Confusing politics and prejudice in the fight against anti-semitism

| January 6, 2010
Is the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA) playing a dangerous game? According to its website, the CPCCA's mission is "to confront and combat the global resurgence of anti-semitism," which includes "the new fears [that] have arisen especially for those who support the State of Israel.... on some university campuses, Jewish students are being threatened and intimidated to the point that they are not able to express pro-Israel sentiments freely...." The irony is that by conflating anti-semitic prejudice and cogent political opinion, the CPCCA risks removing defences against anti-semitism.

The coalition timidly called for written submissions and reported having received approximately 200 responses from Canadian organizations and individuals. The witnesses who appeared at the November and December hearings, however, did not represent the wide range of views submitted. Four more sessions are scheduled for 2010 and it is hoped they will include the views not yet heard.

In its FAQ's section, the CPCCA states: "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."

It should be noted that Canada's multiculturalism has changed pluralism from an ideal to a legal obligation, and the Criminal Code of Canada states very clearly that it is a crime to publicly incite hatred against groups identifiable by colour, race, religion and ethnic origin (Section 319[1]).

While various forms of racism unfortunately still exist in our country, MP Scott Reid, vice chair of the CPCCA Inquiry Panel Membership admitted that "racial anti-semitism has virtually no traction in Canada today" (Jewish Tribune, Dec. 23, 2009). It is certainly not at level that can be construed as a threat to the security of Canadian Jews; they participate fully, both individually and collectively, without discrimination or fear, in our multicultural society and are an essential element in its fabric. Therefore, one would hope that a coalition of parliamentarians working to combat anti-semitism would also include in its agenda discrimination and/or racism against First Nations, Roma, African and other Canadian ethnic minorities, as well as such groups as the working poor and single parents.

Since legislation exists to deal with racism and hate in Canada, one can reasonably ask why some feel that there is need for new laws. The answer is the so-called "new anti-semitism" that both of the CPCCA's ex-officio members, former Liberal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler and current Conservative Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, have been condemning from Israeli and other podia for the past few years.

Mr. Cotler defines it as "a new sophisticated, globalizing, virulent and even lethal ant-semitism, reminiscent of the atmospherics of the 30s, and without parallel or precedent since the end of the Second World War" ("Anti-Semitism: 'New, virulent and lethal,'" The Times Online, Feb. 15, 2009), and considers Israel to be the "collective Jew among the nations."

For his part, Mr. Kenny explained to an Israeli audience the staunchly pro-Israel positions of his government as follows: "The existential threat faced by Israel on a daily basis is ultimately a threat to the broader Western civilization."

According to Ha'aretz, Kenney also expressed the view that the "new anti-semitism" emanates "from an alliance of Western leftists and Islamic extremists" and "is more dangerous than the "old European" form of Jew-hatred." ("Canada minister blasts 'dangerous' leftist-Islamist anti-Semitism," Raphael Ahren, Ha'aretz, May 25, 2009)

During the hearings, some leading questions were posed by members of the CPCCA to university representatives. These suggest that at least some members have already espoused a particular view instead of being open, inclusive and welcoming to other perspectives, and that their aim is to primarily dictate the terms of debate. If this is true, then the whole exercise will be seen as an attempt to stifle open debate and outlaw opinions that do not concur with the views of Cotler and Kenney. This will no doubt create distrust and division within our multicultural society and further exacerbate frustration.

At what point does "anti-Israel" and "anti-Zionist" rhetoric become anti-semitism in Canada -- if ever? The CPCCA wants to impose a threshold which can only be subjective and therefore controversial. As a nation state, Israel should be held to standards of human rights, international law, fairness and common decency like any other state. Criticism of the policies of the government of the State of Israel is therefore legitimate, and Israelis themselves are fiercely critical of their government. They are deeply divided over various important subjects including such as the size of the state of Israel -- some, including at least one minister, rejecting the principle of "land for peace" and advocating a state on the whole of Mandate Palestine -- and so is the Jewish Diaspora.

If the charge of anti-semitism is used to shield Israel from accountability and enforced equally against both those who do not demonstrate or incite hatred against Jews and those who do violence to Jews and Jewish establishments, then its power is drastically weakened.

If the state of "Israel" is used to mean "Jews," then no criticism of Israel can be legitimate in the eyes of most of the CPCCA members. Such a proposition doesn't take into account the diversity within Jewish communities and individuals, and assumes that all 13.2 million people that constitute the world Jewish population identify with the state of Israel. Many Jews both in the Diaspora and in Israel may consider Israel as part of their identity, but not all do, and even those who do are divided over Israeli policies towards Palestinians (Independent Jewish Voices, Not in Our Name -- Yosher -- Jewish Social Justice Network, Zochrot, Women in Black, Machsom, Rabbis for Human Rights, Shalom Center, Jewish Voices for Peace, Coalition of Women for Peace, Jews Sans frontieres, Jews Not Zionists, True Torah Jews Against Zionism, Neturei Karta -- Orthodox Jews United Against Zionism, Israeli Committee Against House Demolition, and many more organizations inside and outside Israel ).

Qualifying criticism of Israel as "anti-Israel" and then shifting it to mean a challenge to the right of Israel to exist is untenable as it implies a challenge to the existence of the Jewish people. This is a fallacy: 60 per cent of the world Jewish population lives in the Diaspora, and at least 20 per cent of Israelis are not Jewish.

To any non-partisan student of political affairs, it is obvious that no outside challenge to Israel's existence can succeed. Israel is a foreign nuclear state, a member of the United Nations, with one of the most powerful military forces in the world. It also has the greatest superpower for ally and protector.

Kenney's claim that Israel is facing what "is ultimately a threat to the broader Western civilization" exacerbates an already existing climate of fear and actually appeals to, reinforces, and helps to legitimize prejudice against those in conflict with Israel.

It is not only wrong but also troubling and counterproductive to use the "us vs. them" approach. It weakens our democracy by presenting a lazy cop-out that short-circuits understanding of issues and therefore the formulation of well-informed opinion and policy.

The CPCCA's premise that "...anti-Zionism is being used as a cover for anti-semitism, effectively rules out any legitimate disagreement. Zionism is an ideology and a political movement that includes many shades of opinion and types (Secular Zionism, Labour Zionism, Religious Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Christian Zionism).

For some early Zionists such as Hertzl, who accepted a settlement outside of Palestine, what was important was the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Others, such as Chaim Weizmann in the 1930s, and such prominent figures as the first dean of The Hebrew University, Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, envisioned a bi-national state where Jews and Palestinians could live together enjoying the same rights.

There are also post-Zionists who think that the founding idea of the state has reached its end, and say that the state of Israel should be a state of all its citizens. Some, such as members of the Peace Now movement, accept a state within the 1948 Armistice borders. Others, such as Ze'ev Jabotinsky's followers, who sought territorial maximalism and Jewish sovereignty on both sides of the Jordan river, have limited their territorial aspirations since 1967 to the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) for now. These Zionists maintain that Jews should have preferential treatment in Israel.

Immigration into Israel (aliyah or ascendance) is the Zionist fulfillment. Negation of the Diaspora (shlilat hagolah) is central to Zionists who consider those outside Israel as being in exile. Since 1948 the international Zionist movement has encouraged immigration and fundraised internationally for the construction of illegal Jewish settlements in the OPT as a means of establishing "facts on the ground" that would make an Israeli withdrawal and a contiguous, viable and sovereign Palestinian state impossible.

There are therefore legitimate questions about Zionism that should and must be asked. Universities are surely one place where discussions can and must take place safely. Instead, the CPCCA is attempting to shut down any legitimate debate by telling Canadians to treat any critical approach to Zionism as anti-semitism.

Differences of opinion abound within our multicultural society. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights confirms the principle that: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Freedom of expression is not only an individual right but also an essential element of our democracy. The boundaries of the freedom of expression are already defined by Canadian hate laws and other laws and there is no need for further restriction.

The awful irony is that by equating Jews with Israel and Zionism, the CPCAA, in effect, helps to foster anti-semitism by allowing to prevail the reductionist and false notion that all Jews are responsible for the acts of the state of Israel.

In fact, insisting that Jews are not the same as Israel or Zionism serves to undermine anti-semitism.

Bahija Réghaï is former president of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations -- NCCAR.



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