Image: Independent Jewish Voices Canada

We are beginning to hear more about the varieties of racism that plague our country. However, there is a near virtual absence of any recognition by politicians and media of an all-too-common form of racism that permeates our society from the highest levels of power: anti-Palestinian racism.

This pernicious discrimination is systemic within various levels of government. It can be seen, first and foremost, through the failure of successive governments to defend the most basic human rights of Palestinians. Canada persistently ignores Palestinians’ narratives while providing grossly disproportionate resources and support to Israel and its dominant narrative. Additionally, Canada often either ignores, undermines or even threatens to criminalize civil society efforts to defend Palestinian human rights against a decades-long onslaught of Israeli state criminality and aggression.

A prime example through the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA)

One such effort by conscientious advocates to defend Palestinian rights — grounded in Canadian and international law — has been to call for the revocation of the charitable status of an openly discriminatory organization whose record demonstrates an appallingly oppressive agenda against Palestinians: the Jewish National Fund of Canada (JNF Canada).

JNF Canada’s flagship project, for which it has issued tax-deductible receipts to numerous Canadian donors, is known as “Canada Park.” Canada Park is located in the occupied Palestinian territory. It also happens to have been built over the ruins of Palestinian villages that were forcibly depopulated by Israeli forces and subsequently demolished (with the direct involvement of the JNF) in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The fast-growing pine trees planted by the JNF quickly concealed this crime from the public’s view, and prevented the former inhabitants from returning home.

JNF Canada has reported annually to the CRA that the funds it raises tax-free from Canadians go to its parent organization in Israel: the JNF (or in Hebrew, the KKL). The JNF is a highly controversial entity, even in Israel, where it is commonly accused of corruption. It recently garnered public attention from the work of its wholly owned subsidiary, Himanuta, which actively seeks out the demolition of Palestinians’ homes and businesses in the occupied Palestinian territory. Perhaps the area for which it has received the most attention is its operating principles, which are inherently discriminatory. It holds 13 per cent of the land in Israel, yet its bylaws prohibit it from leasing or selling its properties to non-Jews, despite over 20 per cent of Israel’s citizenry being non-Jewish.

Dr. Ismail Zayid, a Canadian physician born and raised in one of the villages that was demolished in the area now occupied by Canada Park, has been sounding the alarm about the scandalous charitable status of JNF Canada for over four decades. Dr. Zayid has written to numerous ministers of national revenue and senior officials at the CRA demanding action. He continues to wait for justice.

Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) has been working with Dr. Zayid and other Palestinian rights advocates for over 10 years to highlight this issue. Our work culminated in a formal, comprehensive complaint detailing JNF Canada’s serial violations of the Income Tax Act, sent to Diane Lebouthillier, the Honourable Minister of National Revenue, as well as to senior officials at the CRA in October 2017. Much of the research informing the complaint was based on a previously submitted complaint by Dr. Megan McKenzie from July 2014.

Despite knowledge by high-ranking government officials of a vast range of JNF Canada violations for the five years since Dr. McKenzie’s complaint, and knowledge of perhaps the most egregious of these — Canada Park — for over 40 years through Dr. Zayid’s meticulously documented correspondence, JNF Canada’s charitable status remains intact. In fact, JNF Canada has yet to even be penalized for its consistent violations of the rules. Meanwhile, Muslim charities have been treated far differently.

Following a January 2019 CBC exposé of JNF Canada’s scandalous charitable status (the second CBC exposé of JNF Canada’s egregious activities, as the CBC exposed Canada Park in 1991), Palestinian rights advocates were pleasantly surprised by the minister of national revenue’s announcement of the revocation of Beth Oloth’s charitable status. Beth Oloth’s status was revoked for just a couple of the numerous reasons JNF Canada’s status merits revocation, including for support of the Israeli military and for failing to have adequate direction and control over its projects.

Parliamentary e-petition and the government’s response

On January 9, 2019, Rabbi David Mivasair of IJV initiated a parliamentary e-petition — sponsored by NDP Critic for National Revenue Pierre-Luc Dusseault — which called “upon the Minister of National Revenue to revoke JNF Canada’s charitable status if found to be in violation of the Income Tax Act and CRA guidelines and policies.”

The e-petition needed to receive a minimum of 500 signatures in order to elicit a mandatory response from the government; it received 3,514. It also received endorsements from numerous high-profile individuals, including world-renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky, Ontario MPPs Rima Berns-McGown and Joel Harden, physician Gabor Maté, and many others.

The government’s response was utterly shameful — there was no commitment to finally enforce the law, let alone any recognition whatsoever of JNF Canada’s numerous and irrefutable violations of the Income Tax Act. To this day, Dr. Zayid has yet to even receive an apology from the Canadian government over Canada Park. The agonizing impact of JNF Canada’s projects for Palestinian Canadians and those on the ground in Israel-Palestine appears to be considered “charitable” by the Canadian government. While it has been made public that the CRA has audited JNF Canada, their charitable status has not been affected.

Interests of foreign state overrides those of Canadians

As we recently witnessed in plain sight, the Canadian government has prioritized Israel’s colonialist, apartheid control of the West Bank above the interests of Canadians. It was necessary to take the government to court in order to legally compel the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to accurately label products imported into Canada from Israel’s illegal settlements.

Much like the above-mentioned case, the continuation of JNF Canada’s scandalous charitable status is largely a result of a political elite that appears structurally incapable of challenging Israel’s racism and systematic violence targeting Palestinians. The disgraceful example such behaviour sets for Canadians is that Palestinian lives simply do not matter.

It’s no accident that Canada’s political elite exhibit a profound lack of concern regarding the rights and well-being of Palestinians. Israel has well-resourced lobby groups in Canada to all but guarantee that justice will not see the light of day. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is but one of many, and as pointed out by Canadian lawyer and activist Dimitri Lascaris, CIJA has unparalleled access to Canada’s top decision-makers. It is also a staunch defender and ally of JNF Canada.

Political protection hinders justice

As the CBC’s Evan Dyer reported in the recent exposé of JNF Canada, “Although the group [JNF Canada] enjoyed particularly strong links with the Harper government, it has also been close to the Trudeau government.”

While Beth Oloth succumbed to the same fate of other former charities that violated Canada’s tax laws, JNF Canada — along with its organizational supporters which lobby heavily to protect Israel from scrutiny — has ensured that the organization is deeply embedded in the political elite spanning several generations, and in every major city in the country.

Annual JNF Canada fundraising galas in major cities have often included a book for attendees containing greetings and official letters of support from the prime minister, the governor general, the lieutenant governor, the mayor, and the local MP. Across the board, federal, provincial and municipal officials attend these galas, and too many to list here have been “honoured” at them.

One such honouree was former prime minister Stephen Harper, who was feted at the JNF Canada’s annual gala in Toronto in 2013 while serving as prime minister. He was also awarded with his name being attached to a bird sanctuary — the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary. JNF Canada honoured John Baird while he served as Canada’s foreign affairs minister and penned a park in his name, as well.

Sadly, little has changed under the Liberal government. Just over a year ago, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale was accompanied by Liberal MP Michael Levitt at a JNF tree-planting ceremony in Jerusalem. Levitt serves as chair of the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development.

Levitt also served as a board member of JNF Canada, which he proudly displayed on his website. It remained on his website well past his election victory in 2015. While his website makes mention of boards he used to sit on, there is no longer mention of JNF Canada. But his strong support for JNF Canada can still be found on his site.

An opportunity in 2019 federal election

With a federal election around the corner, those among us who oppose racism and strive for a just peace in Israel-Palestine can raise this issue with our local candidates. At your doorstep, in your community, and at local candidates’ debates, ask them if they support the ongoing charitable status of JNF Canada. Ask them if they think Palestinian lives matter.

Depending on their response, you’ll certainly gain a sense of their integrity, and hopefully a better sense of which one you’ll be casting your vote for at the ballot box.

Tyler Levitan is a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada and is active with the #StopJNFCanada campaign. He lives in Gatineau, Quebec on unceded Algonquin territory.