Harper's extremism is showing

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If, as polls suggest, Stephen Harper is poised to win a majority, it's largely due to the media notion that his past reputation for extremism no longer holds.

In fact, apart from his reluctant embrace of economic stimulus, Harper has shown little of the "moderation" that supposedly now puts his government comfortably within the Canadian mainstream.

Departing from Canadian political tradition, for instance, the Harper government has abandoned Ottawa's long-standing attempt at even-handedness in the Middle East conflict, repositioning Canada as unequivocally on Israel's side.

The Harper government also appears to have embarked on a disturbing and less-reported campaign to silence Canadian critics of Israel, in ways that threaten to undermine Canada's tradition of open debate, particularly at our universities. The Prime Minister himself set the tone for this by appearing to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

"I guess my fear is what I see happening in some circles is (an) anti-Israeli sentiment, really just a thinly disguised veil for good old-fashioned anti-Semitism," Harper told Montreal's CJAD Radio in May 2008.

Others in the Harper cabinet have gone farther. Speaking last September in Thornhill, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney charged that "Israel Apartheid Days on university campuses like York sometimes begin to resemble pogroms."

York University has seen some intense debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly since Israel's invasion of Gaza last winter. But to compare heated exchanges to pogroms -- organized campaigns of slaughter and pillage of European Jews -- is absurd.

Kenney's depiction of York was so inaccurate it prompted a rebuttal from two York professors of Jewish studies, who like the Harper government's support for Israel. "We and a large number of other Jewish men walk around campus every day wearing kippot and do so without fear," professors Eric Lawee and Martin Lockshin wrote in the Canadian Jewish News. "Another 4,000 other Jews ... also walk around campus every day in total freedom. They benefit from a wide range of Jewish activities -- a kosher restaurant on campus, rich Jewish student activity life, a wide array of top-level Jewish studies courses, student and faculty exchanges with leading Israeli universities -- all encouraged and supported by the president of York and his administration."

Branding critics of Israel's actions in Gaza as anti-Semitic is particularly untenable in light of the extremely critical findings about Israel's Gaza campaign in a UN report by Richard Goldstone, an internationally respected South African judge who is also a dedicated Zionist and long-time friend of Israel.

The tone set by the Harper government seems to be encouraging an attack on open debate about Israel on Canadian campuses. An ad-hoc group of parliamentarians, including Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats, has set itself up as an "inquiry" into what it considers a new anti-Semitism, with a particular focus on campuses. They open hearings in Ottawa this week.

The charge that anti-Semitism is tolerated on campuses has been explicitly made by B'nai Brith Canada. In an ad in the National Post, the organization charged that students returning to university could expect "swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti all over campus."

Before we're lulled into the notion of the Harper government as "moderate," we should consider what role it's played in creating the climate for this sort of poisonous slur against Canadian universities -- all because they've allowed student voices to harshly criticize the Israeli government. Just as Goldstone does in his UN report.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.

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