CPCCA, campuses and criminalizing criticism of Israel

| July 22, 2011

This month, a serious attack was made against free speech in Canada. A pseudo-parliamentary committee calling itself the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (CPCCA) issued a report calling on the federal government to adopt a definition of anti-Semitism that would criminalize criticism of the state of Israel. The report claims to support free speech and open debate around the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but its recommendations aim to silence pro-Palestinian voices, especially on campuses. The CPCCA's biased processes and dubious conclusions contradict its own argument for balanced debate, and make a mockery of the notion of disinterested parliamentary inquiry.

The CPCCA was founded in 2009. While it included MPs from all parliamentary parties, the CPCCA is not an official parliamentary committee. It nonetheless draws upon the resources and authority of Parliament, while refusing to hold open debate in keeping with due process.

The CPCCA's mandate was to define, analyze and address anti-Semitism. However, the coalition formed its core conclusions before beginning its inquiry. Its founding documents emphasized the so-called "new anti-Semitism," associating it with the global movement for Palestinian human rights.

CPCCA materials published prior to the hearings cited campuses as places of special interest, but provided no substantive evidence. Later, the inquiry's findings confirmed their biases through distorted claims that pro-Palestinian events create a campus environment ripe for anti-Semitism. Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), an annual program of public talks, films and workshops supporting the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, is singled out; it is depicted as an aggressive campaign that "hijack[s] any open and honest dialogue regarding the Middle East."

The report conveniently overlooks IAW's value as a site of global education on the plight of Palestinians living on, and in exile from, land that is illegally occupied by Israel. The participation of Jewish students and professors in IAW is systematically ignored. So is the fact that IAW organizers focus their analysis on a critique of the Israeli state, not Jewish people. That IAW explicitly condemns anti-Semitism and all racism is similarly neglected.

The report also dismisses the testimony of campus administrators who refuted the CPCCA's preconceived notions. To be clear, the 25 university presidents or their representatives who spoke to the panel are no friends of pro-Palestinian organizers, having previously banned IAW posters, obstructed room bookings and otherwise tried to silence criticism of Israel on their campuses. And yet, their testimony consistently denied that the "new anti-Semitism" threatens their students. Instead, they suggested debate of difficult ideas should be encouraged at universities, not censored.

Most who seriously challenged the CPCCA were simply excluded from the so-called "public" hearings. Faculty for Palestine -- a network of 450 faculty members from Canadian universities and colleges -- for example, was not invited to discuss our written submission despite the CPCCA's assertion that the "new anti-Semitism" is especially concentrated on campuses. Co-chair Mario Silva explained these exclusions as follows: "I personally feel I didn't want to give a platform to individuals who had no time for us. Why should we have time for them?" It is no wonder that Bloc Québécois MPs withdrew from the CPCCA in 2010, citing the refusal of the steering committee to hear groups with opposing viewpoints, including from organizations such as the Canadian Arab Federation.

The CPCCA is fluent in doublespeak. The coalition urges critics to commit to serious and rigorous debate, but it avoids engaging in debate. It relies on hearsay, anecdotes and cherry-picked testimony while ignoring a wealth of research countering its claims. The report asserts that IAW should not be banned, but then asks university presidents to condemn IAW and calls on government to legislate this new criminalizing definition of anti-Semitism.

Faculty for Palestine is deeply concerned by the CPCCA's analysis and recommendations -- we think it should be treated with extreme skepticism. Its conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is inaccurate and dangerous. Indeed, the Israeli state just announced unprecedented legislation banning boycotts. If Canada accepts the CPCCA's recommendations, we may soon travel this same politically repressive road. A commitment to real dialogue on this complex conflict in the Middle East must win out over attempts to shut down debate and criminalize movements for social change.

For comprehensive critical report, The CPCCA's Hidden Message: Silencing Criticism of Israeli Apartheid by Palestine Freedom of Expression Campaign (PFEX), on the CPCCA click here.

For the full CPCCA report (July 7, 2011) click here.

The authors are members of Faculty for Palestine. This story first appeared in The National Post.

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