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Canada clamps down on criticism of Israel

In an affront to free speech, Canadian committee declares that criticism of Israel should be considered anti-Semitic.

Last updated: 22 Jul 2011 10:28
Jillian Kestler-D'Amours
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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a staunch supporter of Israeli policy, has described criticism of Israeli as a form of 'new anti-Semitism' [EPA]

Nearly two years after the first hearings were held in Ottawa, the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition fto Combat Anti-Semitism (CPCCA) released a detailed report on July 7 that found that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Canada, especially on university campuses.

While the CPCCA's final report does contain some cases of real anti-Semitism, the committee has provided little evidence that anti-Semitism has actually increased in Canada in recent years. Instead, it has focused a disproportionate amount of effort and resources on what it calls a so-called "new anti-Semitism": criticism of Israel.

Indeed, the real purpose of the CPCCA coalition seems to be to stifle critiques of Israeli policy and disrupt pro-Palestinian solidarity organizing in Canada, including, most notably, Israeli Apartheid Week events. Many of the CPCCA's findings, therefore, must be rejected as both an attack on freedom of speech and freedom of protest, and as recklessly undermining the fight against real instances of anti-Semitism.

The CPCCA and its findings

The Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (CPCCA) was born out of a conference held in London in February 2009 by the Inter-Parliamentary Committee for Combating Anti-Semitism. Formed in March 2009 and not directly linked to the Canadian government, or to any NGO or advocacy group, the CPCCA included 22 Canadian Parliament members from across party lines. Former Liberal MP Mario Silva chaired the Inquiry Panel and Conservative MP Scott Reid led the Steering Committee.

Between November 2009 and January 2010, the CPCCA held ten separate hearings during which time representatives of various non-governmental organizations, religious institutions, police departments and Canadian and Israeli universities presented papers meant to assess the level of anti-Semitism in Canada. While groups critical of Israel were denied the chance to address the committee, major Zionist organizations like B'nai Brith Canada, Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, and the Canadian Jewish Congress were welcomed.

"Much of today's anti-Semitism manifests in anti-Israel agitation around boycotts, divestment and sanctions," said Avi Benlolo, President and CEO of the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, during a hearing in November 2009. "It deploys an unfair double standard against the Jewish state, singling out of Israel alone for one-sided, harsh criticism and calls for punitive actions."

Throughout the consultation process, the CPCCA regularly focused on Canadian university campuses, which were routinely described as hotbeds of anti-Semitism, where Jewish students or students with pro-Israel leanings are often intimidated and threatened. This accusation was made repeatedly, and included in the CPCCA's final report, despite the fact that Dr. Fred Lowy, President Emeritus of Concordia University in Montreal, stated in his address to the CPCCA that, "by and large, Canadian campuses are safe and are not hotbeds of anti-Semitism of any kind".

In its final report, the CPCCA made about two dozen recommendations on how best to fight anti-Semitism in Canada. While the report states that "criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is wrong", it also found that "singling Israel out for selective condemnation and opprobrium … is discriminatory and hateful" and many of its recommendations deal with combating this "new anti-Semitism".

A major recommendation issued by the CPCCA was that the Canadian government should promote the working definition of anti-Semitism used by The European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). This definition categorizes "applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation" as anti-Semitic.

In other words, the CPCCA is supporting a definition whereby individuals who focus their attention on Israeli human rights violations, yet don't level an equal amount of condemnation on other states for their human rights violations, can be labeled as anti-Semitic. This is obviously problematic since Palestine solidarity activists - like any other people - have commitments that make it impossible to engage with every issue they are otherwise interested in. They shouldn't be labeled as anti-Semitic due to their inability to participate in every single human rights struggle happening around the world.

Another dangerous recommendation made by the CPCCA was that Canadian university administrators should condemn "discourse, events and speakers which are untrue, harmful, or not in the interest of academic discourse, including Israeli Apartheid Week". Even the use of the word "apartheid" in relation to Israel is anti-Semitic, the CPCCA found, since it amounts to the "denial of the Jewish people their right to self- determination ... by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor".

This clearly violates freedom of speech and an open exchange of ideas at Canadian universities, and also unfairly and inaccurate labels Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) as anti-Semitic. In reality, IAW has since 2005 brought together respected activists, academics, journalists and cultural figures from around the world, including Judith Butler, Ronnie Kasrils, Noam Chomsky and Ali Abunimah, among others, to openly discuss ideas related to Israel/Palestine.

IAW provides an educational space for understanding Israel's apartheid policies - as evidenced, for example, through the separate legal systems used by Israelis and Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank or the discriminatory land ownership laws operating inside Israel - and supports the growing campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), which aims to non-violently pressure Israel to respect international law. It is far from the "uniformly well-organized, aggressive [campaign] designed to make the Jewish state and its supporters pariahs" the CPCCA report makes it out to be.

The CPCCA also recommended that the Canadian Committee of Foreign Affairs undertake a study on the United Nations Human Rights Council, "particularly regarding its over-emphasis of alleged human rights abuses by Israel, while ignoring flagrant human rights abuses of other member states".

This clearly demonstrates how the committee has confounded anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel, and is prepared to levy dubious suspicions against UN bodies and tarnish Canada's international standing in the process.

In a statement released on July 8, Thomas Woodley, President of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), said that the CPCCA's recommendations, "if implemented, will inhibit public discussion of Israel's conduct".

"CJPME believes that conclusions and recommendations generated by a process in which the same body - the CPCCA - is prosecutor, jury, and judge, are not credible. Although a few of the witnesses recounted incidents that were indeed indicative of genuine anti-Semitism, many were complaining about merely being exposed to criticism of the Israel's conduct," the CJPME press release stated.

Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) Canada also criticized the committee, stating that "the CPCCA's goal is to criminalize criticism of Israel and Zionism, not to hold impartial hearings. Therefore, we oppose the CPCCA as an ideologically biased organization with an agenda that will harm free speech and human rights activity in Canada. We oppose the CPCCA's Orwellian distortion of anti-Semitism. It is a danger to both Canadian liberties and to the genuine and necessary fight against anti-Semitism."

Reflection of official Canadian policy

While labeling critics of Israeli policy as anti-Semitic is nothing new, the level at which this accusation is now being used in Canadian discourse must be seen as a reflection of the Canadian government's official and current policy on the Middle East.

"When Israel, the only country in the world whose very existence is under attack, is consistently and conspicuously singled out for condemnation, I believe we are morally obligated to take a stand.  Demonization, double standards, de-legitimization, the three D's, it is the responsibility of us all to stand up to them," Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in 2010 at the Ottawa Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism, which was supported by the CPCCA.  Harper added:

"Harnessing disparate anti-American, anti-Semitic and anti-Western ideologies, it targets the Jewish people by targeting the Jewish homeland, Israel, as the source of injustice and conflict in the world and uses, perversely, the language of human rights to do so. We must be relentless in exposing this new anti-Semitism for what it is."

Under Harper, Canada has routinely defended Israeli intransigence and disregard for international law and the human rights of the Palestinian people under its control. In return, trade cooperation and military and security technologies ties have been strengthened between the two states.

In May of this year, it was reported that Harper was adamantly opposed to making any reference to the 1967 borders in a G8 summit statement calling for renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Far-right Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman thanked Harper for his position, and stated, "Canada is a true friend of Israel".

In 2010, Canada announced it would discontinue its financial contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the organization that provides support and resources to approximately 4.7m registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territories, and funnel the money into greater policing and security institutions run by the un-elected and corrupt Palestinian Authority leadership instead.

In January 2009, as the Israeli army continued its disproportionate attack on the besieged civilian population in Gaza that left 1,400 Palestinians dead in the span of three weeks, Canada was the only country out of 47 that voted against a motion at the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning the Israeli violence.
In addition to providing diplomatic cover for Israel, the Canadian government has attacked and cut funding to various non-governmental organizations working on issues related to Israel/Palestine, including Kairos Churches and Alternatives International.

Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney, who led the formation of the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (CPCCA) and is an ex-officio member, has also repeatedly alleged that the Canadian Arab Federation promotes anti-Semitism and hatred. While Kenney never backed up these claims, the Canadian Arab Federation's contracts with the government - which helped finance language programs for Toronto-area immigrants (the majority of whom are of Chinese origin) - were not renewed in 2009.

Undermining the fight against real anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism, like all other forms of racism, is appalling and must be strongly and unequivocally condemned.
But by defining legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and pro-Palestinian activism in Canada as anti-Semitic, the CPCCA is not only threatening free speech and freedom of protest, but it is undermining the fight against real cases of anti-Semitism and weakening the seriousness with which such cases should be dealt.

This is something that Canadians, and people everywhere, should be adamantly against.

Jillian Kestler-D'Amours is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. She regularly contributes to The Electronic Intifada, Inter-Press Service and Free Speech Radio News. More of her work can be found at http://jkdamours.com/

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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