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On July 21st, eighty-three percent of members at the recent Green Party of Canada Convention, voted to endorse a motion on condemning illegal Israeli settlements. We interviewed Ghaith El-Mothar (the mover of the motion itself and former co-Chair of the Young Greens' Council) and Alex Hill (one of the motions' supporters and Green Party of Ontario shadow critic) to find out more about the motion and the Green Party's apparent, new leadership amongst federal parties on Palestine.
Below is the unabridged interview.
Toronto Media Co-op (TMC): So, what was your primary motivation to raise this motion at this time?
Ghaith El-Mohtar: You know, it’s funny because this motion is actually incredibly similar to DFATD’s current stance on illegal settlements: they’re an obstacle to peace, and they need to stop. This position is the norm among Western countries because the future of both Israel and Palestine is being held hostage by the religious far-right in Israel right now. Due to the Harper Conservatives’ uncompromising support for Israel’s every action though, a politician stating current foreign policy has become outlandish: so outlandish that it garners attention when spoken not by the official opposition or third party, but by Canada’s fifth party. Kafka would be laughing if he saw this. But anyways, that was the motivation of this motion for me: to help shift the discourse back where it needs to be for peace to happen.
Alex Hill: Every day that Israel continues to expand its illegal settlements represents a further blow to the viability of a contiguous Palestinian state and a just peace in the Holy Land. When Ghaith, a fellow student at uOttawa and Green Party member, told me about his motion I felt a moral compunction to do what I could to ensure it became official party policy.
TMC: In your view, what is the importance of federal-level leadership on this issue?
El-Mohtar: It’s crucial. The peace movement in Israel (and, of course, Palestine – I’m focusing on politics in Israel because this is an asymmetrical conflict where Israel decides what happens for both sides) is up against awe-inspiring odds. When a country with as much moral legitimacy as Canada (keep in mind the world thinks we invented peacekeeping) stands behind the religious far-right’s actions, it’s a major setback in what is already an uphill battle. The NDP and Liberals have shown nothing but exceptional spinelessness in challenging the government on this, and this lack of leadership has both green lighted the Conservatives’ stance and marginalized the voices of peace advocates in Canada.
Hill: I don’t harbour any illusions about the transformative impact of this policy. The facts on the ground will remain the same regardless of what the Green Party of Canada says. In the absence of any moral leadership from the other political parties in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though, I think we have a responsibility to take the lead in calling for justice. Israel needs to uphold its responsibilities under international law by ending its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and respecting the human rights of the Palestinian people. Canada has a responsibility as a respected middle power to put pressure on the Israeli government in this regard.
TMC: What is your and the Party's position on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement?
El-Mohtar: The BDS movement is one of many necessary pressures from the international community to redirect Israeli policy. It’s not a perfect one. A blanket boycott puts pressure on all Israelis, bellicose settlers and peace activists alike. At the same time though, it’s more than material deprivation. It’s a powerful symbol of international disapproval that those same peace activists can then use against the country’s warmongers to highlight their increasing isolation on the world stage. The utility of that symbolism in the fight for peace far outweighs the $40 million or so the Israeli economy has lost from the boycott. As for the GPC, its position is unclear – I don’t think there’s an explicit policy on it.
Hill: I do not believe the party has an official position on this matter. Personally, I support a B.D.S. movement targeted towards Israeli economic activity taking place in the settlements.
TMC: What has been the reaction within the party on the motion?
El-Mohtar: It has been overwhelmingly positive. I can honestly count the number of detractors I’ve interacted with – from the motion’s start on the GPC website to its finish on the plenary floor – on one hand with fingers to spare. I think Greens have shown that they really want to fill the void left by the country’s former party of conscience (a motion for more income tax brackets also passed with near consensus) in taking stands like this.
Hill: I am heartened by the very positive reception the motion has received from the party membership.
TMC: Have you felt any negative reaction from organizations associated with defending the state policies of Israel? Or, on the other hand, have you gained the support of organizations related to the Palestinian cause?
El-Mohtar: From the start, I had reached out to contacts in IJV [Independent Jewish Voices] and CJPME [Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East] to test the waters for the motion, and they were really helpful in providing facts, corrections and reviews for the motion. I haven’t heard anything from other progressive organizations, but I imagine this is a welcome change for them. I luckily haven’t received any kind of backlash from organizations defending Israel’s state policies.
Hill: I’m not aware of any backlash we’ve received as a result of this motion. I don’t believe most Canadians – regardless of ethnic or religious background -- view respecting international law as controversial or problematic. We’ll have to see how this policy is received in the long-run, though.
TMC: From your recollection, what is the Party's history on issues of this sort?
Hill: The party has long been committed to a two state solution. Unlike the other parties, who claim to support a two state solution, we seem to be the only ones who have fought for the conditions that would make such a goal realisable. For instance, we have long called for an end to the siege of Gaza, a cruel and ineffective form of collective punishment that obviates a peaceful conclusion to hostilities with Israel.
TMC: With that said, then, where does the party go from here, following from the motion if it is successful?
El-Mohtar: I’m not going to pretend like this is an historic, game-changing decision by the party. But if this is the direction the GPC wants to go in, I think it would open up an interesting, albeit marginal, avenue for the kind of critical humanism and postcolonial thought that Canada’s foreign policy (and Canada’s political scene more generally) desperately needs. This is something that the party, which holds non-violence and respect for diversity as founding values, can definitely succeed at doing. This could set a laudable precedent as it grows into something bigger, and also give it an edge in breaking the monotony of canned spin with incisive evaluations on the state of our politics. That’s something we urgently need as a country, so I hope it goes somewhere. Also, the motion passed the plenary floor! It just needs ratification through a mail-in vote.
Hill: At this stage it seems this motion is bound to succeed. It was approved at convention, so now it just needs to be ratified by an on-line vote. If the membership has indicated its support for Palestinian statehood and an end to the settlements, then it needs to ensure the party transforms the debate in Canada about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by eschewing tired platitudes and outlining further concrete steps that need to be taken by Israel and Palestine to ensure the viability of a two state solution.
***UPDATE*** Following the preparation of this interview, Green Party President Paul Estrin has put forward his views on Gaza in the blog post on the party's website. These inflamatory and regressive statements seem to have driven some of the party to call for his resignation. We've followed up with Mr. El-Mohtar and Mr. Hill for their thoughts.TMC: Do you have any thoughts on Paul Estrin's recent blog post on Gaza? El-Mohtar: I agree with Alex's call for his resignation. That post represents a profound lapse in judgment. I can't think of any GPC president, or a president in any of the other parties for that matter, compromising their administrative neutrality by challenging high-profile party policy like this and continuing on with their duties.
Presidents do retain a right to publicly express themselves as GPC members while fulfilling the party's top administrative role. However, the administrative importance of this role should never be used to amplify a political challenge to the party's stance on an issue with so much media coverage. It's a dramatic, and dangerous, misuse of the authority of the President's office. Anything short of a resignation would legitimize such behaviour and leave the office of the President tarnished.
Hill: I think it extremely unfortunate -- indeed, outrageous -- that my party's president would use his title and public blog as a platform to openly challenge established party policy. Not only have his comments reflected a profound lack of judgement, but they come just days after the party membership at convention indicated their support for an immediate cessation of hostilities, a continuation of our custom of speaking truth to power, and an end to Israeli occupation. Most importantly, his post borders on the hysteric at times and displays Islamophobic and generally prejudicial tendencies. His views do not reflect my values as a Green or as a Jew. His views do not reflect the position of the party or that of Ms. May on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.TMC: In the comments, Alex, you call for Mr. Estrin's resignation. If he does not, will you be seeking to remove him from office, as the means to deal with this errant stance? Hill: Yes, I have called for his resignation. Aside from his misguided and confused thinking on the conflict, he has abused his position as party president and has demonstrated a great lack of political acumen to boot. I am glad to see he has received such a backlash from the membership, and to hear Ms. May publicly state her disagreement with his beliefs. I think removing him from office, should he refuse to resign, would be the only way to clarify the seriousness of our position on this issue as well as the seriousness with which we regard an internal breach of ethics. This isn't about free speech. I am an extremely ardent supporter of freedom of expression. He has every right to say whatever he wants. It behooves him, however, to uphold the highest moral standards as a public figure, though. Members should be reasonably expected to hold him to account for his breach of ethics. Speech comes with consequences.
Rep. Kerry Bentivolio is a freshman House Republican who’s facing a primary challenger on Aug. 5. Yesterday afternoon, he pulled what some might call a “campaign stunt.” He returned, and made a big fuss about returning, a Chamber of Commerce “Spirit of Enterprise” award given by the top business lobby earlier this year. Not that it’s much of an award — the Chamber gave them to 205 members this year, and Bentivolio got one even though the Chamber has endorsed his primary opponent.
Bentivolio announced that “it is with great pride that I reject their award, and call on them to stand on the side of America, instead of on the side of China and corporate interests seeking to exploit people for profit.” His chief of staff was even more efficient: “The US Chamber is in the pocket of Communist China and big companies seeking cheap labor in the United States.” Bentivolio, according to the Washington Post, also “criticized the Chamber for supporting the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate last year.”
Invocations of “Communist China” are a time-tested sign that a close election is down the home stretch. What’s newer, though, is the toxicity of the Chamber of Commerce, one of the GOP’s most traditionally loyal allies.
The Chamber’s president and CEO, Tom Donohue, and its political director, Scott Reed, chose this election cycle to help “establishment” candidates against “Tea Party” insurgents — or, more accurately, to usher the most electable GOP candidates through their primaries, lest any “goofballs” blow the party’s chances of winning control of the Senate yet again. The effort has mostly worked, as the Chamber helped secure primary victories for its candidates in North Carolina, Kentucky, Iowa, South Carolina, Mississippi and elsewhere.
Until recently, it’s been better to be the primary candidate with the Chamber’s money, even though that comes with the risk of being labeled the “establishment” candidate and suffering a grass-roots backlash. But now it’s starting to look like the costs are outweighing the benefits.
Earlier this week, the Chamber endorsee, Rep. Jack Kingston, suffered a mildly surprising defeatin the Georgia Senate runoff against businessman David Perdue. The Chamber had spent millions for ads backing Kingston’s campaign. Kingston also had a lot of “Tea Party” support — although neither of the two runoff candidates grass roots’ top picks. And yet Perdue was able to pull it off. RedState’s Erick Erickson, a Georgian and a Kingston supporter, argued that Perdue’s final ad push to make Kingston “own” the Chamber endorsement put him over the top.
Every night for the last month on my show I’ve gotten the same concern on the phones, in emails, on twitter, on Facebook, etc. Kingston had the Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement. The Chamber of Commerce is bad on immigration. Therefore Kingston would be bad on immigration. In fact, his opponent and now the GOP nominee for the Senate in Georgia made a point to tell people that Kingston was the Chamber endorsed candidate. His closing argument in advertising made Kingston own the endorsement.
I tried pointing out that Kingston had consistently opposed amnesty, but it did not matter. After the Mississippi Senate primary, the conservative voters in Georgia were having none of it.
In the last two weeks, David Perdue made hay out of walking out of his meeting with the Chamber. He claimed the Chamber wanted him to vote with them 100% of the time. He would not.
That message resonated. Kingston was the career politician in the pocket of the Chamber and would pass amnesty.
But why are attacks against Chamber-endorsed candidates more effective now than they were earlier in primary season? Chalk it up to a couple of factors.
The first is something Erickson mentions: “After the Mississippi Senate primary, the conservative voters in Georgia were having none of it.” The Mississippi Senate primary, in which Sen. Cochran and his backers expanded the electorate to win the nomination, was the Chamber’s last big primary victory. And because of the way in which it was won — “stolen!” — it may, in fact, be the Chamber’s last big primary victory.
And then there’s immigration. If someone had suggested earlier this summer that the anti-amnesty fever among the Republican base would somehow run even hotter, it wouldn’t have seemed possible. And yet here we are! The border crisis, and belief among the GOP rank-and-file that the promise of impending “amnesty” are the “magnet” that’s drawing thousands of child migrants to the southern border, has made anything even approaching support for comprehensive immigration reform a complete no-go for Republican politicians. It was the border crisis that forced John Boehner to (officially) bury immigration reform legislation’s prospects for the indefinite future. As comprehensive immigration reform’s toxicity level — again, somehow — rose to previously unseen levels, so too did the Chamber’s for supporting it.
The Chamber is fortunate that its right-wing vilification didn’t reach this sort of status until late in the primary calendar, after it had already catalogued an impressive number of victories. But it may want to keep its opinions to itself, for a while, at least. Because if we’re not there yet, we’re nearing the bizarre reality where the Chamber’s endorsement, of candidates or legislation, is a kiss of death — among Republicans.Related Stories
The New York Times’ editorial board agrees with the majority of Americans that marijuana prohibition has got to end. In an editorial on July 26 titled “Repeal Prohibition, Again” the board outlined the many reasons to legalize the herb, drawing comparisons with the nation’s 13 years of failed alcohol prohibition in the 1920s and '30s. Following a "great deal of discussion ... inspired by a rapidly growing movement among the states to reform marijuana laws,” the board came to the conclusion that the federal government should repeal its 40-year ban on marijuana.
Marijuana has been criminalized as a “most dangerous” Schedule I drug for too long and the toll has been great. It is by far the most popular illegal substance: even President Obama acknowledges it’s less dangerous than alcohol, yet policing policies arrest people at alarming rates for mere possession of the plant, targeting low-income minorities. The Times editorial board noted that racist, mass-scale marijuana arrests were a factor in its decision to take a stand:
“The social costs of the marijuana laws are vast. There were 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, according to F.B.I. figures, compared with 256,000 for cocaine, heroin and their derivatives. Even worse, the result is racist, falling disproportionately on young black men, ruining their lives and creating new generations of career criminals.”
As a result of those racist policies, our prisons are overflowing with nonviolent drug law violators. American tax dollars, which pay to house, feed and clothe these prisoners, are filling the pockets of private prison tycoons who profit from keeping our prisons and jails filled to capacity.
Additionally, while the herb’s healing effects are recognized in the 23 states that have legalized medical marijuana, the federal government denies it has any medicinal qualities and blocks scientific research into its potential benefits. As the Times editorial points out, “on every level — health effects, the impact on society and law-and-order issues — the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization. That will put decisions on whether to allow recreational or medicinal production and use where it belongs — at the state level.”
While the board did not take a side on the medical marijuana debate, other than deeming it a states' issue, it did cite “overwhelming” evidence that the risk of addiction and dependence from pot is low, “especially compared with alcohol and tobacco. Moderate use of marijuana does not appear to pose a risk for otherwise healthy adults. Claims that marijuana is a gateway to more dangerous drugs are as fanciful as the ‘Reefer Madness’ images of murder, rape and suicide.”
The Times’ editorial is a historic step in the right direction, and a great boon to drug policy reformers who have worked for decades to highlight the many ways marijuana prohibition is illogical, harmful and unnecessary.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance commented on the groundbreaking editorial in a press release.
“This is of historic consequence — far bigger than most people assume. Some people in the country may perceive the Times editorial page as a liberal organ, but they should know that on this issue they've been cautious to a fault, even conservative. So for them to write what they did, at this juncture, demonstrated intellectual and moral clarity as well as courage.”Related Stories