Image: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook

It’s no secret that many members of the NDP think that Canada’s historically progressive party needs a makeover in its relationship to Israel and Palestine. 

Nowhere was this clearer than at the party’s 2018 policy convention in Ottawa where the leadership blocked a massively supported resolution in favour of Palestinian rights from hitting the convention floor.

Remarks made recently by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh signal another alarming backslide when it comes to standing up for human rights and international law in Israel and Palestine.

On December 18, Singh met with prominent members of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) to discuss “issues of interest to the Jewish community.” A podcast recording of the event was subsequently posted by CIJA on December 24. In the podcast, Singh makes a number of statements that reveal a disconcerting lack of understanding of the plight of the Palestinian people and an indifference to the need for substantive support for their cause. Indeed, much of what Singh articulates appears to be a reversal of earlier positions, articulated most recently during the October 2019 election campaign. 

Why did Singh decide that appeasing Jewish establishment organizations was more important than heeding the NDP rank-and-file when it comes to Palestine? The overwhelming takeaway from the CIJA podcast is that Singh is intent on demonstrating the degree to which he identifies with Israel. The NDP leader’s aim, it seems, was to quell any concerns that CIJA and its supporters might have about the possibility of his extending solidarity to the Palestinians. You might call this the “Corbyn Effect,” in which progressive politicians scurry to disavow pro-Palestine politics in order to avoid being tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism that ultimately helped sink the leader of the British Labour party. 

In the podcast, Singh takes the position that both Israelis and Palestinians are hurt by what he characterizes benignly as “the conflict.” He declares that there is a path to peace, but offers no details about what conditions might actually produce this. Indeed, there is nothing in Singh’s remarks that even vaguely recognizes the profound injustices that underlie the history and current policies of the Israeli state. 

Singh does not mention the innumerable civil and human rights violations against Palestinians that have been documented by both Israeli and international human rights groups. He makes no mention of Israel’s illegal separation wall and settlements which he has seen with his own eyes, and fails to raise the issue of Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinian children. He avoids any discussion of the devastating effects of the blockade of Gaza and Israel’s response to the nonviolent Great March of Return in which hundreds of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli snipers and thousands have been seriously wounded. Singh appears to attribute no significance to the fact that Palestinian citizens of Israel suffer institutional discrimination and second-class citizenship, and makes no mention whatsoever of the decades-long Israeli occupation of the West Bank. 

Closer to home, Singh implies that the responsibility for the violence at York University this past November lies with Palestinian solidarity activists, a claim that has been refuted by those who were present as well as by many who have viewed videos posted online by participants. In fact, it is the quasi-fascist Jewish Defense League that appears to be the source of the violent actions. 

These omissions are difficult to understand, given that Singh is the leader of a largely progressive political party and one in which justice for Palestinians has been raised repeatedly. Indeed, his failure to put forward any of the issues mentioned can only be interpreted as tacit approval for Israel’s policies and for the wave of suppression of free expression on the Palestine issue that is looming with the widespread adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.

Singh’s stated support for the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is particularly troubling. He has previously stated that “in a free and democratic society, peaceful advocacy directed toward a government or its policies must never be silenced,” but he seems unable to see the danger in adopting a policy which seeks to effectively shut down political speech critical of Israel. Despite substantive problems inherent in this redefinition of anti-Semitism (for a comprehensive critique, see, Singh touts it as a “guiding educational lens” that could prevent forms of anti-Semitism that may be hidden or cloaked. 

There is, in fact, little of substance in the IHRA definition. While the short definition itself is largely benign, what renders it problematic is the inclusion of 11 examples of anti-Semitism, seven of which relate to criticism of Israel. Indeed, the IHRA definition has been turned into a weapon designed to suppress criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people. 

Even the definition’s author, Kenneth S. Stern, has denounced its misuse. In written testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives and in several articles, Stern argues that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism poses a threat to the freedom of speech and academic freedom of those who are critical of Israel. Opposition to the implementation of the IHRA definition has been expressed by nearly 300 Canadian academics who have signed Independent Jewish Voices Canada’s open letter condemning this initiative. How then, we ask, could such a definition be deemed to be of educational value? 

In fact, the IHRA definition has already been used in several cases to paint human rights activists as anti-Semites and to deny Palestine solidarity activists the use of public venues. Trump’s recent executive order targeting Palestine solidarity activism and scholarship largely relies on the IHRA definition to determine which forms of speech will be labelled anti-Semitic.

In Singh’s interview, he argues that those who are “single-mindedly obsessed” with criticizing one country, Israel, demonstrate a latent anti-Semitism. This is a straw man argument that is often aimed at the Palestine solidarity movement. This view ignores the fact that Jewish groups such as Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) and Jewish Voice for Peace in the U.S. have been at the forefront of the international movement for Palestinian freedom. All of us involved in social justice work must pick and choose our battles, and for many activists, Jews and Palestinians in particular, the century-long conflict in Israel/Palestine is where, for obvious reasons, we choose to focus our efforts. 

Singh’s comments to CIJA are not in line with the opinions of NDP voters and, in particular, Jewish NDP voters. In an EKOS poll conducted by IJV and the United Jewish People’s Order in 2018, we found that 65 per cent of Jewish NDP voters have negative views of the Israeli government. Moreover, while Singh states in the CIJA podcast that he opposes the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the same poll showed that 62 per cent of Canadians consider BDS to be a reasonable tool for the achievement of human rights for Palestinians. In a poll published in 2017 by IJV and Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), 84 per cent of NDP voters considered sanctions on Israel to be reasonable. We wonder what has changed, since Singh responded to a leadership candidate questionnaire circulated by CJPME and IJV in which he declared that he “would consider” the use of targeted sanctions against Israel in response to its human rights abuses. 

Finally, in regards to the issue of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and its examples, the 2018 IJV and United Jewish People’s Order EKOS poll showed that 72 per cent of Jewish NDP voters believe that accusations of anti-Semitism are often used to silence criticism of Israel. These discrepancies and reversals are both puzzling and disheartening, particularly in light of the escalation of Israeli aggression and the mounting evidence that Israel has accelerated seizures of Palestinian property in East Jerusalem and actually stands poised to annex the West Bank.

Despite its claims, CIJA in no way represents all Jews in Canada and certainly not in regard to Israel. A profound divide in the Jewish community over Israel’s violent and inhumane policies towards the Palestinian people is becoming increasingly apparent in the Jewish diaspora. Those who identify as Jews and who oppose Israel’s policies do so because they are committed to social justice for all. Many also do so because they cherish the tradition of justice that is the patrimony of Jews and do not wish to see it sullied in the name of a short-sighted and unscrupulous nationalism. 

Jagmeet Singh needs to tell Canadian progressives why he has reversed position in regard to Palestine. Moreover, he needs to take his cues from NDP members and progressive Jewish organizations like IJV, IfNotNow, and others which support Palestinian freedom, not from CIJA, an organization which unerringly toes the Israeli hasbara line, and which will never be a friend of the NDP. 

If it wants to preserve its own political and moral credibility, the NDP can no longer afford to dismiss the concerns of the majority of its members, Jews and non-Jews alike, when it comes to Palestine. 

Sheryl Nestel is a member of the national steering committee of Independent Jewish Voices Canada. She is an author and was senior sessional instructor in sociology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto from 2000-2012. She lived in Israel from 1973-1988.

Image: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook