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Justin Trudeau: Don't buy into Israeli exceptionalism

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To the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau:

"How is this night different from all other nights?"

Such is the question we Jews ritually ask the youngest child at the Passover table. Commemorating the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, the question carries with it resonances of a chosen people -- at once persecuted and graced with sanctity. Remarkably, this Biblical narrative of specialness -- not only of what Jews do on Passover, but of who they are -- continues to grip the political conscience of many.

So widely felt is this cachet of exceptionalism that the question of "distinction," typically reserved for the Seder dinner, is now on Canada's -- on your Canada's -- political table. To you, we ask, in the idiom of Passover: "How is this Zionist state of Israel different from all other states?"

If Jewish exceptionalism has been bound up with the Bible, it has also been intensified by the Holocaust's legacy: a grim souvenir of human hell and an imperative never to revisit that abyss. Much to its detriment, this moral edict has been conflated with the interests of a powerful political industry serving the Zionist state since its inception.

In 2016, this same industry continues to invoke the spectre of the Second World War, less as an elegiac tribute to those who perished in the camps than as a manufactured moral consensus supported by a concert of world leaders, i.e., that, given past history, the state of Israel deserves preferential treatment, and that any contestation of its privilege, of its immunity from Geneva conventions and international law, is to be condemned.

Your endorsement of the recent Conservative motion condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) abets that favouritism.

Such preferential treatment, however, is not honourable. It rankles, sir, with all those who uphold values of fairness and equality, ones you profess to share. And still you defend the Zionist state despite its transgression of international law and violation of Palestinian human rights.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which demands that "Israel end its occupation of Palestine and dismantle the Wall, that it recognize the fundamental right of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, and that it respect, promote and protect the rights of Palestinian refugees to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194," is the counterpoint to your preferential treatment of Israel: a legitimate call to the world to redress this iniquity which you and others sustain.

To be clear, BDS does not intend to single out Israel. Rather, it demands that it be held accountable, just like other states. Those who grieve that BDS singles out Israel need to ponder Israel's self-assigned exceptionalism. By acting above the law, it "distinguishes" itself and singles itself out.

A vociferous body of Israel's apologists intensifies this singularity by striking fear and guilt into public consciousness, by imposing its immunity from condemnation with heavy psychological artillery.

Ritually they cry out "anti-Semitic!" against anyone who dares question its draconian occupation of Palestine. Thus, countless advocates of justice are cowed into submission and silence.

Are you, sir, among those who have buckled under the pressure? Do you, sir, worry that Israel's apologists will berate you, as Netanyahu recently excoriated United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon? It is not an unreasonable concern, I grant you.

But consider this: an Israeli historian who recently addressed an audience in Berlin on the question of pursuing a BDS strategy of protest, remarked: if you dread the shame of being falsely accused of anti-Semitism, remember the daily agony of those who live under Israeli occupation, whose houses are demolished before their eyes, whose hospitals and schools are bombed with white phosphorus, whose land is ravaged by Jewish settlements, and whose children, at a tender age, are tortured by Israel's military.

Your woes, he argued, will pale beside theirs as you contemplate their fate. In the face of vilification from combative Zionists, he urged courage, not submission.

We non-Zionist Jews believe that the BDS approach is the most effective and peaceful strategy (pace Monsieur Dion) for bringing down the myriad walls of a brutal occupation, and we ask you to let your conscience prevail over your fears.

We ask you to resist the false alarm that your Zionist friends sound when they cry "anti-Semitism!" as the proverbial boy might cry "wolf!" For those who do so are robbing a horrendous historic episode of its gravity, confusing legitimate dissent with genocide. Criticism is not Kristallnacht; challenges to the occupation are not the gas chambers. The distinction is crucial.

BDS is a non-violent pressure tactic, not a form of anti-Semitism. It seeks to eradicate precisely what it has been accused of, which is to say racism. Contrary to the tales spun by its strident critics, contrary to the roar of media propaganda, the BDS movement is urging the Zionist state to relinquish its inherently unjust ethnocentricity, to allow Palestinians and Jews to coexist as equal citizens and, in this, to save both from disaster.

Some may resist this shift from ethnocracy to democracy, yet it is a necessity that must be embraced for everyone's salvation.

In 1944, Lessing J. Rosenwald, president of the American Council for Judaism, wrote: "To project at this time the creation of a Jewish state or commonwealth is to launch a singular innovation in world affairs which might well have incalculable consequences."

Today, as those words ring true, BDS activists are peacefully and legitimately waging a struggle against such incalculable eventualities. But by stymying with parliamentary sanctions the righteous efforts of these advocates, you leave the door open for the unthinkable. We Jews of conscience ask you to rescind your endorsement of Zionist privilege so that the unthinkable will never visit us again.

This commentary was originally published in The Huffington Post Canada

Michelle Weinroth is a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada. 

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