By Sandra Browne and Robert Johnson
MONTREAL – Between ten and fifteen thousand people marched here on August 6 in a powerful protest against Israeli war crimes in Lebanon. The turnout was particularly significant since the action was organized on short notice and at the height of the summer vacation season in Quebec.
More than 50 organizations sponsored the protest, many of them expressions of the Lebanese and Middle Eastern communities of Quebec. (There are 40,000 Lebanese in Montreal alone; many have been there for several generations and are well integrated into Quebec society). A good number of the demonstrators were Lebanese and the action was effectively organized as a kind of “voice of Lebanon” representing the different currents of Lebanese society, united in their desire for justice and peace in Lebanon, and against the Israeli atrocities. The Lebanese flag was omnipresent. There were also many Palestinian flags and various speakers who mentioned the Palestinian struggle received a warm response.
However, it was also apparent that many of those present were not of Middle Eastern origin. We spoke with a quite a few who said that they were participating out of a sense of solidarity with the Lebanese and Palestinian people and to oppose the Israeli slaughter. This reflects the deep antiwar sentiment in Quebec, which opinion polls consistently show to be much stronger than in the rest of Canada.
The main Quebec union federations co-sponsored the protest, as did three political parties, the Parti Québécois, the Bloc Québécois, and Québec Solidaire. Leaders of these unions and political organizations addressed the closing rally, as did Denis Coderre, a former federal cabinet minister speaking in the name of the Liberal Party of Canada (Quebec section).
Another strength of the Montreal protest was the political prominence given to the participation of small contingents of people who identified themselves as Jews. Representatives of two of these groups spoke to the closing rally and were particularly warmly received.
The political weight of the demonstration was reflected in the media coverage. Several Quebec television networks broadcast reports of the action and at least three of the Montreal daily newspapers featured it on their front pages with an article and a photo. AlJazeera.Net reported on the Montreal action as well as on protests in Windsor, Ontario, another city with a large Arab population, that were directed against Canada’s pro-Israel stance. Noting plans for several fact-finding trips to the region by Members of Parliament, AlJazeera concluded that “the criticism may be having an effect.”
The August 6 protest was organized around four demands. The leaflet read:
“We call on all Quebecers to DEMONSTRATE with us to:
- Demand, immediately, a cease-fire without conditions;
- Demand the respect of international conventions, international law and “all” UN resolutions on the Middle East;
- Insist that the Harper government disassociate itself from the policies of the US and work for justice and peace in the Middle East;
- Show our solidarity with the Lebanese and Palestinian people.”
New forces join the fight
Many of the participants brought their own hand-lettered placards, often conveying a powerful message of protest not only against Israel and the U.S. but also Stephen Harper. These included “Harper, stop spitting on Palestine and Lebanon,” and “Harper ferme ta Bush” [Harper shut your mouth – a play on the French word for mouth, "bouche"], One Lebanese community group organized a particularly moving display with three small coffins on the ground, each draped in a white sheet with a small bouquet on top. A large color photo of one of the child victims of Israeli bombs was placed behind each coffin.
One placard carried by a number of demonstrators carried the title “Zionist checklist.” It listed a number of categories such as hospitals, roads, power plants, women and children with a checkmark against each category, The last line read “Hezbollah;” it had no checkmark. A few other placards read, “The Arab League is silent.”
In an outrageous infringement of democratic rights, police intervened to confiscate some Hezbollah flags. This may have intimidated some people, but we saw at least 50 Hezbollah flags throughout the crowd, and a scattering of large photos of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. A leaflet headed “What is Hezbollah?” which answered many of the slanders against the organization, was widely distributed and well received.
There were a small number of union flags and placards, but most union members who participated in the protest did so as individuals. The same was true for the political parties and currents who were present. We saw one banner each from the Communist Party, Québec Solidaire, the New Democratic Party, and the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist). There were no literature tables of political groups, no sales of political newspapers within the crowd, and only a few political groups handing out leaflets.
Many features of the protest, including the limited character of its demands, reflected the fact that many of the participants were becoming involved for the first time in political action against imperialist war. As such it represented a significant strengthening of the antiwar forces.
The weight of this development was also shown by the fact that the BQ, the PQ, and the Liberal Party, sought to use the protest to strengthen their position against Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. They aim to use the issue of the war to deprive the Conservative Party of the additional Quebec seats it needs to form a majority government after the next federal election.
The August 6 action was organized around a simple framework, “Quebec stands up for justice and peace in Lebanon … NOW!” and the four demands quoted above. This was clearly the right approach to achieve the kind of unity that was the strength of the protest, particularly with the entry into struggle of new and broad community-based forces.
However, the call for the action contained a number of significant omissions and concessions. It demanded an unconditional cease-fire but did not demand that Israel withdraw from Lebanon. It also acknowledged Israel’s supposed “legitimate right to exist” and its supposed right to security. It did not mention the resistance of the Lebanese people against the aggression. It demanded the application of all U.N. resolutions on the Middle East, presumably including resolution 1559 that requires the disarming of Hezbollah. There was no mention of Iraq or Afghanistan.
In the days leading up to the protest, the Quebec-Israel Committee, which outrageously claimed to speak for the entire Jewish population in Quebec, published several large ads in the newspapers challenging organizers of the protest to “think of Israel” and insisting that they dissociate themselves from Hezbollah and Hamas. Leaders of the protest obviously felt some pressure from this quarter.
Many speakers and photo displays effectively exposed Israeli war crimes. But only one of the speakers at the closing rally expressed solidarity with the fighters of the Lebanese resistance. Many leaned in the direction of deploring the violence of both sides. Most speakers did this with a light touch, while emphasizing Israeli atrocities. One exception was Denis Coderre who bluntly denounced “the rocket attacks of both Israel and Hezbollah.” The crowd responded with sustained booing.
Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Québécois (BQ), followed him to the podium and echoed similar themes: both sides should stop fighting, Israel’s reaction is disproportionate, we are for disarming all militias including Hezbollah. Duceppe was more adroit than Coderre in his presentation and he was generally well received – although the crowd responded to his statements against the resistance with silence, then resumed its applause when he turned his fire against the Canadian government.
(Standing next to Duceppe during his presentation was a BQ Member of Parliament who was introduced as the first Member of Parliament of Lebanese descent in Canada. It is apparent that the BQ has a strong base of support in the Lebanese community in Quebec.)
The protest lasted more than four hours, including a march of at least two hours through downtown Montreal. By the end of the lengthy closing rally, the crowd had dwindled to a few hundred or so. Those who left early missed the two best talks of the event. Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss of the Neturei Karta (www.nkusa.org), a group of anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews, gave a rousing, uncompromising speech: “We pray to God for the speedy and peaceful dismantling of the state of Israel.” He voiced the view that Zionism, a political outlook, conflicts with Judaism, a religion, and that the state of Israel is a racist state and against God. He stated that the present conflict is not one between Muslims and Jews and he recalled the many centuries during which Jews had lived in peace with the Muslim world before the advent of Zionism. The demonstrators responded to his points with several sustained ovations.
The representative of Échec à la guerre, the Quebec antiwar coalition, follow with a forthright anti-imperialist presentation. He explained that for the Lebanese, the question was submission or resistance, and he saluted the courage of the resistance fighters. He denounced the proposed United Nations resolution drafted by the United States and France as completely unacceptable since it does not even demand that Israel withdraw its troops from Lebanon. He linked what was happening in Lebanon to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and pointed out that Canadian troops form part of a large army of occupation in Afghanistan; that army should be withdrawn immediately. While other speakers had attacked Harper for spinelessness or for being Bush’s poodle, this speaker insisted that Harper was acting effectively on behalf of Canadian corporate interests.
All in all, this was a very successful and powerful protest, one that offers a promising basis for further actions against the imperialist war drive.