The Ottawa Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism kicked off early Monday morning with an address by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who spoke about the “paradox of freedom” to choose between good and evil.
“In response to this resurgence of moral ambivalence on these issues we must speak clearly,” Harper told the conference crowd. “We must recognize that while its substance is as crude as ever, its method is now more sophisticated. Harnessing disparate anti-Semitic, anti-American 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.”
Harper said Israel may be subjected to fair criticism, but added that when Israel is the only country being singled out, we are morally obligated to take a stand.
The group Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), however, believes that this conference and the people speaking at it are becoming a threat to free speech.
“The problem is the new McCarthyism, not the new anti-Semitism,” says IJV spokesperson Diana Ralph, referring to a video the group launched on YouTube to denounce the conference, Defend Free Speech: The Threat Is from the New McCarthyism NOT the New Anti-Semitism.
The video features several human rights advocates and academics, many of whom are Jewish, who point to the trend of labelling criticism of the state of Israel as anti-Semitic, and the resulting impacts on free speech.
Ralph says that the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (CPCCA) hearings were biased, with 45 percent of its witnesses representing pro-Israel lobby groups, and that the rest of the Canadian witnesses, including police spokespeople and university administrators, did not support the CPCCA’s allegations that anti-Semitism in Canada was on the rise.
The CPCCA’s report has not yet been released, and the conference is closed to the public.
“The Harper government has already slashed funding to NGOs that dared to express support for Palestinian rights, brutally attacked and abused G20 demonstrators, barred George Galloway, a British MP, from entering Canada because of his aid for the people of Gaza, and has attacked CUPE, CUPW and Israeli Apartheid Week organizers,” Ralph says.
“We believe that it is legitimate and ethically necessary for Canadians of conscience to criticize Israeli human rights abuses and to support non-violent citizen remedies.”
Professor Michael Keefer, author of the book Anti-Semitism, Real and Imagined: Responses to the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism, says criticism of Israeli policies and support for “peaceful pressure to bring Israel into conformity with international laws, through a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions, do not mean being against Israel.”
Keefer cites William Blake, saying “opposition is true friendship” and adding, “It is no act of friendship to encourage Israel’s passage down a darkening path of violence, oppression and illegality.”
Keefer and several commentators in the video point to an incident in France where people were charged with hate speech for distributing a pamphlet in support of boycotts of Israel.
“We’re not being alarmist in suggesting that there is a serious problem that we need to confront,” Keefer says.
Part of the criticism by Keefer and the IJV stems from the language of the February 2009 London Declaration on Combating Anti-Semitism, which states in its preamble, “We are alarmed at the resurrection of the old language of prejudice and its modern manifestations – in rhetoric and political action – against Jews, Jewish belief and practice and the State of Israel.”
This led to charges that the new anti-Semitism means extending the definition to include criticism of the state of Israel as hate speech.
Liberal MP Mario Silva, vice-chair of the CPCCA and organizer of the conference, refutes some of the charges made by IJV, saying the CPCCA report has not yet been made available because of time constraints on what is essentially a volunteer effort.
“We don’t have a massive budget or team to be doing this for us that could produce a report on time or when we wanted, so because of that, it’s been taking some time,” Silva says. “We wanted to get it right and also learn from this conference – there’s a lot of expertise in this conference to [learn from] — and hopefully take some of that information as well, and add to the report.”
In response to the charge that the report was delayed because it didn’t show rising levels of anti-Semitism in Canada, Silva says it was “laughable.”
“How would it be that it didn’t have what we wanted to hear if we’re the architects of the report? Listen, they’ve been critical of us before we met. They’ve been denouncing us and criticizing us before we even heard one witness; they’ve criticized us before we even wrote the report. I have absolutely no idea where they’re coming from. I don’t understand their logic, and I take great exception to the way they’ve characterized the whole process, and I don’t know who they speak for, other than a few people.”
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff spoke at the event, voicing his support for the London Declaration and for a two-state solution.
“There is another issue on which we need to be very clear – that is to understand the distinction between legitimate criticism of the policies of Israel, and those criticisms which de-legitimize the state itself,” Ignatieff said. “Not every criticism of the government of Israel is anti-Semitic, but there is a form of criticism of the state of Israel which passes into the active delegitimization of Israel as a democratic state.
“I refer, of course, in my own country to Israel Apartheid Week. Israel is Israel. Apartheid in South Africa was a crime against humanity – to conflate the two is to delegitimize the democratic state.”
But in a previous statement, Ignatieff said he feels the campaign for divestment, boycotts and proclamations should be condemned. “Apartheid is defined, in international law, as a crime against humanity. Israel Apartheid Week is a deliberate attempt to portray the Jewish state as criminal.
“Let us be clear: criticism of Israeli government policy is legitimate. Wholesale condemnation of the State of Israel and the Jewish people is not legitimate. Not now, not ever.”
With regard to the issue of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and Toronto Pride last summer, IJV’s Diana Ralph points this out as an example of the new McCarthyism.
“It was yet another example of attempting to shut down valid criticism,” Ralph says. “I’m gay myself. The Pride parade has always existed as a political act and welcomed support for human rights of all other oppressed groups, and it was very important that Pride allow Queers Against Israeli Apartheid to march. The attempts to undercut its funding was yet another example of limiting free speech.”