The first thing you notice about David Heap is he doesn’t look like a revolutionary.
Somewhat disheveled, occasionally smirky, Heap might not win the role of a university linguistics professor in a feature film because he is too spot on. His University College office provides the perfect backdrop, a slightly oversized lair packed with unorganized volumes, plastered with flyers and sporting a conspicuous chalkboard for good measure.
He is an affable host, as open and engaging in conversation as you would expect from a popular, respected professor. His evaluations – both official and unofficial – show an instructor well-regarded by students. He scores above average consistently in all but one category: Organization. And, if you looked around his office, that might be expected.
Overall, however, Western students view David Heap as a tough-but-fair guy.
Makes you wonder why so many people simply cannot stand the man.
When Heap returned to Canadian soil last week, after five days in an Israeli prison, it was not so much the culmination as the continuation of a lifetime narrative.
“We’re all involved in politics,” he says. “The ones who say they are not involved in politics are involved in supporting the status quo by default. So, those of us who are aware of our role have a choice to make about whether we stand for the world as it is or whether we want to contribute to make something better.”
He established that baseline early on thanks to a family deeply rooted in social justice.
In March 1965, Heap’s father traveled to Selma, Ala., to join the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and 2,500 other activists in a historic march to Montgomery, Ala. This was the group’s second attempt to march. The first, held days earlier, ended in police-sparked violence leading to the day’s nickname, ‘Bloody Sunday.’ That response drew thousands more marchers – including Heap’s father – in solidarity.
The lessons he brought home from Alabama, and then later taught his son, still resonate today.
“When people talk about the risks, the thing to remember is when people went to the American South they shared a very small part of the risks African-Americans lived with every day,” Heap says. “The risks the outsider takes by sharing in solidarity for a short period of time are much, much smaller than those lived with by, in this case African-Americans, them all the time.”
Growing up, his family home in Toronto was a stop-through for Vietnam War resisters, United Farm Workers and activists of all ilk. Freedom songs were the soundtrack of his youth.
“There was a human connection which doesn’t seem like a big deal now,” Heap says. “But in a time before electronic communications, actually seeing representatives of the people who you were trying to help was a big deal.”
He remembers his first march, one in solidarity with the California Grape Boycott.
In the late 1960s, the boycott began in Delano, Calif., where the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee walked off the region’s grape farms demanding wages equal to the federal minimum wage. That group would merge with the National Farmworkers Association, headed by Cesar Chavez, and lead to a wider, massive strike. That exploded a local effort into a cause across North America which included, among other protests, a boycott on California grapes.
“It was very inspiring,” Heap says. “It was solidarity with oppressed people far away – even though they were on this continent. It was something concrete we could do my going to grocery stores in downtown Toronto and saying, ‘Please don’t stock these grapes.’”
For more than four decades now, including the last 15 years in London, the 45-year-old Heap has carried that original spirit into different fights.
And his most recent may have been the most controversial of all.
By now, you have read the story.
On Wednesday, Nov. 2, Heap and Co. departed Turkey on a Canadian ship, Tahrir, alongside an Irish ship, Saoirse. The destination was Gaza to fight against Israel’s blockade of Gaza in a peaceful and non-violent manner.
In July, Heap was also a delegate aboard the Tahrir, when he failed in an attempt to reach the blockaded Palestinian territory. He blames pre-launch hype for sinking the first attempt moments out when the flotilla was intercepted by the Greek navy and returned to port.
This time, the ‘Freedom Wave’ went smaller in size and didn’t go public with their mission until in international waters, a couple of hours after launch. That gave them two days to get word out in the media before they anticipated being intercepted.
While still in international waters, the ships were stopped, boarded and crews detained by the Israeli Defense Forces on Friday, Nov. 4. The crews of both ships were taken to Givon Prison near Ramla, Israel.
Heap says he was tasered during his arrest; the Israeli government denies it. While incarcerated, Heap claims to have been bruised, invasively searched and lied to repeatedly; Israeli officials remain silent about it.
“You can lock people up, but you cannot lock up a movement,” he says. “That’s what oppressive regimes the world over have never learned. They didn’t learn it in South Africa; they didn’t learn it in the American South.”
He was released from prison on Wednesday, Nov. 9 and arrived home Thursday, Nov. 10
But another failed attempt to reach Gaza, which was expected from the start, does not sway Heap’s desire.
“The movement of human solidarity simply says, ‘OK, we know what to expect. We will go into the next wave, the wave after that and the wave after that prepared for the worst,’” he says. “I would go again in a heartbeat.”
Not only at ease with the media, but also wise to its weaknesses, Heap is a master communicator. Part carnival barker, part rebel-rouser, all true believer, he has told this story numerous times, never varying from his narrative.
Mainstream media covered the story from a distance. But alternative media latched on and spread it quickly via social media. Publications like Democracy Now!, whose correspondent Jihan Hafiz was among the detained despite press credentials, led the charge.
But Heap’s all-pervasiveness has worked against him.
In the relative safety of campus, he admits encountering a few grumbles, even though the university offered conditional support during his incarceration. His says the French Department has been supportive. Not a consensus, mind you, but he feels his colleagues recognize the importance of the freedom to take a stand supersedes personal feelings.
“In academic circles,” he laughs, “they use politer names. But they’re still going to call me names.”
Off campus, however, has been a different story. His opponents, don’t just attack his point and politics, but the man. And it has been vicious.
Anger. Annoyance. Vitriol. Many of the shots have come from the blinds, anonymous phone calls, e-mails and letters to the editor. Western News received nearly two dozen letters on Heap’s quest – all but one negative, all but one unsigned.
But not every criticism comes from the lunatic fringe. Some have come from the biggest media outlets in the country.
“The most hilarious thing about Heap was that he kept insisting that he was not playing the martyr, and wanted everyone’s attention on the plight of Gaza,” says Jonathan Kay, National Post managing editor for comment. Kay penned a column, Whining for Gaza, about Heap’s arrest on Nov. 7. More than a week later, he was still fiery about Heap’s actions.
“His whole ordeal was a carnival of passive-aggressive attention seeking – especially the claims of ‘torture,’ because he said he got a boo-boo when his well-fed body was waddled out of his boat and into a detainment facility (from which he apparently was able to post whiney ‘demands’ to the Internet – this must be the only torture chamber in the world that offers its prisoners wi-fi),” he says. “If that was torture, can you imagine how this guy would react if he were actually subject to some of the interrogation techniques employed by the Hamas folks he is so eager to help out?”
Ascribing anti-Israel, rather than pro-Palestine, attributes to the ‘Freedom Wave,’ Edmonton Sun columnist Mindelle Jacobs wondered where Heap and his colleagues were in bringing comfort to North Korea or Darfur or Turkey. “What else can we expect?” she writes. “It’s the Loony Left.”
“David Heap. You mean the ahistorical David Heap and his Iago Kevin Neish, who both love to see themselves in the news only marginally more than they like to be tourists in other people’s conflicts?” says Michael Ross, a National Post contributor and former Mossad officer. “The mere thought of their drama-queen activism makes me want to take a ‘Silkwood shower.’”
Neish was a shipmate of Heap’s on the summer’s voyage. Ross writes on Isreali security for numerous publications.
Like Jacobs, he questions the extent of Heap’s activism.
“Heap and Neish play revolutionary in this conflict because it’s anything but dangerous. It’s high profile, low risk and plays neatly to an easily amused and singularly unsophisticated leftist constituency,” he continues. “I never ran into Heap in his crusade for ‘social justice’ in some of the direst parts of Africa like the Sudan and Zimbabwe.”
All said, it doesn’t really matter because Heap simply doesn’t give a damn what they think. Or you think. But that doesn’t mean he wants you to stop paying attention.
“If people want to smear me, people have called me names all my life. If you are afraid of being called names, you probably shouldn’t be in public life. It comes with the territory,” he says. “The more people stand up and take a simple stand in human solidarity, the less the sting these smears will be.
“They can’t all be crazy, Islamic, anti-Semites, right?”
But he knows people do think that way. At the core of his activism is the specter of anti-Semitism which he vehemently denies and his opponents attempt to hang on him at every turn. He has been called a shill for Hamas, which Heap says is beside the mark, not on it.
“I don’t need the support of the Hamas government any more than I need the support of the Israeli government or Harper government. I make no apologies,” he says. “I am not a friend of Hamas. They are not who I would support if I were a Palestinian. But this isn’t about who I would support if I was a Palestinian. Our partners are Palestinian civil society.”
But no matter the reasoning, some people simply cannot stand the man. It has always been that way and, he suspects, it always will be.
“Sticks and stones, right?” he says. “People want to call me names, call me names. It’s rather tired. As a strategy it doesn’t go very far.”
But it sure lets him know you’re paying attention. And that might be all he asks.