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Yes, Mr. Harper, it is possible to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic

Photo: flickr/kathleenjoy

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Addressing the Israeli Knesset last week, Stephen Harper contended that Israeli policies should not be criticized, especially in public. It's a familiar case that takes the form of an axiom. As Mr. Harper put it, criticism of Israeli policies is "the new anti-Semitism....It targets the Jewish people by targeting Israel." Like any axiom, this was presented as needing no further proof, and the Prime Minister offered none.

The worst sin, he asserted, the ultimate proof of anti-Semitism, is accusing Israel of being an apartheid state. This too is apparently a self-evident truth, with no evidence proffered to support it. Yet it's completely arbitrary. It may be a harsh accusation, but why is it proof of anti-Semitism? Who has the right to rule that it's beyond the pale of legitimate comment? Stephen Harper?

And since Israel is avowedly a Jewish state, it's just a debating trick to say that by attacking Israeli policies you attack Jews at the same time. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's own Finance Minister Yair Lapid denounces settlement expansion, is he attacking Jews? When Israelis call Israel an apartheid state -- as many do -- are they anti-Semitic too?

What's worse, the deplorable truth is that there is a good deal of genuine anti-Semitism in Europe and many parts of the Muslim world, some of it conflating anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli sentiments. But by dogmatically asserting that almost all criticism of Israel is by definition anti-Semitic, Mr. Harper ignores another reality: that criticism of Israeli policies are often completely divorced from any hint of anti-Semitism, and indeed are expressed by Jews like me.

Like in Canada and the U.S., for example. After generations of being "dirty Jews", one of the great achievements since the Second World War has been the emergence in both countries of Jews as the most successful, influential and secure ethnic group on the continent. The anti-Semitic incidents that do occasionally occur, while deplorable, are largely the work of bored kids, crackpot white supremacists or marginalized thugs. And often what's denounced as anti-Semitism is in fact criticism of Israeli government policies. The vast majority of Canadian and American Jews now live their entire lives completely untouched by anti-Semitism.

Instead of celebrating this great step forward, over the years the Harper government has shamelessly played the anti-Semitism card as a partisan wedge issue. I have on my desk a publicly-funded pamphlet mailed to Canadians a few years back by Conservative MPs with the statement: "Committed to Canada's Jewish Community" and the message: "When it comes to fighting anti-Semitism, the Conservative government will not compromise." What followed were scurrilous and twisted accusations smearing the Liberal Party as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. It was disgusting.

Think too of the notorious Kairos case. Kairos is Canada's pre-eminent faith-based human rights NGO run by eleven Christian organizations. But it backed Palestinians who were peacefully protesting against illicit Israeli policies and practices -- just as so many Israelis do. But as Jason Kenney shockingly put it, his government had a "zero tolerance" policy towards those who "advocate the destruction of Israel and the destruction of the Jewish people." Suddenly, from nowhere, the spectre of the Holocaust is invoked! Kairos of course lost its public funding even though Kenney's accusations were demonstrably false. Yet I heard no one in the Canadian Jewish establishment protest that their Harper government friends had accused a legitimate organization of being anti-Semitic without a single shred of evidence.

But the worst was yet to come: the government's attack on and ultimate destruction of the human rights organization Rights and Democracy. R&D had begun to vex Mr. Harper because it thought Palestinians should have the same rights as all other people -- just as many Israelis think. New board members were appointed to fix the problem. After assessing the situation, one of those appointees pointedly noted the absence of Jews on R&D's staff. This, apparently, was very suspicious. How he actually ferreted out this state of affairs was never clear, but the bizarre incident remains a low point in the history of the Harper government. R&D was soon history.

These and other incidents seem to have had one clear purpose: to de-legitimize any critical debate in Canada about Israel and to smear anyone who dared criticize Israeli policies as an anti-Semite who wants Israel and the Jewish people to be disappeared. Stephen Harper used the same technique in his Knesset address. But it didn't work before and it won't work now.

Why should the government of Israel not be open to criticism as much as the government of Canada? Why should we not assess Israeli governments by the same standards we judge Canadian governments? After all, as we are repeatedly told, Israel is the only Middle East country committed to freedom and democracy. So why aren't we entitled to judge it accordingly, to criticize it -- publicly -- when it doesn't live up to its own professed ideals, without being slandered for doing so?

To Stephen Harper: I speak for many Canadians. We will not be instructed by you about the limits of our free speech, and we will not be silenced in the face of injustice.

Photo: flickr/kathleenjoy

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