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Two Jews, three opinions? Not when it comes to discussing Israel

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In a recent Globe and Mail column on Stephen Harper's trip to Israel, Margaret Wente quotes a Jewish friend: "We're not sheep … Jews don't do anything en masse." In many ways, this is true. Jewish tradition has long valued debate. Hence the joke "two Jews, three opinions."

Except, that is, when it comes to one topic -- Israeli government policies. Here no diversity of opinion is tolerated. Ironically, more open-minded debate on this topic occurs in Israel than here in Canada, where anyone critical of Israeli government policy is almost certain to find herself described as an anti-Semite. If she is Jewish, the tag is "self-hating Jew."

Those of us in Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) are proud to be Jewish. We are also proud of our tradition of advocating for the rights and freedoms of all. It is this tradition that led many Jews to support the Civil Rights movement in the United States and the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. Today, however, the mainstream Jewish leadership in Canada goes out of its way to prevent any discussion of rights and freedoms denied to Palestinians.

This is not hyperbole.

Last fall, the Palestinian Awareness Coalition (of which IJV is a member) ran an ad on Vancouver transit featuring maps showing the shrinking of Palestinian territory and the parallel growth of land held by Israel. The ad also noted that there are five million Palestinian refugees in the world today. Within days, major Jewish organizations vigorously opposed the ads, charging, among other things, that they incited hatred towards Jews, made buses unwelcome and unsafe spaces for Jews, and, most absurdly, were deliberately placed in buses running through Jewish neighbourhoods during the Jewish High Holy Days.

In Toronto, under pressure from Jewish community organizations, the transit authority flatly refused to carry a similar ad sponsored by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

Need a place for a public event? Don't count on a Jewish community space unless the speaker is guaranteed to adhere to the accepted position on Israel. In 2009, Israeli peace activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Jeff Halper had his talk at the Gelber Conference Centre in Montreal, sponsored by Independent Jewish Voices, cancelled at the last minute by the Federation Combined Jewish Appeal (FCJA). IJV was banned from ever renting a conference room there in future. Similarly, the Jewish Community Centre of Ottawa refuses to rent space to IJV, since it "advocates for positions that run counter to the objectives of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa."

In 2011, the United Jewish Peoples' Order in Toronto organized a talk by Auschwitz survivor Dr. Hajo Meyer, "Never Again for Anyone," at the Morris Winchevsky Centre. The day before the event, they received a letter from the Canadian Jewish Congress (subsequently renamed the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs) and the United Jewish Appeal, threatening to "sever ties" with the Winchevsky Centre. In this case the organizers did not buckle under.

However, this past November two speakers had their talks cancelled for Le Mood, a Jewish cultural event and one of the largest gatherings of Jewish youth in Montreal. When pressed as to the reason, the festival director told one of the speakers that they were not willing to create a platform for people whose mission went against the beliefs of their funders, the Federation CJA (Combined Jewish Appeal). A month later, Jewish activist and spiritual leader Penny Rosenwasser had a talk scheduled for the Jewish Book Festival at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver arbitrarily cancelled by the JCC's Executive Director.

Debate and dissent are essential components of a democratic society. We must not allow anyone to deny others the right to legitimately criticize the actions of a state, whether in Egypt, Ukraine, Russia, Iran, the United States or Israel. It is a strange world indeed when Canadians are freer to criticize their own government's policies than those of the government in Israel.

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Joanne Naiman is Professor Emerita, Sociology, Ryerson University (Toronto) and a member of Independent Jewish Voices (Canada).

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