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Canadians of conscience should not be smeared as 'anti-Semites' for boycotting apartheid Israel

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Palestinians crowd into checkpoint "cattle pen," Checkpoint 300, Bethlehem. Image: David Kattenburg

In the fight against anti-Semitism, no one enjoys greater influence than B'nai Brith Canada (BBC) and its League for Human Rights.

Each year, BBC and the league produce an audit of anti-Semitic incidents across Canada and the world. According to BBC, their annual audit gets "cited world-wide by government agencies, social policy planners and law enforcement bodies, and is considered the authoritative study on antisemitism in Canada."

No idle boast. BBC's most recent audit merited mention in one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's daily news briefings on the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2019 audit reports over 2,000 incidents of anti-Semitism -- over six every day -- including shocking accounts of racist violence, vandalism, desecration and Holocaust denial.

True, anti-Semitism is a scourge that cannot be denied. Unfortunately, though, there's a flaw in BBC's accounting procedure that calls its conclusions into question: It is based on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's "Working Definition of Antisemitism" (IHRA-WDA). Of the 11 "illustrative examples" of anti-Semitism flagged by the IHRA-WDA, six involve criticism of Israel and its founding ideology, Zionism.

How can the IHRA-WDA -- and BB's 2019 audit -- be squared with the consensus about Israel among other, less parochial human rights groups? With its "grave violations" of human rights law (Amnesty International), its "severe and discriminatory" treatment of the Palestinian people (Human Rights Watch), and its "regime of occupation … inextricably bound up in human rights violations" (B'Tselem)?

B'nai Brith Canada doesn't attempt to do so. First and foremost, it is a "staunch defender of the State of Israel." Among the anti-Semitic acts swelling its 2019 audit: calling for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails ("terrorists"), suggesting that Palestinians have been displaced or killed in the name of Zionism, that "Zionists control American politics" and all forms of "anti-Israel or anti-Zionist activism."

Nothing infuriates BBC more than the "antisemitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement." On page 14 of its 2019 audit, BBC presents the image of a box of Israeli clementines on a Canadian store shelf, upon which a "Boycott Israeli Apartheid" sticker has been applied.

Is it anti-Semitic to say that Israel practises apartheid, or something akin to apartheid, and to call for a consumer boycott? To answer this question, one must define apartheid. The 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid defines apartheid as a system based on "policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination" similar to those practised in southern Africa, "committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them."

Article 7(2) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines apartheid as comprising various "inhumane acts ... committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime."

Further precision is provided in a 2013 article authored by former UN special rapporteur John Dugard (one of the leading South African jurists who opposed apartheid) and Irish academic John Reynolds. Dugard and Reynolds identify three "pillars" of the South African prototype that they say Israel reproduces: 1) "demarcation of distinct racial groups," 2) "territorial fragmentation and racial segregation," and 3) a "matrix of security laws and practices" aimed at suppressing opposition and buttressing "racial domination."

Sounds a lot like Israel today.

But what do we mean by "Israel"? Opponents of the Israeli apartheid idea invariably argue that Israel is fully democratic. What they call "Israel" is Israel "proper" -- its internationally recognized territory. A more accurate definition is what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his constituency and a large swath of Israel's supporters around the world (including BBC) call the "Land of Israel." Namely, all the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and from the northern tip of the Golan Heights down to the Red Sea. These are the lands Israel and its military exercise complete control over. In addition to Israel "proper," they comprise the West Bank, Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and Gaza.

The "Land of Israel" is home to 14 million people belonging to two racial/ethnic groups -- a distinction codified in Israel's "Basic Laws" and 2018 Nation-State Law. Wherever they live (they do so everywhere except Gaza), Jews enjoy full citizenship and national rights and are governed by Israeli domestic law. Under the Nation-State Law, Jews have an exclusive right to self-determination. Non-Jews have no such right. Jews are free to own land and reside pretty much anywhere they please -- including Jewish settlements in the West Bank -- and to travel freely (except to those enclaves where Palestinians live). Any Jew anywhere in the world has the same right.

Palestinian lives are entirely different. Between 1.5 and two million are Israeli citizens. They carry Israeli passports and can travel as they please, but they have no national rights. If they marry someone who isn't Jewish -- from the West Bank or Gaza or Canada or France, say -- their spouse cannot join them in Israel. A plethora of racially based laws and regulations limit their residency rights and access to public services. They can vote and run for political office, but no member of an "Arab" party will end up in government because "Arabs" are viewed by the political establishment with distrust and contempt.

All things considered, though, Israeli "Arabs" have it good. For the three million Palestinians living in the West Bank, the story is very different. They are stateless, with neither citizenship nor national rights. Most live in populated areas assigned to them under the 1994-95 Oslo Accords. In Oslo areas A and B (40 per cent of the West Bank), their lives are administered by the Palestinian Authority, but Israeli soldiers can seize and imprison them at any time. Their natural resources are controlled by Israel. They are not free to travel.

Another 200,000-300,000 Palestinians live in Oslo Area C, under full military occupation. Their homes can be demolished and their farmlands razed based on arbitrary military orders. They are subject to routine violence at the hands of Jewish colonists living in their midst, aided and abetted by the Israeli military. They can be arrested and forcibly transferred to prisons inside "Israel proper" (in breach of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention).

Yet another 375,000 Palestinians reside in East Jerusalem, with neither citizenship nor national rights, and their residency rights can be revoked at a moment's notice. They are not allowed to build upon their property, as East Jerusalem's Jewish colonists can. If they do, their property can be demolished.

In the twilight zone of Israeli settler-colonialism and apartheid, several thousand Palestinians live in the "seam zone" between Israel's Separation Barrier and the Green Line. Among these, some are fully walled off and can only come and go through a gate controlled by Israeli soldiers.

Worst off are the Palestinians of Gaza, a 365-square kilometre sliver of land variously dubbed an "open air prison," "ghetto" or "concentration camp." Under Israeli siege for 13 years, Gaza's eastern border, coastline and airspace are under the complete control of the Israeli army, navy and air force.

What better term is there to describe the above geographical matrix than apartheid?

Back in 2014, the UN committee that oversees the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights described Israel's "domestic legal framework" as a "three-tiered system of laws affording different civil status, rights and legal protection for Jewish Israeli citizens, Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem."

Sounds like apartheid.

The list of those who've used the A-word is lengthy: former UN special rapporteurs Richard Falk and John Dugard, David Harel (vice president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities), Jewish-Israeli journalists Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, veteran CBC correspondent Neil Macdonald, John Kerry, Jimmy Carter, South African anti-apartheid activists Desmond Tutu and Denis Goldberg, Cameroonian academic Achille Mbembe, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) … the list goes on and on.

To call all these people anti-Semites would be preposterous. In the absence of a formal ruling by the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice, the Israeli apartheid idea plainly falls within the bounds of reason. It logically follows that consumer boycotts of the sort illustrated in BBC's 2019 anti-Semitism audit are justified as well -- certainly not acts of anti-Semitism.

Arguably, they are a civic duty. Under the 1995 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the "Crime of Apartheid" is considered a "crime against humanity" -- one of 11 such crimes itemized in Article 7 (j) of the Rome Statute, to which Canada is a signatory. Canada has incorporated these into its own Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act (2000). Why shouldn't Canadians of conscience be free to boycott "Israeli" clementines -- or wine, dates and cosmetic creams -- without being smeared as anti-Semites?  

By conflating boycotts and other pro-Palestinian activities with true Jew-hatred, as it does in its 2019 audit of anti-Semitic incidents, B'nai Brith Canada undermines the fight it claims to champion, not to mention the larger struggle for universal human rights and equality.

For B'nai Brith Canada, smearing and silencing Israel's critics seems to come first.

David Kattenburg is a Winnipeg-based science instructor, journalist and activist.

Image: David Kattenburg​

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