Israel's new ultra-nationalist defense minister alarms Canadian Jews

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The appointment this week of Avigdor Lieberman from the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party to Israel’s Minister of Defense is alarming many Canadian Jews. Hawkish, ultra-nationalist Lieberman is infamous for his belligerent stance on negotiations with Palestinians and saying that Palestinians who do not swear allegiance to Israel "should have their heads chopped off by an ax."

Lieberman lives in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank and as a one-time supporter of Meir Kahane, the former nightclub bouncer's appointment as Defence Minister has many Israelis worried.

Moshe Yaalon, a Likud member and former general, quit as defence minister last Friday in protest against the coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel, Our Home) and warned that the nation was being taken over by "extremist and dangerous elements." As the Defence Minister of the Israeli government he now has wide-ranging powers, including control of the IDF and power over civil affairs in the occupied West Bank.

Reacting on Friday May 20 former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak charged that the current Israeli government has been infected by the "seeds of fascism," and warned that the installation of Lieberman as the new Defence Minister amounts to "a hostile takeover of the Israeli government by dangerous elements. And it's just the beginning."

Lieberman has sat in the Knesset since 1999 and his party's base consists mostly of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The party is small but influential, often acting as the final piece of a governing coalition in the Knesset, giving the party parliamentary importance beyond its small size. Lieberman was Netanyahu's foreign minister in 2010 but broke away, quitting in protest of perceived concessions to Palestinians in peace negotiations.

Israel's further-right drift worries many in Canada's Jewish community. While Lieberman has been taking over as Minister of Defense this week, the Ontario government was debating the merits of limiting free speech related to criticism of Israel. Ontario's Bill 202 would have criminalized criticism of Israel. The Tim Hudak-sponsored bill was aimed at the BDS movement but was defeated in its second reading on May 19.

Tyler Levitan, speaking on behalf of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), noted that much work remains to be done connecting the dots between growing authoritarianism in Israel and Canada's crackdown on free speech.

"It is unfortunate that such a bill attacking free speech would even make it into the Ontario legislature," said Levitan in a press release. "But the very fact that it was brought to a vote demonstrates the need for our decision makers to have access to better information on what is actually happening in Israel-Palestine."

Levitan stressed the importance of engaging Canadian decision makers on developments in the region. "Our goal is to ensure that our government representatives are making decisions related to the Middle East with all the necessary information," he said. "We plan to engage them with periodic briefings and meetings so we can share our understanding of the politics on the ground with them."

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Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated Tyler Levitan spoke on behalf of International Jewish Voices, not Independent Jewish Voices. rabble regrets this error.

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