By JEFFREY WILKINSON
The phrase “Zionists not welcome” appeared as a hashtag in an Instagram post on or around July 1, 2020 from the owner of Foodbenders in Toronto. Soon after, an avalanche of criticism was directed at the restaurant’s owner, Kimberly Hawkins, led by pro-Israel advocacy groups which saw the post as blatantly racist and called for a boycott of the establishment.
In the past couple of days, Facebook and Instagram have been filled with responses (and responses to the responses) producing little, if any meaningful discourse, but instead, resorting to the usual tribal screaming and insults directed at those with opposing views, on both sides of the argument.
There is no simple right or wrong, as much as we would like to feel that we are completely on the right side, whatever that side is. There was, however, a great deal of propaganda peddled in the responses to the post.
If we take Hawkins literally – that she is banning Zionists from her store, and, by affiliation, banning most Jews – of course, this is highly offensive and totally inappropriate in a civil society. In a response in blogTO, Hawkins said that she, of course, welcomes Zionists and Jews; that she was making a political statement about Palestinian rights and would gladly have a conversation about this with anyone who is interested.
Many who were convinced that the post was, plain and simple, a clear example of antisemitism, immediately dismissed her claim.
There are some common ideas which inflame more than help, pushed by many in the outcry over the owner’s post. First, Zionists and Jews are synonymous, so banning Zionists is equivalent to the days of “No Dogs or Jews.”
Second, as one post stated, “Zionism is the Jewish national movement of rebirth and renewal in the land of Israel – the historical birthplace of the Jewish people. That’s it. It’s not support for a specific Israeli government or any actions of that government.”
Third, as the vast majority of Canadian Jews support Israel, the term “Zionist” equals “Jews.” In other words, if you are anti-Zionist, you are anti the vast majority of Canadian Jews and therefore antisemitic. This conflation has been a focal point of pro-Israel advocacy groups, particularly in light of the general acceptance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of antisemitism by many Canadian governmental and non-governmental organizations, which connects certain types of criticism of Israel with antisemitism.
Each of these points is meant to reduce or silence criticism of Israel, and devalue the concerns of Palestinians and their supporters. A measure of how effective this has been is seen in how assuredly many people responding to Hawkins’ post took “Zionists are not welcome” to mean barring Jews, rather than seeing it as a political statement resisting the consequences of Zionism to Palestinians. In fact, she has an embossed decal on her store window stating “I Love Gaza,” not “I Hate Jews.”
In the many responses back and forth, blanket statements about Zionism are hurled at the other. While one post states; “Zionism is a colonial enterprise” and another fires back; “Zionism is an anti-colonial enterprise, resisting the Arab colonialists, creating freedom for an oppressed people.”
My concern here is to highlight the deafness that is rampant in the Israel-Palestine discourse these responses epitomize. Is there an irrefutable truth in the statements being tossed back and forth? Is anyone interested if there was?
Imagine a response from a Jew that went something like this:
Dear Ms Hawkins:
I am a Jew and I felt quite hurt by your Instagram post, particularly the hashtag “Zionists not welcome.” What do you mean by Zionists? Do you mean all people who have an affinity for Israel? Do you distinguish people who have no interest in what is happening to Palestinians from those, like me, who value Israel but have deep concerns over what Israel has become, particularly its harmful effects on Palestinians? Would you please clarify what you meant and be clearer in the future so that we can all learn and listen to each other with an ear towards healing rather than further division?
Sincerely, a concerned fellow Canadian.
If one were to respond in this manner, it might be possible to learn rather than demonize. We need to be more wary of those who are deepening the divide in the discourse about Israel-Palestine, and the conflict by stoking past traumas and forwarding only a zero-sum, us vs. them paradigm. By responding to a hurtful post with such force, the hurt is only magnified. We can be hurt and still listen. Another can offend us without us dismissing them. We can and must do better.
Jeffrey J. Wilkinson, PhD, is an educator, facilitator and researcher focused on the psycho-social causes of intractable conflicts, researching not only how these conflicts are formed, but also how they may be undone over time. His doctoral dissertation explored the Israel/Palestine conflict through the experiences of Canadian Jews and Palestinians. He is the co-author, with a Palestinian, of an upcoming book addressing the current polarization in Jewish-Palestinian discourse within the two diasporas.