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Federal election a good time to talk about Israel and Palestine

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Elections Canada poll sign. Image: Dennis Sylvester Hurd/Flickr

A former Canadian prime minister is reported (somewhat inaccurately) to have said that "an election is no time to discuss serious issues." I say that the upcoming national vote is an excellent, in fact, a crucial time to discuss one of the premier questions of our time -- Israel and Palestine.

Canada, as a middle power, has the opportunity to make a difference on this issue. Moreover, it is an opportunity significantly impacted by free public debate during elections. This is especially true given the possibility of a minority government.

Trouble is, the institutional Canadian Jewish organizations that constitute the pro-Israel lobby fully agree with Kim Campbell's infamous remark, at least for the only issue they really care about. It is clear that they would prefer no critical discussion of Israel whatsoever, at any time, period.

Witness how they have attacked and called for the dismissal of any candidate saying anything critical of Israel. And so toxic have they made the issue that the political parties involved have largely (but not entirely) tamely acquiesced.

First, in June, there was NDP candidate Rana Zaman, in the Dartmouth-Cole Harbour riding, who had tweeted several fiery missives in August 2018 against Israel's shootings of Gazans during the "Great March of Return." Despite Zaman's backing away from the tweets, and strong support for her from many supporters in the riding, the NDP removed her. 

Several other NDP hopefuls who have criticized Israel have found themselves barred or unable to mount a successful candidacy.

A bright spot appears with NDP candidate Miranda Gallo in Saint-Laurent (Montreal). Despite calls from B'nai Brith Canada to have her ousted for applying boycott stickers to Israeli products in supermarkets, the party has so far not succumbed.

In early September, the Liberals fired star candidate Hassan Guillet in Saint-Léonard--Saint-Michel for similar transgressions. According to a CBC report, the party was aware of his statements and was preparing a public relations campaign to salvage his candidacy. Guillet was known for his passionate speech and calls for interfaith understanding after the January 2017 Quebec City mosque shootings, including visits to several synagogues. The candidate issued an apology for the tone of his remarks and had several high-profile public figures, including a rabbi, endorse him. But the Liberals capitulated when B'nai Brith demanded Guillet's removal.

Recently B'nai Brith has demanded the dismissal of another Montreal Liberal candidate, Sameer Zuberi. Its claims about the former Concordia campus activist are even more flimsy than its norm. So far the Liberal party has resisted these demands.

On September 13, Green candidate Dale Dewar in the Regina-Qu'Appelle constituency apologized profusely, again for condemning Israeli attacks on Palestinians. To its credit, the Green party refused to heed the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's call for her dismissal and allowed her to continue the campaign.

The Greens earlier showed similar mettle by snatching Paul Manley from the NDP and winning their second parliamentary seat with him in a May byelection in Nanaimo-Ladysmith. Manley continues as the Green candidate in the coming October general election. In the 2015 election, the NDP had barred Paul from running because he had criticized the NDP's lack of support for his father, former NDP MP Rev. Jim Manley. The elder Manley, a noted critic of Israel, was seized for four days by the Israeli military in 2012 when a boat he was on tried to run the blockade of Gaza. Both the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and B'nai Brith condemned the younger Manley's candidacy.

While all these candidates have been critical of Israel, some of them sharply, accusations of anti-Semitism against them by the pro-Israel lobby are unsubstantiated. Independent Jewish Voices Canada, though sometimes faulting their choice of language, has defended their candidacies.

Halifax journalism professor and author Stephen Kimber has written an excellent article titled: "Politicians Criticizing Israel: When 2019 Becomes 1984 All Over Again."

We also note that the pro-Israel lobby's concern about bigotry among electoral candidates does not extend an inch beyond the subject of Israel. On September 12, Erik Schomann, the Green party's candidate in Simcoe North, resigned when an Islamophobic message by him was found. Schomann had posted on social media a photo of himself roasting a pig, with the caption: "We sent the leftovers to Denmark in support of the protesters of the Muhammad comic."

As far as we can tell, this event seems to have completely escaped the attention of CIJA, B'nai Brith and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. Or perhaps they chose to ignore it since the target was not Israel. A Google search of these organizations with any of the above critics of Israel will turn up dozens of references. But Google them with the name Schomann and…nothing. As well, if these organizations had anything critical to say about Justin Trudeau's brownface antics, they must have kept it very well hidden.

B'nai Brith, which was once a defender of universal human rights, seems sadly to have long since abandoned that role to become a one-note Charlie -- all Israel, all the time.

In fact, all the above Jewish organizations are seeking to avoid the hard work of actually convincing people about their accusations of anti-Semitism. They are now touting the so-called International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's working definition of Anti-Semitism (IHRA-WDA), as one-stop shopping for lazy politicians and opinion leaders. This vague and clumsy document presents 11 examples of anti-Semitism, seven of which involve criticism of Israel. Even the IHRA-WDA's originator, U.S. academic Kenneth Stern has disavowed the definition: "My fear is, if we similarly enshrine this definition into law, outside groups will try and suppress -- rather than answer -- political speech they don't like."

Independent Jewish Voices Canada has launched a campaign against the IHRA-WDA, and has produced a clear, concise definition of anti-Semitism of its own, which puts it in the context of other ongoing racism, Islamophobia and bigotry:

Antisemitism is racism, hostility, prejudice, vilification, discrimination or violence, including hate crimes, directed against Jews, as individuals, groups or as a collective -- because they are Jews. Its expression includes attributing to Jews collectively characteristics or behaviours that are perceived as dangerous, harmful, frightening or threatening to non-Jews.

In its pre-election scorecard of the parties, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) gave the Conservatives a failing grade and the Liberals a C-. By contrast, it gave the NDP an A-, the Greens a B+ and the Bloc Québécois a B.

In reality, however, none of the major political parties in Canada has a good record on addressing Israel/Palestine. While all pay lip service to a vanishing two-state solution and have sometimes condemned the worst outrages of the Netanyahu government, none of them put any teeth into their words. This would mean acknowledging that Israel's actions place it squarely within the international definition of apartheid -- crimes "committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime."

And this would also mean applying to apartheid Israel measures similar to those utilized against apartheid South Africa, i.e. boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS.)

Cowed by the pro-Israel lobby's preposterous insistence that a simple set of penalties like BDS is tantamount to the elimination of Israel, the Greens too have balked. A convoluted compromise resolution at an emergency December 2016 special general meeting saw the party back away from a fuller endorsement of BDS four months earlier. The new policy would allow boycotts of goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements, a policy that Green Leader Elizabeth May nevertheless appears reluctant to apply, especially during the election campaign. The NDP, for its part, has blocked even that. At its February 2018 national convention, and again at its Ontario convention in July 2019, party brass pulled out the stops to ensure that Green-like resolutions did not reach the convention floor.

It does seem, however, that as the election campaign wears on, political party trigger fingers are becoming less itchy in response to calls for dismissal of candidates outspoken on the Middle East. And that is cause for some optimism.

With the prospect of a minority federal government in October, the Greens, the NDP, the Bloc, or all of them together may hold the balance of power. The prospect of some forward movement on the Middle East looks appealingly possible. Here's hoping.

Larry Haiven is a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada and professor emeritus of management at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.

Image: Dennis Sylvester Hurd/Flickr

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