On Wednesday morning, an article posted on Aug. 19 on the website of a major national Jewish advocacy organization began to make the rounds on social media. It was a review of Postmedia columnist Sue-Ann Levy’s new book, and it contained a startling allegation.
Simon Pelsmakher, the author of the article, which appeared on the website of B’nai Brith Canada, described an incident in which Levy looked into Uzma Shakir, the City of Toronto’s director of equity, diversity and human rights. “After investigating Shakir’s background Levy discovered that she has contributed to the racist, white supremacist and antisemitic website rabble.ca,” he wrote.
The sentence, which described rabble.ca as a whole and did not point to any particular article on the website, appeared in an otherwise seemingly journalistic book review.
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Originally founded by feminist activist and author Judy Rebick 15 years ago, rabble.ca is a progressive Canadian site that publishes blogs, columns, podcasts, and news features. Rabble did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.
Ricochet contacted B’nai Brith for comment shortly before 1 p.m. EST, and was told by a receptionist that someone would call back. Roughly 15 minutes later, the article in question was removed from their website.
The organization did not respond to further messages, but tweeted the following statement shortly after 3 p.m. EST.
The depiction of @rabbleca in a recent post we published was incorrect. We apologize for this and have corrected the post.— B'nai Brith Canada (@bnaibrithcanada) August 24, 2016
The page was restored late Wednesday, but the passage in question had been replaced with a direct quote from Levy’s book in which she describes rabble.ca as “a virulently anti-Israel website that strongly supports Israeli Apartheid Week and the BDS movement.”
Levy declined to comment for this story, explaining by email that she was unaware of the review. She provided a copy of the page of her book as reference, confirming that she had not used the terms “racist,” “white supremacist” or “antisemitic” to describe rabble.ca.
‘Wrong and inappropropriate’
Bernie Farber is the executive director of the Mosaic Institute and former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress. He spoke to Ricochet by phone.
“I’m not a big fan of rabble, and I find that sometimes they go out on a limb, and that happens from time to time … but I don’t know them to be racist, and I certainly don’t know them as white supremacist. Quite the contrary,” he said.
“If those were the characterizations made, I think they were wrong and inappropriate,” added Farber, who emphasized that these kinds of statements are counterproductive to the goal of civil dialogue. “Much of [rabble’s] material is very extreme in their positions, you know extreme left, and people may not like it, but those are positions people are allowed to express in a free and democratic society.”
A lawyer and law professor at Concordia University said that the description of rabble published by B’nai Brith could have been legally actionable.
“The law differs from province to province,” explained Patrice Blais. “But in Quebec if something is not substantiated and done with intent to harm it could open you up to punitive damages, even if it’s true. You can be held liable, so you have to be very careful. Statements like this have a definite potential liability if they were litigated.”
Faisal Kutty, a Toronto lawyer, gave a similar opinion of the law in his province. “In general I believe that labeling someone or a publication ‘racist’ or ‘white supremacist’ is defamatory. Of course the specific facts will matter, but this is clearly communication that tends to lower the esteem of the subject in the minds of ordinary members of the public and can potentially elicit strong negative reactions.”
B’nai Brith calls itself “a staunch defender of the State of Israel and global Jewry” and has aggressively targeted organizations that advocate against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The organization described the Green Party of Canada’s recent resolution supporting civil society’s call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel as “bigotry” and “antisemitic policy.”