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Debate over 'from the river to the sea' chant rages after Calgary protester charged

Rallies over the Israel-Hamas war have been taking place in downtown Calgary for several weeks. Rallies over the Israel-Hamas war have been taking place in downtown Calgary for several weeks.

A debate is raging over a phrase being chanted by pro-Palestinian activists at rallies across the country after a protester was charged in Calgary.

Police charged Wesam Cooley, also known as Wesam Khalid, earlier this month with causing a disturbance. A hate motivation has been applied.

Police said two groups of protesters gathered at city hall on Nov. 5 to show support for Palestine and Israel amid the conflict in the Middle East. Officers met with each group to address the safety of participants and discuss some of the language and signage from past protests.

Police allege Cooley took to the stage, acknowledged the conversation with officers then repeatedly used an “antisemitic phrase” while encouraging the crowd to follow along.

Cooley's lawyer, Zachary Al-Khatib, said it appears Cooley was arrested for chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestinians will be free.”

Al-Khatib said there's nothing hateful about calling for freedom and equality for Palestinians from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

“It is unfortunate that a Calgary police officer acted as he did in this situation. I hope that it was a mistake flowing from a misunderstanding and will be corrected soon,” he said in an email.

“None of us - no matter our stance on this conflict - should want our society to be a place where political speech is criminalized. Ideas and political slogans should be debated and decided in the public square.”

Cooley, Al-Khatib said, was apparently told police had discouraged the use of the chant.

Calgary police said in a statement Wednesday that the charge considered the “circumstances and full context of the behaviour.”

“The behaviour that led to charges was considered in the context of the specific situation, all of which is broader than a single phrase, gesture, sign or symbol in isolation.”

They declined to comment further as Cooley is set to appear in court on the charge in December.

Police have recommended the court consider using a section of the Criminal Code that allows for an increased sentence if the suspect is convicted and there's enough evidence the offence was motivated by hatred.

Alberta's Crown prosecution service said it would independently review the material.

“In order for the (Crown) to make the decision to proceed with the prosecution, there must be a reasonable likelihood of conviction,” spokeswoman Michelle Davio said in a statement.

The phrase “from the river to the sea,” has become a battle cry to roil Jews and pro-Palestinian activists since the deadly attacks by Hamas across southern Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel's later bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

It has been used by protesters at rallies across the country, including in Montreal, where gunshots have been fired at Jewish schools .

Protesters who surrounded a Vancouver bar Tuesday night when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there also chanted the phrase.

Many pro-Palestinian activists have said the chant is a call for peace and equality after 75 years of Israeli statehood.

Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East said in a statement that it's a simple call for freedom.

“We are appalled at the shocking overreach ... in carrying out this arrest, which is an example of anti-Palestinian racism,” president Thomas Woodley said.

Jewish activists, however, said they hear a clear demand for Israel's destruction in the chant.

Yair Szlak, president and CEO of Jewish advocacy organization Federation CJA, said he considers it an example of hate speech.

“Israel is bordered on one hand by the Jordan River and on the other side by the Mediterranean Sea,” he said. “When you have people chanting 'from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,' the question I would pose is: Where do the Jewish people go?

“Going into the ocean is not an answer. That is hate speech, that is targeting a group of people and saying you don't belong in that country.”

Szlak said the chant creates “psychological terrorism” for Jewish people.

“The fact that the Calgary police have acted on it, it's a start at least to try and tone down the level of rhetoric and antisemitic incitement that's going on in the streets of Canada.”

James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University, said the phrase is considered hateful to many in the Jewish community and aspirational for many Palestinians.

“People hear it different ways, people mean it different ways,” he said.

Turk added that he would be surprised if prosecutors allow the charge to proceed to trial.

“Even if it's the hateful version of it, I don't think it's illegal speech in Canada,” he said.

“The Supreme Court around freedom of expression generally is very clear that what underlies the reason for free expression is its basis of ongoing public discourse, which is the foundation of democracy.”

Turk said it's legally not enough to be offended by a phrase.

“The fact that I've been deeply hurt by somebody's advocacy for Palestine or for Israel is the price of being in a democratic society,” he said. “My right when I hear that is to denounce it.

“For the police department in Calgary to say, 'Well, we're not going to allow that kind of thing because some portion of the population finds it deeply offensive and hurtful,' that's not how expression of freedom in a democratic society should work.”

- With files from Thomas MacDonald in Montreal and The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2023. Top Stories

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