In 1987, when caught in a lie about the Iran-Contra affair, President Ronald Reagan infamously said: “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” 

In 2010, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler pursues the same “logic” in his paper for the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA ). Cotler is on the steering committee of the (international) Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism (IPCCA). Cotler and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney helped to establish the CPCCA and are ex officio members.

There are those who fear that one aim of the CPCCA is to criminalize criticism of Israel’s actions and policies. This appears to have happened already in France, where reportedly last year Sakina Arnaud was fined €1000 (about $1,350) for the trivial action of attaching a “Boycott Israel” sticker to a fruit juice carton; and five French activists have been charged with “incitement to discrimination, hatred or violence” after distributing leaflets asking shoppers to boycott Israeli products

The case

Cotler tries to reconcile his assertion that anti-Semitism is growing with the facts and evidence that tell him it is not. 

Consider the following evidence:

• The Anti-Defamation League has conducted annual surveys of American public opinion on Jews since 1964. The latest survey in 2009 shows “[a]nti-Semitic propensities are at an all-time low” since the surveys began

• Even The National Post, in an editorial called ‘One size doesn’t fit all,’ on Feb 25, 2010, criticized B’nai Brith for its poor methodology in counting anti-Semitic incidents, stating: “Instead of scaring Jews into thinking that they are living in a state of anti-Semitic siege, B’nai Brith should update its mandate and methods to reflect the tolerant Canadian reality.” And columnist Jonathan Kay recently wrote: “hysterically exaggerated claims of anti-Semitism have become a habit at B’nai Brith.”

• In 2006, Jewish leaders declared ‘a golden age of Jewishness on [U.S.] campuses — not the apocalypse of anti-Semitism.’ Chaim Seidler-Feller, executive director of the Hillel chapter at UCLA, said “The troubling question for me is why can’t we hear the good news? Why are many Jews hysterical? We seem to be junkies for anti-Semitism.” 

• Seidler-Feller’s view is supported by two recent incidents. A Jewish student at George Washington University reported swastikas were painted on the door of her residence room, claiming this was an anti-Semitic attack. When the university security monitored the door with cameras, they found the student was herself painting the swastikas

• At York University in Ontario, pro-Zionist students with the organization Hasbara Fellowships claimed that when they were publicizing the case of Gilad Shalit (the Israeli soldier held in Gaza) they were attacked by a mob. However, a reporter with the student newspaper reviewed security footage, which showed no such assault took place

So is Cotler a junkie for anti-Semitism who can’t hear the good news? Does he wish away the evidence and justify his alarm? Is he disappointed that his seemingly ardent desire to be hated as a Jew is unrequited by Canadians? 

The so-called ‘new anti-Semitism’

Cotler claims that there is a “new” anti-Semitism and the standard metrics fail to identify it. Yet his evidence is weak and unconvincing. For example, he claims that “state-sanctioned genocidal anti-Semitism” is something new. This is simply not true. Throughout history, Jews have often been under threat of extermination. 

With evidence of a decline in anti-Semitism, Cotler creatively claims that it is anti-Semitic to accuse Israel of apartheid. Since this accusation seems to be growing and is being promoted by campaigns on Canadian campuses, Cotler then has “evidence” of anti-Semitism.

Notably, the accusation of Israeli apartheid is not restricted to hostile critics of Israel — it is increasingly made inside the country! For example, on June 22, retired Judge Boaz Okon, now the legal affairs editor of Yediot, Israel’s largest circulation newspaper, listed a series of incidents and situations in the country and invited readers to join the dots. He wrote: “These dots are growing evidence of the lack of the spirit of freedom and the emergence of apartheid and fascism.” 

There are, of course, hostile critics of Israel with whom we should be concerned. But even here, Cotler enters into fantasyland when he claims that the 2001 Durban World Conference Against Racism was a “festival of hate” against Jews and Israel. The conference report contains the following statements: “We recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten,” “We recognize with deep concern the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities…” and “… we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel.”

While there were very disturbing anti-Semitic incidents in non-governmental events during the conference and outrageous statements from some countries’ officials, overall the world’s governments, in approving the conference report and declaration, supported the strong language in the document and backed action against anti-Semitism. Read the declaration by clicking here. Surprisingly, Cotler does not celebrate this as a victory over hate — presumably because it contradicts his theory. 

Cotler further claims there is increasing European anti-Semitism. Yet as Steven Beller in his recent book Anti-Semitism noted: anti-Semitism has been “completely discredited in respectable Western public opinion.” Any rise in anti-Semitism seems to be part of a more general problem of ethnocentricity, and in Europe Muslims are seen in a far more negative light than are Jews

Israel and Palestine

The real reason why Cotler and others condemned the Durban conference and promoted the notion of the “new anti-Semitism” is perhaps found in the full version of paragraph 63 of ‘general issues’ in the conference report: “We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion.” 

Could it be that self-determination and full human rights for Palestinians are anathema? One-sidedly, Cotler wants them for the Jewish people, but does not mention them for Palestinians. This is not the mark of a true champion of human rights, for whom such rights are indivisible and applicable to all, regardless of ethnicity or race. 

At the core of Cotler’s “new anti-Semitism” is his nonsensical conflation of criticism of Israel’s actions with anti-Semitism. The CPCCA enterprise appears to be aimed largely at providing cover for the Israeli government’s appalling treatment of Palestinians. There is a substantial difference between anti-Semitism and speaking out on Israeli policies and practices. The former is hatred of Jews simply for who they are; the latter is based on opposition to what the Israeli state does.

Another clue to Cotler’s stance is found by checking out his colleagues on the IPCCA, the international group. They include Yuli Edelstein, an Israeli member of the Knesset (parliament), who lives in the occupied territories. Even the IPCCA’s own website reports Edelstein’s extremist policies noting that “he fought against any [Israeli] territorial concessions in the Golan Heights, the Jordan valley, Judea and Samaria [West Bank] and of course Jerusalem.” 

Cotler does acknowledge that Israel should be accountable for violations of international law or human rights, and claims that he is not referring to critiques of Israeli policy or Zionist ideology. But he shows his bias when he follows this up by adding: “… however distasteful or offensive some of these critiques might be.” 

It is also not clear what he means by Zionist ideology. Any reasonable definition must include support for a Jewish state. Yet denying the right of Jews to their own state is condemned by Cotler as anti-Semitism. His protestation that he was not precluding critiques of Zionist ideology rings hollow.

Cotler is so reluctant himself to hold Israel to account that he condemned the Goldstone mission on Gaza before it had even presented its report. His condemnation was based on the fact that the mandate issued by the UN Commission on Human Rights was one-sided. And, to be sure, several governments on the commission are brutal regimes that have no business lecturing others on human rights. Yet the mandate Goldstone took on was even-handed and unbiased, as stated in the opening paragraph of his report. Alas, Cotler did not wait for the report and has apparently not condemned Israel for its actions.

What is really needed

Cotler and Kenney spent their political energy and capital condemning the Durban conferences. In doing this, they missed a golden opportunity to show how they think such meetings should work, and deal with all forms of racism and discrimination. But even though a CBC survey earlier this year showed that Muslims and aboriginals, not Jews, are seen as those most likely to face discrimination in Canada, the CPCCA focuses narrowly on anti-Semitism.

I am reminded of the story about Moishe, a Jew, and Mary, a Christian, who went to hear a stand-up comic. The comic told many racist jokes, about the Irish, blacks, south Asians, Muslims, Arabs, aboriginals and so on — only Jews were untouched. As they left, Mary turned to Moishe and said: “You guys got off lightly.” To her surprise, Moishe replied “I’m highly offended.” “But there was nothing anti-Semitic,” said Mary. “Exactly”, replied Moishe. “You see how we’re always singled out.”

Alas, that is what the CPCCA is doing. Racism, generally, is far too prevalent, but the CPCCA have singled out Jews — it is surely an unintended irony that the CPCCA are guilty of discrimination themselves. The CPCCA should be dismantled immediately, and reconstituted to combat racism against all groups, including those at much higher risk of discrimination in Canada.

One final point 

On their web site, CPCCA state: We will voluntarily disclose all sources of funding. I e-mailed them on 16 July asking them to send me the list. I sent a reminder e-mail on 22 July, another on 30 July and yet another on 21 September. As of 28 October, I have not received any reply.

Harry Shannon lives in Dundas, Ontario, and is a professor at McMaster University.