Dangerous Conflation

Chandra Kumar

Reviewed in this article

Antisemitism Real and Imagined: Responses to the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism
Michael Keefer

Michael Keefer’s Antisemitism Real and Imaginedis a timely, well-researched and well-argued collective work that is much needed, especially in Canada. In addition to four chapters by Keefer, the bookcontains 19 shorter contributions from various Canadian activists, academics, and organizations such as the Seriously Free Speech Committee (SFSC), Faculty for Palestine (F4P), the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF), and Independent Jewish Voices (IJV). Together, they provide a coherent, compelling response to those who would equate criticism of Israel’s political, economic, and military domination of Palestinians (or of the Zionist ideology that reinforces it) with a new form of antisemitism and anti-Judaism.

In Canada, where rational, historically informed, civil discussion of antisemitism and the Israel-Palestine conflict is all too rare, there is a kind of collective delusion about Israel, a kind of orientalist myth. Israel, in this view, is a fortress for liberal democratic values, and for secular western civilization generally, in a region where it is surrounded and outnumbered by Arabs and Muslims who tend to be more “irrational” and “atavistic” in their politics. Israel must constantly be on guard as it stands alone in this sea of antisemitism and “Islamo-fascism.” It is hard to say which sort of political speech, over the last four decades, has been more taboo in the prevailing Canadian political culture: criticism of the Canadian state’s ongoing racist oppression and colonization of indigenous peoples in this part of the world, or criticism of Canada’s multi-layered material and ideological support for Israel in its treatment of the indigenous peoples of Palestine. In neither case do we see anything remotely close to what Jürgen Habermas calls an “ideal speech situation”: an idealized public forum where democratic deliberation and debate, with the aim of reaching consensus based on mutual understanding, can take place, with all relevant voices receiving a fair hearing, no relevant information suppressed, and without intimidation, coercion or manipulation.1When it comes to indigenous struggles in the Americas or in the Middle East, Canada’s public discourse is very distant from this democratic ideal, probably more so than most of the rest of the world – including Israel and South Africa, where, as Keefer and several of the contributors to the bookdocument, there does not seem to be any taboo on the use of the word “apartheid” to describe Israel’s ethno-territorial subjugation of Palestinians (126-28, 231).

In this context, Antisemitism Real and Imagined(ARI) should be regarded as a welcome addition to a deeply impoverished public sphere, where distortion and apologetics for Israel’s racist oppression of Palestinians, with undying Canadian support, rule the day. It is a book that should be read by anyone interested in Canadian complicity in ongoing oppression in the Middle East, or concerned with the repression of critical, dissenting speech and academic freedom in Canada, or with the way the countries of the North make it possible for the state of Israel to colonize, segregate, and repress the Palestinian people and prevent them from attaining any substantial form of national liberation.

The catalyst for this anthology was the formation of the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA) in March, 2009. This “parliamentary” body (which is not an official committee created by an Act of Parliament, nor required to disclose its sources of funding) was formed, as explained on its website, to confront what it sees as “the increasing problem of antisemitism.”2The Coalition brings together 22 parliamentarians from all parties in the House of Commons (although the Bloc Québecois has since withdrawn) with the intent of confronting and combating contemporary Canadian antisemitism. Lest there be any doubts about the need for such a “coalition” today – rather than, say, during the first 60 years of the previous century when antisemitism (understood as anti-Jewish racism) in Canada was far more pervasive and institutionally entrenched3– the CPCCAseeks to quell these doubts as follows:

Antisemitism is not a new problem; however, recorded incidents of antisemitism have been on the rise internationally. Furthermore, the problem is now being manifested in ways never experienced before. While accusations of blood libel or petty vandalism are still issues for the Jewish community, new fears have arisen especially for those who support the State of Israel. For example, on some university campuses, Jewish students are being threatened and intimidated to the point that they are not able to express pro-Israel sentiments freely, or are even fearful to wear a Jewish skull cap or Jewish star of David around their necks. Antisemitism represents a break from Canadian values, which promote the rights of all individuals to practice their religion, educate themselves, and express themselves with security and freedom.

This allegedly new global wave of antisemitism, we are told, is a great peril which threatens to spill beyond the walls of the “antisemitic” universities where some students and faculty dare to criticize Israel.4

In harmony with the London-based Inter-Parliamentary Committee for Combating Antisemitism, the CPCCAis dedicated to “proving” that swift state action is necessary to prevent another period of persecution and oppression of Jews. We must, in their view, make it harder for Israel’s critics to disguise their latent antisemitism as anti-Zionism or anti-imperialism, or as a concern for the welfare and freedom of Palestinians. Recognition of the centuries of brutal persecution of Jewish people, culminating in the Holocaust, should, according to CPCCAorganizers such as Jason Kenney and Irwin Cotler, make us extremely suspicious of those who single out Israel as a kind of “all-purpose villain.”5

The CPCCA has sifted through hundreds of submissions on these topics and plans to submit a report to the Canadian government in late 2010. Keefer persuasively argues that the CPCCA will, in all likelihood, recommend measures that make it harder and/or illegal to hold events in public places in which (i) Israel is described as an “apartheid” state (as it has been described by Bishop Desmond Tutu and other prominent South Africans, by some Israeli journalists and politicians, and by progressive activist organizations and labour unions in many countries); (ii) Zionism, insofar as it promotes the idea of an exclusively or predominantly “Jewish State,” a state for all of the Jews in the world, in historic Palestine, is depicted as a racist and imperialist ideology (as it was in the 1975 UNResolution 3379, the only resolution ever revoked); or (iii) Israel is characterized as a colonial, occupying power (as the UNand International Court of Justice characterize it) that practices anything resembling ethnic cleansing or ethno-cultural genocide against Palestinians (as claimed by numerous historians and Middle East analysts, UNHuman Rights officials such as Richard Falk and John Dugard, UNGeneral Assembly president Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, several prominent human rights organizations inside and outside Israel, Palestine solidarity groups, anti-Zionist Jewish groups, and an increasing number of labour unions and civil society organizations the world over). ARIis, among other things, a sustained attack on the notion that such forms of political speech can be legitimately re-cast as “hate speech” and suppressed under Canada’s Criminal Code – an idea put forward by Cotler, among others.

As the first chapter of Antisemitism Real and Imagineddemonstrates, the CPCCAwas put together by Kenney and Cotler, both staunch proponents of the ethno-nationalist idea of a “Jewish state.” What can you say about multiculturalism in Canada when the Multiculturalism Minister’s idea of fighting racism is to devote his energies to fighting the “racism” of critics of Israel? Kenney was responsible for banning former British MPGeorge Galloway from Canada and for withdrawing government funding for the CAFon the grounds that it was breeding antisemitism by criticizing Israel. As Yves Engler points out in his contribution to the book, the Minister hasn’t rushed to organize any other inter-party committees to investigate racism against people of “African descent, Muslims, Latin Americans, South Asians, East Asians, Arabs, [or] First Nations” (79).

In her contribution, Joanne Naimann, a sociologist active in the anti-Apartheid movement of the 1980s, argues (as does Keefer) that the available statistical data indicate that hate crimes against the Jewish population of Canada have actually waned. She goes on to comment on the Zionist view, put forth by Cotler and “progressive” organizations like the Jewish Defence League (JDL) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), that the state of Israel should be seen as the embodiment of the interests of all Jewish people:

if Jews see support for the State of Israel as an essential part of being Jewish – and the only thing between them and another Holocaust – then any criticism of that State or its policies will be seen, de facto, as an attack on Jews as a group. In the face of growing global opposition to current Israeli government policies, well-meaning Jews – who simply cannot accept that their people would do anything immoral – have turned both to blaming the victim (“the Palestinians started it”) and blaming those who support the victim (they’re anti-Semitic or “self-hating Jews”). Thus, it is not surprising that as the criticism of Israeli government policies has increased worldwide, so have cries of a global resurgence of anti-Semitism (45).6

Ideological devices that neutralize criticism of Israel and its Western collaborators by associating such criticism with fascistic antisemitism – which does exist on the right-wing fringes – is surely nothing new. The Western world turned a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians during 1947-49, which was necessary to establish a predominantly “Jewish State.”7This was partly due to guilt over the Nazi Holocaust, which Western countries did little to prevent – and which Palestinians had nothing to do with. After 1948, each time Israel has gone to war against Egypt, or invaded Lebanon, or crushed a Palestinian uprising, its critics have been labelled “antisemitic,” “Holocaust deniers,” or even “Nazis.” While these distortions and evasions persist, it isn’t easy to convince people that prominent figures like Richard Goldstone, Jimmy Carter, or UNHuman Rights officials like Falk and Dugard, are raving antisemites or self-hating Jews; books like Antisemitism Real and Imagined, which should be seen as continuing in the footsteps of Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industryand Beyond Chutzpah (though with a Canadian focus), make it that much harder to credibly deploy these tactics.

What the bookdoesn’t do – and doesn’t claim to do – is to provide an analysis of Israel’s role as an agent of Western imperialism in the Middle East. Rather, the book is intended to combat the ideological maneuverings of the CPCCAand to defend freedom of speech and academic freedom in Canada. In doing so, ARIprovides enlightening discussions of the history of Zionism, the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), and Canadian complicity with Israel’s violence. The final chapter by Keefer, “Desperate Imaginings: Rhetoric and Ideology of the ‘New Antisemitism,”’ does this brilliantly, especially with regard to the effects of the continuing collective punishment of Gaza (the so-called “siege”), the monopolization of water resources by Israel, the blocking of materials necessary to provide clean water to Palestinians in Gaza, and the genocidal rhetoric of some Israeli officials and academics who are obsessed with the “demographic problem” of Palestinians inconveniently multiplying at a faster rate than Israeli Jews.

Canada is not innocent in this context. Since 1948, Canada has been one of Israel’s most unflinching allies. Stephen Harper has taken this to new levels, cancelling Canada’s funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian Refugees (to give just one example). Keefer argues that this is disgraceful and racist: these funds help Palestinian refugees to eat and access minimal health care, among other things. This withdrawal of support for UNRWA, along with Canada’s enthusiastic support for Israel’s “siege” of Gaza, helps to starve people to death. That is a boon to Israel’s attempts to deal with the “demographic problem.” What Michel Foucault called bio-power – the use of science, statistics, and technology to control the very life-processes of populations – is alive and well in Israel, and aided and abetted by Canada.

Historically, the Israeli penchant for siding with imperialists against indigenous peoples goes back to the Zionist-British collaboration beginning in the late 19th century, which helped make possible the establishment of Israel. With the USnow in Britain’s former place as the dominant force in the region, and with Canada faithfully following the USin matters of foreign policy, we need to be clear, if we advocate boycotting Israel, that Israel is one small (but important) piece of a much larger imperialist configuration;8our countries comprise the core of that configuration. Failure to convey this understanding will prevent us from adequately responding to certain charges.

One of the charges against leftist critics of Israel is that Israel is being singled out in a world of violent, human-rights-violating states, some of which (like the US) do far more harm in the world. Where is the call for boycotting, sanctioning, and divesting from the US? After all, the US, along with its comprador state, Canada, and the spineless European Union, make it possible for Israel, a small country of 7.4 million people, to be the colonial, expansionist state that it is. The right answer to this, in my view, is simply to remind the objector that boycotting is a tactic, not a principle, and that the US, though it is indeed responsible for more oppression and injustice in the world than Israel, and though it makes Israel’s expansionism possible with its crucial military, economic, and political support, is too big to boycott. It’s just not practical, whereas it is practical to push for boycotting Israel as it was in the case of Apartheid South Africa.

But reasonable people might remain unconvinced. Even though there are striking similarities between Apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel, the latter is far more important to Western imperialism than South Africa was. It will be much harder to get Western government support for boycotting such a crucial ally in the Middle East, home to the world’s greatest energy reserves. Antisemitism Real and Imagineddoes not, in my view, adequately address these issues. Israel has performed well in the service of the West, including its crushing of the secular pan-Arab nationalist movements led by Nasser from the late 1950s to 1970. So long as the USremains pleased with Israel’s co-policing of the region for the benefit of Western corporate interests, it will not comply with any boycott requests.

Moreover, Israel should not be singled out, even in the Middle East. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and now possibly Iraq, are all client states of the US, and have not been known for sticking their necks out to defend Palestinians – though they have done more than Israel, of course, by proposing “peace plans,” which would see Israel adhere to international law and withdraw completely from the OPT– including East Jerusalem. There is no call to boycott the brutally repressive Saudi and Egyptian regimes, for example, and it is not clear to me that there are any arguments in the bookthat provide a satisfactory explanation for boycotting Israel alone. I think such an argument can be straightforwardly provided, however. It is, after all, Israel, not these other USclient regimes, that is engaged in an illegal colonial occupation and in brutalizing an entire people. Still, these other regimes are also helping to perpetuate it. Criticism of Israel should be accompanied by criticism of these other regimes and an awareness of the structure of imperialism and sub-imperialism in the region as a whole.

What must be done by activists on the left, as Keefer recommends in the final pages of the book, is to support the Palestinian call for boycott in an intelligent, selective way, targeting institutions that bolster the occupation while pointing out that Israel has been blockading Gaza for over three years and has reduced the population to abject misery – with complete Western complicity. What must be done, above all – and the BDS campaign is part of this – is to expand the patient, educational work required to disabuse as many people as possible of the ideological distortions with which they are daily bombarded by the mainstream media, most particularly Canada’s media – arguably the most biased pro-Israeli media in the world.9Keefer’s book is a salutary, effective contribution to this ongoing task.

 

Notes

1Jürgen Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995).

2See the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism’s website http://www.cpcca.ca/inquiry.htm.

3See Keefer’s account of the shameful history of antisemitism in Canada in Antisemitism Real and Imagined, pages 147-64.

4For a thorough rebuttal of theCPCCA’s claims about rising antisemitism in European and North American univerisities, see Keefer’s critical discussion on pages 215-232.

5“Editorial: Rebutting Nasrallah”, Jerusalem Post, 08/15/10; online, http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Editorials/Article.aspx?id=184756.

6Particularly after the 2008-9 Gaza massacre and the May 2010 Israeli commando raid of the Gaza “Freedom Flotilla,” in which nine activists were killed and approximately 40 injured.

7Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper does so as well, as evidenced by his 2007 speech commemorating Israel’s 60th birthday, in which he pledged unconditional love for Israel without mentioning the fact that 750,000 Palestinians were displaced to refugee camps as Israel was born.

8Yves Engler, Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid,(Fernwood Publishing, 2010).

9 Justin Podur, “Turn off the Canadian Media, Please,” http://www.killingtrain.com/node/677.