It’s Not About Antisemitism. it’s About Free Speech

Nov. 18, 2020

By AMOS GOLDBERG

On Oct. 26th, Ontario adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism through an Order in Council. 

On the face of it, what could be more appropriate than adopting a clear definition of antisemitism that helps fight this scourge? It would seem obvious that all decent people should unite in this just and essential fight.

Unfortunately, this definition – and especially the 11 examples appended to its original text – help very little, if at all, to fight antisemitism. Rather than helping to stamp out antisemitism, several of these examples actually serve to curb free speech on Israel and its policies against the Palestinians, shaping the debate over Israel-Palestine in a way that practically silences the Palestinian voice.

Let’s take a look at one example: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is considered antisemitic. The first question that comes to mind is: if denying Jews the right of self-determination is antisemitic because it’s a universal right, how should we define denying the Palestinian right for self-determination? Why is denying Palestinian self-determination a legitimated political opinion and, in fact, Israel’s practical policy, while denying Jewish self-determination is considered antisemitic? The second question that comes to mind is that almost all countries on the globe are accused of being racist. Why should Israel be shielded from such legitimate allegations?

But there is more to it. The reasons almost all Palestinians, including the most devoted supporters of the two-states solution, reject Zionism is not because they are antisemites, but because they experience Zionism as oppressive and colonial. None other than the great Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the forefather of the ruling Likud party, acknowledged this already in his 1923 article “The Iron Wall.” There, he asserted that like all colonized peoples, the Palestinians reject Zionism because they oppose what they perceive – and from their perspective rightly so – as foreign invaders. Following Jabotinsky, we can say that denying Jews’ right to self-determination in Palestine as such is not antisemitic even for ardent Zionists like Jabotinsky. One can certainly reject this view but there is nothing antisemitic in it.

Insisting on the opposite practically delegitimizes, silences and criminalizes all Palestinians (and very many non-Zionist Jews) who, as Jabotinsky observed, reject Zionism for understandable (even if rejectable) reasons. Opposing Zionism is hence a legitimate view secured by the right of free speech and, in fact, a legitimate Jewish opinion.

This is only one of many examples of how the definition actually prevents free speech and an honest discussion on Israel-Palestine while disguising itself as a fight against antisemitism. In fact, the definition actually distorts the very essence of this fight. Most scholarly accounts of modern antisemitism connect it to the rise of nationalism and the emergence of the nation-state. Fighting antisemitism is about protecting a vulnerable minority against the violent homogenizing tendency of the majority society. The IHRA definition does precisely the opposite. It protects a powerful state, Israel, from criticism of its well-documented violations of the human rights of its vulnerable minority and occupants. In short, the IHRA definition has become a powerful silencing mechanism that serves only to increase the massive power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kenneth Stern, who, 15 years ago, was the lead author of the IHRA definition (for research, not legislative purposes) and is now one of its chief critics, has written: “I’m a Zionist,” but “anti-Zionists have a right to free expression.” The IHRA definition has been deployed to undermine that right, he asserts. We should be very attentive to his words and call on the Ontario legislature to take great care in how it interprets this harmful definition. 


Amos Goldberg
Amos Goldberg

Amos Goldberg is a Holocaust historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his recent publications are Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing During the Holocaust; and his co-edited volume with Bashir Bashir: The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History.

‘Nazi’ Street Name to Change; Debate Spills Over to Israel

Nov. 18, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

A Toronto suburb will strip the name of a Second World War Nazi from one of its streets.

Ajax town council voted narrowly Monday night to remove the name Langsdorff Drive from a residential street and, instead, honour an Allied serviceman.

It took a petition campaign by a local resident, the intervention of B’nai Brith Canada, and an emotional appeal from a Holocaust survivor, among others, to convince four of the seven council members that honouring a Nazi in Canada was wrong.

But the lengthy debate was marred by comments from one councillor who opposed the name change because Palestinians are “currently being oppressed by the Jewish State of Israel.”

From the start, the debate was sharply divided. Supporters of German navy Captain Hans Langsdorff claimed he was an honourable man who was respected by his enemies. Those demanding the name change, however, argued Langsdorff’s personal qualities didn’t outweigh the fact he fought for the regime responsible for one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity. 

Max Eisen, one of only three from an extended family of 70 to survive the Holocaust, told the councillors that experience leaves “no room for our enemies to be honoured in Canada. For me, it would represent a terrible thing if this motion fails.”

Rabbi Tzali Borenstein of the Chabad Centre of Durham Region argued the Holocaust is a wound that has never healed for the Jewish community and is torn open repeatedly in an age of growing antisemitism. That, he said, makes it wrong to honour anyone who played even a small role in the Nazi regime.

“Being a Nazi is never right,” he said. “To honour someone with a street name is to be on the wrong side of history.”

Coun. Ashmeed Khan (Ward 2) noted repeated references to the need for reconciliation between former enemies and said the lack of reconciliation for “oppressed” Palestinians is why he supports keeping the Nazi street name.

“One word I have heard repeated consistently today is reconciliation, reconciliation, reconciliation,” he said. “I’ve been having calls from people in (his ward) who are Palestinian and have no hope of reconciliation as they are currently being oppressed by the Jewish State of Israel and they are concerned about how we will address this today.

“I cannot support changing this street name and changing history,” he added. “I say the same thing I said about [the street] Graf Spee Lane: Mr. Mayor, when does this stop? When do we stop pandering to a handful of people?”

On Tuesday, Adam Wiseman, the Jewish Ajax resident whose petition campaign started the renaming effort, bristled at Khan’s remarks and fired off an email inviting the councilor to clarify his comments or apologize to Durham’s Jews.

“I understood your comment about the ‘Jewish state of Israel currently oppressing Palestinians’ as justification for not changing the street name as though you are implying that you and the Palestinian community believe Jews deserve this sort of affront,” Wiseman wrote. “(I)f that was your intention, then I am requesting an on-the-record apology to the Jewish community in Ajax.

“You also mentioned that the city should not ‘pander’ to a small number of people,” Wiseman wrote. “Do I really need to point out why there are so few Jews in Canada?  Are you familiar with the quote ‘None is too many’ in reference to Canada sending ships full of Jewish refugees back to Nazi Germany to be slaughtered?” 

At the heart of the debate is a residential street named in 2004, and dedicated in 2007, for Langsdorff, a career officer of the German navy. In 1939, in command of the warship Admiral Graf Spee, he was ordered into the South Atlantic Ocean where he sank nine Allied merchant ships carrying desperately needed supplies to Britain.

In December, however, he was trapped off South America by three British ships, including HMS Ajax, for which the town is named. In a brawl known as the Battle of the River Plate, the Graf Spee was damaged and limped into Uruguay’s Montevideo harbour for repairs.

Ordered out of the neutral country after three days, and knowing that a superior British force was waiting for him, Langsdorff ordered his 1,000-member crew off the vessel and blew it up. Three days later, in a Buenos Aires hotel, he wrapped himself in the ship’s battle flag and shot himself in the head.

The Town of Ajax, in Durham Region, east of Toronto, was founded in 1941 and has a policy of naming its streets after the ships and sailors of the River Plate battle. An attempt to name one street for Langsdorff’s ship was reversed earlier this year. It currently has a list of 160 names that could be used. The decision to name a street for Langsdorff required making a specific exception to that rule.

Langsdorff’s supporters have noted that he saved the lives of his crew, of hundreds of Allied sailors, and the crews of merchant vessels he allowed to escape before sinking their ships. Those actions, say his supporters, show Langsdorff was never an ardent Nazi and, in a spirit of reconciliation, should be honoured by his former enemies.

Jim Devlin, a member of the Ajax branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, argued that point, saying Langsdorff’s membership in the Nazi Party shouldn’t be held against him.

“I am in no way standing up for Nazis,” said Devlin, a Canadian army veteran. “I believe Hans Langsdorff was a navy man first and foremost and if he was a Nazi, it was just a formality. His treatment of prisoners was that of an officer with honour.”

Supporters also argued that since Langsdorff died in 1939, he could not have known about Nazi plans to exterminate Jews.

Local amateur historian Kevin Nesbitt argued, for example, that since the real atrocities of the Holocaust didn’t start until 1941 or 1942, “it’s highly unlikely Langsdorff knew or ought to have known about them.”

Wiseman, the Ajax resident whose petition campaign started the renaming effort, rejected those arguments.

“I understand the desire to find something good here, but it isn’t there in Hans Langsdorff,” he said. “Right up to the end he fought for the Nazis and their cause.”

Where others point to Langsdorff’s personal conduct, Wiseman points to the sailor’s suicide note, in which he remarked: “I shall face my fate with firm faith in the cause and the future of the nation and of my Fuehrer.” Langsdorff also lauded Adolf Hitler as “a prophet, not a politician.”

B’nai Brith, which supported the renaming motion, praised the town’s decision.

“Today is a proud day for Ajax, for Ontario’s Jewish community, and for Canada as a whole,” CEO Michael Mostyn said in a news release. “Taking action against the glorification of Canada’s enemies and a man who fought for the most evil regime in history sends the right signal to those concerned about the rise of hate in our time.”

Monday’s motion by councillors Lisa Bowers and Sterling Lee directs town staff to hold an open house for residents of Langsdorff Drive and to report back to council with a recommended course of action to rename the street.

The Ajax controversy is the latest development in a series of debates over Nazi symbols in Canada. B’nai Brith has been working with the town of Lachute, Que. to prevent a local ceremony honouring a Nazi pilot; has been helping residents in Puslinch, Ont. opposed to a roadway named Swastika Trail; and is partnering with the Canadian Polish Congress to remove monuments honouring Nazi collaborators in Edmonton and Oakville, Ont.

Ontario Endorses IHRA Definition of Antisemitism: Jewish Groups Approve; Others are Upset

Oct. 27, 2020

Ontario has become the first province in Canada to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism – motivated by the recent anti-Jewish vandalism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.

In a statement, Government House Leader Paul Calandra said Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet “took swift and decisive action” on Monday (Oct. 26) to “adopt and recognize” the definition, even before the legislation could be passed.

“After a heinous act of antisemitism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa [on Oct. 14], it is crucial that all governments be clear and united in fighting anti-Semitism and our adoption of the working definition has done just that,” Calandra said in a statement on Oct. 27.

“The government of Ontario is proud to adopt and recognize the working definition of anti-Semitism. We stand with Ontario’s Jewish community in defence of their rights and fundamental freedoms as we always have and always will,” he said.

The “Combating Anti-Semitism Act,” known as Bill 168, passed second reading earlier this year. It sets out to use the IHRA definition as a framework for interpreting acts, regulations and policies going forward.

It was scheduled to go to committee hearings in late October for public input. But the government’s pre-emptive adoption of the definition means the committee suspended public hearings.

“The government decided to act swiftly in view of the events of Ottawa over the weekend,” York Centre Tory MPP Roman Baber told the CJR via-email, referring to antisemitic graffiti found etched into the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the capital.

“It also seemed appropriate given the second anniversary of the Pittsburgh shooting [at the Tree of Life Synagogue],” Baber stated.

The legislation will not go to third reading he noted, “as we have accomplished what Bill 168 set out to do.”

The move to adopt the definition and bypass public hearings was carried out by an Order in Council, which read as follows:

“On the recommendation of the undersigned, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, by and with the advice and concurrence of the Executive Council of Ontario, orders that:

Whereas the Government of Ontario believes that everyone deserves to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity;

And Whereas systemic racism, including antisemitism, is a persistent reality in Ontario preventing many from fully participating in society and denying them equal rights, freedoms, respect and dignity;

And Whereas on May 26, 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) decided at its Plenary in Bucharest to adopt a working definition of antisemitism;

Now therefore the Government of Ontario adopts and recognizes the Working Definition of Antisemitism, as adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Plenary on May 26, 2016.

Premier and President of the Council

Approved and Ordered: October 26, 2020.”

Jewish groups issued statements approving the development. They did so jointly – for the first time in recent memory.

Ontario joins “a growing number of jurisdictions, at all levels of government and around the world, in taking action against the growing threat posed to our society by antisemitism,” said Shimon Koffler Fogel, president and CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).

The IHRA definition “provides a framework that can help guide Ontario government institutions interested in understanding contemporary forms of antisemitism, such as Holocaust denial,” Fogel said.

The adoption of the definition and its many illustrative examples of antisemitism “is a major step forward. From high schools and university campuses to police hate-crime units, this announcement promises much-needed relief for Jews across the province,” stated B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn.

“Ontario will now be equipped to identify and react to incidents of antisemitism in a clear and precise way, and be better positioned to prevent antisemitism and react to it whenever it rears its head anywhere in the province. We applaud the Ontario government for becoming the first province in Canada to adopt the IHRA definition,” said Mostyn.

Michael Levitt, president and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC), applauded the move.

He called the IHRA definition of antisemitism “a vital tool in the ongoing fight against hatred and discrimination targeting the Jewish community in Ontario…By making clear what antisemitism is and looks like, the IHRA definition will allow civil society and government to work together more effectively in our shared goal of eliminating hatred in our province.”

Karen Mock, president of JSpace Canada, remarked that “there is clear consensus about the need to combat the alarming rise of antisemitism. We cannot protect our society from the scourge of antisemitism if we are unable to name it, to identify it properly, and to address it consistently. By adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism, the government of Ontario has demonstrated a commitment to implementing human rights and anti-racist policies.”

In a tweet, Ontario Liberal leader Steven Del Duca welcomed the development, saying he “fully support[s] the decision by #ON  to adopt the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism. There’s no place for hatred in Ontario, and this is an important step in the right direction.”

The New Democrats appeared to have been caught off guard by the government’s unexpected move.

In a statement on Oct. 27, the NDP said the government “secretly” adopted the legislation “behind closed doors and passed it by Ford edict instead of by democratic vote.”

Nearly 100 Ontarians asked for a chance to appear before the committee and “thousands” of messages were sent, the statement said.

“Antisemitism and antisemitic acts of hate are growing in Ontario, and we need to take concrete actions as a province to stomp out this growing, racist movement,” said NDP critic for the Attorney General Gurratan Singh. “Adopting a new definition of antisemitism should be done in consultation with the people of Ontario, and discussed in open and transparent debate.
 
“Excluding the voices of community members is no way to build a united coalition against hate.”
 
The NDP had voted for the bill on second reading “while explicitly and specifically saying it was doing so in order to ensure Ontarians would be welcomed into committee hearings, and amendments could be proposed,” the statement said.

Questioned by reporters later, NDP leader Andrea Horwath said she had “no idea” how the bill was handled.

“All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the government moved ahead on it. When we’re changing the laws in Ontario, we should really have public hearings.”

She said this and other examples of the Ford government cancelling public hearings are “pretty dictatorial. We were waiting to see the outcome of the public hearings and we didn’t get that opportunity, which is the whole point of having a democracy. You’re supposed to actually listen to people and not just ram things through.”

Groups that have opposed the IHRA definition because they believe it would silence criticism of Israel and squelch support for Palestinians were angered by the Ford government’s move, charging that was undemocratic.

NDP MPP Rima Berns-McGown, in a Facebook post, said she found it “appalling” that the government “did an end-run around democracy and snuck the IHRA definition through by order-in-council, the day before it was to go to justice committee hearings and the day before 100s of civil society organizations had asked to speak to it.

“It is obvious that they were afraid of the storm of public disgust that was on their way in committee — including by many respected Jewish public figures.”

Montreal-based Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), which supports the BDS campaign against Israel, condemned the Conservative government “for pulling the plug on democracy in an attempt to protect Israel from criticism.”

“We were less than 24 hours away before members of the public were set to testify before the committee about the dangers of IHRA in regards to free expression,” said Michael Bueckert, vice president of CJPME. “Apparently, the Ontario government didn’t like to see that they were receiving thousands of emails opposing IHRA, and they shamefully decided to pull the plug before Ontarians had a chance to share their opinions,” said Bueckert.

Another pro-BDS group, Independent Jewish Voices of Canada, said the government’s “anti-democratic order is fitting for the IHRA definition, which poses such a grave threat to democratic principles of free expression and the right to protest.

“One thing is for certain: that we will not be deterred from our efforts to denounce the state of Israel for its systemic racism against the Palestinians. If that means we will be engaging in civil disobedience, then so be it,” said a statement from Corey Balsam of IJV.

Mira Sucharov, professor of political science at Carleton University and founding co-chair of the Jewish Politics division at the Association for Jewish Studies, acknowledged that the Ontario government needs to combat antisemitism. “But by conflating criticism of Zionism with antisemitism, this particular definition is the wrong way to go about it,” she told the CJR.

The IHRA working definition of antisemitism is opposed by other organizations, including the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Federation of Students, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, and more. More than 450 Canadian academics signed an open letter opposing the IHRA definition’s adoption by universities, citing threats to academic freedom.

The working definition has been adopted by 35 countries, including Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Several cities have also endorsed it, while others have shelved it.

Bill 168 was a private member’s bill introduced by Conservative MPP Will Bouma in late 2019 and co-sponsored by fellow Tory MPP Robin Martin.

* The above expands a previous version of this story with quotes from the NDP, and clarifies that the Ford government’s move to adopt the IHRA definition unilaterally was done with all-party support.

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Free Speech?

Oct. 9, 2020

By ZACK BABINS

Picture a large Canadian university with a law school. The school is set to offer a directorship to an academic with a long history of pro-Israel scholarship and activism in Zionist causes.

At the last moment, a Canadian Muslim – a federal judge who, along with his family, have been massive donors to this school, likely in the millions – calls the school’s fundraising team. From that point on, negotiations with the Zionist academic are cancelled and the position is somehow “no longer available.”

What would we as a community do? 

Certainly, this school would be labeled antisemitic. It would make the Top 10 list of every “antisemitic school where Jewish students aren’t safe.” We would lament the decline of academia and people would warn their children to stay away from that “Jew-hating school.”

The influencers and organizations that make a living defending Israel would see a spike in donations.

Eventually, the right-wing pundits, Jewish and Gentile, would cry that free speech is about listening to arguments and ideas that you don’t like, and would wonder whether today’s students are so soft (and antisemitic) that they could not tolerate a Zionist Jewish teacher.

This isn’t a hypothetical. We just changed some parts of speech.

Explosive recent media reports alleged that Justice David Spiro, a Tax Court of Canada judge, megadonor to the University of Toronto, and former board member of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, had improperly interfered in the hiring of Prof. Valentina Azarova.

Azarova, who is not Palestinian but sympathetic to Palestinians, and more than occasionally focuses her academic work on the Palestinian cause, was reportedly quite close to landing a position as director of U of T’s International Human Rights Program. According to the school, the program isn’t hiring a director at all.

Law professor Audrey Macklin, who chaired the faculty advisory committee, and was part of the selection panel that unanimously found Azarova the best candidate for the job, resigned from the board in protest.

The Canadian Judicial Council is now considering multiple complaints about Spiro’s conduct. And over 1,000 lawyers, academics, and activists have signed a petition asking U of T’s law school to apologize and reinstate the job.

And in an open letter to University of Toronto President Meric Gertler, a slew of international law and human rights practitioners and law school faculty and staff said they are “deeply concerned” that U of T’s law school dean responded to “external pressure, following the objection of a law school donor to Dr. Azarova’s work on international law and human rights in the Israel-Palestine context.”

One would think that the champions of free speech would be all over this one. But the brave “marketplace of ideas” folks, who have no qualms defending transphobes, homophobes, racists and white nationalists under the banner of free speech, are nowhere to be found. Similarly, those who argue that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” just can’t be bothered to defend an academic who, by their standards, has had her right to free speech violated.

One op-ed submitted by a Jewish organization claimed that “a long history of one-sided critiques of Israel” justified these events. What if the shoe was on the other foot? If a long history of “one-sided activism” surrounding Israel can disqualify you from a job, well, I’ve got some bad news for a lot of my friends who went to Jewish day school, summer camp or synagogue. 

I haven’t even mentioned yet how damaging this move – which any PR consultant could tell you would not remain private for longer than a week – may be to Jewish students who are actually on campus, who will now face slurs and tropes about Jewish power and influence.

Frankly, I’ve never been a free speech evangelist. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing but it must be restrained by reasonable limits to protect marginalized communities from hatred and violence. History bears out that hate speech almost never remains “just words.” 

We either care about free speech or we don’t. We either care about academic freedom or we don’t. We either care about outside political interference in our universities – including the “outside agitators” that Hasbara organizations love to remind you are sent to campuses to scuttle BDS motions and anti-Israel campaigns – or we don’t.

To paraphrase the great “Rabbi” Jon Stewart, if you don’t stick to your values when they’re used by your opponents, you don’t have values. You have hobbies.

We have to make a decision – a microcosm of the same decision Israel has to make when it attempts to administer a democratic state that prioritizes one religion that’s necessary to the idea of a Jewish democracy.

Does Zionism – specifically, right-wing, tribal, expansionist, Revisionist Zionism that leaves no room for the humanity of Palestinians – supersede liberal democratic values like free speech? Are you prepared to defend Israel, no matter the cost? 

In other words, we must decide whether we are prepared to sacrifice our souls. I’m not prepared to do that, and I’m not alone.


Zack Babins

Zack Babins is a professional Jew and Recovering Jewish Professional™, a political communicator and activist, and amateur challah baker. All opinions are his own. You can find him on Twitter @zackbabins.

Israeli-Canadian Ya’ara Saks is Liberal Hopeful in York Centre

Oct. 5, 2020

By LILA SARICK

It’s been the challenges of being a single parent and business owner during the pandemic that led Ya’ara Saks to seek the nomination for the Liberals in this month’s federal byelection in York Centre.

As the city went into lockdown, the demand for services at the mental health agency where Saks is the director skyrocketed, she told the CJR in an interview.

Meanwhile, the yoga studio she owns had to shift to online classes and employees were struggling.

Ya’ara Saks

“My staff are part of the gig economy – many of them are women – and watching them try to figure out how to get through this, and the vulnerabilities it exposed, was a real eye-opener [that] we never really addressed,” said Saks. “This is the moment to address them.”

Last month, Saks was appointed the Liberal candidate by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, bypassing the traditional nomination process.

“I was as surprised as anyone,” said Saks, pointing out that the party’s decision accorded with its guidelines.

Gary Gladstone, who was unsuccessful as the Liberal candidate in last year’s federal election in Thornhill riding, was also seeking the nomination in York Centre. He said that although he was “disappointed” there was no riding vote, he would be supporting Saks. “I think she’s a wonderful candidate.”

Saks will face Conservative candidate Julius Tiangson, a Filipino-Canadian businessman who lost his bid for a seat in Mississauga in the 2015 federal election. Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, which does not have a seat in Parliament, has also indicated he is running in York Centre.

According to the 2016 census, 17 percent of the riding’s residents are of Filipino ethnic origin. The 2011 National Household Survey found that 13.6 percent of York Centre residents indicated they were Jewish. It has traditionally been a safe Liberal seat, although in 2011, Conservative Mark Adler defeated Liberal incumbent Ken Dryden. The Liberals recaptured the riding in 2015.

The byelection, scheduled for Oct. 26, was called after MP Michael Levitt stepped down to become CEO of the Canadian Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Apart from owning a yoga studio in the riding, Saks, 47, is the director of Trauma Practice for Healthy Communities, a charity that focuses on mental health. Addressing mental health issues, especially challenges that have arisen during the pandemic, will be a priority if she is elected, she said.

Saks, who was born in Toronto and has an Israeli father, spent her early years in both Canada and Israel, and her first language is Hebrew. “My family’s moshav, Even Yehuda (just outside Netanya) was and remains a central part of my life,” she said.

She moved to Israel in 1995 and earned a master’s degree from Hebrew University of Jerusalem in international relations and diplomacy. She spent several years in the Jerusalem mayor’s office, working on community engagement projects, and moved back to Toronto in 2006.

The Liberal stance on Israel dovetails with her own philosophy, she said.

“The policy of the Liberal Party as it stands today is that a negotiated agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis would be in the best interest of both societies, and I am in complete agreement,” she said. “I think that Israelis have the right to be safe and secure within their own borders. I also think that Palestinian society should have an opportunity to come to the table and negotiate as well.”

Saks has been a committee member of the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIF), and said those who fear the organization leans too far left should examine its mandate, which is to “support Israeli society and uphold its Declaration of Independence, which were the founding values of the country.”

The NIF’s goals are in fact “in very close alignment with Liberal values,” she said.

“If we want to push back against BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel], then we want to show that Israelis do care about having a strong, democratic and socially just society. If we can show that, what better way to push back against BDS and the underlying voices of antisemitism that come with it?” she asked.

Running an election campaign during a pandemic is a challenge, but Saks says it was crucial to hold the byelection now so constituents would be represented as the number of COVID cases climb again.

Elections Canada is working with the candidates to ensure that voting can be done safely, she said.

Saks is not concerned that she could be engaged in a second campaign soon after this one should the minority Liberal government be defeated in a non-confidence motion.

Reflecting on the years she lived in Israel, she noted she had experience with the country going to the polls multiple times.

“An election is not something to be afraid of,” she said. “An election is an opportunity to highlight your commitment to the values and the policies that have been put forward and to encourage voters to use their ballot to let us know what they want.”

The Abraham Accords: Winners and Losers

Sept. 24, 2020 – By JON ALLEN

The recent UAE-Israel-U.S.A. agreement takes the immediate prospects of Israel’s illegal annexation of part of the West Bank off the table in exchange for full diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain has followed suit, and others – Oman, Sudan and Morocco – could soon. These accords have been variously described as breakthrough peace agreements, an arms deal, and a stab in the back of the Palestinian people.

Clearly, where one stands on this agreement depends on where one sits. For the UAE, the U.S. and Israel, this is a good deal, with multiple benefits. For Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Palestinians it’s either unwelcome or very bad news.

For the UAE, the accords bring into the open a relationship with Israel that, until now, has flown under the radar. The deal will allow the transfer of strategic defence and intelligence equipment, technology and training that could reinforce its credibility as a leading Gulf state, and help defend itself against its existential enemy, Iran.

The accord also puts the UAE in the good books of the U.S. Congress, the Trump Administration, and Joe Biden. In return for helping Donald Trump dig himself out of his failed Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and depending on the will of the next Congress, the agreement could pave the way for the sale to the UAE of F-35 stealth fighter jets, radar scrambling aircraft, and other American defence equipment.

For the U.S., the agreements are also a plus. By diverting attention from Trump’s “deal of the century” that was going nowhere, and by helping Israel obtain two breakthrough recognition agreements, Trump solidifies his support among the right wing of the U.S. Jewish community and among American evangelicals. The billions that the UAE may spend on F-35s and other materiel are bonuses.

Finally, by taking annexation off the table, the deal removes potential acrimony between the Netanyahu government and the Biden campaign, and between Biden and the right wing of the Jewish community. 

That said, foreign policy issues rarely play a major role in U.S. elections, and these accords are unlikely to give Trump much of a bump in the polls or a fast track to the Nobel Peace Prize that he so desperately seeks.

For Israel, establishment of full relations with important Gulf states – and the legitimacy that confers – and the hope that more could follow, is huge. If the accords lead to a strategic relationship centred on confronting Iran, that development could signal an even greater shift in the region. And that could come without Israel having to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians – the previous sine qua non to any recognition by Arab states.

Finally, the deal was a personal victory for Netanyahu and a brief respite at a time when he is being criticized at home for his failure to manage the economy and the COVID crisis.

Possible downsides of the agreement for Bibi include incurring the wrath of the pro-annexation settler movement. For Israel, a concern is the possible shifting of the strategic balance in the region as a result of the sale of sophisticated equipment to the UAE and other Gulf states that could potentially challenge Israel’s qualitative military edge.

In the medium term, if the agreement convinces Israelis that they can now somehow ignore the Palestinian question, such a notion could pose an existential threat to the nation’s future as a democratic state and the home of the Jewish people.

As mentioned, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia lost ground as a result of the accords. Turkey, which has had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1949, attacked the UAE for its act of recognition. Turkey also is in conflict with the UAE in both Libya and Yemen, and finds common cause with Iran on various issues, including support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. The deal clearly poses challenges on all these fronts.

Of course, Iran is Israel’s strongest and most vocal enemy. By boosting Israel’s legitimacy, breaking ranks among Arab and Muslim nations, and allowing the UAE to enhance its defence capabilities, the deal poses a direct threat to Iran’s credibility in the region at a time when U.S. sanctions, COVID, and a failing economy are already weakening Iranian leadership.

Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, also lost some ground. The Saudis’ disastrous forays into Yemen and Libya, coupled with the Jamal Khashoggi assassination, had already put the prince in the U.S. Congress’ bad books. The UAE departed Yemen last year in part to disassociate itself from the Saudis. By offering recognition to Israel without meeting the Arab Peace Initiative’s preconditions, the UAE further disassociated itself from the Saudis. Finally, if Congress does approve the sale of weapons and planes, the UAE will have an enhanced strategic relationship with both the U.S. and Israel that could leave the Saudis playing second fiddle for a time.

As suggested, however, this agreement bodes the worst for the Palestinians. To this point, the quid pro quo for any Arab recognition of Israel was a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians based on the Arab Peace Initiative. The Abraham Accords instead trade removing the threat of annexation – an illegal act that was heavily criticized by the international community – for full diplomatic relations.

To add insult to injury, all efforts by the Palestinians to bring the issue before the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council failed miserably. No consensus on criticizing the agreements could be achieved. Palestinian hopes that the Arab street in the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia might react strongly also were dashed. The only notable protests occurred in the Territories themselves.

Indeed, the only two positive elements of the accords for the Palestinians are that they united Palestinians (Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad) in their opposition to them, and that they staved off legislated annexation, at least for now.

The accords’ long-term prospects are harder to predict when it comes to the Palestinians. The UAE and Bahrain claim that they have not forgotten the Palestinians. Will they and others now pressure Israel to begin negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on realistic terms? Will they oppose further settlement expansion? What role will Mohammed Dachlan, a pretender to PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ throne and an important adviser to the UAE, play in the future?

I agree with some who say it is crucial for the Palestinian Authority to replace its sclerotic leadership with new blood through open and transparent elections, to bring forward its own proposals for a two-state solution, and to dispel the notion that the Palestinians are only able to say no.

I disagree, however, with those who suggest that the time is now ripe for such a move. No legitimate proposal for a two-state solution that requires compromises on both sides will be negotiated as long as Netanyahu remains prime minister. He has made clear more than once that Palestinian statehood will not happen on his watch. Moreover, the blatantly pro-Israel terms of Trump’s so-called peace plan belies any hope that his Administration might act as an honest broker in such a negotiation.

Rather, the Palestinians should reform their political class, develop a serious draft peace proposal, consult with key Arab states and American allies on the substance and the process going forward, and act boldly once both Trump and Bibi have left the scene.


Jon Allen

Jon Allen is a Senior Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and served as Canada’s ambassador to Israel from 2006 to 2010.

Beinart: Time to Talk to, not About Palestinians

Aug. 24, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

Peter Beinart has a solution for the decades-old crisis in the Middle East: Start seeing Palestinians as human beings.

Once that happens, the controversial journalist told an on-line discussion Aug. 18, the movement to make Israel a fair and just society for all its citizens can start.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

“The Jewish community talks about Palestinians, but does not talk to Palestinians,” he told the session. “That process of talking about people instead of to them is dehumanizing.”

One result of that process, he said, is the “omnipresent” Jewish view of Palestinians as terrorists – an idea that stifles any effort to bring the two communities together.

Beinart, an American journalist and commentator who appears frequently on CNN, has become a controversial figure after publishing a July essay arguing Jews must give up the idea of separate Israeli and Palestinian states in favour of a single nation with equal rights for all its citizens.

“The question isn’t, ‘are Jews willing to live in a country that’s half Palestinian,’ but ‘are they willing to live in a country where half of the population is disenfranchised?’” he asked.

Winning equal rights for Palestinians, he added, will be a result of the same kind of social movements that were led by Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States and Mahatma Gandhi in India.

“One state is more likely to produce that kind of movement than a divided entity,” he said. “One day things are going to shift on the ground because the Palestinians will not accept their denial of rights forever.”

Beinart admitted his argument isn’t likely to change the minds of Israeli leaders; it’s just human nature for those in power to be reluctant to give it up.

“When one group has all the rights and power, they’re very unlikely to want to change that,” he said. “We have to make Israelis understand they can’t continue to control millions of people who lack even basic rights.”

The Zoom event was jointly sponsored by JSpace Canada and Khouri Conversations. JSpace describes itself as a progressive voice for a negotiated Middle Eastern settlement while opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

Khouri Conversations is a non-profit agency supporting the Canadian ideals of inclusion and multiculturalism.

Seeing Israel as anything other than a Jewish state is a tough concept for many to absorb, the panel heard.

For example, JSpace moderator Karen Mock, for example, said her organization remains dedicated to the idea of “two states for two people,” while also supporting a settlement based on “mutual recognition, peaceful coexistence and security.”

That position was echoed by Bob Katz, chair of the Toronto chapter of Canadian Friends for Peace Now.

“I am absolutely wedded to the two-state solution and it’s going to be very hard to shake me from that,” he said.

Katz added that an important step forward is to prevent Israel from expansion into the West Bank with more Jewish settlements and new infrastructure, such as a proposed medical school in the region.

“It’s critical for Jews here to convince Jews in Israel not to create new facts on the ground like that every time they turn around,” he said.


Steve Arnold
Steve Arnold

Steve Arnold worked 42 years in Canadian journalism, retiring in 2016 from The Hamilton Spectator. He holds a BA in history and political science, an MA in public policy analysis and has received 25 awards for writing excellence. He now lives in St. Catharines, Ontario.

The UAE-Israel Agreement: Winners and Losers

Aug. 19, 2020 – By Barbara Landau

Progressive Jews applaud the announcement that the United Arab Emirates and Israel have reached an historic agreement. The deal to normalize relations has been waiting since the Arab Initiative was offered in 2002. Steps toward peace with Israel’s Arab neighbours clearly benefit the Jewish state and increase stability and security cooperation amid threats from Iran and other radical states.

This historic and surprising announcement came on the heels of Donald Trump’s “Deal of a Century” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to unilaterally annex parts of the Jordan Valley. While Trump is claiming credit for this new deal, the applause really belongs to a loud chorus of voices, in particular from the UAE, as well as Jordan, the European Union, American political pundits, and the global progressive Jewish community, including a strong cooperative effort across Canadian Jewish organizations and the Reform movement.

There was consensus that both proposals were a major threat to any hope of a two-state solution or peace with the Palestinians. In jeopardy was the very success we are celebrating – warming relations with Arab neighbours. Our achievement is that unilateral annexation is now on hold and the future of Trump’s original deal has been at least temporarily mothballed.

Before we breathe a sigh of relief, we need to look at what was not included in this latest announcement.

First, annexation may not be off the table. Before the ink on the UAE deal was dry, Netanyahu was claiming that he intended to proceed with annexation after a period of “suspension.” This was to reassure his settler base, many of whom decried both Trump’s deal and UAE agreement because both leave open the possibility of a two-state resolution. They want one state incorporating all of “Judea and Samaria” without offering citizenship to Palestinians, a move that would again risk international condemnation. Whether settlers can rely on Netanyahu’s reassurance is thankfully open to question.

An optimistic view is that while applauding the agreement between the UAE and Israel as a significant step to counter the threat of Iran and other potential adversaries, Netanyahu will not jeopardize his return to celebrity status just when he faces corruption charges and widespread protests against his handling of COVID and the Israeli economy. Also, the UAE deal made it clear that “normalization of relations” is the payoff for no annexation.

For Trump, with an election looming, the applause is a welcome change of the channel from citizen unrest and widespread criticism. Even Democratic candidate Joe Biden has offered his blessing, giving Trump an opportunity to claim credit and appeal to his fragmenting American Jewish base. For now, Trump is clear that unilateral annexation is not in the cards, despite the contrary assurance by David Friedman, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, that the delay is “for now.”

The question is, “what does Israel need to ensure its future as a peaceful and a democratic state?” While acceptance in the Arab world is very important, how critical is reaching a viable and just deal with the Palestinians? If it is essential, then the question is, “will this announcement help?”

The answer to that question is likely no. Yet again, the Palestinians played no role in the negotiations. They apparently were not consulted or even informed. Their status is yet again diminished, and they are understandably angry and feel betrayed.

This should be of concern to Israel because the likely result is further instability within the Palestinian Authority and a potential outpouring of frustration and despair directed at Israel. Such violence has largely been avoided because of the security cooperation between Israel and the P.A. that ended when Netanyahu announced his annexation plan.

While normalized relations with the UAE and potentially other Arab countries is news to celebrate, what is missing? As Diaspora Jews who care deeply about Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state, the elephant not in the room is the occupation – or ending it.

Where can we look for reassurance that peace will triumph? While the UAE and the U.S. claim that Netanyahu agreed to resume direct two-state negotiations, this was not spelled out in the text of the agreement. Netanyahu’s deafening silence about this in his triumphant announcement to Israelis means caution is warranted.  

What might cause concern? Recent years have seen serious challenges to Israel’s democracy and the prospects for peace: The “Nation State Law,” the continued settlement expansion, the undermining of civil rights of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, and the attacks on judicial independence. The unilateral declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by the U.S. and the unilateral annexation of the Golan Heights are all in contradiction to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that put reciprocal demands on Israel in exchange for its considerable olive branch:  

The 2002 Arab Peace initiative…

…reaffirms the resolution taken in June 1996 at the Cairo extraordinary Arab summit that a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East is the strategic option of the Arab countries, to be achieved in accordance with international legality, and which would require a comparable commitment on the part of the Israeli government. (Emphasis mine).

Arab Peace Initiative

The current UAE-Israel agreement makes no such explicit demand and leaves the occupation and creeping annexation in place. So while we celebrate today, what does the future hold for peace based on two states for two peoples? If this dream is erased, what is the alternative? My hope is that we will keep a watchful eye and continue our advocacy for a genuine and secure peace.


Barbara Landau
Dr. Barbara Landau

Dr. Barbara Landau is a lawyer, psychologist and mediator. She is a board member and chairs the Shared Society Committee of JSpaceCanada and is the Canadian representative on the J-Link Coordinating Committee. She participated in three Compassionate Listening peace-building missions to Israel and Palestine. She co-chairs the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims (CAJM), is co-founder of “Together in Hope,” a Jewish, Palestinian/Arab women’s dialogue group. Barbara is a partner in Givat Haviva’s “Heart to Heart” Alumni Program, whose goal is building shared society for Jewish and Palestinian Israeli youth and their parents.

Book Review: The Two-State Dilemma

The Two-State Dilemma: A Game Theory Perspective on the Israeli Palestinian Conflict (Barlow Publishing), By Michael Dan

By RAJA G. KHOURI and JEFFREY J. WILKINSON.

Michael Dan’s new book, The Two-State Dilemma: A Game Theory Perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, makes three bold and provocative statements within its opening pages: One: “The two-state game has ended; a new game is now underway.” Two: “What’s happening today in the Palestinian Territories isn’t occupation – it’s colonization.” Finally, “What further use do we have for Zionism? Why bother clinging to an ideological relic from the nineteenth century?”

Dan writes dispassionately about issues that have inflamed passions on all side for decades, and in these three statements, he implodes the principal arguments held so dearly by progressive Zionists: That the two-state solution is dead, that we can no longer call for an end to the occupation because it is de facto colonization; and that Zionism is an anachronistic notion that has served its purpose and is no longer worth holding onto.

Dan pushes this even further by declaring that Israel is not a liberal democracy, but an ethnocracy, meaning that “according to its own constitution, Israel is not a ‘state of all its citizens.’ The legal sovereign of the state of Israel is the Jewish people – regardless of their citizenship status or place of residence in the world.”

Michael Dan
Michael Dan

The author makes clear his book is not prescriptive, but “it might help us to think about [the conflict] in original and counter-intuitive ways.” After setting the table with the above proactive statements, he gives a primer on game theory for conflict resolution, beginning with the well-known “prisoner’s dilemma,” in which two individuals, acting in their own self-interest, will never produce the optimal outcome, but if they cooperate, can both do better.

Game theory, as outlined by Dan, relies on non-zero sum (non-binary) solutions to difficult situations. He states: “Since biblical times, every major conflict in the Middle East has been framed as an ‘us versus them’ trade-off: a zero-sum game in which one side’s gains represent the other side’s losses. Game theory on the other hand provides “an opportunity for rational co-operation between two opponents.”

In the prisoner’s dilemma, where two prisoners have an option of snitching on each other to the police or remaining silent, the best possible collective outcome for both is realized when the prisoners cooperate and remain silent. Betrayal of the other by both would produce the worst possible collective outcome. The key ingredient to cooperation is a high level of trust. Will the other party cooperate if I did, and what is the risk to me if they don’t?

When applied to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Dan feels the best collective outcome is achieved by a one-state solution in which everyone will have equal rights and access to the entire land of Historic Palestine. Such a “utopian scenario” will require a great deal of trust between the two parties.

The two-state option is second best, given that while it produces, for each party, independence from the other, each side will have access to only their part of a divided land.

The author believes there are no desirable remaining options, which are a non-democratic Zionist state where a Jewish minority governs over a Palestinian majority (because of demographics); or a democratic Arab state where an Arab majority rules over a Jewish minority.

Dan’s focuses on the “Nash Equilibrium” and the “Pareto Principle,” and applies those to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Nash Equilibrium is when suspicion of the other leads you to try to undermine the other party before they do the same to you. It very much describes the behavior of Palestinians and Israelis throughout the Oslo peace process. The Pareto Principle is the opposite: Optimality is achieved by arriving at the best possible collective outcome. Dan writes:

From a game theory perspective, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be reduced to a dilemma between co-operating with the other side (be it Israeli or Palestinian) in the hope that they will co-operate with you, or betraying the other side because you’re almost certain that they will betray you. It all comes down to trust. 

Dan brings a cool, surgical approach to his analysis. Those traits come honestly: He’s a trained neurosurgeon and a PhD in medicine, with an MBA to boot. A social entrepreneur, he’s donated millions to First Nations, universities, St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital, and various charities.

He’s uncompromising, both in his analysis of how we got here, and his conclusions in how to move forward. He lays out a strong case in support of his three opening statements, charting how the notion of two states failed 80 years ago with the Peel Commission and has “been on life support ever since.”

He unflinchingly makes his case that Zionism is a colonial project whose usefulness has run its course, while the occupation is a colonization by a military power. He supports these arguments by painting a detailed historical account of what has happened from the inception of the Zionist vision to today.

Dan denotes three Zionist dilemmas: Demographics (which do not favour Jews), Palestinian national legitimacy (recognized by former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as part of the Oslo Accords), and the partitioning of Historic Palestine (that has continuously failed). Using game theory, he shows how each of these dilemmas feed into the other and renders the status quo an impossible zero-sum exercise.

The author’s scientific approach may defuse some of the natural emotions the reader will certainly bring to the subject. This dispassion also creates a feeling of neutrality that some might view as insensitivity to the plight of Palestinians. We would argue that Dan’s pragmatic approach is especially valuable in these times, in which rhetoric from both sides rarely allows room for objective reasoning.

Applying game theory to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a bold new approach and this is a very worthwhile read. Dan’s precision in his examination of history and deployment of science in order to rethink this age-old conflict is refreshing. The integrity of his analysis is hard to come by, as is the courage of his convictions.


Raja Khoury
Raja Khoury

Raja Khouri is founder and CEO of  Khouri Conversations, was founding president of the Canadian Arab Institute, a former Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, is Canada Committee member of Human Rights Watch, and co-founder of the Canadian Arab/Jewish Leadership Dialogue Group.


Jeff Wilkinson
Jeffrey J. Wilkinson, PhD

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.



Raja and Jeffrey are the co-authors of an upcoming book addressing the current polarization in the Jewish-Palestinian discourse within the two Diasporas.

MP Deletes Tweet That Falsely Accused Israel

Aug. 10, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

A Hamilton, Ont., Member of Parliament has quietly deleted a tweet that accused Israel of demolishing a COVID testing centre in the Palestinian city of Hebron.

The controversial June 19 tweet drew angry responses from the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa and Jewish advocacy agencies, including B’nai Brith and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).

“Pleased to see MP Matthew Green belatedly delete his false anti-Israel tweet, but an MP should be transparent enough to admit such a mistake, so that his followers aren’t misled,” B’nai Brith Canada tweeted after discovering that Green’s posting was no longer available.

In June, Green, the NDP member for Hamilton Centre, said “hundreds” had contacted him with “serious concerns” over allegations that Israeli forces had demolished a badly-needed COVID testing centre in Hebron.

Matthew Green
Matthew Green

“I condemn this blatant disregard for human life during this pandemic,” Green stated.

His tweet missed its mark on several fronts. Just before it appeared, the Jerusalem Post reported that the civil authority in Hebron tore down a building there in July, but it was a car dealership being constructed without approval.

Only after the building was demolished did the owner post a notice claiming it was to have been a COVID test centre.

In April, Israel did demolish a planned but unapproved COVID clinic in the predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, just outside Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Israeli Embassy said the structure was operating without required municipal permits, and pointed out that there are several health centers close to Silwan that provide free COVID services to anyone.

“There are dozens of health facilities within a 5km radius of Silwan (excluding 7!! major hospitals) legally administering #COVID19tests and treatment to ALL, regardless of religion/cultural background,” the Embassy tweeted.

“Like Canada and its municipalities, lawful permits are required to build new structures, especially ones that administer health care.

“Just as it would not be acceptable for an unauthorized makeshift ‘testing’ facility to be constructed in someone’s front yard in Hamilton, it is also the case in Israel,” the Embassy’s statement added.

An unnamed Civil Administration spokesman told the Post that “contrary to the false claims, this was not a center for coronavirus testing,” and not a health clinic. “That’s a total lie. We condemn the cynical use of a global crisis at the expense of the Palestinians in Hebron,” he added.

Green did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.


Steve Arnold
Steve Arnold