Columnists

Murray Dobbin
Will Harper criminalize criticism of Israel?

| November 19, 2009
Ever since the Israeli invasion of the Gaza strip last December the global debate surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has intensified with both sides upping the ante, and the stakes of the framing battle increasing almost daily. One of the most recent -- but almost totally unreported -- developments in Canada is something called the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA). It is not an official parliamentary body but is a multi-party, voluntary association of 13 MPs. It is currently holding an inquiry into anti-semitism because, it says, "The extent and severity of anti-semitism is widely regarded as at its worst level since the end of the Second World War."

In fact, anti-semitic attitudes in the U.S. -- Canada will hardly be any different -- are at an all-time low according to Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, whose mandate is to monitor and expose anti-semitism. Statistics Canada reports number of hate crimes against Jews has been dropping since 2001-2002. But of course, it all depends on how you define anti-Semitism. Jewish organizations from the Canadian Jewish Congress and Hillel to B'nai Brith have all been vigorously redefining this scourge to capture many more alleged perpetrators in its net of enemies. One of their targets is the handful of Canadian universities where pro-Palestinian activity has been intense.

But it goes far beyond just the universities. For the first time in decades the unquestioned dominance of Israel's public relations machine and lobbying juggernaut is being seriously challenged. The characterization of Israel as an Apartheid state is gaining much more credibility than Israel's supporters had ever anticipated. So is the international Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. These are very serious threats to Israel's credibility as "the only democratic state in the Middle East" -- one of its most powerful claims.

Last December's brutal assault on Gaza by the Israeli army and air force -- and the deliberate targeting of civilians (as publicly confessed by the soldiers who did it) -- was a tipping point for many who had preferred to sit on the fence or to decline to form a hard opinion. Those hard opinions are forming everywhere and the current government of Israel, led by the hard-line Benjamin Netanyahu, is only making things worse.

There have been two responses. The newest is what the Israeli government has referred to as "re-branding" and in part it involves "soft" stories about Israel -- like one I saw on the CBC shot from a beach in Israel where bathers had claimed they saw a mermaid. The most prominent example was the celebration of Tel Aviv's centennial by the Toronto Film Festival. Scores of prominent Jews (and thousands of others) protested.

The other response is conventional. It is the simple rule of all pro-Israeli organizations and activists: either declare outright or hint at the possibility that any individual criticizing Israel is anti-semitic. Jewish critics -- whose numbers are increasing dramatically -- are branded as "Jew-hating" Jews. The strategy has been extremely effective at intimidating potential critics into silence.

Which gets us back to the CPCCA. The 13-member group is co-chaired by Liberals Scott Reid and Mario Silva and also boasts Winnipeg NDP MPs Pat Martin and Judy Wasylycia-Leis and Conservatives Jason Kenney and Peter Kent. Bob Rae and Ken Dryden are members and the Bloc is also represented. But it is effectively run by Kenney and the other ex-officio member, Liberal Irwin Cotler. Both Kenney and Cotler were in London, U.K. last February for the first meeting of European parliamentarians that lead to the "London Declaration" of which the CPCCA is the follow-up initiative.

The core message of the coalition is that criticism of Israel itself is now a new form of anti-Semitism. The group's web site asks "What is the "new anti-semitism?" and answers:

"Anti-semitism is an age-old phenomenon, yet it is always re-invented and manifested in different ways. For example, while accusations of blood libel are still being made against the Jewish people, instead they are being directed against the State of Israel, such that anti-Zionism is being used as a cover for anti-semitism."

There is no evidence or links to any evidence to support the claim.

In its FAQ section the coalition answers the question of whether or not its inquiry is "...really about limiting legitimate criticism of the State of Israel?" No, says the web site: "...dissent and opposition to individual actions of the Israeli government are both permitted and encouraged in and outside of Israel..."

But not, apparently, inside the inquiry. The coalition formally invited written submissions and stated that "Based on these submissions, the committee will invite witnesses to testify at a series of public hearings." There was virtually no general publicity about the inquiry but when word did get out, numerous submissions were made arguing against the coalition's concept of a "new anti-semitism." Yet not a single organization or individual known for criticism of Israel has been scheduled to make a presentation to the inquiry (it is holding eight meetings on Parliament Hill from Nov. 2 to Dec. 8).

It seems the fix is in: the conclusion of the inquiry has been pre-ordained. If you are a critic of Israel you are already, by definition, anti-semitic and obviously not welcome.

The CPCCA's inquiry begs a lot of questions -- not the least of which is where do they get their funding? The coalition says it does not receive any funding from the government, NGOs or Jewish Community Organizations. Their budget is considerable, judging by the fact that eight of the 20 odd witnesses so far scheduled to appear at the inquiry are being flown in from the U.K., the U.S., Germany and Israel. While the web site promises to reveal funding sources, none are so far listed.

More to the point, just what do the coalition's members hope will result from their proceedings? The CPCCA will make a report to the government and "...anticipates that the Government will respond to it by the spring of 2010." That seems pretty specific, especially for a government that is not known for responding readily to outside groups. Has the government already agreed to respond to the report? Will its recommendations find their way into the criminal code?

There is good reason to fear such an eventuality. Jason Kenney -- the powerful Conservative ex-officio member of the Coalition -- is the point man for Stephen Harper on issues involving Israel and as Minister of Immigration he personally blocked British MP George Galloway from speaking in Canada. He also eliminated the half million dollars in funding the Canadian Arab Federation used for settlement programs for new immigrants (and not just Muslims). He refused to provide any evidence justifying the move. Kenney told a Toronto audience to "...be wary of the rise of a new form of anti-semitism cloaked in debates about Israel's actions in the Middle East."

It remains to be seen what the recommendations of the coalition will be, but its conclusions regarding a sweeping redefinition of anti-semitism have already been drawn and incorporated into their inquiry process -- mortally damaging its credibility. The likelihood that the Harper government is working in lock-step with the coalition is high and the CPCCA's purpose may well be to prepare the ground for criminalizing criticism of Israel.

The only remaining question is whether Jack Layton, Michael Ignatieff and Gilles Duceppe will allow this abomination to be reflected in any new legislation.

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