Editor’s Note: Wesam Cooley’s lawyer confirmed to The Canadian Press on Nov. 17 that the charge against his client had been stayed.
A Calgary man has been arrested for allegedly causing a disturbance and using an “antisemitic phrase” as part of a pro-Palestinian protest outside city hall on Sunday.
Calgary police said at around 2 p.m., two groups of protesters gathered on either side of Macleod Trail near city hall to show their support for Israel and Palestinians during the recent month-long conflict in the Middle East.
Police said the crowd numbered more than 1,000 that afternoon.
CPS said ahead of the protest, members of the diversity resource team and public safety unit met with members of both groups to ensure the safety of the participants, the public and officers, and to discuss the language and signage used in previous protests.
A spokesperson for Justice for Palestinians (JFP) confirmed that meeting with the officers, where they discussed the use of a phrase that has been used in pro-Palestinian circles and political movements since the establishment of the modern state of Israel.
“We clarified that it would be OK to continue using it in our protest on Sunday and so we did,” Rineem Saleh told Global News on Tuesday.
CPS said during the protest, a man took to a stage to address some of the crowd and “acknowledged” the conversation with police.
“He then proceeded to repeatedly use an anti-Semitic phrase while encouraging the crowd to follow along,” CPS said in a statement.
“Hate speech, as defined in the Criminal Code, is complex and several contextual factors must be considered before charges can be laid.”
Wesam Cooley, 32, was charged with causing a disturbance and a hate motivation was applied to the charge. He is due to appear in court on Dec. 12.
JFP confirmed to Global News that Cooley is also known as Wesam Khaled, an organizer of that and previous protests.
In a press release, JFP said Cooley was arrested at a CTrain station, while he was waiting with his family to go home. He was presented with the charges at the transit station, handcuffed and taken into police custody, they said.
“We learned later that they accused him of making ‘offensive anti-Semitic comments’ for uttering a protest chant that has been a Palestinian call for liberation for decades,” Justice for Palestinians said.
JFP and Saleh said the organization stands opposed to all forms of racism, including antisemitism, and campaigns for freedom of Palestinians in the Middle East.
Muhannad Ayyash, a Palestinian-born sociology professor at Mount Royal University, decried the arrest.
“This incident is an outrageous silencing of Palestinians and their supporters and a brazen attempt to criminalize these protests,” Ayyash said in a statement.
Some, like the American Jewish Congress (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) call the slogan antisemitic, due to the historical connotations and the swath of land in the phrase that includes all of Israel.
Montreal-based Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) opposed that interpretation of the phrase, characterizing it as a “simple call for freedom.”
“By cracking down on legitimate calls for Palestinian freedom, Alberta’s actions threaten to put a chill on the massive public displays of outrage over Israeli violence against Palestinian civilians,” Thomas Woodley, CJPME president, said in a statement.
CJPME called for the charges against Cooley to be dropped.
A chant’s history
The chant has been heard in protests worldwide, including this past weekend in Washington, D.C.
A month ago, Vienna police banned a pro-Palestinian protest because of the chant.
And earlier this year, a Dutch court found that the phrase was protected speech and not punishable by law.
With decades of history behind it, the phrase directly references the Jordan River on the western border of Israel and the West Bank, and the Mediterranean Sea on the eastern border of Israel and Gaza.
It was initially a response to the 1948 formation of the modern state of Israel. The phrase was made popular by the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964 as a part of a goal of the movement until the 1988 Algiers Declaration, when the PLO’s objectives shifted to establishing a Palestinian state within the borders established in 1967.
Hamas, established in 1988 and which calls for the “obliteration of the state of Israel,” included the phrase in its platform.
The ADL and AJC both consider the phrase an antisemitic slogan used in anti-Israel campaigns and demonstrations.
“Usage of this phrase has the effect of making members of the Jewish and pro-Israel community feel unsafe and ostracized,” the ADL writes.
“There is, of course, nothing antisemitic about advocating for Palestinians to have their own state. However, calling for the elimination of the Jewish state, praising Hamas or other entities who call for Israel’s destruction, or suggesting that the Jews alone do not have the right to self-determination, is antisemitic,” the AJC writes.
Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, called it “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate,” in a social media post that accompanied a video dissenting from President Joe Biden’s statement that the U.S. “stands with Israel.”
Writing in Jewish Currents in June 2021, Yousef Munayyer said the phrase “encompasses the entire space in which Palestinian rights are denied” and called it a “rejoinder to the fragmentation of Palestinian land and people by Israeli occupation and discrimination. Palestinians have been divided in a myriad of ways by Israeli policy.”
And in 2019, UCLA professor Robin Kelley said by 1969, the slogan used by PLO represented an urge for “one democratic secular state.”
Kelley also documented that a similar phrase was used in the 1977 election platform of Israeli right-wing political party Likud: “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.”
— with files from Reuters and The Associated Press