Anti-semitism and free speech

A handbook for all those resisting attacks for being critical of Israel

Michael Keefer has compiled a timely and effective handbook for all those resisting attacks on free speech regarding the Israeli government's crimes against Palestine.

His 268-page book, Anti-Semitism Real and Imagined, contains contributions from 11 committed campaigners in the fight for freedom of expression, as well as position papers from seven well-respected Canadian social organizations.

The book reports on an extra-parliamentary committee named the Canadian Parliamentary Committee to Combat Anti-Semitism (CPCCA), established in 2009 as a lobbying venture by 21 members of Parliament hostile to criticisms of the Israeli government's policies toward the Palestinians.

It was established and funded privately, with representation from all four parliamentary parties, although the Bloc Québécois has since withdrawn. But it is in no way non-partisan. Rather, it advances an agenda to which the Stephen Harper government is deeply committed.

Evidence of bias one of the book's contributors, Bruce Katz of Palestinian and Jewish Unity, asks why there are no parliamentarians of Arab descent or of Muslim faith sitting on this commission.

"The list of names of those members of Parliament," he states, "includes a good number of people who are associated with pro-Israel lobby and who have issued statements in the past which might lead one to believe that they harbour anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments."

Keefer, a professor at the University of Guelph, Ontario, presents a well-documented, footnoted study, with ample arguments and evidence to counter the CPCCA's effort "to curtail freedom of speech and academic freedom across Canada, and to stigmatize, even to criminalize, certain kinds of human rights discourse."

The CPCCA's founding premise, Keefer explains, is that anti-Semitism is "mutating into dangerous and unprecedented ‘new anti-Semitism,'" consisting of excessive criticism of Israel's government.

Jason Kenney, Harper's minister of citizenship and chief spokesman on Israel, has ominously termed such criticism "even more dangerous than the old European anti-Semitism" that fueled Hitler's Holocaust.

The CPCCA's function is to rally support for this policy, which could potentially shut down democratic debate and criminalize, under section 319 of the Canadian Criminal Code and section 13(1) of the Canadian Human Rights act, or else "silenced by judicial warrants of seizure issued under section 320 of the Criminal Code," Keefer states. The CPCCA has concluded hearings; its report is now pending.

Israel -- a state with no borders

Many contributions to Anti-Semitism Real and Imagined take up the CPCCA's contention that those who do not "recognize" Israel's existence are implicitly denying Jews' right to a "state of their own," which the Coalition claims is an inherently anti-Semitic viewpoint.

This view is a "conflation of ethnic/religious racism with opposition to a state," explains Toronto-based activist Karin Brothers. "Since the state of Israel has never defined its boundaries, what exactly is to be ‘recognized'? What do the rights of Palestinians amount to if they ‘recognize' a state which then defines its borders as encompassing territory internationally recognized as Palestinian?"

Lynda Lemberg, co-founder of Educators for Peace and Justice, adds that "the equation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism provides a facade for Israel's allies [such as Canada] who are simply interested in securing their political, military and economic interests in a Middle Eastern nation that is their chief broker in that region."

In addition, Lemberg states, "allegations of the 'new anti-Semitism' distract us from addressing the humanitarian catastrophe in the occupied territories as well as the increasing discrimination to which Palestinians living inside Israel are subjected."

The complaints about a "new anti-Semitism" thus serve as a smokescreen to defend Zionism, the ideology of building an exclusively Jewish state on Palestinian land.

As Jason Kunin comments, it is no surprise "that for Zionists, the key to shoring up Israel's image-tarnished in recent years by its murderous bombing of civilians in Lebanon and Gaza--is to prevent people from learning too much." Kunin is a member of Educators for Peace and Justice and of Independent Jewish Voices.

For Katz, the CPCCA's approach "is subversive of the very essence of Judaism." The Israeli state "cannot itself be Judaism, and no amount of sophistry will make it so. The worship of the State as a religious object is quite simply idolatry."

I would add that far from identifying with the Netanyahu government, with its agenda of ongoing settlement-building on Palestinian land, we as Jews are logically drawn to sympathy with the victimized Palestinians, oppressed and despised, with no land to call their own, as was the case with our Jewish forbears less than a century ago in much of Europe. Jews feel the Palestinians' pain with greater urgency because the crimes against them are done in our name.

These testimonies are buttressed by Keefer's documentation that contrary to CPCCA's pronouncements, acts of anti-Semitism have not been on the rise either in Canada, nor is there strong evidence that they have been on the rise world-wide.

Joanne Naiman, a Vancouver-based member of Jews for a Just Peace, explains, "Certainly most Jews in Canada can tell you of vile slurs, stereotypes, or biased comments that they have received or heard." But the "data indicate that the Jewish population of Canada is, overall, socio-economically advantaged, and that the number of hate crimes against Jews has been dropping." She asks of the CPCCA, "What then, is the 'problem of anti-Semitism' that your committee is asking governments to address?"

Racism against Muslim Canadians

An outstanding submission by the Canadian Arab Federation stands stark contrast to exaggerated fears of anti-Jewish prejudice.

Noting that Arabs are historically counted among the Semitic peoples, he reports that "there is an increased incidence of racism and hate crimes directed at Arab Canadians and Muslim Canadians, and there are not enough institutionalized measures to effectively combat and prevent the spread of this anti-Semitism."

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, founding editor of the web magazine, The Canadian Charger, blasts the lie that anti-Semitism is endemic in Muslim society. "Egypt is the Muslim country with the longest history of coexistence with Jews living inside its borders," he states. To convince the Jewish people to immigrate to Israel, in 1954 "Israeli politicians launched a secret campaign (Operation 'the Lavon Affair') of violence against Jewish businesses and blamed Egyptians for it."

Indeed, as several contributors note, the Israeli government's wars and oppressive policies are a major source of anti-Jewish feeling. Katz puts this well: "to claim that the State of Israel is the embodiment of all the world's Jews is not only a lie, but a dangerous one," it falsely inflicts on all Jews responsibility for this state's actions. If the Israeli state embodies world Jewry, "then all Jews are made to share a collective guilt."

Yet it is important here not to exaggerate.

When Israel and its powerful allies claim that residents of Gaza are killed on behalf of all Jews of course, does lead many to feel bitterness against Jews. Yet Palestinians and their Arab neighbours have responded with great restraint. There is no movement among them for revenge against Israeli Jews. If Israel stands today in peril, this is not because of anti-Jewish feeling but because of the aggressive and criminal policies of its own government.

Boycott, divestment and Sanctions

Anti-Semitism Real and Imagined stands in solidarity with the Palestinian call for boycott, divestments and sanctions against Israeli Apartheid.

Keefer suggests, in particular, that Canada stop being complicit with Israel's war crimes and "participate in an academic boycott directed against government-supported institutional contacts."

Toronto researcher Craig Smith sums up the book's message well: It is incumbent all of us who are "alarmed at the current Government's intolerance of dissent and willful ignorance of human rights and social justice ... to submit a criticism of the basic assumptions of the CPCCA."

As we near the CPCCA's submission of its report to the Harper government, this responsibility comes again into focus. In defending freedom of speech against the CPCCA and government, Anti-Semitism Real and Imagined is an essential resource.

Anti-Semitism Real and Imagined: Responses to the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism is available from The Canadian Charger where this review was first published.

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