Is there a new anti-Semitism?

The Tories may have put Parliament on ice, but that doesn’t mean MPs in the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism have folded up their hearings.[rssbreak]

The multi-party group, formed after a world gathering of parliamentarians a year ago in London, UK, has been taking deputations from police officials, academics, university officials and activists since November.

But while it’s laudable that elected reps spend time probing hate crimes, some Mideast peace activists worry that the enterprise is serving as a propaganda tool for those seeking to sideline foes of Israel’s occupation.

Certainly, the coalition (which has no official parliamentary status or funding) is deeply concerned about the Middle East. “While accusations of blood libel or petty vandalism [against the Jewish community] are still issues, new fears have risen for those supporting the state of Israel,” their statement reads. It particularly takes note of the furor on Canadian campuses and “anti-Jewish” sentiment in the media.

The Canadian Jewish Congress’s Bernie Farber applauds the group’s work and admits that definitional problems can arise in identifying hatred. “Anti-Zionism,” he says, “much as I don’t like it, is a legitimate form of political dissent. But there are times when anti-Zionism can morph into anti-Semitism.”

Those seeking to destroy “the concept and dream of a Jewish state [are] entering into the milieu of 21-century anti-Semitism,” he explains.

When I ask hearings co-chair Scott Reid, Conservative MP for Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington, whether those criticizing Israel are going to find their actions curtailed, he says, “The question you are asking is, ‘Is there room for multiple points of view?’ And the answer is that it is essential,” he tells NOW.

His concept of the new anti-Semitism targets those “who regard Israel as illegitimate [or] single it out as a human rights violator.”

Not all coalition members draw the line in the same place. Judy Wasylycia-Leis, the NDP MP for Winnipeg North, has some trepidation that her colleagues will go too far in the wrong direction. “I am glad I’m [there] to help ensure that we don’t allow the agenda to be taken over by extreme right-wing thinking that excludes any criticism of Israel.”

When activists call for sanctions or boycotts of Israel, or use the word “apartheid,” she says, “that is part of the debate. I may not like the use of the word ‘apartheid,’ but I don’t think I can call it anti-Semitic.”

Is there an intent to limit criticism of Israel’s policies? “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she says.

But anti-occupation activists aren’t reassured by this. Many readily admit that anti-Semitism exists in Canadian society. (While Jews make up just over 4 per cent of T.O.’s population, police records show they experienced 30 per cent of hate/bias crimes in 2008.)

Nonetheless, Vancouver-based Sid Shniad of Independent Jewish Voices doubts there is any “such thing as the new anti-Semitism. What is new is a growing international criticism of Israel,” he says, referring to reaction to Israel’s expansion of settlements and attacks on Gazan civilians.

Toronto’s Miriam Garfinkle sees the question similarly. “We [Jews] can’t pretend to be concerned about our rights and not be concerned about everyone else’s,” she says.

Activists don’t deny that anti-Semitism occasionally rears its ugly head in Palestine support circles, but they say it’s unjust to disparage the whole Mideast human rights movement.

Kole Kilibarda, a York grad student and member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, says he’s asked for the removal of bigoted placards with mixed success, but adds that “I don’t think it’s been a serious issue in the movement since 2000-2001.”

Montreal activist Abraham Weizfeld was offended recently when a fellow protester carried a sign with a Nazi swastika over the Jewish star on the Israeli flag. “There is a faction of anti-Semites who use the Palestinian struggle,” he admits.

It’s hard to control who shows up at events, says Garfinkle. She recalls being upset at one rally by cheers at the mention of the deaths of Israeli soldiers. “You can only control your speakers,” she says.

Ottawa-based Diana Ralph of Independent Jewish Voices says racism is rare in the movement, but she experienced it once when a protester showed up with a hate sign. “In my experience, organizers do their best to prevent offensive behaviour.”

Meanwhile, lawyer Nathalie Des Rosiers, of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, told the hearings that the solution to anti-Semitism is to give human rights bodies more resources.


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