MONTREAL—The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism does not stifle criticism of Israel or discredit advocacy for Palestinian rights, says Canada’s first ever Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.
A key role for Irwin Cotler, who was named to the new post by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Nov. 25, is leading Canada’s delegation to the IHRA, an intergovernmental organization founded more than 20 years ago and headquartered in Berlin.
Canada endorsed the legally non-binding working definition of antisemitism, formulated in 2016, in June 2019 as part of an anti-racism plan. This October, Ontario became the first province to accept the definition.
Opponents of the definition point to clauses that make it antisemitic to claim that the existence of Israel is “a racist endeavour” or to apply a “double standard” to Israel not expected of other democratic nations.
This is an unpaid, part-time position for Cotler, 80, whose work with the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which he founded after leaving politics in 2015 and chairs, will continue as before.
Charges that the IHRA definition will be used as a weapon against pro-Palestinian advocacy, including the promotion of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, are unwarranted and disingenuous, Cotler believes.
“It’s turning it on its head,” he told the CJR in an interview. “There is no intention to silence Palestinian advocacy; on the contrary. The definition states clearly that criticism of Israel is not in itself antisemitism…What is antisemitic is denying Israel’s right to exist. Singling out Israel for opprobrium and indictment is hateful, and to not say so is discriminatory.”
Cotler said he “fully affirms Palestinian rights, that the Palestinians are a people with the right to self-determination, including a free, independent and fully protected state. I have said it over and over again.”
As envoy, he is tasked to support the implementation of the definition across the country and internationally, in concert with civil society and academia.
“The definition is the first international normative set of standards for understanding what antisemitism and facilitating how to combat it in domestic and foreign policy,” he explained. “It’s basically a set of metrics as to when the line is crossed.”
Cotler urged the creation of the Special Envoy position during a face-to-face meeting with Trudeau in late 2019. Most of Canada’s allies, and notably the United States and United Kingdom, have had similar posts for years.
“I’m committed to doing this for one year. Then I’ll be happy to hand it over to somebody else,” said Cotler, who was a member of the Canadian delegation at the IHRA’s founding in Stockholm.
He stressed that the definition is an affirmation of “the right of the Jewish people and Israel to live as equal members of the family of nations…It’s anchored in international human rights and equality laws.”
In his home province and city, the definition has not gained much traction. A motion to adopt it has not come before the National Assembly, and the City of Montreal last year shelved it for further study.
“It’s an educative process,” said Cotler. “When people better appreciate that this is basically an anti-discrimination framework, protecting Jews individually and collectively, I believe they will adopt it. But as long as there are voices misrepresenting what it is, it will take a while.”
My wife jokes that the two reasons she failed to learn constitutional law at McGill University’s law school are named Irwin Cotler and Natan Sharansky.
In the mid-1980s, Cotler, her constitutional law professor, was busy flying to Moscow and missing lectures in an effort to free Sharansky from the Gulag. Today, I joke that two of the reasons I don’t get a lot of sleep are named Cotler and Sharansky.
At the age of 80, the indefatigable Cotler sets such a high standard of productivity and impact, you want to keep up. Just yesterday, he was named by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as Canada’s first Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism. Meanwhile, his younger 72-year-old friend, Sharansky, and I just finished a three-year-marathon writing and rewriting and more rewriting project, which resulted in our new book, Never Alone.
These days, I hope, young people will joke that two of the reasons they balance their deep pride in being Jewish and Zionist with a broad commitment to human rights and fixing the world are named Cotler and Sharansky, too.
Sadly, in our either-or world, these human rights activists and traditional liberals risk being unfashionable. Beyond supporting Israel, they dare to be complex thinkers. When people demand they choose liberalism or nationalism, identity or freedom, Jewish particularism or universalism, they answer, “yes, both.” They understand that to row effectively, you need two oars; that for a bird to fly, let alone soar, it needs two wings.
In the late 1970s, Cotler, already a renowned McGill law professor and human rights lawyer, started representing Sharansky, essentially deputized by Natan’s wife, Avital. Back then, even some Israeli operatives read Zionism too narrowly. As we describe in Never Alone, these Zionists-with-blinders feared that Sharansky’s work with the Soviet human rights icon Andrei Sakharov and the broader dissident movement endangered the Refusenik movement’s fight for free emigration for Soviet Jews to Israel. The Israelis didn’t understand that to the KGB, seeking to leave was as threatening as speaking out. Still, they pressured Avital, suggesting she divorce her husband because the KGB was going to jail him, and Israel wouldn’t be able to protect him because he crossed some line They also pressured Cotler, among others, to stay away from Sharansky. None of them broke.
While appealing to international tribunals and Soviet courts, snaring the Communist dictators in their own hypocrisies, Cotler helped score a huge victory. Two months after Sharansky’s arrest in 1977 on trumped-up charges of espionage, rumours were flying about him in the West. Cotler and other lawyers, especially his Harvard law school colleague Alan Dershowitz, turned to Dershowitz’s former student, Stuart Eizenstat, then U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser. Eizenstat convinced Carter to break from standard American policy and declare that Sharansky wasn’t an America spy. Denying one accusation risked implying that others might be guilty. Carter’s bold statement helped tremendously.
For all their similarities in vision and ideology, for all their contributions to Zionism and human rights, there’s a profound difference. Our book is divided into three parts – 9-9-9 – for Sharansky’s nine years in Gulag, nine years in the Israeli government (he served in four cabinets, including as interior minister and deputy prime minister), and nine years as head of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He often jokes that he doesn’t know where he suffered most, but usually replies, “in politics.”
Not that he wasn’t effective. His many accomplishments range from helping Russian immigrants settle, to furthering Israel’s privatization, to building bridges between Israeli Arabs and Jews, the ultra-Orthodox and others, and between Israel and the Diaspora.
Still, Sharansky hated being a politician: the compromising, the posturing, the nattering. He jokes it was easy in prison. “All you had to say was ‘no.’” He describes his political “failure” by saying: “I was in four prisons and never resigned; I was in four governments and resigned twice.”
By contrast, Cotler served for 16 years as a Member of Parliament, as a Minister of Justice and Attorney General for three of those, and thrived. He retired, somewhat reluctantly, in 2015 at age 75, having been selected by his peers as Canadian Parliamentarian of the Year. Recalling that when he was 11, his father told him the Parliament represented vox populi, Cotler said: “This is the voice of the people. This is the seat of governance. This is where the laws of the country are made. This is where the national debates take place. This is where coalitions can form across party lines on certain cases and causes and move them forward.”
Note the power of programming. Sharansky survived in the Gulag as “Mr. No.” Cotler thrived as a lawyer, professor, activist, and parliamentarian by getting to Yes. Democracy in general and human rights work in particular requires both skill-sets – from different practitioners. You need Sharansky-dissidents taking those stands as outsiders, and you need Cotler-lawyer-legislators as insiders building the platforms on which those stands are made – as well as the safety nets to save the dissidents when necessary.
I have benefited immensely by learning from both. Their lives prove that when you belong to the Jewish people you are Never Alone – and that no matter how brave or visionary you are, you cannot accomplish much alone. You need teamwork, people with different skills, changing the world step by step, insiders and outsiders, “Mr. No” and “Getting to Yes,” working together.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100 – one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life” – Gil Troy is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three books on Zionism. His book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky, was recently published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.
On Oct. 27, Ontario became the first province in Canada to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. JSpaceCanada, the organization we represent, joined the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center in applauding this decision.
As most in our community are aware, we do not always see eye to eye with these organizations. As a progressive Zionist Jewish voice, we are unapologetic in our opposition to the Israeli occupation and emphatic in our support for a two-state solution – positions that aren’t always shared by more dominant community institutions.
But on this occasion, we felt the need to rise above these differences. While our community has diverse voices and opinions, 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.
The IHRA definition states: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
The definition has been given broad acceptance by Jewish communities around the world. By adopting it, Ontario is following the anti-racist/anti-oppression norm that victimized groups can best define the terms that describe discrimination against them.
However, it must be noted that the IHRA definition does not come without its critics.
Shortly after we released our statement in support of the provincial government’s decision to bypass public committee hearings and proceed to endorsement, we received concerned, disappointed, and even angry messages from allies and colleagues in the Arab community, who noted that the IHRA definition has been used to suppress criticism of Israel in jurisdictions around the world.
Indeed, the IHRA definition comes with a list of illustrative examples of antisemitism, some of which have been interpreted as appearing to conflate criticism of Zionism and Israel with antisemitism.
The definition, as drafted by Kenneth Stern and an international team of scholars, was meant to be used as a tool or resource to assist in identification and documentation, and not to be legally binding. However, there is great concern that the IHRA definition has been weaponized by right-wing groups to suppress even tepid criticism of Israel – a reality that has been acknowledged by Stern himself.
But we can understand why reference to the IHRA language is alarming for communities who experience Israel and Zionism differently than Jews do. And we acknowledge the distinctions and relationships between antisemitism and criticism of Israel.
Criticizing Israeli policy is not inherently antisemitic. Indeed, the IHRA definition itself specifies that “criticism of Israel similar to that against any other state cannot be considered to be antisemitic.”
As a progressive Zionist organization, JSpaceCanada has actively criticized discriminatory Israeli government policies, and we will continue to do so, challenging Israel to fulfill the promise of its Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between well-meaning critics of Israel and those who are influenced by antisemitism, or may cross the line into antisemitic rhetoric.
We will continue to call for the cautious application of the IHRA definition in keeping with the drafters’ intent, to ensure it does not supress freedom of speech or academic freedom. In the same vein, we would expect that definitions of racism or any form of discrimination should not be used to silence speech that does not meet one of the criteria of hate speech.
We are committed to monitoring and speaking out against any attempt to misuse the IHRA definition to attack Palestinian activism or to promote Islamophobia. And we will defend those whom we feel have been wrongfully accused of antisemitism.
Dr. Karen Mock is the President of JSpaceCanada Jordan Devon is the Vice-President of JSpaceCanada. JSpaceCanada is an all-volunteer, non-partisan, progressive Jewish organization.
The newly published Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People by Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy (PublicAffairs, 480 pages) offers an intimate portrait of the man who spent nine years as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union for his activism on behalf of Jewish emigration and who, after his release in 1986, became an outspoken politician in Israel. More recently, he was head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Troy, who made aliyah 10 years ago, continues to serve as a Distinguished Scholar in North American history at McGill University, where he’s taught from 1990. A specialist in the U.S. presidency, the New York-born Troy is a prolific author on the subject, as well as on Zionism. His most recent previous book was The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland.
The CJR interviewed Troy about Never Alone and his impressions of Sharansky.
How long have you personally known Natan Sharansky? How long did you work on the book together, and how much are his words/ideas vs. yours?
I had the privilege of first meeting him in the early 2000s when he was Diaspora Affairs Minister, among other positions. He was very concerned about antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campus, and I shared that concern as a McGill professor. It was mostly, however, a “hello, how are you?” type relationship, with occasional brainstorming meetings in his Jewish Agency office.
When I finished my last book, The Zionist Ideas, I asked him to write the preface, thinking of him as the most prominent and legendary Zionist in the world today. He kindly agreed – then turned it around and asked me to be his co-author.
We were true co-authors. We worked extremely closely together for three years, arguing lovingly about every word, every phrase, every logical sequence. And yet, in all that time, despite coming from such different worlds, we never had an ideological disagreement. So the book truly is our words, our voice – we call this a “memoir-festo,” a manifesto and memoir, because we are using his life story to tell a broader story about Jewish peoplehood and freedom.
Why the title Never Alone?
I was brainstorming with a good friend, David Suissa, [a former Montrealer now living in Los Angeles]. I told him that the KGB kept telling Natan, “you’re forgotten, you’re abandoned, you’re alone,” but Natan says, “I knew I was never alone.”
“That’s it!” David shouts. “For 75 years we’ve emphasized ‘Never Again’ – and of course we will always revere our Holocaust martyrs – but our message now is that if you are a part of this amazing people called the Jewish people, you can know you are never alone.”
What surprised you the most in getting to know Sharansky so personally? Were there any revelations?
The newsiest part for me – and the most surprising – is that this guy is the real deal. This is a story of a man [and his wife Avital] who should have been crushed by the Soviet Union. Instead, they stood up, resisted, became symbols of freedom, and are now doing everything they can to continue the struggle, while living the simple, humble life they fought so hard to enjoy.
What does Sharansky have to say concerning Canada, about Irwin Cotler, who acted as his legal counsel while he was in prison, and the Soviet Jewry movement here? Of more recent note, the book discloses that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to dissuade emigration of French Jews to Canada to ensure their aliyah. True?
There is some fascinating Canadian content: heroes like Irwin Cotler, one of his attorneys, along with Andrea Bronfman and the Group of 35, [who] were part of that army of “students and housewives” that literally saved his life. “Students and housewives” was the dismissive phrase of one of his KGB interrogators that Sharansky, in typical fashion, flipped into a flag of honour.
When Natan arrived in Israel, Andrea and Charles [Bronfman] were among the donors who helped him ease the way for other Soviet Jews arriving by bankrolling innovative programs. Irwin Cotler remains a close friend of both authors, and a mentor to me.
And yes, Natan does report that Bibi thought that [then Prime Minister] Stephen Harper’s sympathetic, enthusiastically pro-Israel Conservative government might discourage French Jews from moving to Canada and encourage them to move to Israel. Natan [and I] approach Zionism differently. We don’t want to be commissars of Zionism; we encourage an Aliyah of Choice based on Identity Zionism, a decision to join the Jewish people and live in the Jewish homeland to seek ideological fulfillment and a certain kind of communal experience, not because you are forced to or fear antisemitism.
What opinion does he express about Netanyahu? Donald Trump?
Natan and Bibi have been friends for 30 years. Natan is grateful for all that Bibi did to save Soviet Jews, and to defend Israel’s security as effectively as he has. But Natan is also repeatedly disappointed by Bibi’s demagoguery against Arabs and against critics, and felt personally betrayed when Netanyahu sabotaged the Western Wall compromise to welcome egalitarian prayer at the Kotel – especially because Bibi himself knew how important it was.
Natan [and I] were stunned that American Jews couldn’t thank Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or now, can’t appreciate the breakthrough of the Abraham Accords. But we are both dismayed and often appalled by Trump’s boorishness, his bullying, and his uncharacteristic caution when it comes to clearly denouncing the antisemitic extremists who have felt encouraged by his rise to power and his rhetoric.
What does Sharansky say about the state of Israel today or its future?
In the book, we propose what we call the Driving Test: in what direction is Israel or any country going? We are happy to report that, despite some worries here and there, the directional signals all point positively. Take a simple test: would you rather be in the Israel of 1950 or 2000 or 2020? There’s a lot of false nostalgia about early Israel, but Arabs have more equal rights today, Mizrachim [non-Ashkenazi Jews] enjoy more respect, we are closer to peace and we have more freedom, democratic quality of life, and prosperity – quite the miracle, we both like to say.
On Israel-Diaspora relations, particularly with American Jews, what is his outlook?
We do see warning signs of divergence, of two different communities with two different agendas, but we also see encouraging signs of convergence and a new mutual respect. Programs like Birthright illustrate the new Identity Zionism approach of partnership, wherein Israelis and Diaspora Jews learn from one another, look out for one another, save one another, rather than assuming that it’s a one-way relationship.
Sharansky has been in our consciousness for close to half a century, yet he remains an enigma to all except those who are closest to him. He’s not a man of faith in the conventional sense and his ideology is hard to categorize. So what sustains him? Is he someone who had “greatness thrust upon him” and perhaps would have preferred the life of an obscure mathematics professor?
With him, what you see is what you get. He’s really modest, a mensch, a funny, ironic, thoughtful idealist who doesn’t wallow in the pain of the past but delights in the miracles of the present while working for even more miracles in the future. I am an historian. Usually, when I scrutinize popular gods up close, I discover their clay feet really quickly. Natan and his wife are genuine – they live their values and getting to know them is getting to appreciate them on deeper levels, far beyond the hero worship, which makes them both uncomfortable.
While he is not a formal philosopher and was not only never a king but thought he was a terrible politician, he is more philosopher-king than man of faith or humble academic. He is driven by ideas, but wants to live by them and inspire others to live by them – so he is less interested in refining them theoretically than championing them practically.
Secondly, he understands that dictatorships are fear societies and really appreciates the freedom we all too often take for granted in modern Western democracies. And third, he really loves the Jewish people, loves being Jewish, is thrilled to live in Israel, and wants to share that with others, not in a heavy-handed way, but in an educational manner.
Sharansky insists Never Alone is not a memoir because he is not done yet. What are his plans?
He starts his work days at 5:30 a.m. and, until the pandemic, travelled around the world. He chairs the Shlichim institute of the Jewish Agency, training emissaries from Israel to work all over the world, and chairs the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy, headed by Montreal native Charles Small.
He also chairs the initiative to have a proper, thoughtful memorial and museum in Babi Yar [site of a Second World War massacre in Ukraine] and he just won this year’s Genesis Prize.
Informally, he is writing, teaching, and fighting for the big ideas in our book, about identity and freedom, about the joys of being Jewish and the dangers of veering to one extreme – or the other.
– This interview was edited for length and clarity.
It’s been no secret that antisemitism is an old problem at Toronto’s York University, and a serious security issue for Jewish students. In recent years, the changing geopolitical climate on campus has led to a situation where open antisemitism is no longer confined to extremist circles. It has become mainstream.
With the notion of academic freedom often twisted out of context, hatred towards Jewish students on York’s campus continues to be accepted. Jewish students feel they cannot express their beliefs and values without fear of harassment, intimidation, and even violence.
Adding to the discrimination they face on campus is a kind of masked antisemitism. For example, the student performing the opening ceremony at York’s Multicultural Week Parade wore a T-shirt stating, “Anti-Zionist vibes only.”
For many Jewish students, Zionism is essential for the safety of the Jewish people. But the increasing normalization of anti-Zionism makes them fear expressing this integral part of their Jewish identity.
With the university assuming little or no accountability, students have no choice but to seek support elsewhere. StandWithUs Canada is an affiliate of a 19-year-old international non-profit Israel education organization that is inspired by a love for Israel and the belief that education is the road to peace.
This school year, StandWithUs Canada is grateful to welcome three Emerson Fellows to York to help combat antisemitism: Hailey Merten, Beata Fourmanovskis, and Pablo Gonzalez.
Founded in 2007 with a generous grant from Los Angeles philanthropists Rita and Steve Emerson, the StandWithUs Emerson Fellowship is a prestigious one-year program that recruits, trains, educates, and inspires pro-Israel college student leaders on campuses throughout North America, the United Kingdom and Brazil.
In early August, Hailey, Beata, and Pablo participated in the StandWithUs Emerson Conference, held via Zoom with over 100 university students across North America, who learned about Israel, education strategies, legal rights, combating the boycott and other campaigns against Israel, and more.
The sessions were important for Fellows to expand outreach and educate more students about Israel, said Beata, a fourth-year student studying towards her Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree at York’s Schulich School of Business.
“Many students on campus simply do not know about Israel or have no opinion about it. As Fellows, it is important to educate the uninformed so they understand the importance of Israel. One way is by building relationships with other clubs so they can partner with the Jewish community for events,” Beata said.
Pablo Gonzalez, a third-year biotechnology student at York University, took part in the StandWithUs Canada Insight Program. Through this opportunity, Pablo traveled to Israel for 10 days and gained first-hand knowledge about the country’s current geopolitical situation.
Travelling across the country, the undergraduate students met with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim locals and community leaders to learn about their perspectives on current political issues.
“I never visited Israel before, and the diverse ethnic, religious, and political spectrum of the country impressed me,” recalled Pablo. “Through these experiences, I learned so much about the people of Israel, and gained an appreciation for the political nuances and intricacies that are too often described in the media as black-and-white. I left this trip with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Israeli government in ensuring Israel is a safe and welcoming home for all.”
After returning home to Toronto and feeling strongly about wanting to make a positive change based on his experiences in Israel, Pablo applied to the StandWithUs Canada Hispanic Emerson Fellowship. Now, he’s sharing his Israel experiences on campus and educating his peers about the country’s challenges and accomplishments.
Despite strong antisemitic sentiment among some students and faculty at York University, and protests that turned violent last autumn, Pablo said he is “convinced that furthering education about Israel is vital to build a safer campus where we can discuss diverse perspectives with mutual respect.”
Even though the Emerson conference took place virtually, “it had an enormous impact on the students by inspiring and supporting them to continue to educate about Israel,” he said.
Hailey Merten a fourth-year social work student and StandWithUs Canada Emerson Fellow at York University, has faced institutionalized discrimination because of her Jewish identity. What she learned from the conference is that she is not alone in the battle.
“I have my StandWithUs Canada family beside me to support me through the good and bad times I may face,” she said. “The understanding that I am no longer alone when dealing with antisemitism on campus is such a relief.”
By organizing events with StandWithUs Canada in which students of differing views on Israel can discuss their opinions constructively and civilly, Pablo, Hailey and Beata look forward to building bridges between communities and focusing on shared solutions on campus.
Steven Greenwood is the executive director of StandWithUs Canada.
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 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.
I own the world’s largest private collection of Theodor Herzl memorabilia. It reflects my fascination with the birth of the State of Israel. On May 13, 1948, Israel did not exist. On May 14, 1948, it did. How did this happen?
It is an amazing story. Although the Jewish people have prayed to return to our ancestral homeland since we were expelled from it 2,000 years ago (thus the holiday-time plea of “Next Year in Jerusalem”), it was only in the 1800s that tangible steps were taken to make this happen. Herzl did not come up with the idea of Zionism, although he thought he did. However, unlike his predecessors who had a similar idea, he set out to actually make it happen.
In 1896, he wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). The next year, he convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, at which the World Zionist Organization was created. In 1899, he formed the Jewish Colonial Trust. In 1901, he inspired the creation of the Jewish National Fund. In 1902, he wrote Altneuland (Old New Land). In 1903, he received an offer from the British government for a Jewish territory in Africa. And in 1904, he died at age 44, having dedicated the last eight years of his life to the cause of the Jewish people.
Herzl understood that he had to rally the Jewish people around a new idea: that we could live in our own country, make decisions for ourselves, and keep each other safe. He needed a symbol to represent that dream. He became that symbol, and after he died, his successors maintained him as that symbol to keep his dream alive.
This is why there are so many Herzl related items to collect. I own more than 5,000 of them, items ranging from ice tongs to medals, pen knives to portraits, postcards, pencils, busts, handkerchiefs, and much more.
It’s all been assembled piece by piece through auctions, hunting at flea markets, and the purchase of entire collections from veteran collectors who wanted to entrust their life’s passion to someone who would cherish it. As well, at least once a month, I receive in the mail a Herzl item that someone found and for which they want a good home.
My collection is a national treasure of the Jewish people, and in case anyone wonders what it might be worth, I believe it’s priceless.
I have chosen to use my collection as a tool to help people learn about Herzl and be inspired by his work. I am hopeful that by learning about Herzl, people will know a little more about where Israel came from, why it was needed as a safeguard against antisemitism, and why it continues to be needed.
Herzl’s motto was, “if you will it, it is no dream,” and I believe that by learning how Herzl pursued his impossible dream (which, as we all know, came true), we can be inspired to make our own dreams come true.
“The Herzl Project” is my initiative to achieve these goals. To that end, I have created a website with resources about Herzl and my collection (www.herzlcollection.com) and published a book, Collecting the Dream, available free of charge as a PDF on the website, or as an ebook on Amazon.
During the pandemic, I have done over 25 videos, webinars and other online presentations on the subject of Herzl. This is not only because for many months I was sheltering at home with my entire collection. It is also because Herzl provides us with an important lesson for this time. He teaches us that the situation in which we find ourselves today can change and improve, and that tomorrow will be better.
Herzl also taught us by example how to be a leader in difficult times. He used his skills and talents as a lawyer, playwright and journalist to create something that would benefit others. Knowing that he was very sick, he focused on the future of the Jewish people, understanding that he was not likely to live to witness the birth of the state he envisioned.
Herzl also believed that we cannot do things that benefit only ourselves, and that because of our history, Jews are uniquely able to have a broader perspective. He understood that as citizens of this planet we all share, we must also act to help others. This is best illustrated in this reference from his book Altneuland, in which one of his characters expresses the following:
“There is still one other question arising out of the disaster of nations which remains unsolved to this day, and whose profound tragedy, only a Jew can comprehend. This is the African question. Just call to mind all those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who, merely because they were black, were stolen like cattle, taken prisoner, captured and sold. Their children grew up in strange lands, the objects of contempt and hostility because their complexions were different. I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule for saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”
This is remarkable. While dedicating his life to the Jewish people, Herzl also had the goal to help end Black suffering. He understood that issues of prejudice and discrimination are related, and that we are free only if we are all free. He knew that we cannot only look after ourselves; that we must care for the plight of others.
We have all seen pictures of Herzl in his top hat and tuxedo. He also often wore white gloves to formal events. He was a gentleman.
But being a gentleman is not limited to how you dress. It is how you behave, what you say, what you think, and what you do. It is also about the care you show for others.
I have come to know Herzl through my collection. He was a gentleman leader. We all benefit from his work, and we should all be proud of the way he did it.
David Matlow is a lawyer and partner at Goodmans LLP in Toronto. He is a member of the board of directors of the iCenter for Israel Education and the Ontario Jewish Archives. He is featured on a six-part series about Herzl called “Herzl Explained,” produced by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
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.”
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 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.
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.
Recently, liberal Jewish thinker, journalist and teacher Peter Beinart wrote a highly provocative article in the journal Jewish Currents, followed by a shorter piece in the New York Times calling the two-state solution “dead” and advocating for a binational state with equal rights for all.
In his longer piece, “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine,” Beinart reflects on moments in Jewish history where seismic shifts happened in religious and cultural practices that may have seemed threatening at the time, but were instead movements that propelled us to be better and stronger. So how will we respond to Beinart’s call for another seismic shift in our thinking and practice?
Predictably, there were rebuttals from many sides, including complete rejection from the more rigid advocates of Israel, calling Beinart irrelevant. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) went so far as to call him antisemitic (a rich claim to be aimed at a devout Jew).
The focus here is on the response from the “progressive” Jewish community. While the term “progressive” encapsulates a wide swath of Jewish thought, I refer specifically to the large numbers who refer to themselves as Zionists but also voice concern, to varying degrees, over Israeli government policy, particularly in terms of the occupation, settlements, possible annexation, and Palestinian human rights. Beinart has long been a part of this progressive Zionist movement, though he has been retreating from the two-state camp for some time.
He makes three key points. The first, holding on to the two–state solution, based on today’s political realities, including the lack of viable left-leaning political movement supporting it, is akin to supporting the status quo indefinitely.
Second, a binational state has been successfully achieved in other places in the world, so it is attainable.
Lastly, the focus on Israel as the liberation of the Jewish people and the only “insurance policy” against another Holocaust can no longer be used as the sole justification for defending injustice and inflicting suffering on Palestinians.
The dilemma for progressive Zionists is that if the very idea of “progressiveness” is to be willing to challenge the status quo and resist injustice, how do we respond when we ourselves are being called out for maintaining the status quo? In order to answer this, we need to reflect on why so many are resisting Beinart’s call for a re-examination. Is it not innately “Jewish” to reflect and re-examine?
While there are layers to dealing with this dilemma, we must begin with what I would offer is the root of the challenge: Trauma. Historical trauma, present trauma, and the fear of future trauma.
The challenge that Beinart’s article presents for progressives is really a challenge that is already baked into the idea of progressive Zionism: To be pro-peace, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel. I would suggest there is an existing irresolvable tension in supporting Palestinians while also supporting the very institution that oppresses them.
In spite of these seemingly incompatible goals, there are many deeply committed to this trilateral cause to support peace, support Palestinians, while remaining steadfastly Zionist. I have struggled with these contradictions for many years. To deal differently with Beinart’s call, and with the two-state dilemma more broadly, we need to deal with the built-in contradictions in our “pro-pro-pro” stance.
The key to this journey, in my own experience, is in recognizing that that this “pro-pro-pro” commitment is viewed through a 1967-forward lens. If we dig more deeply into this, it means viewing Palestinian oppression only in terms of settlements, the occupation, and the daily injustices that the Israeli government and military inflict on Palestinians.
The two-state solution is entirely a ’67–driven solution: Returning to the pre-’67 borders, sharing Jerusalem, ending the occupation, and resolving the settlement issue. This allows us to maintain Israel without acknowledging or addressing the core trauma for Palestinians: 1948.
It is, in many ways, a “have our cake and eat it too” solution. Yes, it does involve compromise from us, but not in terms of trauma. We get to have our liberation from trauma (Israel), without deeply addressing Palestinian trauma.
There have been many responses to Beinart’s article from Jewish progressives. They centre on the idea that abandoning the two-state solution is tantamount to cultural suicide. In a recent webinar, Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of JStreet, a strongly progressive lobby group in the United States, asked Beinart why he would “abandon the Jewish State at a time Jews are under such threat?” That this fear of impending trauma continues to dominate the progressive Jewish narrative means that we have not found a way to deal with the central contradiction of being supporters of both Israel and Palestinians.
To face Beinart’s call head on, we need to be able to see justice for all as a response to the genesis of the trauma for Palestinians. We need to examine whether our call for a two-state solution is in fact “progressive” or is it clinging to the status quo? We need to ask if the binational state is really the existential threat to Jews that we have made it out to be. Granting that this is a genuine fear, does holding on to the status quo create greater safety for Jews in the long-term, and even if it does, is it a just solution for all, including Palestinians?
While I agree with Beinart and have come to similar conclusions myself some time ago, my purpose here is to remind us that re-examination is an essential tenet of our tradition, and that we should never feel that the call to question is inherently dangerous. We are strong enough to have this difficult conversation with ourselves and we must have it if justice for all is indeed our guiding light.
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.
Toronto Mayor John Tory has denounced antisemitic and anti-Zionist statements emanating from the Toronto restaurant Foodbenders.
“There is no place for this type of hate or discrimination in our city or anywhere else in Canada,” Tory stated in a tweet on July 8. “I stand with Toronto’s Jewish community in condemning this type of hate and intolerance and commit to continue to build up our city as a place that is inclusive of everyone.”
The day before, Ontario Premier Doug Ford condemned Foodbenders statements. “Language and actions like this are disgusting and will not be tolerated here in Ontario,” Ford stated. “Our government stands with the Jewish community in condemning this kind of behaviour here at home, and across the globe.”
Meantime, another food delivery service has cut ties to Foodbenders. On July 7, DoorDash announced that it severed relations with the business.
In a letter to Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, director of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s Campaign Against Antisemitism, David London, who’s listed at LinkedIn as head of U.S. East, U.S. Federal and Canada Government Relations at DoorDash, wrote to say his company investigates reports of “inappropriate behavior as soon as they are brought to our attention and have decided to remove the merchant [Foodbenders] from our platform for failure to follow the community guidelines and our partner code of conduct. This took effect immediately.”
London said DoorDash was founded “to connect people and we strive to make sure everyone in our community feels safe when using the platform. We do not tolerate any form of malicious, discriminatory or hateful behavior, and any violation of this policy is grounds for deactivation.”
Only the day before, Uber curtly informed Foodbenders that its agreement with the eatery “is terminated effective immediately.” On the same day, the food delivery service Ritual also cut ties to Foodbenders.
As well, Ambrosia, a natural foods store with three locations in Toronto and Vaughan, will no longer carry products from Foodbenders.
In an online reply to Daniel Koren, director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, Ambrosia said it will no longer sell Foodbenders’ products at its three locations. “We believe in love, community, and togetherness,” the business added.
Two Toronto coffee shops, Blue Heaven Café and Café Con Leche, have also cuts ties to Foodbenders.
Located in Toronto’s Bloordale neighbourhood, Foodbenders has come under intense scrutiny for its antisemitic and anti-Zionist pronouncements on social media and on signs outside the store.
It first drew attention for proclaiming “F@ck the Police” on a sandwich board outside the business. But in recent weeks, it turned its ire toward the Jewish community.
On Instagram, the eatery announced: “#zionistsnotwelcome,” and “Zionists are Nazis.”
On Canada Day, the restaurant put out a sign saying, “Happy KKKanada Day.”
The business also praised Leila Khaled, who hijacked two planes 50 years ago as a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group designated a terrorist entity in Canada. Alongside a photo of Khaled clutching a rifle, the business proclaimed: “There is only solution: Intifada. Revolution.”
Of Canadian Jewish groups, it said, “These people control your media and elected officials.” On her personal Facebook page, Foodbenders owner Kimberly Hawkins described Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “Zionist puppet.”
The statements prompted days of fervid activity on social media and denunciations from Jewish advocacy groups. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said it would refer the matter to its Legal Task Force.
“Simply put, the overwhelming majority of Jewish Canadians are Zionists,” CIJA noted.
B’nai Brith suggested contacting firstname.lastname@example.org to request an investigation of that Foodbenders’ business license.
In a later post on social media, Foodbenders said “criticizing the Israeli zionist state occupation or the police isn’t a hate crime. Nor is it anti-Semitic to say that zionist journalists in Toronto and now Israel have written slander [sic] fake news pieces about me to present me as racist for the sole reason of silencing me on Palestine. They are controlling the narrative of my story and they are lying.
“Jews are very welcome to shop with us, zionists may also shop if they can do so without insisting they’re [sic] right to a homeland justifies killing other people,” the post went on “When a Zionist tells us Palestinians should be murdered, something that happens all day long, we ask them to leave because THAT is hate speech.”
Jeffrey Wilkinson (“Zionists not Welcome’ and the Responding Deafness,” CJR, July 7) names three points he says are “unhelpful” and “meant to reduce or silence criticism of Israel.” These are the conflation of the terms “Jewish” and “Zionist;” the definition of Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people; and the equating of widespread Jewish support for Zionism with a mainstream consensus about Zionism.
Respectfully, these three points are common ideas not because they are “meant to silence” anyone, but because they are largely true. They are arguments not meant to weaponize antisemitism, but to draw attention to the slippery way anti-Zionism and Jew-hatred are frequently intertwined.
It’s not Jews who conflate the term “Zionist” with “Jewish,” it’s anti-Zionists who insinuate, as the owner of Foodbenders did in several social media posts, that “Zionists” have conspiratorial and manipulative control over the media, the government, etc. The fact that someone uses a different word does not mean we can ignore the use of an old-school canard and trope of Jew hatred.
It’s not unfair to equate widespread Jewish support of Zionism with a mainstream position; that’s what a mainstream position is. When a person says Jews are welcome as long as they aren’t Zionists, as the owner of Foodbenders did in her posts about Zionism and Jews, that’s called tokenizing. It too is a discriminatory practice, meant to insulate the offending person from criticism for their actions.
Lastly, defining Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people is not a tactic for stifling criticism. It is a basic understanding of Jewish history from the perspective that the Jews are a people who have suffered centuries of oppression culminating in genocide. Of course, none of this excuses rude behavior or harassment on any side, But it takes someone who doesn’t see Jew hatred as a real problem to dismiss the main argument for Zionism as “stifling” or to refuse to allow Jewish people to define the terms of what counts as hate and discrimination against themselves.
That’s the real reason so many of us are bothered by the attitude displayed by Foodbenders, and in Wilkinson’s op-ed. It represents the very resistance to Jewish self-determination, including the right to define our own experiences of discrimination, exclusion, and oppression, that makes Zionism a necessity for Jewish thriving in the modern world.
Rabbi Jordan Shaner Toronto
ISIS Fighters Deserve Their Fate
July 8, 2020
It is a little surprising but not unexpected that New-York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) levied an accusation of human rights violations against Canada on June 29. They very baldly stated that our government is neglecting a group of 26 men who suffer in a brutal prisoner of war camp inside Syria, controlled by the Turkish military. The real surprise, however, is that the subjects of the complaint consist entirely of ISIS combatants.
Truly, Canada is guilty of so many racist actions that it owes many restitution. But for HRW to advocate for followers of a terror organization that beheaded, raped, and slaughtered its way across three nations – stealing unbelievable resources along the way – warrants censure. These individuals do not deserve mercy, and HRW ought to reevaluate its priorities for advocacy.
ISIS, worse than Al-Qaeda, caused more harm and inspired more attacks than its loathsome predecessor.
The prisoners deserve whatever horrors they incurred for themselves. Their families should never be permitted refugee status in Canada because they could wreak mayhem inside our borders.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is right to evade questioning about repatriating former citizens and ISIS members because they forfeited those rights long ago. Let them remain where they are.