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Antisemitism is more complex than political criticism of Israel

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If you've been watching the unfolding back-and-forth with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement activist Dimitri Lascaris, the Canadian Prime Minister, and MPs Michael Levitt and Anthony Housefather, I invite you to read this.

It scares me that often we forget that when we get involved in solidarity work, we get involved in the lives of millions of people. Our involvement may be just speech, but it is public debate that has an impact on the real world. In general, I believe ideas grow and heal like wounds -- when they are exposed to oxygen.

I've had the privilege and the pain of being on various sides of bigotry and seeing that bigotry embraced at cultural and institutional levels. My first understanding of what it meant to be a Jew came from learning from neighbours, teachers, and the other children in the Soviet kindergarten I attended that being a Jew was something loathsome. As a high school student in Israel, I was taught by neighbours, teachers, and classmates that non-Jews are not wanted, that everything would be okay if they all just disappeared. It took decades of healing and action towards justice and peace to overcome these narratives.

Many don't understand that Israel/ עם ישראל (the Jewish collective identity), the State of Israel (founded in 1948), and the government of Israel are separate, although they sometimes overlap.

Antisemitism and racism of all kinds are complex. Sometimes they're black and white, sometimes they're grey with misunderstanding, and sometimes they're red with blood. One thing antisemitism is not, however, is criticism of the governments of Israel, and I don't care whose definition of "antisemitism" you throw at me. Lately, with the attempt to redefine political criticism of Israel as "the new antisemitism," some organizations and groups have crossed the line. Sometimes even activists who struggle in solidarity for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine cross the line. What guides me is the meaning, the context, and the impact.

The Jewish world is beautiful, multicultural, multilingual, and multi-historical. As the Education Director of the Morris Winchevsky School, I often refer to it as a civilization of nearly 4000 years. Our liturgy, traditions, and adaptations are a source of wisdom to me, precisely because one can draw on them to build a more just world and also to understand how nationalism and exclusivity evolve.

As a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada, I make a point of saying that political Zionism began as a liberation movement against European antisemitism, and that it became a colonial-racist movement the second it saw Palestine as exclusively Jewish, as a place where rights could be doled out depending on upbringing, religion, and birthplace. Its meaning has been a state of multilayered citizenship (see Adalah - The Legal Center For Arab Minority Rights In Israel's amazing resources), its actions have led to the ongoing Nakba (see De-Colonizer, research and art laboratory for a social changeZochrot / זוכרות / ذاكرات; and Badil Return) and its impact has been profound.

In one way or another, Zionism affects everyone who calls this place home. Its impact has also meant that the State of Israel has become a lab for the manifestation of political exclusion in an increasingly globalized world, an innovator in population surveillance, a top player in the arms industry, and a brutal PR machine that finds new ways to silence anyone who criticizes the status quo, both at home and abroad.

One of the most ardent advocates of Zionism is the former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky (נתן שרנסקי) who upon moving to Israel famously said, "Will dissent be permitted? The answer to that question will determine whether the society is a free society or a fear society." While the reality of democracy is far more complex than that, I agree.

Most people don't ask me, "What did you see?" when they learn I've covered Israel/Palestine as a journalist and filmmaker for nearly a decade. They tell me what they think. In recent years, Israel's government started to extend its repressive anti-democratic practices against Palestinians to its Jewish citizens. Some ideas are now illegal. Criticism of what the Israeli army or government is doing is met with punishment. Support for the non-violent movements advocating for equality for all who live between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea is equated with treason.

When politicians go after their constituents for their political views, they delegitimize the country's democratic institutions. Dimitri Lascaris may have landed in the gray zone with his recent Tweets, but as his friend and colleague, I see him as a restless advocate for equality and have no doubt that in his heart, he harbours a love for all of humanity.

So I guess all this is just to say: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, your constituents are watching. You are welcome to stand with Israel/ עם ישראל, as you should with all minorities in this country, for we are all guests on Turtle Island. But when you stand with the Trump-like racist government of Benjamin Netanyahu בנימין נתניהו, you are saying to your constituents that you will support repressive regimes and their advocates at the cost of democracy in Canada.

Going after Dimitri on Twitter is a weak, pathetic move not worthy of a leader.

Lia Tarachansky is an award-winning Israeli-Canadian journalist and filmmaker. Her work can be seen on www.naretivproductions.com.

Image: Alisdair Hickson/Flickr

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