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Freedom of Speech and an Open Letter to the Legal Community on Pro-Palestinian Advocacy

November 6, 2023

I am deeply saddened by the October 7, 2023, attack on innocent Israeli civilians, including children. I am also equally saddened for the retributive bombings over one of the most densely populated cities in the world, Gaza, with over 2 million innocent Palestinian civilians, half of whom are children.

Israel is engaging in disproportionate force against civilians and has used this war tactic in the past in Lebanon, which only caused more support for the resistance. Grief, pain, suffering, and resentment will only encourage orphans and men who have lost their families to join Hamas in creating Hamas 2.0. As the Queen of Jordan has stated, you can kill the combatants, but you cannot kill the cause.

Gaza is known as Israel’s “open-air prison.” Since 2007, Israel has deprived more than two million residents of Gaza an opportunity to a better life. Israel’s closure policy blocks most Gaza residents from travelling to the West Bank, prevents travelling abroad via Israel, restricts their rights to work and an education and prevents residents from pursuing opportunities within Palestine. Israel continues to control Gaza’s territorial waters, airspace, and the movement of people and goods, except where Gaza borders with Egypt. The restrictive Egyptian rules at the Rafah crossing with Gaza has only reinforced the closure’s harm to human rights. Israel has an obligation to respect the human rights of Palestinians living in Gaza.

More recently, the world has witnessed the use of chemical warfare by Israel on the innocent civilians of Gaza (multiple airbursts of artillery fired white phosphorus, which has been confirmed by Human Rights Watch), indiscriminate bombings as opposed to selectively attacking Hamas only, as well as cutting off water, food, electricity, medicine and fuel to Gaza. This is a violation of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention and amounts to a clear “text-book case of genocide,” as stated by Mr. Craig Mokhiber, a director of the New York office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, who resigned in protest of the UN’s “failing” in its duty to prevent the genocide of Palestinian civilians and citing the US, UK, and much of Europe as “wholly complicit in the horrific assault.” The Palestinian people are not “human animals” as the Israel Defence Minister has repeatedly stated publicly.

I want to reiterate that the actions by the Hamas on October 7, 2023, were horrific and inexcusable. However, demonstrating support for the innocent civilians of Gaza and support for Palestinian liberation should not be seen as anti-Semitic or supporting Hamas. It is not simply about religion, but the violation of human rights. On November 6, 2023, members of the Canadian legal community came together in an open letter condemning retaliation against lawyers who have chosen to speak up against Israel’s disproportionate force against the innocent civilians of Gaza as this would have a “chilling effect on the freedom of speech.” To date, the letter has been signed by more than 600 lawyers and organizations across Canada, including the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

The letter is cited below:

“The letter below was drawn up in response to pervasive repression of speech and scholarship on Palestinian liberation. Law students and lawyers are being threatened with academic sanctions and job loss for advocating against Israel’s atrocities in Palestine.

We are deeply concerned by the growing chorus of statements from lawyers, law firms and law schools that are conflating expressions of solidarity with Palestinians and criticism of the State of Israel as antisemitic and conduct unworthy of learning or practicing law. In particular:

  • Lawyers are openly advocating on social media to blacklist law students and lawyers who have voiced support for Palestine;

  • Lawyers are contacting the employers of lawyers and encouraging they be fired for their pro-Palestinian advocacy. Law firms (many of which issued unprecedented, political statements in support of Israel) are rescinding interview offers to students who sign open letters condemning Israel. Law schools are threatening those students with expulsion; and

  • Lawyers are bullying and defaming others who have voiced support for Palestine or attended demonstrations in support of Palestine, calling them terrorists, antisemites, and other pejoratives. A disproportionate number of these lawyers who are being bullied, in potential violation of the rules of professional conduct, are junior members of the bar, racialized, and/or Muslim.

We reject the notion that it is antisemitic, hateful, or illegitimate to contextualize the October 7th, 2023 attack. Similarly, we reject the notion that it is antisemitic, hateful, or illegitimate to express support for Palestinians in the face of ongoing Israeli apartheid and genocide.

This is legitimate Charter-protected political expression. This speech echoes the United Nation’s Secretary General (the October 7th attack “did not happen in a vacuum”), the Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace (“The Israeli government has lost any semblance of humanity as they wage a genocide against the people living in Gaza”), and numerous UN General Assembly resolutions affirming the right of the Palestinians to resist their demise (UNGA Resolution 45/130 (1990); Resolution 37/43 (1982); Resolution 3314 (1974)).

Lawyers and law students are not the only people who have faced harassment, workplace retribution, or job loss for speaking out for Palestine. Ontario MPP Sarah Jama’s censure and the York University's attempt to decertify student unions are but two high-profile examples. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association has noted that this clampdown has led to “escalating levels of Islamophobia, harassment, racial profiling, and surveillance akin to that seen post-9/11.” It is intensifying the anti-Palestinian racism in Canadian society, as described by the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association.

This chilling effect on freedom of expression and academic freedom has the hallmarks of a new McCarthyism. A failure of those of us in the legal profession to voice our opposition to this conduct will only accelerate the erosion of the very protections that make dissent – and therefore democracy – possible. It is vital that the space for scholarship, speech and activism in defence of basic human rights be preserved.

We, the undersigned lawyers, legal institutions, legal workers and academics commit not to discriminate against anyone for speaking out for justice and freedom for Palestinians.

We will mentor you. We will support you. We are proud to call you colleagues.”


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