In August 2016 the Green Party of Canada concluded its annual convention. Elizabeth May, the party’s leader and sole elected MP, met the media, but not with the usual bland partisan clichés. Instead she complained, “I have to say I’m pretty devastated.” Soon she was even talking about quitting the leadership altogether, walking away from the small but influential young party she had personally infused with an enviably disproportionate national profile.

Was this a party leader rebuked and rejected by her followers, like Tom Mulcair in the NDP? No, there were few signs of discontent with her leadership; quite the contrary. Nor had the rank and file signalled a desire for any radical break with the Greens’ platform on their environmental policy core.

Bizarrely, May was putting her political future on the line because of the passage of a single resolution on foreign policy, a qualified endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign that seeks international action to condemn Israel for its treatment of Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories. May did not happen to agree with that resolution, but was this disagreement so extreme as to contemplate resignation? In the end she decided to stay, but only after insisting on a rerun vote on BDS.

Even this did not put an end to this improbable tale. The British Columbia Green Party’s leader and sole elected MLA in Victoria, Andrew Weaver, was so incensed at the BDS resolution that he threatened to change the name of the B.C. party to dissociate it from its national wing. Then three pro-BDS members of the federal party’s shadow cabinet who criticized Weaver’s attack were summarily tossed from their positions by May. Further proscriptions of dissidents followed. As Alice would say, things were getting curiouser and curiouser.

Why pay attention to this tempest in a rather small teapot? The Greens may be marginal, but they are the only party that has shown even qualified support for BDS. In fact there is a parliamentary resolution backed by the majority of Liberal and Conservative members that not merely officially rejects BDS but “any and all attempts” by any groups or individuals in Canadian society to promote BDS – in other words, Parliament is telling Canadian citizens to shut up if they disagree with Parliament on this issue. BDS support, MPs proclaimed, was tantamount to hate speech.

How did such an issue – peripheral at best to most Canadians’ concerns – come to assume such threatening significance? It is hardly unusual for people to take up foreign causes and seek to direct their compatriots’ moral consciences toward bringing pressure, whether political or economic, on states believed to be acting badly. Politicians often ignore such campaigns, calculating that indifference will cost them little politically. But the BDS issue has grown out of all proportion to become a kind of legitimacy test. Support for BDS has been framed, by the political elite and its main institutions – Parliament and the political parties – as something so seditious that it must be silenced and shamed.

Typically, campaigns to assign blame and condemn particular state actors in foreign conflicts are controversial. For instance, the campaign to boycott South Africa in the apartheid era provoked overt and covert efforts (not notably successful) by the apartheid regime to contest the anti-apartheid narrative. But at no time did the Canadian political elite condemn the anti-apartheid campaigners as illegitimate and demand they be silenced.

BDS is a different story. One side – the Israeli government and the pro-Israel lobby in Canada – has largely succeeded, at least at the elite level, in framing the issue in a way that delegitimizes and demonizes the BDS case, threatening in the process to undermine free speech and open democratic debate.

There are numerous lobbies in Ottawa that seek to promote particular foreign interests. Some have the advantage of being able to call upon diaspora communities in Canada with voting leverage. None, however, have ever approached the remarkable success of the Israeli lobby. Anti-BDS is the Israeli lobby’s greatest contemporary hit. But this time the lobby and the Israeli government standing behind it may have overplayed their hand.

The shifting fortunes of Israel’s reputation

There was a time when pro-Israeli lobbying was less visible in North America – perhaps because during the Cold War Israel was widely accepted as a reliably pro-Western democracy amid Arab dictatorships that were sometimes suspiciously friendly with Moscow. It also helped that domestic Jewish communities – still fighting anti-Semitic prejudices and restrictive covenants as late as the 1950s and 1960s – could be partially placated by the Christian majority with full-throated support for Israel at the UN and large amounts of military assistance to the Jewish state.

The sweeping victory of the Israeli Defence Forces in the 1967 war was almost unanimously applauded by Western public opinion. But 1967 laid the ground for future restiveness concerning the supposed high moral qualification previously attributed to Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. The triumph of Israeli arms resulted in Israel’s post-1967 occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. This might have been a temporary arrangement, bartered in return for a long-term peace agreement. Instead it quickly morphed into what is now a half-century-long military occupation in defiance of international law and UN resolutions. When Jewish settlements on occupied territory began to appear in the mid-1970s (strongly supported by then–Defence Minister Shimon Peres, dubiously raised to virtual sainthood in the encomiums of Western leaders at his recent funeral), they were the seeds of what would grow into a monster.

Today half-a-million-and-counting settlers have planted “facts on the ground” to undermine any possibility of a two-state solution. These same settlers have in effect taken Israel political hostage via Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government: Nethanyahu’s Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, has just called for the forcible annexation of the West Bank. Two desperate intifadas and countless scenes of violent repression of the captive Palestinians have steadily eroded the credibility of Israel’s claim to moral exceptionalism in the eyes of Western publics.

At the same time a different force was at work undercutting traditional automatic Western support for Israel. The OPEC oil crisis of the early 1970s exposed the vulnerability of Western countries to Arab oil and cemented closer relations with Arab oil states, calling into question the West’s special relationship with Israel, an antagonist of most Arab countries.

Israel’s response to this challenge was to mobilize its supporters in Western countries to intensify and concentrate their lobbying more effectively. Then September 11, 2001, changed the terms of engagement dramatically. The case made by Netanyahu as Israeli ambassador to the UN in the 1980s – that Israel was the key ally of the United States against the threat of Arab and Islamist terrorism – now took on apparent substance and meaning, and the Israeli lobby moved to centre stage in Washington.

In the United States, the key component of the pro-Israel lobby is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC was founded in the 1950s, and its influence grew from the 1970s on. It primarily targets politicians in Congress who, in the American system of separation of powers, are able to wield far more influence over government than individual MPs in parliamentary systems. AIPAC has become notorious for its deep reach into the inner circles of power in Washington. All presidential candidates make pilgrimages to appear before AIPAC audiences and seek their approval. Netanyahu regularly makes rock-star appearances to lecture presidents on appropriate behaviour toward Israel. Incumbent and would-be members of Congress cringe in fear of incurring AIPAC’s lethal disapproval, and sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to gain its support.

AIPAC has prospered in a changing political context. In the first decades following the creation of Israel, the American Jewish community remained strongly liberal Democratic. The main Jewish lobby groups tended to reflect that closeness to Democratic administrations. The later ascendancy of AIPAC coincided with a shift to the right on the part of Jewish groups, at the same time as Conservative and Orthodox Jews became more prominent in leadership roles. Israeli Labour politicians tended to neglect their American ties, taking them for granted, while Likud assiduously cultivated links with the right-wing American Jewish leadership.

By the time of the George W. Bush administration, the fit between right-wing American and Israeli governments and between the Republicans and an ideologically supportive American-Israeli lobby had become very close. Consolidating this intimacy was another development: the unexpected adoption of an Israel First position by the evangelical Christian right, an identification of American with Israeli interests that persists today among evangelicals. Standing on this conservative ground, the Israeli lobby has under the Obama administration increasingly become a Likud-Republican alliance, nakedly partisan and openly hostile to President Obama and liberal Democrats.

This shift is embodied in the person of Sheldon Adelson, the elderly multibillionaire casino magnate who funds a free newspaper in Israel that hews so closely to Netanyahu that its coverage is routinely vetted by the Prime Minister’s office before publication. In 2012 Adelson lavishly funded the candidacy of Mitt Romney for president (up to $100 million for Republicans) and arranged a fundraising trip by Romney to Israel to tap rich Israeli backers.

There is one problem with the right-wing American-Israeli romance. It does not seem to extend beyond the elite. In 2012, three quarters of the Jewish vote went to Obama despite the millions spent to convince American Jews that Obama was an enemy of Israel. Indifference or outright hostility of younger Jews to the right-wing message particularly troubles AIPAC and the rest of the lobby. Recently this concern has focused especially on the growing popularity of the BDS campaign on American campuses.

The resurgence of Canada’s Israeli lobby

In Canada, as late as a dozen years ago, it could be said that a “frustrated Israeli lobby is losing its traditional grip, and faces an uncertain future.”1 The Chrétien Liberal government was hardly anti-Israeli, but it did try to forge closer ties with Palestinians and offer aid in the occupied territories. Things began to change in the brief (2003–06) Paul Martin Liberal government. The power couple of Heather Reisman (Indigo-Chapters) and Gerry Schwartz (Onex Corporation), both active on behalf of Israeli causes, were close to Martin, and under their tutelage Canadian votes at the UN began to follow Israel more tightly. Reisman and Schwartz were also instrumental in a major change that would long outlast the Martin government. In 2004 they had begun to assemble a blue chip cast of corporate might that would supplant traditional Jewish organizations like the Canadian Jewish Congress and B’nai Brith with a more aggressive pro-Israeli lobby – in effect a Canadian version of AIPAC. The process was prolonged and not always amicable but by 2011 the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) emerged as the leading, and often strident, voice of the Israeli lobby.

CIJA claims to be nonpartisan, but its history parallels a shift to the right in the political landscape. Like their Republican counterparts in the United States, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, in office from 2006 to 2015, professed unqualified backing for Israel, especially under Likud auspices. The Conservative idea of a Middle Eastern policy can best be described as a blank cheque issued to the Israeli government. During the first Gaza war in 2008 (carried out by Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert), Reisman and Schwartz were so incensed by faint criticism of Israeli actions issuing from a few Liberals that the pair publicly decamped to take up residence with the Harperites, from whom nary a squeak of disapproval of any Israeli action would ever be heard. In the 2011 federal election, Harper achieved his only majority in part by taking a number of constituencies in Jewish areas of Toronto. In that election a majority of Jewish votes across the country went Conservative for the first time.

In this political atmosphere, CIJA prospered. Like AIPAC, CIJA has particularly focused its efforts on the political and media elites. During the second Gaza war in 2012, furious lobbying with a wholly sympathetic government succeeded in framing the issue as “Israel’s right to defend itself” without regard to the proportionality of Israel’s actions. It was notable that, as with AIPAC’s bipartisan lobbying of Congress, CIJA’s ideological colouring did not prevent it from successfully targeting Liberals and New Democrats, promoting a cross-party consensus that any criticism of Israel was tantamount to backing terrorism, not to speak of anti-Semitism.

With the ascendancy of CIJA, the public face of the Canadian Jewish community has become indistinguishable from relentless pro-Israeli advocacy. The reverse side of this is more contentious: any criticism of Israel is to be framed as evidence of anti-Semitism. Left out are all those Jewish Canadians who have qualms about Israel as a repressive apartheid state and sympathies for Palestinians denied the same right to national self-determination that Israel was founded upon. Left out as well are all those non-Jewish Canadians concerned about attaching Canadian foreign policy as a wagging tail to a “democracy” carrying out a permanent illegal military occupation of a subject people.

Battalions of willing columnists and commentators along with a stable of ready-made op-ed contributions play the anti-Semitism card again and again to discredit any criticism of Israeli behaviour. Yet that criticism keeps growing across the Western world – with no effect on the Netanyahu government, which continues its open defiance of the Obama administration’s rhetorical attempts to rein in the relentless stream of Jewish settlements.

The BDS movement

The Israeli government has identified the defence of its public image as a major national priority. There is a Hebrew word for this: hasbara, a form of public diplomacy specific to Israel in its unique international position. The contemporary focus of hasbara efforts is directed toward combating the global BDS movement, identified as Israel’s biggest foreign public relations problem today. Speaking to Israeli legislators, Netanyahu has claimed that “we are acting against BDS and this is why they are on the defensive … They are taking hits on many fronts. We have beaten them.”2 Legislators were sceptical. The resources being poured into lobbying against BDS in North America and Europe suggest that it is not time for the Mission Accomplished sign to go up just yet.

What is BDS and why has it been singled out for such hostile attention by Israel and Israeli lobbies? The latter offer scarecrow depictions of the “real” but “hidden” BDS aims. If we turn to how the BDS campaign describes itself, we find that it calls for various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law by:

  1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.3

BDS campaigns are currently active on a number of university campuses. Obviously there will be serious differences of opinion about the BDS aims, and about boycott as an appropriate method. As with any such campaign, there are distinctions between ends and means. Some may wholly reject the idea that Israel bears any blame for the situation of the Palestinians. Others (I would include myself here) may lay the bulk of the blame on Israeli policy, yet remain uneasy about boycotting, divesting, etc., as appropriate means to bring about change. Specifically, calling for boycotting Israel in general might give some credence to the idea that it is the legitimacy of the Israeli state itself that is being questioned.

More limited and qualified campaigns to boycott Israeli goods produced in the Occupied Territories, as some European countries are already doing, seem better targeted and quite appropriate. (Ironically, this was the precise form of modified boycott that Green Party members supported, but the qualification mattered not at all since opponents treated it as if it were the full Monty.) The third point in the BDS platform – the right of return of Palestinian refugees – may have strong moral grounds but does appear to be an unrealistic political demand.

These are issues open for debate. The very question of how best to bring international pressure on Israel to change its self-destructive course with regard to the Palestinians should be open for debate as well. But the strategy of the anti-BDS campaign has from the start been to demonize and delegitimize BDS and prevent it from being debated at all. The goal has been to frame the very idea of BDS as anti-Semitic hate speech and thus to silence debate on the issue of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians altogether. To see how this strategy plays out in practice we can turn to the strange tale of the anti-BDS resolution in the Canadian Parliament.

Liberal government, Tory resolution

In February 2016, the 42nd Parliament of Canada, only a few months old, had already begun the process of dismantling much of the Stephen Harper legacy of mean-spirited right-wing legislation and regulation. It appeared, however, that the Tory tail could still wag the Liberal dog – at least when Israel was in play.

The House of Commons voted by the lopsided margin of 229 to 51 to condemn the international BDS campaign. The full text of the parliamentary motion reads:

That, given Canada and Israel share a long history of friendship as well as economic and diplomatic relations, the House reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel, and call upon the government to condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad.

There are a number of unusual aspects to this motion. The first part is a statement of Parliament’s disapproval of the BDS movement, something Parliament has every right to make, but it does so by characterizing the movement’s aims as being the “demonization and delegitimization” of Israel, rather than the movement’s stated aims. This happens to mirror exactly the wording of the Israeli anti-BDS campaign. More controversially, the resolution “condemns” any BDS support by associations of civil society “at home and abroad,” which raises serious questions of freedom of expression in a liberal democracy.

Another unusual aspect: it was introduced by a minister in the former Harper government, Tony Clement, and a potential candidate for the Conservative leadership, Michelle Rempel. The Trudeau government’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Stéphane Dion, denounced the motion as just more Conservative “politics of division.” The Tory “bullies,” he said, want to turn the defence of Israel into a partisan issue, making it yes or no to Israel. But as the CBC’s Neil Macdonald paraphrased it, Dion and the Liberals’ answer to this bullying question was: “So, um, yes. Reluctantly, yes.”4 The Liberals voted for a motion they did not approve of. (Three Liberal MPs did vote against and a number of others pointedly abstained). It was more than a bit reminiscent of the Liberal opposition voting for Harper’s Anti-Terrorism Act, Bill C-51, after denouncing it as extreme and dangerous. Are most Grits still afraid of the Tory bullies, even after defeating them at the polls? On Israel, at least, it would appear so.

The NDP said that it too disapproved of the BDS campaign, but took its objections to the second part of the motion as sufficient to vote against it. The Liberals apparently agreed with the NDP diagnosis of the second part but still voted in favour. Tory backbenchers were in no doubt about the implications of their motion: there were calls for the government to “crack down” on or even “disallow” the BDS movement. Exactly that has been done in France where campaigning on behalf of BDS can land you with a criminal sentence. One can’t imagine the Trudeau government planning anything that would make it a criminal offence for a Canadian to campaign peacefully for a boycott of a foreign government. Whether you agree with the campaign or not, living with different opinions is what a “free society” should be all about. But the government was driven by its agreement with the premise of the motion to accept a second part that suggests state intimidation of dissent.

Something very strange was going on.

Hiding in plain view, spelled out explicitly by the motion’s Tory sponsors, was the ace in the hole: the anti-Semitism card. Some supporters of BDS might deny that their criticism of Israel was motivated by anti-Semitism, but the Tory MPs would have none of it.

A former minister, Kellie Leitch (she of the infamous Barbaric Cultural Practices snitch line and a “Canadian values” screening test for immigrants), declared BDS was “nothing but a thinly veiled anti-Semitism movement.” A few Tories suggested that some BDS supporters might be deluded dupes, but to others it was no more than devious cover for “Jew hatred.” It was left to Jason Kenney, a former minister who had long equated criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, to lay the argument out in crude and sweeping form: BDS “represents a new wave of anti-Semitism, the most pernicious form of hatred in the history of humanity.”

Patrick Martin, Middle East correspondent for the Globe and Mail, demolished the anti-BDS arguments as thin and unsubstantiated (without endorsing the BDS program).5 But the Conservatives were not alone in equating BDS and any criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism. Just before the vote in the House, Barbara Kay in the National Post uncovered an alleged BDS conspiracy on campuses like McGill. BDS, she insisted “is investing in the future. The student leaders of today are the political leaders of tomorrow … Relentlessly driving home the anti-Israel message will, they hope, inculcate a permanent bias.” Then, leaping across a logical chasm, she deduced that “this is classic anti-Semitism in action.” By the end, Kay cast all caution aside to declare that universities must “put a stop to this hateful, and institutionally corrosive, psychological pogrom.”6

Before we conjure BDS campaigners firing up the gas ovens, we might stop and ask what actual evidence there is for the equation of criticism of Israeli policy toward Palestinians with anti-Semitism. Of course, there may be some anti-Semites in the BDS ranks. There are almost certainly among the ranks of Israel’s supporters those who are motivated by Islamophobia. No social movement or political protest can attest to the purity of motives of all of its followers. But neither BDS nor the many Canadians who are critics of the Israeli occupation have said anything about Jews as such; they have spoken only about the Israeli state. Former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who joined his government in opposition to the boycott campaign, also declared publicly that Israeli settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem is “genuinely shocking.” Does this make Cameron an anti-Semite?

The anti-Semitism card is not evidence-based but definitional. Worse, this definitional guilt by association has been made official policy of the government of Canada, first by the Harper Tories and now, apparently, by the Trudeau Liberals. There is a history here.

Canada’s blank cheque to Israel

On January 18, 2015, the Canadian and Israeli foreign ministers at the time, John Baird and Avigdor Lieberman, signed a Memorandum of Understanding “Regarding Public Diplomacy Cooperation” between the two countries within the context of the Canada-Israel Strategic Partnership that the Harper government had earlier signed with the Netanyahu government.7 Public diplomacy may sound innocuous to Canadian ears, but to Israelis, hasbara has a more pointed strategic meaning. This MOU is an extraordinary document, unprecedented in Canadian diplomatic history.

After reaffirming their alleged “dedication to the shared values of freedom of expression and assembly, democracy, and the rule of law,” Baird and Lieberman then proceed to focus their attention squarely on their prime target, BDS:

Deeply concerned by efforts to single out the State of Israel for criticism and isolate the State of Israel internationally including calls for a boycott of the State of Israel, for the divestment of investments, and for sanctions to be imposed on Israel,

Recognizing that the selective targeting of Israel reflects the new face of anti-Semitism,

the two ministers came to an understanding that

the Participants will work together to oppose efforts to single out or isolate the State of Israel through:

  1. Developing a coordinated, public diplomacy initiative both bilaterally and in international and multilateral fora to oppose boycotts of Israel, its institutions, and its people within three to six months;
  2. Publicly expressing their opposition to those who would call into question the State of Israel‘s very right to exist or to defend itself, by itself.

What is astonishing about this is that a Canadian foreign minister entered into an agreement with a foreign government that accepted an obligation on Canada to declare any criticism by Canadian citizens of the Israeli government’s policies and behaviour illegitimate – indeed, with the reference to anti-Semitism, potentially falling under Canada’s laws against hate speech. There is no equivalent obligation of any kind imposed on Israel with regard to its relations with the Palestinians (even military assaults on Gaza civilian targets are subsumed under “Israel’s right to defend itself, by itself,” with no qualification for proportionality of response). No matter what acts Israel carries out against the Palestinians, any criticism by Canadians remains illegitimate. In other words, John Baird signed a blank cheque for the Israelis, on behalf of Canada.

Baird has since left public life, while Lieberman has gone on to become Israel’s highly controversial Defence Minister. Baird’s government has been dispatched by the voters. Yet the Trudeau government continues to carry the MOU on the website of Global Affairs Canada, so it presumably remains in effect. And now we have the Tory BDS motion providing parliamentary legitimation for the MOU.

Promoting an anti-Jewish backlash?

Lord Palmerston, as British Foreign Minister, once said, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” To Jewish Canadians, Israel is a special place. To Ukrainian Canadians, Ukraine is a special place. But to the government of Canada, representative of all Canadians, Israel and Ukraine should be seen simply as foreign states.

Of course Canada may be closer to some foreign states than to others, but none should be privileged as “eternal allies.” If they behave badly, Canada must preserve its freedom to criticize and even to condemn their actions. And the Canadian government certainly has no business condemning Canadian citizens for what they say about the actions of a foreign government, or for campaigning against that government. The “dedication to the shared values of freedom of expression and assembly, democracy, and the rule of law” to which Baird and Lieberman paid lip service is the most effective rejoinder to what the same pair then proceeded to undermine.

Despite Netanyahu’s declaration of victory, the BDS campaign has had mixed successes and failures as it proceeds across North America and Europe. The McCarthyite tone of the anti-BDS campaign has its own potential downside: while the political elites seem largely trapped within the narrowly self-serving Israeli frame of reference, there appear to be growing numbers of citizens who are tired of threadbare Israeli rationalizations for violence and suppression of a captive people, willing to examine new and creative solutions to the neverending Middle Eastern nightmare and, frankly, fed up with the anti-Semitic canard being weaponized to end every discussion and close down debate.

There is another, darker, downside to the dominant approach of the Israeli lobbies. By tying the Jewish community so inextricably to the Israeli state, might not the lobbies be inadvertently promoting the very thing they seek to prevent, an anti-Jewish backlash? That would be unreasonable, not to say tragic, but why risk it by insisting that unquestioning support for Israel is the sole bulwark against anti-Semitism?

In any event, this latter proposition has been challenged by the appalling spectacle of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Donald Trump said everything favourable to Israel that AIPAC could have wished for – and more. Yet his campaign pandering to the “alt-right” unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitism among his followers, which he studiously avoided recognizing, let alone denouncing. Trump’s slogan of “America First” eerily harks back to the rabidly anti-Semitic pro-Hitler America First movement of the 1930s.8 Blind support for Israel is no proof against anti-Semitism; by the same token, criticism of Israel is no proof of anti-Semitism.

It is time to untie this noxious knot and free the debate over Israel and Palestine from old shibboleths and the direction of self-serving lobbies. Continue reading “The strange tale of Canada’s Israeli lobby”