Vancouver Sun Letter

letter to the editorA letter of mine in the Vancouver Sun today, this one about the “Disappearing Palestine” ads on public transit here in the city. I try to defend the ads against the absurd charge that they target Jews. Click here to read it (second entry from the top).

An Open Letter to TransLink Regarding the “Disappearing Palestine” Ads

Disappearing PalestineDear TransLink:

I am writing to express my wholehearted support for your decision to display the pro-Palestinian transit ads recently unveiled at the Vancouver City Centre Skytrain station and on several buses. The ads offer an important perspective that needs to be heard as part of any informed debate on the Middle East conflict.

My praise may sound a bit strange, since, as you yourselves have noted, “within defined limits TransLink has no legal authority to decline advertising content.” A 2009 Supreme Court decision established that TransLink, as a public body, is bound by the free speech provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Nevertheless, I insist on applauding you during the minor melee currently underway in the city’s media. Please do not feel deterred or bullied by the individuals and organizations that have criticized the ads in recent days — shamelessly conflating legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, even going so far as to threaten legal action. I myself am Jewish and do not feel unsafe or offended in the least. Many members of the Palestine Awareness Coalition, the group responsible for the ads, happen to be Jewish as well. And while neither they nor I make any claim to be representative of all Vancouver Jews, to characterize the Jewish community as monolithically mortified by the ads, as strongly implied by some media coverage, is clearly ridiculous.

Ethno-religious affiliations are one thing; politics are another. Most people are perfectly capable of looking beyond the former in coming to opinions on the latter.

Thank you for standing up for the principle of freedom of expression and for facilitating a public discussion that needs to be had.

Sincerely,

David Taub Bancroft

Vancouver, BC

Fanatics, Zealots, Warmongers, and Peaceniks: Israel’s Crowded Electoral Landscape

Haneen Zoabi

Haneen Zoabi

Due perhaps to my Jewish identity and my family’s history, Israel tends to be the country whose politics I follow most closely apart from Canada’s and the United States’. Nevertheless, there is a giant gulf separating numbers one and two from number three. My understanding of Israeli parties, personalities, and issues is far from perfect, and when I observe the campaign leading up to the January 22 elections to Israel’s Knesset, I do so as an outsider.

There is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something that I feel very passionately about, as I strongly believe in Palestinian national aspirations, equal rights for Israel’s Arab citizens, and a just peace to the decades of bloodshed. But there are other issues too, issues regarding which I have less information: the 2011 social justice protests against high housing costs that have bestowed renewed importance upon socioeconomic matters in Israel, the perpetual debate over the role of religion in society and the relationship between the ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis.

Notwithstanding these few gaps in my knowledge, regular readers of this blog will be aware that I am compulsively prone to the projectile expression of opinions. They will also know that I display unnatural excitement towards elections of all kinds. So despite my acknowledged dearth of expertise, I would like to say a few things about Israel’s many political parties and to discuss my preferences — my endorsements, if I may put it that way — for the benefit of any Israeli readers who happen to be curious. Therefore, I hereby offer a non-exhaustive list of parties, divided into categories, presented in order from those I like most to those I like least.

(Any readers looking for more information on Israel’s political landscape can find some here and here.)

Arab parties

If I had the right to vote in Israel’s election this month, I would most likely choose Hadash, Israel’s communist party. While predominantly Arab, Hadash boasts a significant minority of Jewish members and supporters, thereby lending itself a certain binational street cred. And while I am not personally a communist, I recognize that Hadash tends to take exceptionally progressive and enlightened positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The party has also become known for its strong stances on the environment.

Balad, another secular left-wing Arab party, would be my second choice. Though Balad is more explicitly nationalistic, while Hadash officially expounds Marxist internationalism, both parties demand an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and equality for Israeli Arabs. Furthermore, the Israeli political establishment’s endless efforts to persecute Balad and its Knesset members — such as the inspiring Haneen Zoabi — if anything, makes the party even more deserving of support.

Unfortunately, neither Hadash nor Balad does particularly well in elections.

Zionist left parties

Within the Zionist mainstream, the choices are not all bad. Meretz, a small social democratic party with some experience in coalition governments, is the traditional choice of left-wing Jewish peaceniks.

Considerably closer to the centre is Labor, one of Israel’s two major historic political forces. Labor has tended to be ever-so-slightly more open to peace and compromise than its opponents on the right. Currently, it is focusing primarily on socioeconomic issues in the wake of the recent social justice protests, but voters looking for truly courageous leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian file are advised to skip over the Labor doves who appear to come by their dovishness with such reluctance.

Centrist parties

A new arrival in the increasingly crowded centre, Hatnuah was formed by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and benefited from several defections from across the centre and left, including two high-profile former Labor party leaders. It presents as the main plank of its agenda the pursuit of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Kadima, creation of hawkish former prime minister Ariel Sharon and Livni’s one-time home, appears to be just about on its way out of the Israeli political scene. If I had to choose between the two, I would say the right one is headed into oblivion.

Right-wing parties

In the graveyard of unrepentant racists and warmongers on the Israeli right, the most moderate option is incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, a party that supports free market economic policies, can’t quite make up its mind on the two-state solution, and has never met a war it didn’t like. Partnering up in a joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu, led by downright fascistic ethnic cleansing advocate Avigdor Lieberman, Likud is almost guaranteed to win a plurality of seats in the coming elections.

Farther down the right side of the spectrum are a variety of small ultra-nationalist and fanatical religious parties (Habayit Hayehudi, Shas, United Torah Judaism). With an expected Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu victory, at least some of these parties are guaranteed spots in the governing coalition.

Which means things will probably get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Israeli Settlements and the United Church Boycott: Three Common Distortions

Detailed map of Israeli settlementsAfter months of controversy and negative media attention, the United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, finally made it official. The church’s General Council voted today to call on its members to avoid buying products coming from Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Presbyterian and Methodist churches in the United States have made similar calls.

Despite the tameness of such proposals (the full text of the United Church resolution can be found here and the report it is based on here), we may expect a continuation of the widespread and exaggerated complaints that have saturated the Canadian press. In the interests of honesty and clarity, I would like to address three common distortions.

Distortion #1: Why Israel? The world is full of tyranny and injustice. Of all the places and issues, why focus just on boycotting the Middle East’s only democracy? 

Three assumptions are packed into this distortion: that the United Church is boycotting Israel, that Israel’s critics routinely let others off the hook, and that Israel is a democracy. All three assumptions are false.

First, while it may be true that the United Church never previously boycotted any country other than apartheid South Africa, it is not boycotting Israel either. Its economic action is restricted only to Israeli settlements, not the country as a whole. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, ratified by Israel in 1951, the settlements are illegal. To quote the Convention’s text: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” If international law means anything to us, then what else are we going to do? As far as proposals to pressure Israel go, the Church’s action is limited, moderate, and entirely non-violent.

Second, I am not sure who is responsible for the myth that the Palestinian solidarity movement is fine with atrocities not committed by Israel, but it has proven to be very persistent. Contrary to common right-wing talking points, the movement was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Arab Spring revolutionaries trying to topple their authoritarian leaders, while the Israeli government has been consistently hostile to democratization in the region. The Canadian contingent of the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza even named its ship the Tahrir.

As for the United Church itself, its General Council passed resolutions on numerous issues ranging from the Northern Gateway Pipeline to Aboriginal rights. And within the last month alone, the Church condemned recent acts of violence around the world committed against other Christians, Sikhs, and yes, even Israelis.

Third, Israel is many things, but a democracy is not one of them. There are currently 10 to 11 million people living under its sovereignty, and 3 to 4 million of them (Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) do not have the right to vote in Israeli elections. It almost seems ridiculous to have to explain this, but a country without universal suffrage is not a democracy. If Israel wishes to gain this status, it must either give the vote to Palestinians under occupation or relinquish all control over Palestinian land, airspace, and coastal waters so that Palestinians may form a state of their own.

Distortion #2: Why not Palestine? Isn’t it unbalanced to concentrate blame solely on one side in this longstanding conflict?

I wonder where the people making this objection were when Canada put Hamas on its list of terrorist groups and applied sanctions to the elected government that it led. Could it be that balance is not the priority after all?

I won’t discuss the merits of pro-Israel one-sidedness in its many unquestioned manifestations. The topic at hand is the United Church proposal on Israeli settlements. Is it true that the resolution (notwithstanding the explicit demand that both sides abandon violence) asks more of Israelis than of Palestinians? To some extent, yes. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and forced notions of neutrality (that are never applied consistently anyway) ought not to enter into the equation. Israeli settlements contravene international law and sabotage any reasonable shot at ending the conflict. Whoever defends them in the name of even-handedness clearly does not take such concerns seriously.

Distortion #3: In passing a resolution that singles out Israel for condemnation, the United Church is jeopardizing its ties to Canada’s Jewish community.

Most people are not slaves to their ethnic or religious affiliations, and Canada’s Jews are no exception. Despite attempts to sway us with infuriatingly inappropriate Nazi analogies, the caricature of Jews as monolithically supportive of Israeli military policy is false. Many of us are perfectly capable of thinking for ourselves without being blinded by oversimplified tribal loyalties. To claim otherwise is akin to labelling all criticism of Iran as Islamophobic, or all protest against China’s occupation of Tibet as anti-Chinese. Surely we must be beyond that.

And what about the clause in the United Church resolution expressing regret for a previous demand that Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state? Here we must try to imagine ourselves in the shoes of Arab Israelis. In Israel (not including the Occupied Territories), 20 to 25 percent of the population is non-Jewish. How must it feel to members of this large minority, knowing that the state in which they live is not meant for them — that they are somehow lesser citizens than members of the Jewish majority? This would be like Canada officially identifying itself as a “Christian” or “European” or “white” state. Even in Israel today, there are calls for the country to become a “state of all its citizens.”

The real question is this: should Israel be held to the same standards as the rest of the world or not? Its backers claim that Israel is held to unrealistically high standards — that it is unfairly singled out for blame — and I do not want to see that any more than they do. But is equality really enough for them? Or do they want Israel to escape critical attention altogether — deserved or otherwise?

In passing a resolution calling on its members to boycott Israeli settlements today, the United Church is refusing to play this disingenuous game. And for that, in my opinion, it is to be applauded.

Update 21/08/2012: This post has been republished here on rabble.ca.

On Ezra Levant’s Victimhood

I have been blogging for nearly four months now, and am embarrassed to admit that — contrary to firmly established best blogging practices — I have yet to engage in the art of personal attack. Today, I intend to correct this error and make the anonymous overlords of the blogarchy proud. The target of my wrath? None other than the king of personal attacks himself, the Canadian pundit and convicted libelist who never fails to find himself on the wrong side of every issue — from tobacco to Israel-Palestine to climate change — Mr. Ezra Levant.

But first, a little about me. I am Jewish. Secular, to be sure, and about as assimilated as they come. Nevertheless, my Jewish identity has always been important to me, and it is as a Jew that I take offence at Levant’s self-serving habit of screaming “anti-Semitism” every time someone disagrees with him.

The latest example came after former CTV reporter Kai Nagata made a parody rap video for The Tyee featuring a puppet Levant:

Levant fired back more than once on his TV show, The Source – painting The Tyee as an unprincipled receptacle of foreign funds and propaganda. But in the following clip, barely thirty seconds into his segment, he inexplicably seeks to place his Judaism at the heart of Nagata’s attack:

“I mean, I’m quite sure that a far left-wing magazine like The Tyee didn’t mean anything by stuffing an uppity Jew’s mouth with money,” he explains sarcastically, referring to a part of the video that frankly had nothing to do with his religious or cultural identity. Nagata was poking fun at Levant’s tendency to argue on behalf of such wealthy interests as oil and tobacco companies, a practice which — and here’s the shocker! — is neither universal among Jews nor exclusive to Jews.

A similar thing happened a year ago when The Mark published an article by Donald Gutstein about the shape of right-wing media in Canada — including such personalities as Levant — and their impact on environmental politics. Levant replied in the comments as charmingly as ever:

Some good connecting of the dots here. By [sic] why avoid the obvious? I’m a Jew; so is my book publisher Doug Pepper; so is Chapters boss Heather Reisman; so is Sun TV’s Kory Teneycke; and so is Laureen Harper. The oilsands are clearly part of a neo-con project to undermine OPEC.

Yet another instance, far more dramatic than the others, came at a tar sands debate (which I saw in person) between Levant and Ben West of the Wilderness Committee. An Indigenous activist by the name of Gitz Crazyboy (who had earlier been heckling Levant from the audience) was invited onstage by West to offer his perspective, and Levant absolutely flipped out:

Crazyboy used the word “holocaust” to describe the environmental impact of the tar sands, and it is understandable why Levant might have taken offence. But after Levant made his displeasure known, Crazyboy tried to put his word choice in the context of his people’s traditional belief in the inherent moral value of the Earth as a whole. Then he apologized to Levant, who steadfastly refused the olive branch.

In a blog post following the debate, Levant made no mention of Crazyboy’s explanation or apology. Nor did he give him the benefit of the doubt and attribute his regrettable word choice to a lack of linguistic sensitivity which, while hurtful, was unintended. Instead, the young activist was proclaimed an anti-Semite and “professional Jew-baiter,” plain and simple. Take as evidence his apparent participation in — the horror! – Palestinian solidarity events.

I don’t know if Levant actually believes the accusations he dishes out, or simply uses them for political advantage. If the former, this is the sign of a delusionally conspiratorial mindset. Anti-Semitism in Canada is almost a throwback — certainly nowhere near as common as Islamophobia or bigotry against First Nations. For Levant to toss a serious charge like this around so casually is to diminish those rare instances of Canadian anti-Semitism that still do occur (attacks on Jewish institutions in Montreal, for example), as well as the far more common acts of hatred against Jews elsewhere in the world.

So please, Ezra, disagree with me politically — disagree with whomever you like — but remember this: it does our people no favours to cry wolf with racism.