’re not alone,” they said.

“We think about they even when they’re on the other side of the world,” they added.

UBC students Yara and Ines at the pro-Palestine demonstrations in Canada

An anti-Zionist Jewish student named Ezekiel, who works at a Palestinian-run NGO for refugees, has visited the encampment daily since its inception.

Wearing a “Jews for Palestinian Liberation” t-shirt, Ezekiel described the experience as positive, highlighting the solidarity speeches and songs by Lebanese singer Marcel Khalifé.

“There’s a great library – there have been solidarity speeches and singing of (Lebanese singer/composer) Marcel Khalifé songs from his album Promises of the Storm – album (featuring songs for Palestine often with lyrics from Mahmoud Darwish poems). I love that album,” he said.

Ezekiel, who suffers from PTSD after being arrested at a protest in 2019, said he feels safe and calm at the encampment.

“There’s less concern about police violence here than on American campuses but they’re creeping around with cameras,” he noted.

The struggle of being pro-Palestinian and Jewish 

As for the accusation from some Jewish students that the encampments promote antisemitism, Ezekiel replied, “If you think this side is antisemitic you should see the other side — it’s a horrific situation.”

He cited a large “pro-Israel” rally in Washington DC last November, headlined by the controversial pastor John Hagee.

Hagee, a far-right evangelical leader, said in a 2005 sermon posted online that God allowed Adolf Hitler to carry out the Holocaust to enable Jews to return to Israel.

To add insult to injury, Ezekiel said, “They didn’t invite a single member of the Jewish clergy.”

Ezekiel wearing his “Jews for Palestinian Liberation” t-shirt

In February, a UBC social justice campus group sued Hillel B.C., a Jewish non-profit, for defamation when fake stickers were distributed around UBC bearing an “I heart Hamas” and the social justice group’s name.

“I think the focus,” explained Ezekiel, “should be on the fundamental antisemitism of Zionism – conflating an ancient, beautiful religion with a modern fascist ethno-state – and the fact that there are more Christian Zionists in the world than Jews, who are only 0.2 percent of the world population.” (Theologian Stephen Sizer estimates that “For every Jewish Zionist, there are 20 or 30 Christian Zionists.”)

“My moral compass points me to being here. I’m not practising Judaism in any religious exoteric way but we are commanded to follow justice – in the Torah, it says Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – twice. Tzedek means justice,” Ezekiel explained, “and the other phrase ‘you shall pursue.’ It’s the only place in the Torah where the word is said twice. The emphasis is there because it’s not a suggestion, it’s a commandment.”

Ezekiel confirmed that there is a “large anti-Zionist community” in Vancouver, including members of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV).

Encampments: Providing sanctuary and solidarity

Last year, IJV and the Muslim Association of Canada co-sponsored 27-year-old Mohammed Alzaza to come to Vancouver for medical treatment. Alzaza, who nearly died in an IDF bombing of his school in Gaza City in 2011, has undergone dozens of operations to rebuild his shattered body.

He sat next to Ezekiel at the encampment, passing time while waiting for his next hospital trip for physiotherapy as he prepared for an urgent knee replacement.

Alzaza expressed his appreciation for the encampment, stating, “It gives me hope.”

He added, “I feel there are a lot of good people here who support Palestine and refugees. Before, I didn’t feel safe anywhere, but now I feel safe in Canada and safe here at the camp.”

The camp provides Alzaza with meals and camaraderie between daily hospital visits and calls to his family in Gaza City. Desperate to get them out, he has set up a GoFundMe campaign to help them get to Egypt.

“I want to come here to tell people my story. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I did,” he said.

Reflecting on his future, Alzaza noted, “As universities were being bombed in Gaza, I thought, one day I would like to study psychology.”

“We reject the misleading notion that these protests, or other protests against Israel, are inherently antisemitic. Neither are displays of Palestinian cultural and political identity, including keffiyehs and Palestinian flags”

But it wasn’t just students who were protesting. Journalist Avi Lewis, who is now an associate professor at UBC, released a Jewish Faculty Network Statement of Solidarity with the UBC Encampment for Gaza on his X feed on May 2. The statement read: “As Jews, we are appalled by the death, destruction, and displacement that Israel has brought upon the people of Gaza, including the killing of more than 30,000 people, nearly half of whom were children and the destruction of the healthcare system.

“As academics, we are shocked by the obliteration of all universities in Gaza. We reject the misleading notion that these protests, or other protests against Israel, are inherently antisemitic. Neither are displays of Palestinian cultural and political identity, including keffiyehs and Palestinian flags. The conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism is a dangerous and bad-faith tactic that has been used to repress critics of Israel, including many Jewish people like ourselves.”

Last week, an open letter stating support for the encampment was sent to seven UBC leaders, signed by almost 800 members of the UBC community, including many alumni and staff.

UBC pro-Palestine slogan signs surrounded by the university encampment tents

The statement read, “We unequivocally support the UBC student encampment on Musqueam (the local First Nations) lands in solidarity with Gaza and the Palestinian people.”

However, the occupation of the UBC bookstore on May 11 by protesters prompted UBC security to issue a press release, stating, “To be clear, Saturday’s actions at the bookstore are not acceptable to the University. They are not representative of freedom of expression nor were they peaceful.”

The statement released Monday continued, “The University will be considering all options in the days ahead and will engage with RCMP (the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and legal counsel as we consider next steps.”

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and has been writing from and about the MENA since 1992. Her next book, Between Two Rivers, is a travelogue of ancient sites and modern culture in Iraq.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars 

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