Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Occupied Canada: There’s real danger in anti-Israel absurdities

As events go, it was minor, warranting one day news coverage. Yet, a recent decision by the University of Manitoba Students Union to strip the campus group Students Against Israeli Apartheid of official club status arguably indicates a shift in the public’s willingness to tolerate the intolerant.

Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) is a Canadian invention, the bastard offspring of a specious event first held at the University of Toronto to delegitimize Israel by identifying it with the apartheid practices of South Africa’s former white-dominated regime. That 2005 event spawned “Israeli Apartheid Week,” an annual indulgence in moral incoherence and intellectual ignorance that has spread virus-like to campuses around the world.

Every March hundreds of generally well-meaning, if naive, students are lured into thinking they help the cause of Middle East peace by stumping around campus shouting slogans equating Zionism and racism and casting Israel as Nazi Germany. What the students likely don’t know is that the “apartheid” idea originated with radical Palestinian groups intent on promoting a Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) campaign against Israel. Similar boycotts were used to great effect during the anti-apartheid campaign against South Africa in the 1980s.

Earlier this month, though, the student union at the University of Manitoba took a stand against this intellectual obscenity, approving a motion to prevent the local SAIA group from receiving funding or using space in student-union controlled buildings. The motion was justified with the observation that SAIA harassed and discriminated against other students. It was the first time an SAIA group has lost its club status at the hands of a student union.

The world (sans Muslim regions) recently marked Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the six million Jews who were murdered under Nazi rule during the Second World War. When groups like SAIA so easily gain legitimacy even among a minority you have to wonder if our historical memory is fading.

Israel was established in 1948 as a homeland for Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Israelis, who celebrated their country’s 65th birthday last week, have honoured the memory of those dead by creating a culturally vibrant, intellectually dynamic and economically prosperous nation. Certainly, you can reasonably question many of Israel’s policies, including building settlements in the West Bank, but considering that it is surrounded by hostile neighbours and has had to fight repeatedly for its existence — seven recognized wars, two Palestinian intifadas, and various armed conflicts since 1948 — it remains a model of liberal democracy and tolerance in a region where despots, demagogues and violence are rife.

Indeed, to cast it as a racist state is absurd. As Mark Silverberg, a former director of the Canadian Jewish Congress, recently pointed out, unlike South Africa, where non-whites were prohibited from operating businesses or professional practices in the white areas without permits, and even had to use separate beaches, buses and even benches, Jews and Arabs have equal rights under the law in Israel. No doubt there is some hostility towards Arabs, but, as Silverberg observes, Arabs receive the same health and welfare programs as Jews. Israeli Arabs vote, seek office, and serve in government. (Israel’s ambassador to Greece, Ali Yahya, is an Israeli Arab. Salim Jubran, an Israeli Arab, is a member of the Supreme Court of Israel.) Arabic is an official language. There are hundreds of Arab high schools. By comparison, you won’t find a synagogue or a yeshiva in Riyadh.

The anti-Israel agenda is, no doubt, linked to rising levels of anti-Semitism in the West European capitals which are now plagued by street assaults on Jews, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, and Jewish businesses being vandalized. Such echoes of 1930s Nazi Germany are worrying.

Canada is not immune. B’nai Brith’s latest audit of anti-Semitic acts documents an increasing number of reported incidents of hate — everything from verbal insults in university classrooms and graffiti spray painted on synagogues to cyberbullying and the proliferation of anti-Semitic websites — against Jews in this country, nudging up from 1,297 in 2011 to 1,345 last year. During the last decade, however, anti-Semitic incidents have more than doubled, while reports of Holocaust denial show a three-fold increase in just two years.

This anti-Semitic hostility is particularly evident in cities, whether European or Canadian, with substantial Muslim populations, the audit indicates. Jews put their lives at risk when they walk down a street in Muslim-dominated areas of Paris or Brussels. In Calgary last year a Jewish mother picking up her child at a public school was taunted and threatened. “The one finding that stood out alarmingly was the number of incidents by those identifying themselves as Muslims,” B’nai Brith notes.

Like an infection, anti-Jewish attitudes appear to be gaining a hold on Canadian society. To say this is not to suggest everyone who questions Israel’s policies, including members of SAIA, is anti-Semitic. The reality, though, is that radical anti-Israel rhetoric all too often serves as a veil for and promotion of Jew-hatred. As the B’nai Brith report observes, incidents of anti-Semitism tend to spike when there is conflict in the Middle East involving Israel.

The University of Manitoba Students Union showed courage and moral integrity in opposing ignorance and intolerance. Perhaps, if the country’s politicians and the police forces show similar courage, Canada might avoid Europe’s predicament.

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