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Freedom of expression is central to our democracy

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Linda Sarsour and Harold Shuster. Photo: Tyler Blashko

Freedom of expression and the right to hold diverse opinions are central to our liberal democracy. The state has no right to intervene in events like "Sorry Not Sorry: Unapologetically Working for Social Justice," the panel discussion held by the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg and the Canadian Muslim Women's Institute, unless there is strong evidence that hate speech will occur. Otherwise, the state needs to take a hands-off approach. 

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman took a shoot-the-messenger stance recently when he declared that Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American community activist who has raised legitimate criticisms of the state of Israel, was too controversial and not welcome in Winnipeg simply because he finds some of her comments personally offensive. Bowman seems to have forgotten that he is the mayor and not a private citizen expressing his personal prejudices.

Sarsour was invited to Winnipeg to speak about building effective progressive movements across cultures and communities. Her views on Israel-Palestine were never to be the topic, and should not be a basis to ban her from speaking even if she chose to refer to them.

At a press conference, flanked by members of the Winnipeg Jewish Federation and B'nai Brith Canada, Mayor Bowman condemned Sarsour for attacking the "foundation of Israel's right to exist," suggesting that this, among other supposed transgressions, was a sign of her "anti-Semitic views and hate." In this very public way, Bowman allied himself with some Jews and against others in a community that is split with regard to views on the Middle East. Does Bowman support silencing Jewish Winnipeggers who do not agree with him?

Will Bowman advocate the censorship of Indigenous scholars and activists who question the legitimacy of the Canadian state based on a bloody history of ethnic cleansing, colonialism and racism which continues today?

What our mayor failed to take into consideration or fully understand is that Sarsour is a Palestinian whose land is currently being occupied and actively colonized by an Israeli state that discriminates against her by law. Is it any wonder that anyone, let alone a Palestinian, might challenge the nature of such a state? Advocating against harmful Israeli policies and for equality, as Sarsour does -- be it through boycott, divestment and sanctions or other means -- is far from anti-Semitism. It is anti-racism.

Why is Bowman ignoring the evidence of Rabbi Barat Ellman and Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, rabbis from Brooklyn who have worked with Sarsour for more than a decade? They say, "even if at times we do not entirely agree with her, we stand with her as friends and allies to support her and refute the false claims against her." These rabbis provide compelling evidence based on direct experience that the two principal claims against Sarsour of hating Jews and supporting terrorism are indeed false. Why does Bowman think he knows better than these rabbis do?

Why did Bowman not speak out against the hateful, violent, misogynistic and/or Islamophobic reaction received by the Social Planning Council in reaction to this event? Does he think that is OK?

The Zionist organizations of the Jewish establishment have every right to assert, strongly and civilly, their point of view. But they do not have the right to imply that there is a single Jewish community or that they are its only legitimate voices. And no one has the right to act as a self-interested censor in seeking to abrogate our fundamental democratic rights as Canadians.

What exactly are these organizations afraid of? Do they think that Winnipeggers will not be able to detect false claims? Or are they worried that Winnipeggers might hear some truths that these organizations find inconvenient?

In all of this, the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg and the Canadian Muslim Women's Institute courageously did exactly what organizations in a civil society should do -- promote fundamental Canadian values centred on equality and human rights. More than that, they promoted discussion on how we can better work together to achieve a better society for all. Civil society is necessary because many human rights positions have historically been and are still controversial. There was a time when a different establishment objected to suffrage for women, the right of gay men and lesbian women to marry, and the right of women to control their fertility.

The establishment of sacred cows which cannot be discussed is a key strategy in disempowering groups which are trying to claim their rights. This cannot be tolerated.

As Winnipeggers, committed Jews and supporters of human rights, we applaud the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg and the Canadian Muslim Women's Institute, and were thrilled to be able to welcome Linda Sarsour to Winnipeg.

Harold Shuster is the chair and Sid Frankel is a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

Photo: Tyler Blashko

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