We often hear the charge that taking a firm stand for Palestinian rights is somehow anti-Semitic. What is anti-Semitism? Here are some common definitions:
-“Belief or behavior hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish.” (Anti-Defamation League)
-“Anti-Jewish racism,” which emphasizes the “innate hostility of Jews to the interests of non-Jews.” (Political Dictionary)
-“Hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious group or ‘race.’” (Britannica Concise Encyclopedia)
Seventy-five years ago, there was pervasive discrimination against Jews in Canada. It was difficult for Jews to get into university or get a job in the professions. It was difficult to get housing of our choice, or join private clubs.
Jews were refused entry into Canada, even as they faced Hitler’s death chambers. A high Canadian civil servant under the MacKenzie administration stated, “None is too many.”
Discrimination against Jewish people was less severe than that against Chinese or indigenous people, but it was similar in character. It was a form of the overall racism pervasive in Canadian society.
But since then many battles have been won. Hatred of Jews lingers on, but discrimination against Jews is no longer common in Canada.
The struggle against racism is indivisible
How did we carry out the battle against anti-Semitism? We exposed and combated individual expressions of such hatred. But we did not demand special laws protecting Jews. For instance, we didn’t say, “Don’t beat on the Jews, beat on the Chinese and Blacks instead.” No, we fought for equal rights for everyone.
Jewish people were in the forefront of these struggles. In the process, we engaged in many extended boycotts: on the battlegrounds with the Blacks in the U.S. in the boycotts of the Montgomery buses and the Wohlworth five and dime stores; in the grape boycott for Latino farm workers; in the boycott against South African apartheid. Many laws have been changed through all these struggles for the rights of humankind.
Today, racist discrimination is banned by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the Canadian and Ontario human rights charters. These documents do not mention anti-Semitism. Instead, they protect all human beings. A violation of these principles committed against anyone undermines the rights of us all. The struggle against racism is indivisible. Discrimination against Palestinians, or Muslims, or Arabs reinforces racism as a whole and thus encourages anti-Semitism.
This is particularly evident in the Middle East, where there is no historic tradition of anti-Semitism. The Israeli government insists that its wars and its oppression of the Palestinians are actions of the Jewish people as a whole, defending their interests as Jews. The world media repeat this lie. It is not surprising that many victims of Israel’s crimes blame the Jews. The Israeli government’s actions create a hearing for anti-Semitism.
‘Not In Our Name’
The most effective response for progressive Jews is to insist, loud and clear, “Not In Our Name” – and for all of us to work for an end to Israel’s wars and oppression.
Today, the Canadian government condemns the campaign to defend Palestine. They say that Israeli Apartheid Week is about “efforts to single out and attack the Jewish people and their homeland,” Israel.
This is a lie. There is nothing anti-Jewish in Israeli Apartheid Week: it is an educational event on political issues of concern to us all. They say my homeland is Israel. And here I thought it my homeland was Canada!
The Canadian government says that to criticize Israel is an attack on the Jewish people. This is absurd. Criticism of Israel is not prejudice. When we criticize the U.S. government, it’s not an attack on the American people. When we criticize the Harper government, it’s not because we hate conservatives -- let alone all Canadians.
If political advocacy is considered discriminatory, that would be the end of free speech.
As for singling out Israel, the Palestinian solidarity movement simply applies to Israel the same standards used for any other country. It is Israel that singles itself out, by carrying out crimes, like the siege of Gaza, with no parallel elsewhere in the world. It is the Canadian government that singles out Israel by declaring it exempt from challenge.
The policy of labeling criticism of Israel’s government as anti-Semitism is an attempt to silence or marginalize dissenters. It is an attempt to stifle freedom of speech and expression.
Ending Israeli apartheid
It is argued that we in the Palestinian solidarity movement do not accept the existence of Israel. So let us be clear. Israel exists.
It is argued that we do not accept that Jews should have a country of their own. But obviously all Jews, like Palestinians, and like all human beings, have a right to their own country. That does not mean that this country must be ethnically exclusive.
What we do not accept is Israeli apartheid -- that is, a state based on the oppression of a subject people.
We call for an end to Israeli apartheid through three measures:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands, dismantling the Wall and freeing all Palestinian and Arab political prisoners;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in U.N. General Assembly resolution 194.
None of these measures is in any way prejudicial to the rights of Jewish people in Israel or elsewhere. Indeed, these demands are in the best interests of Israeli Jews as well as Palestinians.
The struggle to liberate the Palestinians goes hand in hand with opposition to anti-Semitism. In a broader sense, the movement against Israeli apartheid is directed against the fountainhead of anti-Semitism: the racist ideology that still permeates our society.
This article is adapted from a talk given to 90 participants in a “train the trainers workshop” organized by Palestine Freedom of Expression on August 26.
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