A Canadian legislator, Sarah Jama, is embroiled in controversy for advocating a cease-fire in Israel’s war on Gaza. Absurd accusations of antisemitism and a political firestorm have ensued, culminating in Jama’s expulsion from her own party’s caucus.
Ontario New Democratic Party MPP Sarah Jama photographed in Hamilton Centre, 2018. (Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Sarah Jama, a member of the provincial parliament (MPP) representing the Ontario legislative riding of Hamilton Centre for the Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP), has also issued a cease and desist letter to Ontario premier Doug Ford, whom she accuses of defamation.
Jama issued a public statement October 10 in which she called for an immediate cease-fire in relation to the ongoing war in Gaza. Canadian politicians and pundits seized on the opportunity to demand her resignation almost immediately. Ford issued a statement the next day, indicating that Jama had a “long and well-documented history of antisemitism” and that Jama publicly supported the “rape and murder of innocent Jewish people.”
Jama’s statement did not in fact indicate any support for the rape or murder of any people, let alone Jews. It did provide contextual background information on the current situation in Israel and Palestine, such as the fact that the United Nations considers Israel to be an apartheid state.
Jama then went on to pinpoint Israeli settler colonialism as the root cause of the recent outburst of violence and call for an immediate cease-fire and de-escalation. She also provided potential solutions to end the crisis, such as an end to the occupation of all Palestinian land and Israeli apartheid. She indicated her hope Canada would look to its history of peacemaking, rather than side with military intervention, and that her heart went out “to all those impacted by this on-going violence.”
The Crime of Advocating for Palestinian Rights
Ford’s allegation against Jama — that she has a long history of antisemitism — is a reference to allegations made by B’nai Brith Canada in March of 2023, when Jama was the leading candidate in a by-election to represent the ONDP stronghold of Hamilton Centre.
B’nai Brith called Jama a “radical activist who has been associated with groups that have frequently targeted Israel.” The organization also demanded her resignation. Jama apologized at the time, describing comments she had made in the past as hurtful and as a “poor choice of words,” though what exactly was antisemitic about her comments is difficult to discern. For their part, B’nai Brith seemed to be primarily concerned with her past affiliations with Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights while a student at McMaster University, as well as her support for the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement.
ONDP leader Marit Stiles stood by her candidate at the time — and for good reason. Jama is a Muslim woman of color with a long track record of advocacy for housing and persons with disabilities. Jama represents a riding in the downtown of Hamilton, Ontario, the center of the Canadian steelmaking industry and an important center of Canadian labor activism. The city itself is a stronghold for the NDP at both the provincial and federal levels.
Stiles was less enthusiastic in her support of Jama this time around, however, stating: “I have asked that she retract her statement, and state clearly that she decries any violence against both Israeli and Palestinian people.” Stiles also asserted that, “The terrorist attacks by Hamas on thousands of innocent Israeli civilians are unjustifiable and must be condemned unequivocally.”
Despite Jama issuing an unequivocal apology condemning Hamas, she was expelled from the ONDP caucus on Monday, October 23, by party leader Stiles. Although Stiles and the other ONDP MPPs voted against Ford’s censure motion, Stiles said her and the rest of the NDP caucus agreed on expelling Jama. Stiles explained that Jama had “undertaken a number of unilateral actions that have undermined our collective work and broken the trust of her colleagues.”
Stiles was not specific in explaining what those actions were. She also stated that “some of Ms Jama’s actions have contributed to unsafe work environments for staff,” without explaining that Ford’s incendiary mischaracterization of Jana’s statement seems to have been the root cause of the threats against her.
Calling for Peace Is Political War
Jama’s apology clearly wasn’t enough for a number of politicians, pundits, and lobbyists seeking to exploit the deaths of innocent Palestinians and Israelis for their own gain in Canada. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said Jama’s initial statement was “filled with lies.” The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center called Jama’s post “deeply troubling.”
Jama’s apology clearly wasn’t enough for a number of politicians, pundits, and lobbyists seeking to exploit the deaths of innocent Palestinians and Israelis for their own gain in Canada.
Brian Lilley, a conservative commentator for the right-wing Toronto Sun, referred to Jama’s appeal for a cease-fire as “antisemitic.” Political consultant Warren Kinsella, well known in Canadian political circles as the “Prince of Darkness” for his advocacy of dirty tricks campaigns, called Jama a bigot in a recent column. Ontario Progressive Conservative government house leader Paul Calandra said that Jama’s refusal to take down her statement was a “clear show of defiance,” though even if it were, it would be an issue for the ONDP to resolve internally and not one to concern their political opponents.
The loudest political voices demanding Jama’s resignation came from Ontario’s ruling Conservative Party. This is hardly surprising considering the imbroglio in which the party is currently embroiled. The party recently had to reverse a highly contentious decision to sell off parcels of land in a protected “greenbelt.” The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is currently investigating Ford and his party for improper conduct. But even by the lights of time-honored political strategy of diverting attention from one’s own controversies, the question of why Jama was expected to explicitly denounce a terrorist organization to which she has no connection, nor has ever advocated for, raises valid concerns warranting answers.
This is especially true now that both the leader of the ONDP, Stiles, and federal NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, along with several of members of parliament, have all issued statements that were, for all intents and purposes, identical to that of Jama’s. They are now, as Jama did initially, calling for a cease-fire.
It pushes the outer bounds of credulity to misconstrue the demand for a cease-fire as being pro-Hamas, anti-Israel, or even antisemitic. It is an unfortunate consequence of increased political polarity — one exacerbated by the “war and only war” response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — that demanding a cease-fire can be so deliberately misread as support for terrorist butchers.
It is worth considering that the reaction of the Canadian establishment to Jama’s apparently unacceptable demand for a cease-fire is very much in line with the self-imposed censorship of the US State Department. Internal memoranda revealed diplomats — diplomats! — were forbidden from using the phrases “end to violence/bloodshed,” “restoring calm,” and “de-escalation/cease-fire.”
It pushes the outer bounds of credulity to misconstrue the demand for a cease-fire as being pro-Hamas, anti-Israel, or even antisemitic.
And while mainstream American news media outlets like the New Republic and the Huffington Post were astounded by the censorship imposed on the language of peace, Canadian media was either silent or sided with the censorship imposed on Jama.
As Mondoweiss reports, even US secretary of state Antony Blinken had called for a cease-fire, but then deleted his statements after pressure from various Republicans and right-wing groups — and perhaps American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and defense industry lobbyists as well. Jama, at least for a little while, was on the same page as Blinken — a man who has been cheerleading for a new forever war in Ukraine, no matter how many Ukrainians it ends up killing. The heat of the moment ensures that men like Blinken will not be forgiven their intermittent invocations of nonviolence.
Assessing the Statement
An analysis of Jama’s statement reveals not only that her intent was not at all the duplicitous chicanery it has been made out to be and that the hysterical reaction against it was politically motivated from the outset. Jama begins her statement by identifying the root cause of the problem: the decades-long occupation of Palestine by Israel, under conditions that have been internationally recognized as apartheid. This is not a controversial statement: it is the determination of the United Nations and leading international human rights groups.
Jama’s statement also contends that the apartheid conditions are not only maintained, but aggravated by Israeli actions that continue to abuse the basic human rights of Palestinians — such as Israel’s use of white phosphorus munitions (a chemical and incendiary weapon), its cutting off water and power, and restricting shipments of food and fuel. The Palestinian people of Gaza, already trapped in what amounts to a massive concentration camp, are being collectively punished for the actions of Hamas. This is in and of itself a war crime.
Jama further identifies the problem as being rooted in a seventy-five-year cycle of violence resulting from settler colonialism. The origins of the most recent violence is itself a consequence of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aggressive settlement practices — practices that had been widely condemned by Israel’s staunchest supporters not long ago.
In her concluding remarks, Jama calls for a de-escalation and a cease-fire, urging Canada to prioritize peacemaking over further military intervention. She further emphasizes that addressing the underlying cause of the crisis, namely apartheid and the occupation of Palestinian lands, is crucial to ending the endless cycle of bloodshed. She concludes by expressing a sentiment that would require deliberate misinterpretation to be viewed as tendentious: compassion for all victims of the violence, irrespective of their religion, nationality, or ethnicity.
None of this should be controversial.
Stepping Out of Line
A Muslim woman of color who started her political career as an advocate for the disabled, Jama checks a lot of boxes in a political environment that’s woefully deficient when it comes to representation. And her unique perspective — the one that’s a product of the “diverse” background so coveted by the political class — may lead her to come to conclusions somewhat different from highly polished but ultimately hollow public relations jargon.
Jama is far from alone in this regard, as a number of progressive politicians of color are learning the hard way. Although there’s no doubt that representation has increased in recent decades and politicians of color make meaningful contributions to Canada’s political processes, it often appears that, for party operators, whatever they believe, think, or feel is secondary to their utility in reinforcing the myth of an equal and equitable multicultural Canada.
Montreal anti-racist activist and Grey Cup–winning cornerback Balarama Holness’s experience running with that city’s ostensibly progressive Project Montreal party seems strikingly similar. Always happy to have a smiling Holness by her side out on the campaign trail, Montreal mayor Valerie Plante was far less enthusiastic to hear what Holness had discovered, learned, and witnessed firsthand about the city’s deeply rooted problems of racism, particularly when it comes to the Montreal police.
Perhaps the most egregious aspect of this whole debacle is the fact that those who demanded Jama’s resignation because of her statement were exploiting the deaths of innocent Palestinians and Israelis to advance their own causes. It is a considerable indictment of the nation’s elite that it seemed comfortable allowing the political and media establishment to exploit a tragedy for their political gain. Making things worse, they simultaneously sought to censor an elected representative who had the apparent temerity to point out objective if inconvenient truths, rather than wallow in comfortable, preapproved bromides.
Jama’s party, the NDP — the ostensibly progressive party she campaigned for — chose to turn their backs on her during her time of need, because she was no longer politically expedient. The tone of the responses to Jama’s dismissal suggest that the Ontario NDP leadership may have gravely underestimated the willingness of progressive voters to back unpopular stances on Palestine. This exasperation with the party line starkly illustrates the widening chasm between Canada’s political elite and its dwindling support base.Original post