people keep streaming into innisCollege Town Hall at U of T for this hastily arranged Thursday-night event until not only all the seats are taken, but the stairs and walls, too. Three weeks after NDP leader Alexa McDonough stripped foreign affairs critic Svend Robinson of his Mideast portfolio, he's the hero of the hour at this boisterous meeting hosted by the new Muslim Canadian Congress, a group, according to the moderator, that says "no to Bush and to bin Laden."Robinson's West Bank trek may have freaked out his caucus colleagues, but judging from the reaction here tonight it seems to have reinvigorated his loyal following -- an interesting turn of events for a party on the cusp of a leadership race and an MP assumed by all to be a candidate.
Before he takes the podium, we're shown a TV clip of the globe-trotting Robinson at the scene of the crime, an Israeli military checkpoint. Wearing a navy flak jacket that goes perfectly with his blue shirt (blue always works best on TV), his face at the optimum angle for the cameras, Robinson argues with the soldiers.
For this guerrilla theatre and for statements of "solidarity" with Palestinians -- beyond the non-partisan role of human rights advocate -- Robinson earned a dressing down by fellow MPs and was lambasted by Bob Rae in the pages of the Israel-can-do-no-wrong National Post.
But this crowd, which includes Jews, Muslims and party stalwarts like Don and Alice Heap, begs to differ. It offers up no fewer than three standing ovations. Robinson quotes anti-apartheid campaigner and South African Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu: "The Israeli government is placed on a pedestal where to criticize them is to be immediately dubbed anti-Semitic." Says Robinson: "My personal history is speaking all my life against anti-Semitism. How many of us," he asks, "would have been neutral facing the atrocities of the Nazis, the horrors of apartheid? Yes, I take sides, of life over death, of peace over war," he says, relishing his favourite role as victim suffering for his courage to tell it like it is.
Self-justification goes over better here than it does with his caucus colleagues. MP Pat Martin opines that "it's very odd for Svend to be calling for sanctions against Israel when we're opposed to sanctions against Iraq because they punish the marginalized."
As one senior NDP staffer explains, "This (Israeli-Palestinian) issue has been going on in the party for decades," but until now members were able to paper over the cracks with a policy stating that Israel has the right to exist within secure borders and Palestinians are entitled to their homeland. As he explains it, the delicate compromise could not withstand anyone's "siding with one group at the expense of the other."
And you can't understand McDonough's hasty reaction to the caucus black sheep without taking account of the Windsor by-election next week, where the party hopes to pick up a 14th seat. That's one reason Rae's missive was so stinging.
According to Ross McClellan, who was a senior staffer in Rae's government, party members were more miffed by the timing than by the substance of the ex-premier's remarks. "Some might wish it had been delivered at some other time," he says.
A leader with a firmer grip on the party than McDonough might have been able to contain the fallout over the Robinson adventure. But she's a leader on her way out, and everyone assumes she'll announce her departure when the party's federal council convenes in July in Halifax. Many point to the fact that Robinson, should he run, already has the support of many New Politics Initiative militants, who racked up 40 per cent of the vote at the party's convention last fall.
Arab Canadians are also a significant presence in the party, and while they regret the way McDonough has dealt with this episode, they'll remember Robinson's efforts. "I believe there is confusion in the public and I would say poor communication from the federal party on this issue," says Ali Mallah, chair of the Arab advisory committee of the Ontario NDP.
And Robinson, evidently, will not be put under house arrest. He's back in the Mideast this week, in Iraq, to see the devastating effects of sanctions. "He is not representing the caucus or the party," says a higher-up in McDonough's office. "MPs hold their own passports. They're perfectly entitled to travel." Or to run for the leadership.