Canada’s Culture of Silence: an Interview with Mazen El-Baba

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COURTESY/ MAZEN EL-BABA

Mazen El-Baba, 27, is from Lebanon and moved to Canada in 2005. He is starting as a resident physician in Emergency Medicine at the University of Toronto this year. On May 18, he released an open letter that addresses the culture of silence, which is referring to Canada’s culture of silence when it comes to the Palestinian struggles and the Israeli occupation.

El-Baba runs an organization called H.appi which works with children exposed to trauma and adversity throughout their development.

“Being raised in the Middle East, in Lebanon specifically, I was exposed to wars even though I was young… it leaves an impact on you… on your development and your way of thinking,” El-Baba said.

The in-depth conversation with El-Baba discusses Canada’s culture of silence

What led up to the open letter that you wrote?

El-Baba mentioned that it is often difficult to speak up against anti-Palestinian racism in Canada and the western world.

He stated that if you come up with any neutral sentence to advocate for any other group of people, no one questions it. However, as soon as the ethnic group is Palestinians, it raises eyebrows and is questioned.

“The letter that I wrote was a response to a call-to-action shared amongst students and faculty members within the faculty of medicine at UofT, which mentioned that students were feeling unsafe because of antisemitism on campus, and called for the dismissal of a faculty member,” El-Baba said.

1,055 Canadian Medical Learners and Physicians signed the letter.

Students are not able to comfortably say that they are being harassed or intimidated. Unlike students who support Zionism, those advocating for Palestinian rights don’t feel the same security in defending themselves.

“If intimidated or silenced by their peers, they often remain silent, they delete their posts, and don’t file complaints in fear of reprisal or questioning the harm to their personal and professional development within medicine,” says El-Baba.

El-Baba shared that people supporting Palestinian rights are “targeted, intimidated, and threatened with charges of hate crime,” he says.

“For that reason, I think this letter was important to put out there as the voice of learners who have been trying to advocate for Palestinian rights but don’t have the security to do so.”

El-Baba says the faculty of medicine has proper channels of communication for filing complaints but they are not utilized by students experiencing anti-Palestinian racism.

“They believe that the faculty grazes over the fact that there is anti-Palestinian racism on campus as they have never mentioned it or done anything about it. These issues create cognitive dissonance for medical learners who want to have their voices heard while their friends and families warn them not to speak out. There has not been a precedent to such protection in the system we rely on to protect us because there has never been public recognition of anti-Palestinian racism on campus” he says.

The letter was submitted with 1,055 signatures on it and there were a couple hundred more who put their names down and then retracted. 

El-Baba says that in academic institutions, we should have the freedom to debate. “I am not asking the institution to define antisemitism, but to start talking about anti-Palestinian racism, to protect the individuals who advocate for the rights and freedom of Palestinians,” he says.

Statistics show the majority of Canadians support Palestinians, the NDP unanimously supported sanctions on Israel, but many still fear publicly talking about this issue. What will give people the confidence to speak out more?

El-Baba said that “a large percentage of Canadians support Palestine but there hasn’t been a movement within the western world to actively and freely discuss this topic, It is usually shut down or redirected by the pro-Zionist side and often boils over and nothing is made out of it,” he says.

2020 survey on Canadian attitudes on Israel- Palestine

“When students were calling to remove their names after receiving direct messages and threats from colleagues, I realized that they were uncomfortable to complain. One medical student who posted a fundraiser for a Gaza COVID-19 center that was destroyed was messaged by a colleague who eventually filed a complaint. What the administration sees here is a one-sided history documented through the proper channels,” El-Baba said.

“We must empower and normalize people advocating for Palestinian rights to break the pervasive culture of silencing and intimidation. The global collective amplification on social media is the start of cultural change and has normalized the term anti-Palestinian racism, one which we can define and use the in the system that we are intertwined in.”

Why is it important to advocate for Palestinian rights within the medical field?

“It is important to advocate for Palestinian rights, period. My values and beliefs are that everyone should have equal rights and accessibility to a proper healthcare system and Palestinians don’t have that,” El-Baba said.

El-Baba is constantly thriving to bring together his passion for social justice and his study, to help raise an awareness and help his community.

“Anyone with a distinguished or a trusted voice must help set the precedent that changes culture. Advocacy and leadership are tenets within the medical college. They’re two out of the six CanMED roles that physicians must have to properly serve patients and positively impact their communities. I’m exercising my privilege as a learner in the medical field to advocate for the safety of Palestinians and allies.”

Why should this issue be a concern for all Canadians?

“By being immigrants, citizens and government, who are striving to reconcile with Indigenous peoples – this is our collective problem.” says El-Baba.

“I am not a politician and it does not take much to understand that until both Palestinians and Israelis share the same rights such as access to water and basic human needs, there is no conducive or productive political conversation. This is the ongoing issue we see here in Canada regarding Indigenous peoples too.”

Why is the suppression of Palestinian voices being institutionalized in Canada?

“It is culture. Institutions will follow the general safety net of culture. We have not yet had a cultural paradigm shift that allows people to safely, openly and publicly advocate for Palestinian rights and against anti-Palestinian racism… And the opposite is true for supporting Zionism.”

We know that the IHRA antisemitism definition is flawed, do you support the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism?

“That is a subject that needs to be discussed properly amongst Jewish scholars and Jewish activists, I am not in a place to comment on that because I am not Jewish. I think a general idea that every Jewish person is pro-Israel has largely been discredited… and it calls for a conversation amongst Jewish people to collectively decide how they choose to define antisemitism.

I actually encourage everyone who is pro-Palestinian to not comment on antisemitism and encourage the conversation amongst Jewish groups… because we are pushing for cultural change that allows us to define things that we care about… such as anti-Palestinian racism.” says El-Baba. 

How can people support you? 

“I don’t need to be supported, I need people to speak up,” El-Baba said.

“Students exposed to anti-Palestinian racism must speak up. Everyone should understand that they have power and privilege no matter their position.”

“Students, trainees, professionals in all disciplines need to know the proper channels available to them and how they can make their voices heard. Social media has done wonders but let’s talk about how we’re going to be changing the culture within a system, and that happens through documentation,” he says. 

QUOTE COURTESY/ EL-BABA

In helping set precedent for the protection of supporters of Palestine on Canadian college and university campuses, Mazen reminds us that, although advocating and protesting is important to create awareness, Palestinians and allies must also use the official channels to document and legitimize their experiences of intimidation, allegations, and anti-Palestinian racism.

“I’d like to advocate for basic human rights, that’s what it really comes down to. I find it difficult to reconcile the fact that we as Canadians live in security and peace, yet there are so many others in the world who don’t have these basic needs. We take what we have here for granted when we can advocate for those who don’t have the same power and privilege. Just being Canadian, not even as an MD, puts me in a much different position than many out there,” El-Baba said.

By Ghassan Miqdadi – YLT Staff
@spicysemite

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