Topp and Mulcair – the apparatus man and the ex-Liberal

The late Jack Layton’s political presence in Canadian politics owed everything to the social movements. But when members of the party gather, March 24, 2012 to elect a replacement for Layton, the party is likely to be moved very far from this social movement experience. The implications of this need to be seriously thought through by those interested in progressive social change in Canada.

In 1986, while a City of Toronto alderman, Layton was one of 11 jurors on a mock jury which ruled that the restrictions on abortion in place in Canadian law at the time was “’in contempt of Canadian women’ … “The verdict was greeted with a standing ovation and chants of ‘Choice Now!’ by the crowd of about 250 people who attended the mock court at Trinity-St. Paul’s Church” (Ferguson 1986).

In 1991, he was a co-founder of the White Ribbon campaign to combat violence against women (Minerson 2011), and every year he would wear a white ribbon, symbol of that campaign. Every year he would also happily march at Pride in Toronto, a politician who didn’t fear to be seen defending the rights of lesbian, gay, and transgendered people. In the run-up to the Iraq War, with the Liberal government clearly leaning toward joining in the slaughter, he openly sided with the anti-war movement. As newly-elected leader of the NDP, he marched in the thousands-strong anti-war protest in Toronto, February 15, 2003 (Conradi et al. 2003).

The resumés are very different for at least two of the front-runners to replace Layton – Thomas Mulcair and Brian Topp. The former comes from the Liberal Party. Three times, he won as a candidate for the Liberals in Quebec. In 2003, this saw him elevated into the cabinet of (ex-Tory) Jean Charest (The Canadian Press 2008). And if you doubt his conservative credentials, remember how he shamefully joined in the chorus attacking Libby Davies when she (correctly) stated that the occupation of Palestine had begun in 1948. Mulcair’s comrades in this assault were Tory Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal leader Bob Rae, both calling on Davies to resign as NDP House leader (De Souza 2010). The ease with which Mulcair can keep company with the parties of Corporate Canada came to light during the current campaign, when it became known that before joining the NDP, he held talks with other parties, including the Tories (Ivison 2012).

What about his chief rival, Brian Topp? His reputation is better than Mulcair’s. He has been seen by some as a “labour candidate,” early on winning the backing of the United Steelworkers, “the NDP’s largest affiliated union and the largest private-sector union in the country” (O’Neil 2011). His left-wing credentials were boosted by his early endorsement from deputy leader Libby Davies who somewhat surprisingly said that Topp has “a vision that I share” (Kennedy 2011).

Surprising, because Topp’s story is not one featuring the social movements with which Davies has long been associated, but rather staff positions in the administrative apparatus of the NDP and the union machine. In 1990, he went to work full-time for NDP MP Philip Edmonston, in 1992 moving on to be senior researcher for then party leader Audrey McLaughlin, and from 1993-2000 working first as a researcher and then as deputy chief of staff for Saskatchewan NDP premier Roy Romanow. His career then took him into a staff position in Toronto, working for ACTRA (the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists), until he returned to the NDP to work closely with Jack Layton in 2004 (Rana 2004). Topp is a career apparatus man.

The problem is, when political eyes are habitually fixed upwards – towards either cabinet positions in corporate parties such as the Liberals, or towards staff positions with social-democracy and the union bureaucracy, it becomes increasingly difficult to focus them downwards, to the grass-roots’ activism which is the only place from which we have every won real reforms. A victory by either Mulcair or Topp would make this problem extremely clear.

A recurring issue of the campaign has been whether the NDP should consider cooperation with the Liberal Party, in an attempt to topple Harper. The only candidate openly advocating this policy, is Nathan Cullen (Bryden 2012). But given his background, it is clear that coalition politics with parties of business would come very easily to Thomas Mulcair. As for Topp, remember that as a key adviser to Layton, he was one of the principal architects of the shameful attempt to form a coalition with the Liberal Party in 2008, something of which, by the way, he is extremely proud – see his book How we almost gave the Tories the Boot (Topp 2010).

We don’t know if either of these two will emerge as the eventual leader. But either of them will mean an NDP more firmly wedded to backroom politics, more likely to be enticed by a coalition dance with the Liberal Party – the party which grimly presided over draconian cuts to transfer payments in the 1990s, and the party which took Canada to war in Afghanistan in 1991.

Given all this, it is absolutely not surprising that many on the left of the NDP are backing Peggy Nash in the campaign for leadership. Nash, like Topp, has a long career as a union staffer – working for the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) from 1990 until 2006, returning to the CAW after losing her riding to the Liberals in 2008 (Van Alphen 2008). But unlike Topp, she has also been known as a supporter of the left and the social movements.

In 2001, Nash backed the New Politics Initiative (NPI). “We need a party with fire in its belly and blood in its veins,” she said as she and the NPI fought unsuccessfully to push the NDP into forming a new party rooted in the anti-globalization movement (Edmonds 2011). Throughout the war in Afghanistan, she was a frequent speaker at anti-war rallies. Following a multi-party fact-finding trip to Lebanon, in the wake of Israel’s bloody invasion of that country in 2006, she took considerable abuse for saying the obvious – that “it was just not helpful” to label Hezbollah as “a terrorist organization” (Fisher 2006).

This was one of the few times in recent history that a prominent NDPer took an open stand on the issue of the struggle in the Middle East, long seen as an almost taboo subject because of the way in which it might lose votes for the party. But social movement building is not a popularity contest. It means staking out a principal (for instance, the right of Palestinians to return to their homes under occupation since 1948), and sticking to it regardless of the backlash.

Unfortunately, Nash has been reticent to go much beyond this 2006 position. Neither she nor any other NDP leadership candidate has been willing to publicly identify with the current movement for Palestine rights, the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement which has built exactly the kind of grass roots social movement we need on so many issues. You are unlikely to find any of the leadership candidates attending the many events happening across the country this week, during Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW).

That said, there is really no comparison between Nash and either Topp or Mulcair. The people backing Nash include many who know very well that the future of the left will be found in the streets, and not in the back-rooms, that the coalitions we need are not with the corporate-backed Liberals, but with the poor, the oppressed and the working class – coalitions of the 99% to challenge the entrenched power of the 1%.

If either Mulcair or Topp wins, the dangers are obvious. A Nash victory would mean a step back from the brink. But leadership campaigns come and go, and the main task remains – rebuilding social movements from the grass roots up.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

Van Alphen, Tony. 2008. “Nash Back at CAW After Poll Defeat; Former Parkdale-High Park MP Opts Not to Run for Ontario NDP Leadership, Saying Timing Not Right.” Toronto Star, November 18.

Bryden, Joan. 2012. “Cullen Gets Social-media Boost for Co-operation Among Opposition Parties: Cullen Gets Boost from Online Campaigns.” The Canadian Press, February 17.

Conradi, Peter, Bruce Wallace, Joe Lauria, and Anne-Sophie Dumetz. 2003. “Millions Say ‘No’ to War: Cities Around the World Overrun in Biggest Protest in History.” The Ottawa Citizen, February 16.

Edmonds, Scott. 2011. “Federal NDP Rejects Shift to Far Left; Plans to Forge Ahead with Renewal.” The Canadian Press, November 24.

Ferguson, Derek. 1986. “Panel Finds Abortion Law ‘in Contempt’ of Women.” Toronto Star, March 2.

Fisher, Matthew. 2006. “MPs Say Terrorist Label Bad for Peace.” Calgary Herald, August 21.

Ivison, John. 2012. “Mulcair Denies Cabinet Demand; NDP Leadership Hopeful Had 2007 Talks with Tories.” National Post, March 2.

Kennedy, Mark. 2011. “Veteran MP Davies Backs Topp’s Bid; Deputy Leader Says Former Party President Has ‘a Vision That I Share’.” The Province, October 2.

Minerson, Todd. 2011. “Jack Layton and White Ribbon Campaign.” White Ribbon Campaign: Working to End Violence Against Women.

O’Neil, Peter. 2011. “Steelworkers Union Backs Topp for NDP Leader.” Edmonton Journal, October 13.

Rana, F. 2004. “Topp Back in NDP Headquarters for Campaign 2004: ‘I Think Jack Layton and the Federal NDP Have a Very Good Chance in This Election’: Topp.” The Hill Times, May 24.

De Souza, Mike. 2010. “Prime Minister, Liberals Demand Davies Resignation.” Record, June 16.

The Canadian Press. 2008. “Thomas Mulcair Holds NDP’s Only Quebec Riding in Squeaker Vote.” The Canadian Press, October 15.

Topp, Brian. 2010. How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot: The Inside Story Behind the Coalition. Toronto: James Lorimer and Company.

Cheri DiNovo and the need for ‘Apartheid 101’

This year’s Israeli Apartheid Week took place in a record number of campuses around the world, this in spite of constant attacks on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. In this context, it is worth remembering the stance taken by the NDP’s Cheri DiNovo, this time last year. (Written March 4, 2010 – Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”) – A Tory resolution condemning the sixth annual Israeli Apartheid Week, received unanimous support from the 30 members of the Ontario legislature who showed up for work on Thursday February 25, 2010. Shamefully, one of those who spoke in favour and voted for this resolution was Toronto-based NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo.[1] In the context of the concentrated attack on Palestinian solidarity coming from all levels of government, DiNovo’s backing of this reactionary motion is very damaging. She and the rest of her party could use a little refresher course – we’ll call it “Apartheid 101.”

In 1948, the State of Israel was formed through the forced expulsion of 750,000 Palestinian residents. Since 1967, Israel has occupied the West Bank of the Jordan River (formerly part of Jordan), the Golan Heights (formerly part of Syria), East Jerusalem and has variously occupied, surrounded and blockaded the enclave called Gaza (formerly part of Egypt). The latter is an open-air prison – its residents hemmed in on three sides by one of the world’s most powerful military machines (the Israeli) and on the fourth by the shameful Mubarak government of Egypt which has sold its support for the Palestinians for a “mess of potage” – massive military aid from the United States. Israel has conducted war after war against the Palestinian communities it controls, most recently, the attack on Gaza in 2008 and 2009 which killed 1,415 people, hundreds of them children. How can we be sure of the exact number? Because the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has recorded and made public the names and age of every Palestinian killed in that conflict. It makes for grim reading, especially the hundreds of names highlighted in yellow, names of children, 17 years old and younger.[2]

But DiNovo says that the word “apartheid” is “inflammatory” and “used inappropriately in the case of Israel.”[3] DiNovo might want to read some of the writings of Uri Davis who defines apartheid as “institutionalized racism legislated by Acts of Parliament.”[4] Or she could refer to key documents of international law, in particular the United Nations’ “Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid” which entered into force July 18, 1976. That document describes as a crime “inhuman acts resulting from the policies and practices of apartheid and similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination … inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”[5] But perhaps DiNovo – like the governments of Canada, the United States and Israel – chooses to stand apart from international law and the 107 countries which have agreed to participate in this convention in order to combat the crime of apartheid.

Like any analogy, the apartheid analogy is not exact. But like a good analogy, it captures the essence of the situation. And in many respects, the parallels are uncanny. The Encylcopaedia Britannica says that “80 percent of South Africa’s land” was set aside for the white minority. [6] Israel exists on 78 percent of historic Palestine.[7] The segregation in South Africa was formally based on skin colour, in Israel on religion. However, that “religious segregation” in Israel is extraordinarily racialized. If you are a white person living in Germany, Poland, Canada, the United States or elsewhere, and are defined as “Jewish” by the Israeli state, then you have the right to travel to Palestine and become a full citizen of the state of Israel. If you are a non-Jewish Arab Palestinian, and your parents were expelled from their homes in 1948 – the Israelis – in defiance of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 from December 1948, will not let you go home, take up residence in Palestine, and vote as a full citizen.[8] According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), that original displacement of 750,000 people has grown to a refugee population of 4.8 million Palestinians.[9]

South Africa enforced its apartheid regime with a series of “pass” laws. Here the apartheid analogy is almost completely exact. The occupied West Bank is riddled with illegal Israeli colonies (121 “settlements” and 102 “outposts”) housing 462,000 Israeli settlers.[10] The Israeli state enforces stringent laws on the South African pattern in the West Bank, where Palestinians are required to carry documents and pass through a myriad of checkpoints on the roads they can use – and there are entire highways which they cannot use, the West Bank being criss-crossed with roads which can be used by Israeli nationals, but not by the Palestinian majority. The “separateness” of the Israeli nationals from the Palestinians is being completed by the construction of a hideous wall ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2004.[11] In terms of elections, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have no say in the selection of the government which rules over them, instead allowed only a vote for the very restricted mandate of the entity known as the “Palestinian Authority.” To add injury to insult, elected Palestinian officials are frequently arrested and jailed by the Israeli state. In August 2008, for instance, fully 47 Palestinian Members of Parliament were in Israeli jails.[12]

DiNovo has some work to do, to explain the way in which this racialized and racist series of policies should be excluded from the term “apartheid.”

She argues that what we need to speak about “is the occupation (of Palestinian territory), the wall, other issues that face us.” She is right. But where will that discussion happen? The magnificent accomplishment of Israeli Apartheid Week since it began in Toronto in 2005, has been its effectiveness in providing a forum for the discussion of exactly these issues. The students at the core of IAW have done a fantastic job in bringing the issues of the oppression of the Palestinians into the spotlight.

And good that they did not wait for the NDP to provide such a forum – the NDP has had some difficulty with the issue. Left-wing MP Svend Robinson did publicly show solidarity with Palestine. He went to Ramallah in 2002 to show his support for the Palestinian people. The result was telling. First, he was fired from his post as Foreign Affairs critic for the party.[13] Second, it was the trigger for Bob Rae to resign from the NDP and join the Liberals.[14]

DiNovo’s position caused an outcry from solidarity activists in the city. In response, party leader Andrea Horwath distanced herself from the resolution, calling it “divisive by nature.” But Horwath stayed silent on DiNovo’s support for this divisive bill.

Horwath said that New Democrats “believe in finding avenues towards a peaceful solution in the Middle East.”[15] Israeli Apartheid Week events, this year and in previous years, have made a real contribution towards finding just such a peaceful solution.

(c) 2011 Paul Kellogg


[1] Robert Benzie, “MPPs decry linking Israel to ‘apartheid,’” Toronto Star, February 26, 2010: p. A.10.
[2] Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, “The Dead in the course of the recent military offensive on the Gaxa strip between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009.”
[3] Benzie: p. A.10.
[4] Uri Davis, “Foreword” to Apartheid Israel: Possibilities for The Struggle Within (New York: Zed Books, 2003), p. xii.
[5] Cited in John Dugard, “ Introduction” to the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.
[6] “apartheid,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Accessed February 3, 2011.
[7] PLO Negotiations Affairs Department, “Twenty-two years After the Palestinian Historic Compromise: It’s time for decisions,” November 2010.
[8] The relevant text reads as follows: “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (III), 11 December 1948. Cited in Lucy Dean, ed. Regional Surveys of the World: The Middle East and North Africa 2004, 50th Edition (London: Europe Publications, 2003), p. 55.
[9] UNRWA, “Palestine refugees: Who are Palestine refugees?
[10] “Israeli Settlements,” Palestine Monitor factsheet, 15 March 2010.
[11] International Court of Justice, “Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” Advisory Opinion of 9 July 2004.
[12] Rory McCarthy, “Israel releases 198 Palestinian prisoners,” The Guardian, 26 August 2008.
[13] Andrew Chung, “McDonough urges U.S. to stop funding Israeli army,” Toronto Star, Jan. 17, 2003, p. A 07
[14] Bob Rae, “Parting company with the NDP,” National Post, April 16 2002, p. A18.
[15] Andrew Horwath, “Open Letter,”, February 26, 2010

Missing the point on boycotting apartheid

Rick Salutin, well-respected columnist for The Globe and Mail, and has published a criticism of the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against the state of Israel.[1] Below is one of the responses posted to his column when it appeared on rabble.[2] • It is not credible for Rick Salutin to paint all boycott campaigns with the same brush. U.S. sanctions against Cuba are an attack by an imperialist country on a small oppressed nation. U.N. sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s cost hundreds of thousands of lives and were the preliminary act in the horror that became the Iraq war.

The civil society movement to isolate South Africa through a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions was, by contrast, a movement against imperialism and war – a call to isolate a racist, sub-imperialist power. This is of a kind with the civil society movement to isolate Israel through a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions. Israel is a sub-imperialist power that is built on the basis of the racist exclusion and oppression of the Palestinians. The issue is — are we with imperialism and its allies, or with the oppressed and their allies in the fight against imperialism?

Salutin then changes the goal posts and questions the efficacy of such campaigns. That is something that has been discussed at length in the social movements. Very few maintain that BDS alone brought down apartheid. The key factor in the fall of apartheid was the generations-long struggle by the black people of South Africa themselves – from the uprising in Soweto to the magnificent illegal miners’ strikes. This movement received considerable support from others in Africa (and from the armies of Cuba), engaged in their own struggles against colonialism and racism. Finally, to the extent those of us in the West could play a role, it was through exposing our governments’ and corporations’ complicity by calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

And “self-righteous language on each side”? In what way can the use of the term “apartheid” be equated with the Israeli state banning the use of the term “nakba?” Both express a truth – that the Israeli state is based on the racist exclusion of the majority of the Palestinians. The reality of the mass ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians does in fact make 1948 a catastrophe (nakba), just as the ongoing exclusion, fragmentation, isolation and separation of the Palestinians is a fact that deserves the label “apartheid”. What unites both these terms is the way in which their use has been greeted with hysteria. We must not use the label “apartheid” or the term “nakba” – because these terms make it difficult for a complacent political class to continue to wallow in 61 years of willful ignorance about the reality of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

© 2009 Paul Kellogg


[1] Rick Salutin, “Mr. Cohen doesn’t do Ramallah,” The Globe and Mail, July 24, 2009 .
[2] Salutin, “Mr. Cohen doesn’t do Ramallah,”, July 24, 2009

Gaza: Occupation is still the issue

The war in Gaza is a completely unequal contest. Israel – receiving billions of dollars in military aid every year from the United States – has one of the most sophisticated killing machines in the world. Gaza is an open-air prison, whose only outlet to the outside world for months has been through tunnels dug deep beneath the border with Egypt. Rockets fired from Gaza have killed a handful of Israelis. Israel’s offensive has killed more than 600 – including the slaughter of 40 at a U.N. school.[1] Yet in spite of these facts, the NDP official statement on the war acts as if both sides are equally to blame.

Canada’s New Democrats “condemn the unacceptable escalation of violence in the Middle East,” the statement begins. This escalation is about “airstrikes by Israel” and the “ongoing rocket attacks”.[2] Not a word about occupation. Not a word about Israel’s strangulation of Gaza. Not a word about Hamas being democratically elected. Not a word about Harper being the first to jump on a boycott of Hamas, giving a green light to Israel.

Israel, Stephen Harper, the United States, F16 fighter planes, tanks, artillery, pilotless drones – against a few hundred Hamas fighters with some rockets. In what way are these two equal sides? Israel has stolen the homes of the Palestinians, forced them into a strip of land by the sea, is now mercilessly pounding them, but “New Democrats believe that Canada must pursue a balanced approach to the Middle East crisis.”

So let’s have a balanced approach. Let’s always tell the truth when we talk about the war in Palestine – the balanced, careful truth. That truth is that Israel is occupying Palestinian land, is expanding its settlements illegally, is carving up what remains of Palestinian land in a way little different from the way South Africa carved up the Bantustans under apartheid, and that until this illegal occupation ends, there will be no peace.

© 2009 Paul Kellogg


[1] For facts on the war, see Electronic Intifada
[2] “New Democrat statement on the situation in the Middle East,” December 29, 2008

Spirit of Palestine in Toronto

“The spirit of Palestine will be in every theatre in Toronto.” With these words, Rafeef Ziadah introduced “Salt of This Sea,” first offering in the first ever Toronto Palestine Film Festival. With more than 800 in attendance, the opening was a smash success. Through eight days of screenings, more than 4,000 people attended 36 films. As well as a cultural success, politically the film festival was testament to the growing support for Palestine solidarity in the city of Toronto.

The timing of the event was not accidental. 2008 is the 60th anniversary of the Nakba – the catastrophe of ethnic cleansing which expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their land, as part of the creation of the state of Israel. Palestine House Education and Cultural Centre conceived of the festival as a way of both marking this anniversary, and helping to put the issue of Palestine on the map in Toronto.

The full line-up of films shown can be found at the Toronto Palestine Film Festival web site, To find out more about Palestine House, visit their web site at

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

Labour solidarity with Palestine

“I want to express my gratitude to both CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) and CUPW (Canadian Union of Postal Workers) for the solidarity they have shown to the Palestinian people.” With these words, Manawell Abdul Al, member of the executive committee of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions summed up the sentiment at the 150-strong opening plenary of the “Brick by Brick” conference at the Steelworkers Hall in Toronto. He was referring to the motions passed first at CUPE-Ontario, and this year at CUPW national, supporting the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against the state of Israel.

Organized by the Labour Committee of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA), the conference focused on “building labour solidarity with Palestine.” As well as members of CUPE and CUPW, the weekend conference brought together members of CAW (Canadian Auto Workers), the USWA (United Steelworkers of America), FNEEQ (Fédération nationale des enseignantes et des enseignants du Québec), OSSTF (Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation) and other unions to debate ways to strengthen the BDS campaign in the labour movement.

Marion Pollack from CUPW also spoke on the opening panel. “It is very clear to us that the struggle facing the Palestinian people is the same struggle faced by the South African people against apartheid,” she said, and thanked CUPE Ontario for taking the lead in being the first major union grouping in Canada to pass a BDS resolution. In the wake of the CUPE Ontario resolution, there were literally thousands of emails sent by pro-Israeli forces denouncing the union. After CUPW members at the recent national convention voted 90 per cent to endorse the BDS resolution, “we were braced for a backlash” Pollack said. “However, we have not had the same level of fall-out.”

One of the most moving speeches came from Paul Loulou Chery, Secretary of the Confederation of Haitian Workers. He described the extremely difficult conditions being faced by Haitian workers, chafing under military occupation sanctioned by the United Nations. He talked about the conditions created by the 2004 coup d’état, carried out by the military of the U.S., France and Canada. But he also said that even though Haitian workers face terrible conditions, they do not want their Palestinian sisters and brothers to stand alone. Manawell Abdul Al took the microphone in response, and said that the occupation of Haiti and the occupation of Palestine are one and the same. “It is the dictatorship of capital that wants to exploit and put its hands on the wealth of the people.”

Notably present at the opening plenary was Phyllis Bennis, well known anti-war activist, (prominent in United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the principal anti-war organization in the United States), who spoke from the floor as a member of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. Also from the US were members of US Labor Against the War. Links with the U.S. anti-war and labour movements will be critical in the campaign to build solidarity with Palestine.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid Labour Committee,
CUPE B.C., The Wall Must Fall, 2007,
CUPE, “CUPE Resolution 50 Palestine“,
CUPW, Resolution for BDS,
U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation,

The man who excommunicated Bush and Blair

The war in Iraq “indicates that leaders of the invading states did not listen to the church, and hence, we deem them excommunicates and perverted.”[1] These were the words of Father Attallah Hanna in April 2003. He was expressing the outrage of Palestinian Christians over the invasion of Iraq. As a result of this excommunication, George Bush, then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair, and Blair’s then foreign minister Jack Straw, were banned from visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the Christianity’s holiest sites. March 29, Attallah Hanna took his anti-war message to more than 600 people in a sold-out convention centre in Mississauga.

His 2003 excommunication of the Bush and Blair was hugely popular. Just two years later, the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church unanimously elected him Archbishop of Sebaste for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, just the second Palestinian to hold this position.[2]

His appearance in Mississauga was organized by Palestine House, and was part of the marking of Land Day (or Youm Al-Ard) – since 1976 an annual commemoration of the struggle of Palestinians to win back their land from Israeli occupation. This year also marks 60 years since the Nakba – the Day of Catastrophe when the state of Israel came into existence pushing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into exile as refugees from their homeland.

Attallah Hanna said, to stormy applause, “60 years of Nakba will never make us forget. … We won’t accept any [peace] plan that won’t agree to the right of return for all the refugees.” His speech was greeted with several spontaneous standing ovations. Every person attending was given a postcard advertising this year’s demonstration against the Nakba, Saturday May 10. Coming on the 60th anniversary, it is expected to draw a very large crowd, in Toronto and around the world. Information on events around the world May 10 can be found here.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Yasser El-Banna, “Church Of The Nativity ex-communicates Bush, Blair,”, April 3, 2003,
[2] Maria C. Khoury, “A Rare Day for Orthodoxy in the Holy Land,” Orthodox Christian News, January 2, 2006,

George Habash – ‘These borders will fall’

The sad passing of George Habash January 26, is an opportunity to learn the lessons from his long life of struggle. In the 1970s at the peak of his influence, he embodied the hopes of thousands struggling to win Palestine freedom against the forces of imperialism, Israeli militarism and capitalism.

Often known as “Al Hakim” (the doctor or wise man),[1] Habash was born in 1925 or 1926 in Lydda Palestine. Like many Palestinians, his hometown has “vanished” – what was Lydda, Palestine now being called Lod, Israel.[2] When only 22, he was “witness to the ethnic cleansing of his home town,”[3] part of the horror of the Nakba (Catastrophe) – the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes by the emerging Israeli state. Studying medicine at the American University of Beirut when the Nakba began, he “rushed back to Lydda to serve as a medical orderly as the Zionists advanced on the town and drove out its inhabitants.” From that point on, his life as a doctor was to be combined with his life as a freedom fighter. Over the next three years he would both help in the founding of the Arab Nationalist Movement and graduate from university, “first in his class.”[4]

His political evolution was organically linked to the many phases of the struggle for Palestinian liberation. Like many thousands, his first position was that Arab unity could defeat the state of Israel. He was a supporter of the Pan-Arab nationalism of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. But Israel’s shattering defeat of Egypt and other Arab states in 1967’s Six-Day war, drove Habash like many in his generation to look to more radical solutions. In the wake of the 1967 war, Habash helped found the organization with which he was to be associated for the rest of his life – the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). It became one of the key components of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), second in importance only to Fatah.[5]

Habash is often portrayed as a “terrorist.” The Enclycopaedia Britannica says that “under the leadership of Habash, the PFLP staged several airplane hijackings.”[6] They don’t mention that, according to Oxford University’s Karma Nabulsi, “the tactic of aeroplane hijackings … was never his (and over which he expelled Wadie Haddad from the PFLP).”[7] And of course they do not mention that if we are to talk about terrorism in Palestine – and if terrorism is to be understood as “the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective”[8] (the definition offered by The Enclyopaedia Britannica) – then without any question the biggest terrorist in Palestine is the state of Israel. The ethnic cleansing of Lydda during the Nakba is just one of many examples of the Israeli state terrorism which has fuelled the liberation struggle in Palestine.

Habash was a true internationalist. Inspired by the struggle in Vietnam, he and the PFLP “argued that the liberation of Palestine would be impossible without the liberation of Arab countries from the regimes imposed by the West and Israel. Looking to Vietnam, Habash called for Arab ‘Hanois,’ and stated that the liberation of Palestine passed through every Arab capital.”[9] Habash was also a man of the left. After the founding of the PFLP, he openly embraced Marxism.

We need to also learn the limits of Habash’s politics. The Marxism that he and his generation learned was tangled up with the complex anti-democratic reality of the so-called “socialist” states. Habash was at first openly critical of the Soviet Union, but like many he for a time tried to find an alternative in the equally anti-democratic traditions of “Communist” China. By 1973, according to As’ad AbuKhalil of California State University, the PFLP “had joined the ranks of Arab communist organizations that pledged allegiance to the Soviet Union.”[10] The inability of the left in the Middle East to fully break free from the long shadow of Stalinism made it less and less attractive as a liberation ideology for the oppressed masses of the region. The decline of the left of Habash’s generation meant the marginalization of his organization, the PFLP. “One can’t speak of the PFLP since 2000, when Habash voluntarily resigned from the leadership.”[11]

But the oppression of Palestine continues, and a new generation has taken up the resistance. Habash lived that last years of his life in poverty and exile in Amman, Jordan. But he had his dignity – refusing to the end the corruption that engulfed many of the leadership of his contemporaries in Fatah. And Habash, to his death, was dedicated to the liberation of Palestine.

Karma Nabulsi, in his obituary to Habash, tells a story that is a fitting epitaph. “Just before his death, Habash was told how young Palestinians from a different political party had audaciously destroyed the walls of Gaza, setting free its people. Habash smiled and said: ‘You see, the day will come when these borders will fall and Arab unity will be achieved.’”[12]

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] David Hirst, “George Habash,” The Guardian, January 29, 2008
[2] “Habash, George,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008, Enclyopaedia Britannica Online, February 1, 2008 .
[3] Karma Nabulsi, “Rebel from a bygone era,” The Guardian, January 29, 2008.
[4] Hirst, “George Habash”
[5] As’ad AbuKhalil, “George Habash’s contribution to the Palestinian struggle, The Electronic Intifada, January 30, 2008
[6] “George Habash”
[7] Nabulsi, “Rebel from a bygone era”
[8] “terrorism,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008, Enclyopaedia Britannica Online, February 1, 2008
[9] As’ad AbuKhali, “George Habash’s contribution”
[10] As’ad AbuKhali, “George Habash’s contribution”
[11] As’ad AbuKhali, “George Habash’s contribution”
[12] Nabulsi, “Rebel from a bygone era”