This article was originally published on Feb. 23, 2017 in the Huffington Post.
The jury is in. According to a new survey, the vast majority of Canadians do not consider criticism of the government of Israel to be “anti-Semitic.” This finding flatly contradicts those who have been warning of a “new anti-Semitism” in Canada, where criticism of Israel is a veiled form of this despicable historic ideology.
Of those who offered an opinion, 91 percent of Canadians did not believe that criticism of Israeli government policy is necessarily anti-Semitic. For those respondents who identified with the Liberal party, the number was 97 percent; for those with in NDP, literally 100% said that criticism of Israel is like criticism of any other country.
Some might wonder why it is even necessary to ask such a question. Surely criticism of Canadian government policy is not anti-Canadian, and criticism of Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s was never considered anti-white.
Anyone asking such questions is likely unfamiliar with the politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Over the past few years, dire warnings about criticism of Israel have been echoing from some of the highest offices in Canada. Ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example, frequently spoke of the “new face of anti-Semitism,” arguing, “It targets the Jewish people by targeting Israel and attempts to make the old bigotry acceptable for a new generation,” he declared on one occasion.
Concerned about political manipulation of the question of anti-Semitism from Harper and others, my organization co-sponsored this survey to better understand how average Canadians perceived criticism of Israel. There is no doubt that anti-Semitism still exists in dark pockets of Canadian society. But to us, this new focus on Israel seemed like a circular argument. By redefining anti-Semitism to include criticism of Israel, proponents instantly fabricate a “spike” in anti-Semitism and put a chill on debate on Israel.
Not surprisingly, many human rights activists suggest that advocates of the “new anti-Semitism” are trying to suppress public criticism on Israel’s violations of the human rights of Palestinians. Sophisticated proponents of the new anti-Semitism do qualify their accusations by asserting that there are cases of legitimate criticism of Israel. The problem is, these same individuals never seem to admit to any examples of “legitimate criticism.” Harper, for his part, is known to have literally refused to say anything negative about Israel.
But even as they say that there are forms of legitimate criticism of Israel, the proponents of the new anti-Semitism also exclude several forms of it. One prominent definition of the “new anti-Semitism,” would forbid claims that the state of Israel may have aspects of a “racist endeavour” would be forbidden. If this is so, then what do we make of former Israeli primer minister Ehud Olmert’s comments that unless it signed a deal with the Palestinians, Israel would risk being compared to apartheid-era South Africa? And what of John Kerry’s passionate speech last month about how Israel can be either Jewish or democratic, but not both? And what do we make of reports from human rights organizations like Amnesty International, which has issued reports on “legal racism” in Israel? Are Olmert, Kerry and Amnesty International all anti-Semitic?
And while the intellectual proponents of the new anti-Semitism make an exception for “legitimate” criticism of Israel, not all the proponents do. One prominent pro-Israel lobbyist wrote in the Hill Times that anti-Semitism simply “cloaks itself in unwarranted criticisms against Israel.” In another example, Parliamentarian Peter Kent implied that European Union labelling of Israeli products from its illegal settlements was also a form of anti-Semitism.
Even for those who may try to walk the newly fabricated line between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” criticism of Israel, the rules just seem to get more and more complicated. Some critics point out that the examples of this new anti-Semitism are often set forth as “self-evident truths,” and seek to dismiss criticism of Israel out of hand. Nobody wants to be tarred with an accusation of anti-Semitism, and the end result is that many people simply clam up, afraid to say anything wrong.
Fortunately, despite all the talk of “new” anti-Semitism in the corridors of power, the new survey results seem to indicate that everyday Canadians still see pretty clearly on the issue. Instinctively, Canadians find themselves aligned with Steven Zipperstein, professor of Jewish Culture and History at Stanford. In the book “Contemporary Antisemitism: Canada and the World,” Zipperstein writes that criticism of Israel for its part in the Arab-Israeli conflict is “part of what a reasonably informed, progressive, decent person thinks.”
With these survey results, we now know that Canadians from the Pacific to the Maritimes want to be able to offer a critical of opinion of Israel without fear of being accused of anti-Semitism. The challenge is to bring this common sense attitude to the halls of Parliament, where people seem to compete with one another to defend Israel, and where honest debate on the Middle East is so sorely lacking.
So come along Liberals, come along Conservatives: join the ranks of the reasonably informed, progressive, decent people of Canada.