Israel, Gaza, Antisemitism, and Common Sense: Sorting It Out

I am deeply troubled by the failure of many in the media and in political life to distinguish between anti-Semitic comments and legitimate criticism of the policies of the current government of Israel. We are, as a society, moving to a place where gag orders will ensue for anyone found critical of the actions of Israel.

The attack on the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara, and the killing of nine pro-Palestinian activists on May 31 brought into clear focus what all Canadians should know. The Harper government has become the most pro-Israel of any government on earth. The day of the attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a guest of the Government of Canada, on a state visit. Of all the governments in the world, Canada did the most to avoid direct criticism of Israel. The visit of the Israeli Prime Minister to Parliament Hill was, apparently, unmarred by the fact that at that moment, three Canadian citizens, including Kevin Neish of Victoria, were in Israeli government custody while their families still had no confirmation of their well-being.

Even the US, usually holding the title of Israel’s best friend, expressed regret and called for an inquiry, albeit an internal Israeli investigation. While shaking hands with the Prime Minister of Israel, our Prime Minister said nothing of the tragedy.

The Green Party made a public statement deploring the use of violence and repeating our call for a comprehensive economic stabilization plan and internationally monitored buffer zone around the Gaza Strip. While there is a need for an investigation of the attack on the pro-Gaza flotilla, certain facts are not in dispute. The Israeli government forces attacked in international waters. That alone violates international law. The fact that nine people were killed creates the spectre of a far worse crime.

The Harper government has also managed to manipulate its support for the State of Israel with attacks on others for antisemitism. The church-based NGO Kairos lost its funding over such a charge. It was at the heart of the interference with rights and democracy.

I have been at the receiving end of this sort of nasty attack, when the Prime Minister, distorting my comments out of recognition, alleged in the House that I had trivialized the Holocaust. My ‘crime’ was quoting George Monbiot who, in the context of the climate crisis, had compared former US President Bush, Australia’s Howard and Stephen Harper to Neville Chamberlain. I got fairly bruised in the spin cycle of the Harper war room.

Meanwhile, the Green Party stands firm calling for a balanced policy favouring a two-state solution in the Middle East—closer to the kind of policy Canada once advocated. We insist on the right of Israel to exist and condemned the Hezbollah rockets into Israel, as we condemned the excessive force in Israel’s bombing of Lebanon.

The Greens oppose antisemitism with the same vigour we oppose racism, sexism and other forms of hatred. Recently, the Supreme Court of British Columbia found in our favour, when the party and I were sued by an aggrieved former candidate who objected to being rejected, and to having his words described in our press release as ‘anti-Semitic comments.’ The comments, describing 9-11 as involving the ‘shoddily built jewish world bank headquarters (sic)’ were not borderline. The hatred unleashed against a people in the Holocaust, fuelled by paranoia about Jewish control of banks and banking, is well known. There is a difference between antisemitism and fair and reasonable criticism of Israeli policy.

So too, is there an effort to conflate criticism of Israel with denying the right of the State of Israel to exist. I have relatives in Israel and I completely understand the sense of insecurity that comes from being surrounded by the Arab world, with, at least some leaders, still claiming your homeland has no right to exist. However, maintaining as an inviolate principle the right of Israel to exist is not the same as giving its government carte blanche to trample on human rights and the peace process. Ten thousand Israeli citizens rallied to condemn the attack on the Gaza flotilla, and it was denounced by NGOs in Israel, such as the human rights group, B’Tselem.

The sense that criticism of Israel is not permitted in Canada has been growing, but what prompted me to write this column is the recent attack on NDP MP Libby Davies. Libby is a valiant defender of the rights of the homeless and the poor. Recently, she was caught on tape in what was an off-the-cuff answer stating that occupation began in 1948. Once her comments were placed on YouTube, the denunciations were swift. Harper called for her resignation, and even within her own party she faced pressure.

She wrote to the Ottawa Citizen to apologize: ‘My reference to the year 1948 as the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory was a serious and completely inadvertent error.’ On the other hand, there is a difference between occupation and illegal occupation. In 1492, many would say that 500-years of occupation of the Americas began. That does not translate to denying the right of any nations’ existence. The term ‘occupation’ in the Middle East context is generally confined to additional, non-UN agreement occupation as it began in 1967.

Keeping a clear head about these issues is critical. A climate of fear and oppression within Canada stifles free speech. These dangerous trends need to be named, and challenged.

Elizabeth May is leader of the Green Party of Canada and a candidate in Saanich Gulf Islands.