Michael Ignatieff, sometimes described as Canada’s “Prime Minister in Waiting,” is sometimes falsely accused of justifying torture. He is actually much more sophisticated. He is willing to consider torture, and thinks that people, like him, who are against torture should be honest with themselves that this might be a costly decision. He wrote in Prospect in April 2006.

“We must at least entertain the possibility that the operatives working on Sheikh Mohammed in our name are engaging not in gratuitous sadism but in the genuine belief that this form of torture-and it does qualify as such-makes all the difference. … If they are right, then those who support an absolute ban on torture had better be honest enough to admit that moral prohibition comes at a price. It is possible, at least in theory, that subjecting interrogators to rules that outlaw torture and coercive interrogation, backed up by punishment if they go too far, will create an interrogation regime that allows some interrogation subjects to resist divulging information and prevents our intelligence services from timely access to information that may save lives.”

In his book The Lesser Evil, he also sets out the conditions for assassination if it is: “… applied to the smallest number of people, used as a last resort, and kept under the adversarial scrutiny of an open democratic system” (As quoted in Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land, Chapter 9, footnote 56).

Not long after explaining the nuances of his anti-torture position, during Israel’s bombing and invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 2006 Ignatieff slipped and called an Israeli war crime a war crime. While he singled out one war crime among many (aggression, cluster munitions, many aerial massacres), there was a short moment of accuracy. He apologized, however, and evidently learned his lesson: war crimes are ok, talking about them is not ok.

This is fast becoming a general principle in Canadian politics. Crimes are to be encouraged, speaking about crimes is to be condemned. The blood has not dried in Israel’s latest massacre in Gaza. 1300 people were killed, 430 of them children. Tens of thousands were left homeless. Vital infrastructure was destroyed, making Israel’s policy of deliberate starvation of the population even more intense. A fundamentally genocidal policy is still in place. But Canadian politicians can’t condemn it. They can, however, condemn students trying to hold lectures about it on campuses and unions committed to educating about it.

Below is my annotated version of the memo by Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff denouncing Israeli Apartheid Week (which was published in the National Post). I would have annotated the statement by Conservative Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, but like so much of what the Conservatives and Liberals say and do, the statements are so similar that if you’ve annotated one, you’ve annotated them all. Both politicians have arrogated to themselves the right to decide on what the limits of free expression should be.

To try to make this sound anything other than some kind of bizarre satire, Ignatieff ends up having to torture the arguments quite a bit. But he did say that the prohibition against torture comes at a price … so perhaps this is one of those lesser evils, in his view. (Aside: Ignatieff will be relying heavily on lesser evil arguments if Canada sees an election any time soon. But Canadians might have to look a lot closer than they’d care to to figure out whether he is one.)

An annotated version of Ignatieff’s memo against Israeli Apartheid Week

“Throughout our history, Canadians have strived to understand each other across the solitudes that have broken other countries to pieces. Our common national purpose has been built on our diversity.”

These are, of course, platitudes, but it is hard to fault a politician for starting a statement with platitudes.

“We respect differences — of opinion, nationality, race and creed. We abandon that respect at our peril.”

The basis of Ignatieff’s argument, then, is respect for difference of opinion, nationality, race and creed. If Ignatieff had such respect, however, he could not support a system that denies refugees the right to return based on race, nationality, and creed. Jews from anywhere in the world can immigrate to Palestine, Palestinian refugees are not allowed to return to their homes. This is discrimination based on race and religion. A lack of respect.

As for differences of opinion, since Ignatieff’s memo is an expression of disrespect of the opinions of IAW’s organizers and CUPE-Ontario’s members, one could have hoped Ignatieff would hang his argument on some other value. Perhaps he could have started from the assumption that only Western peoples are fully human. From this assumption, many of his conclusions follow. But without this assumption, the memo is … well… a bit … tortured.

“‘Israel Apartheid Week’ (IAW), now underway on university campuses across Canada, betrays the values of mutual respect that Canada has always promoted.”

This is, so far, a claim, offered without evidence, by someone who has already established contempt for the notion of respect for differences of nationality, race and creed.

“International law defines ‘apartheid’ as a crime against humanity.”


“Labelling Israel as an ‘apartheid’ state is a deliberate attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state itself.”

Whether Israel is an apartheid state or not is a factual matter. It is either true or false. If it is true, then the state — to the degree that it is an apartheid state — is illegitimate. If it is false, then the state is legitimate (at least not illegitimate for apartheid reasons — it could still be an aggressor, an occupier, a committer of war crimes, siege and settlement, and a routine violator of international law, for example).

“Criticism of Israel is legitimate.”

Let us all thank Ignatieff for his generosity in declaring that we are allowed to legitimately criticize Israel.

“Attempting to describe its very existence as a crime against humanity is not.”

This is either a breathtaking leap of logic or a deeply anti-Israel statement. The only way to read this statement, the only way it makes sense, is that Ignatieff is saying that Israel’s very existence depends on it being an apartheid state.

Otherwise, if apartheid is just a set of policies — discriminatory laws and practices — then these policies could be changed and the Israeli state survive (as, to propose one crazy example, a democracy with full equality). But it seems that in Ignatieff’s world, saying that Israel should change its apartheid policies, which constitute crimes against humanity, is the same as saying Israel should not exist.

This is an amazing statement, perhaps the most anti-Israel statement anyone could make. IAW demands that Israel allow refugees the right to return, stop discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel and end the occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

For most people, this doesn’t say anything about Israel’s very existence. But for Ignatieff, these proposals do go to Israel’s very existence.

“IAW is part of a global campaign of proclamations, boycotts and calls for divestment, which originated in the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Like ‘Durban I,’ IAW singles out one state, its citizens and its supporters for condemnation and exclusion, and it targets institutions and individuals because of what and who they are — Israeli and Jewish.”

A look at the archives from WCAR show that it did not “single out” any one state. You will have to do some clicking around to find references to Israel or the Palestinian question. WCAR was intended to discuss seriously all forms of racism around the world. Israel’s was one. That the only charge Ignatieff can come up with about this is that it was “singling out one state” is a testament to the bankruptcy of the attack on WCAR.

Here we come to Ignatieff’s next great leap. A “state, its citizens and its supporters.” I thought we were talking about the policies of the state? Above, Ignatieff seems to have argued that Israel’s “very existence” depends on apartheid. Now, he argues that to criticize apartheid is to single out Israel’s “citizens and its supporters for condemnation and exclusion,” and not just that, but “because of what and who they are — Israeli and Jewish.”

But IAW has a problem with apartheid policies, not with Israelis, not with citizens and certainly not with Jews. Like Ignatieff’s anti-Israel statement, it is hard to read this as anything but anti-Jewish. Is Ignatieff arguing that Israelis and Jews, because of “what and who they are,” are automatic supporters of Israeli apartheid? This is demeaning to Israelis and Jews, whose opinions, like those of everyone else, do not automatically spring from their religious, national or ethnic background. Would Ignatieff deny them the right to make up their own minds, as many of them have, simply because they are Jewish or Israeli? If not, why would IAW, which seeks an end to war, massacre, occupation and discriminatory laws, have any argument with any group of people, except those who support war, massacre, occupation and discriminatory laws?

“IAW goes beyond reasonable criticism into demonization.”

This is an absolute lie. Here Ignatieff chooses a word, “demonization,” in order to better do it to his opponents. IAW is based on three demands that are in line with human rights and international law. There is simply no demonization at all, in the sense of portrayal of some group of people as if they were demons, in order to set them outside of the realm of legitimate debate and discussion to prepare the way to harm them. The word “demonization” does, however, apply very well to what Ignatieff is doing with his statement. Indeed, for the rest of the memo, Ignatieff’s intent is best read by what he accuses IAW of doing.

“It leaves Jewish and Israeli students wary of expressing their opinions, for fear of intimidation.”

Is Ignatieff referring to Jewish students like the many who are active organizers of the IAW events? Or those pro-Israel activists who came in groups to disrupt them, accusing IAW organizers of being “terrorists,” physically intimidating and pushing them? Or those pro-Israel activists who came into the events to ask questions and often to make accusations against the speakers?

Ignatieff offers no evidence for this incredibly serious charge that IAW makes Jewish and Israeli students afraid.

It bears repeating how serious this charge is. IAW is explicitly anti-racist, and Ignatieff here is strongly implying that it is racist. Its activists are being intimidated, partly by statements like his, and he accuses it of intimidating others.

“No Canadian should ever have to fear for their safety in a public space because of who they are or what they believe. All Canadians should condemn any attempt to intimidate anyone in the legitimate affirmation of their beliefs and identity.”

These two sentences are true, but ironic. Ironic because Ignatieff’s entire statement is precisely a form of intimidation. Consider: The leader of Canada’s major party has publicly stated that a lecture series on university campuses falls out of the realm of legitimate debate and is basically racist. This in a context where there are active organizations attempting to physically disrupt the events and threaten their organizers.

The result is that from the very top of Canadian society there is a message that will help to create a permissive environment for reprisals of various kinds against the student activists of IAW, many of whom are women, many of whom are also of Palestinian heritage, who have been made “to fear for their safety in a public space because of who they are or what they believe,” and have been intimidated “in the legitimate affirmation of their beliefs and identity.”

Are Palestinian students more or less afraid after Ignatieff’s statement? Does he care about the effect such a statement will have in this environment?

If “all Canadians should condemn any attempt to intimidate anyone in the legitimate affirmation of their beliefs and identity,” the first step would be to condemn Ignatieff’s memo.

“The Ontario wing of the Canadian Union of Public Employees has joined the chorus of denunciations of Israel on our campuses.”

Not much to comment on here except to point out the cliche, “chorus of denunciations of Israel,” which is as false as it is cheap, and a substitute for dealing with the substance of the resolution.

“The CUPE Ontario resolution passed last week to boycott Israeli academics is an unacceptable violation of academic freedom.”

This sentence is false and a showcase of arrogance. False, because CUPE Ontario’s resolution is about education towards a boycott of academic institutions, not individuals. Arrogant, because again the Liberal Party leader is deciding what is “acceptable” and what is not, first to discuss on campuses, and now to pass as union resolutions.

“Canada enjoys strong academic, economic and cultural ties with Israel and Israeli institutions, and these relationships benefit both our countries. Collaborative research between Canadian and Israeli academics is mutually rewarding, and should be encouraged.”

All true, up to the “should be encouraged.”

“The CUPE resolution is an attack on the free exchange that is at the heart of our university system.”

The argument for the boycott of academic institutions is primarily strategic. It claims first that Israeli academic institutions are part of the system of occupation and apartheid, and that if they were not, the system of occupation and apartheid would be much weakened (for lack of weapons and high tech research, among other things). Second, these institutions depend on support and exchange with other academic institutions. So, cutting institutional ties between Israeli and Canadian academies will weaken the system of occupation and apartheid. This is the argument, and Ignatieff could have answered it on its merits. Instead, however, he chose to mischaracterize it, “demonize” it and then condemn it for things it does not do.

“The Liberal Party of Canada condemns the CUPE resolution in the strongest possible terms.”

Let us just remind ourselves that these, the “strongest possible terms” of condemnation, are reserved for a resolution by a union on educating for breaking links between academic institutions involved in apartheid and occupation.

On the murder of 1300 people, including 430 children, in Gaza, on the continuing siege of the entire population, the deprivation of freedom of movement for all Palestinians, the use of white phosphorus munitions, the deliberate destruction of vital infrastructure, the denial of medical care, the deliberate starvation — for these crimes, the Liberal Party of Canada has no condemnation on any terms, much less the “strongest possible.”

“I salute the others who have spoken out against the resolution, including my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the House of Commons, and CUPE’s national president, Paul Moist, who has refused to support the resolution. I encourage all CUPE members, and all Canadians, to follow their example.”

Over the course of this memo, the Liberal Party leader has given himself the right to define what is acceptable and unacceptable to debate on campuses, what is acceptable and unacceptable to pass as union resolutions and, now, what union members should do.

“Israel Apartheid Week and CUPE Ontario’s anti-Israel posturing exploit academic freedom, and they should be condemned by all who value civil and respectful debate about the tragic conflict in the Middle East.”

Ignatieff’s use of the word “posturing” here is consistent with the rest of the memo. Like “demonization” above about IAW, it has nothing to do with what CUPE Ontario has done. CUPE Ontario isn’t posturing, it is beginning an educational campaign, involving “civil and respectful debate,” which Ignatieff is trying to demonize and posture out of existence.

“Political leaders should also take care not to deepen the distrust between Canadian communities over the Middle East. Politicians who use the ongoing conflict in the Middle East as a wedge to divide Canadians for their own political gain can succeed only in accentuating acrimony and deepening tensions.”

Ignatieff may be clever and playing a joke on us: perhaps he wrote this memo as an example of using the conflict as a wedge, accentuating acrimony and deepening tensions, maximizing posturing, demonization and intimidation, so we could see how bad these things are before he condemned them?

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict evokes passionate disagreement. It should not damage academic freedom and it should not divide Canadian communities. We can move forward if we work together to promote the common objective of Canadian policy ever since 1948 — a secure Israel living side-by-side in peace with an independent Palestine.”

Luckily, the conflict does not evoke any disagreement between the Liberals and Conservatives, since much of Ignatieff’s memo is cut-pasted from that of Conservative Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

A final note: Some argue that even debating torture is a debasement of a society, and that even though Ignatieff ultimately came out against it, by opening the debate he debased us all. It is yet another irony that the person who, as an academic, opened a debate that demeans us all as human beings is trying, as a politician, to shut down a debate that could lead to an end to a horrific occupation and an ongoing crime.


Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. Some of his friends were “demonized” by Michael Ignatieff’s “posturing.”

Justin Podur

Justin Podur is a writer and editor for ZNet (, part of Z Communications, an alternative media organization dedicated to political analysis and support for movements for social change....