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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 23, Number 3, Nov./Dec. 2010  

Is it anti-Semitic to criticize Israel? 

By Bob Rosen  

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has once again been thrown into high relief by the action of Israeli forces in boarding a relief ship bound for Gaza to attempt to break the crippling land and sea blockade of that territory by the Israeli military. Israel’s actions have earned it an unprecedented degree of international condemnation.

Recently, the BCTF Representative Assembly called for the development of a curriculum unit that allows a fair and comprehensive all-sided discussion of the Israel/Palestine issue. Teachers need to understand what’s going on in that region and discuss it with their students.

In the past year, there has been a spate of actions by government bodies in Canada in an attempt to brand critics of Israeli policies as anti-Semitic. At the same time, the Harper government has acted to defund the Christian human rights NGO Kairos because of its alleged support for a campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. In fact, Kairos never did support the BDS campaign, although many defenders of human rights around the world—Jews and non-Jews—do. Recently, the Ontario parliament also passed a motion condemning Israeli Apartheid Week on college campuses in Ontario and elsewhere. Well-known Canadian journalist Judy Rebick (who is herself Jewish) sharply criticized the move and pointed out that this is the first time a Canadian legislature has taken action against student protest activities since the McCarthy era in the early 1950s.

Most significantly, a group of MPs, representing all federal political parties except the Bloc Quebecois, formed the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (CPCCPA), which has been conducting a series of one-sided hearings aimed at defining pointed criticism of Israel as the “new anti-Semitism.” They are now preparing to make a report to Parliament proposing legislation that could make such criticisms of Israel a violation of Canadian law.

Currently, an ever-greater number of Jews in Canada and around the world are distancing themselves from the policies of the Israeli government, which were recently condemned in the United Nations’ Goldstone Report for criminal actions against Palestinian civilians during the Gaza War in December 2009. (The report also criticizes Hamas for its rocket attacks against Israeli civilians.) Goldstone, a noted international human rights expert and a South African Jew and self-described supporter of Israel, has subsequently been viciously attacked by the Israeli government and its supporters for taking such a forthright position. Recently Goldstone was told by Zionist religious authorities in South Africa that he wouldn’t be welcomed at the bar mitzvah of his own grandson. (This attempt at intimidation was reversed when it generated tremendous international outrage.)

Conflating criticisms of the actions of the state of Israel with attacks on Jewish people in general is utterly false. There have always been Jews who have been critical of the Zionist project. In fact, many of the strongest critics of Zionism and of Israel’s policies have been Jewish.

In Canada, organizations such as Independent Jewish Voices, Jewish Outlook Society (which publishes the Canadian Jewish Outlook magazine), and Not In Our Name are increasingly vocal critics of Israeli policy and represent an alternative voice to the hardline Israeli supporters of B’nai Brith and the Canadian Jewish Congress. There is also a growing number of organizations of dissenting Jews in the US, England, and elsewhere who are speaking out in opposition to the actions of the state of Israel.

Israel’s continuing illegal occupation of territories it captured in the 1967 war has given rise to many human rights concerns. The occupation denies the most basic rights to the Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories, including the right to a viable territory and state, to vote in meaningful elections, and to control their own governmental affairs. As a direct result of this occupation, the movement of Palestinians is strictly controlled through a series of military roadblocks that make communication and travel within the territories maddeningly slow and sometimes impossible. Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints frequently deliberately humiliate Palestinians simply trying to move within their own territory. Israeli dissident Jeff Halper has described Israel’s administration of the Occupied Territories as a “Matrix of Control.”

In addition, there are more than 11,000 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails. Much of the best land and water access in the territories continues to be taken by illegal Israeli settlements, which are connected to each other by a series of Jewish-only roads that Palestinians are not allowed to ride on.

Currently, the Israeli military has been enforcing a blockade in Gaza since 2005. This aggressive action sharply limits the import of vital goods, which is causing terrible hardship to the people living there, in direct opposition to international law forbidding collective punishment of civilian populations, and has been sharply criticized by the United Nations and the International Red Cross.

Within the “Green Line” of Israel’s 1947 borders, Israel’s self-definition as a “Jewish state” makes second-class citizens of the Palestinians who comprise 20% of Israel’s population. These are the people who remained behind when the Zionist military’s ethnic cleansing campaigns drove the majority of Palestinians from their ancestral homes. Israel refuses to allow the 80% of the Palestinian population that were driven out of their homes at that time, or their descendants, to return, even though Israel was obliged to do so as a condition of being granted its statehood by the international community in 1948. At the same time, anyone who is Jewish can immigrate to Israel and gain instant citizenship as a right in the Jewish state. To understand Palestinians’ attitude toward this situation, imagine how Sikh, Jewish, or Muslim Canadians would feel if Canada were to define itself as a “Christian state.”

South African leaders Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela have said that the conditions of Palestinians in the territories are worse than those faced by blacks under the apartheid system there. Former US President Jimmy Carter has described the current occupation as a form of apartheid.

In response to a growing awareness of the crisis in Israel and Palestine, a number of artists and musicians are refusing to perform in Israel as part of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign called for as a non-violent protest by Palestinian civil society organizations. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which played an important role in the defeat of South African apartheid, has also played a leading role in this BDS campaign, trying to pressure Israel to abandon its own apartheid policies.

There is considerable discussion and debate about the road to peace in Israel/Palestine. The internationally recognized goal has been a two-state solution. But Israeli settlement policies and intransigence have made this goal increasingly unattainable in the short run. Many in Palestine and elsewhere are proposing the idea of a single state inhabited by Jews and Palestinians who have full equality under the law. This is now seen by many supporters of the Palestinian cause as both a more practical and more principled solution than trying to establish a state in the fragmented Occupied Territories.

Regardless of their views on all this, Canadians should be free to consider all the options and approaches to resolving this decades-old crisis without fear of being labeled anti-Semites for speaking out against the injustice and oppression that the Palestinians are experiencing. 

Bob Rosen is a retired Surrey teacher.