Anti-Semitism and free speech: In Parliament this weekend

| November 4, 2010

Coming Nov. 7 to 9: An international conference hosted in the Canadian Parliament Buildings, closed to the public and the media, financed by $451,280 of public funds, provided by Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney.

The guest: Inter-Parliamentary Committee to Combat Anti-Semitism (ICCA), chaired by Irwin Cotler, former Liberal Minister of Justice.

The hosts: Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (CPCCA), Minister Kenney and Irwin Cotler, key ex officio members.

Participants: Self-selected supporters of Israel who are members of Parliaments in various countries.

The goal: to produce a declaration and "protocol," to be adopted by all Canadian political parties, greatly expanding the definition of "anti-Semitism" to include criticism of Israel, declaring such criticism "hate speech," putting free speech seriously at risk.

There are two fronts in the Palestine/Israel conflict. The first takes place on the ground in the historic land of Palestine and directly impacts the people there. The second front is the struggle to win the hearts, minds, and support of people internationally.

While leftists and progressives are aware of the general historical contours of the conflict in Palestine, they may be less aware of one important dimension of the second front. This is where the struggle to expose the full story, including its moral and political dimensions, is pitted against attempts to censor and suppress free speech.

The CPCCA (Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism) and the ICCA (Inter-Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism) are important beachheads in Israel's attempts to create a political environment and legal system that suppresses a full story of events on the ground.

As the very names of the CPCCA and ICCA indicate, the campaign of suppression centres on anti-Semitism -- both real and imagined. So let's think about anti-Semitism.

In 1937, this notice was posted at the entrance to the St. Andrews Golf Club in Toronto: "After Sunday, June 20, this course will be restricted to Gentiles only. Please do not question this policy."

In May 1939, the government of Canada refused landing rights to the M.V. St. Louis, a ship carrying over 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.

Undeniably, bigotry against Jews, as well as others, is a part of Canada's history. Two prominent Jews, who may not agree on other things, agree on the current situation:

"By any conceivable standard, we Canadian Jews are surely among the most privileged, most secure, most successful, most influential minorities in Canada and indeed in the entire world."
- Gerald Caplan, academic and NDP organizer

"We have come to a point in the 21st century where at least in the halls of government, and I think very much in the mainstream of Canadian life, we are viewed as part and parcel of Canadian polity."
- Bernie Farber, CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress

So why, then, is anti-Jewish bigotry (anti-Semitism) the only concern of Irwin Cotler, Jason Kenney and other members of parliament who in 2009 formed the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA)? No coalition of parliamentarians is pursuing remedies for any other group that is a target of bigotry in Canada today.

So much noise on one side -- so much silence about others.

Indeed the CPCCA claims that anti-Semitism is "at its worst level since the end of the Second World War," despite several witnesses they themselves carefully selected giving contrary evidence at hearings held in Ottawa.

Among them, Mr. Robert Steiner, assistant vice-president, University of Toronto, testified that: "There is no evidence of generalized anti-Semitism on the University of Toronto's campuses. There is no evidence of Jewish students being systematically harassed and intimidated on our campuses. There is no evidence that it is dangerous to be a pro-Israeli student, faculty member, or staff member on our campuses -- in fact, quite the opposite."

And Dr. Fred Lowy, president emeritus of Concordia University but speaking as an individual, said that "Canadian campuses are safe. They are not hotbeds of anti-Semitism or racism of any kind although, of course, these conditions do occur."

Anti-Semitism is marginal in Canadian society. Why then do politicians and community leaders fall over each other to prove they are the most politically correct in opposing it? Why is this so when other forms of racism are not taken as seriously?

Dominant Canadian culture has been white, and European-centred for many generations. People's sense of identity -- including their feelings of self-respect and human decency -- derives from their understanding of events in western European history. Revulsion is appropriately profound at the Nazi slaughter of Jews, yet inappropriately absent relative to British, Belgian and other massive colonial slaughters of Africans and Asians. The first, not the second, has become the litmus test of decency in Canadian culture. And the corollary of this single litmus test of decency is insecurity and moral panic when a Jewish person launches an accusation of anti-Semitism.

Were we to become universal in our outrage at injustices, we would perhaps not be so easily made to feel guilty by false accusations of anti-Semitism.

And it is this accusation of false anti-Semitism that is the key to what Irwin Cotler, Jason Kenney, and the CPCCA are up to.

Denunciation of a Jew, just because s/he is a Jew, and not because of what that person does, is authentic anti-Semitic bigotry and is reprehensible. Irwin Cotler, Jason Kenney, and members of the CPCCA know such authentic anti-Semitism is today a marginal phenomenon in Canada. Hence the CPCCA uses the concept of a "new" anti-Semitism.

What is "new" anti-Semitism and why is it a hoax?

Irwin Colter has answered this question for us. Speaking to the Canadian Jewish News, he asserted that whereas old anti-Semitism "wished to eliminate individual Jewish people, the new anti-Semitism aims at getting rid of the Jewish state."

A desire and an effort to eliminate any people is hatred and bigotry, and anti-Semitism is one form. But a "Jewish state" is a very different phenomenon. The "Jewish state" is a political idea; a political structure flows from that idea; and a set of actions flows from that structure. It is not a people.

Those who had the political idea to establish a "Jewish state" called themselves Zionists. For decades only a minority of Jews supported this political idea. From the earliest days of the Zionist movement, individuals as well as organized groups of Jews have held varied and intensely different views about this political movement.

Just one illustration, far from exceptional, was a public letter sent in 1919 to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles negotiations at the end of the first world war by more than 300 prominent Jews in the U.S. (members of Congress, diplomats, judges, officers of major Jewish organizations included). They wrote: "As a future form of government for Palestine will undoubtedly be considered by the approaching Peace Conference, we, the undersigned citizens of the United States, unite in this statement, setting forth our objections to the organization of a Jewish State in Palestine as proposed by the Zionist Societies in this country and Europe and to the segregation of the Jews as a nationalistic unit in any country."

Signatories of such a statement today would be denounced as "self-hating Jews." The CPCCA might well call it "hate speech."

The hoax, attempted by the proponents of the "new anti-Semitism," pretends that the "new anti-Semitism" is the same as the "old anti-Semitism."

Apply the same logic to Canada. Who would label as "hate" and "bigotry" -- as "new anti-Canadianism" -- those who seriously question the colonial origins of our political structures and government practices, or the bigoted attitudes held by Canadians at different times?

If we went down this path we would have to denounce the expression, and demand the suppression, of those who wished to publicly discuss the government of Canada's oppression of aboriginal people, the imprisonment of Canadians of Japanese origin during the second world war, and the exclusion of Jewish refugees before the war.

The rhetorical trick of this hoax is to force anyone who raises a specific, factual criticism of Israel -- let's say the bombing of Gaza and the killing of several hundred children -- to answer the charge of anti-Semitism. Instead of arguing that "the facts are wrong" or the "interpretation of international law making this a war crime is ill-founded," supporters of Israel shift the ground entirely. They allege that the initial factual criticism is -- really -- the medieval European anti-Semitic accusation known as "blood libel." (The "blood libel" accused Jews as a people with sacrificing Christian children, to use their blood for ritual purposes.) Now, instead of answering your fact-based criticism, they move the terrain from fact to metaphor, making you defend yourself against the false charge of anti-Semitism.

Dr. Jack Lightstone, President and Vice-Chancellor of Brock University, bluntly told the CPCCA in his testimony: "We can't look into the soul of someone and say, ‘Your criticism of Israel is really based on your anti-Semitic sentiments.' We can't do that as a people, as a government, or as a society, nor should we."

"Lawfare" is another weapon in Cotler's arsenal for avoiding real debate. He says "lawfare is the waging of war under the cover of law" -- "legalized anti-Semitism." His target is those he calls "sophisticated" people who present fact-based argument that Israel has violated international or human rights law or committed war crimes. These are dismissed as hateful efforts to "single out" and "delegitimize" Israel.

But in fact it is Irwin Cotler who "singles out" Israel by decreeing it to be above such criticism. He can't imagine that Israel's actions may be what discredits it. Here again, accusations of anti-Semitism replace fact-based argument.

What is equally astounding is the insincerity of this professed intense concern to rid the world of anti-Semitism. Those who shout loudest about "new anti-Semitism" too often make close allies with the proponents of the old anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League honoured Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi days after he praised Mussolini, a fascist dictator and ally of Nazi Germany, as a benign leader of Italy. The Canadian B'nai Brith maintains close relations with the televangelist John Hagee even after it was revealed he had praised Hitler for doing god's work driving Jews to seek refuge in Palestine, facilitating the "rapture" and "salvation" of Christians.

Finally, doesn't Irwin Cotler's formulation of Israel as the "collective Jew" hold all Jews responsible for the acts of a state, a state where most Jews do not live, and where there is a range of opinion among those who do? What then is different between the "collective Jew" and the old anti-Semitic mantra of "world Jewry?"

The counter to such stereotypes -- whether of "world Jewry" or the "collective Jew" -- is the reality that Jews, like every social group, have a variety of opinions and engage in a variety of actions.

Effort to silence discussion and to eliminate the opportunities for public conversation about differences of understanding is exactly intended, among other things, to hide from public view the reality of that diversity among Jews. Thereby it fertilizes the soil of bigotry which the propagandists of "new anti-Semitism" fervently claim to oppose.

Where reason and discussion are given no space, all forms of bigotry flourish. This promotion of a "tea party" culture of anger and denunciation weakens the opportunity for Canadians to formulate their own understanding of the source of the Israel-Palestine conflict and how to promote its just and peaceful resolution.

Rights are weakened or strengthened around concrete problems, not in the abstract and the metaphorical. The conflict in the Middle East is the concrete situation around which we must strengthen our democratic right to express publicly differences of opinion.

Was the creation of Israel a colonial project or not? Was there not, some, significant "ethnic cleansing"? Are the ideas of a "Jewish and democratic" state compatible or contradictory? Have war crimes been committed and by whom? Does the Israeli state impose apartheid structures? Is the very concept racist? Is a non-violent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to resolve the conflict morally respectable and politically practical? Neither, one, both?

If the Cotlers and Kenneys and all the parties involved in the CPCCA and ICCA are successful, suppression will intensify in Canada and the chill will extend to public discussion on other issues as well.

Right now in France people are being brought to court and charged with "hate" for sticking a boycott label on an Israeli product. Do we want that here?

Brian Campbell is co-chair of the Seriously Free Speech Committee, and Mordecai Briemberg is a member of the Seriously Free Speech Committee. This is for identification purposes only. For more information about the committee click here.




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