‘Hardly a fringe position’: Jewish and Palestinian NDP members lead convention push for Palestine resolution

‘This isn't really a debate about antisemitism. It's a debate in bad faith about Israel-Palestine.’

UPDATE - 8:00 p.m. ET: The Palestine Resolution discussed in this article passed with 80 per cent support, and 16 per cent of delegates opposed. This means the NDP’s official policy is now to oppose military trade with Israel, and all trade and economic cooperation with illegal settlements. The IHRA resolution discussed below did not reach the floor. Due to technical problems and questionable planning, no panel succeeded in considering more than two resolutions.

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This weekend, federal New Democrats are gathering online for their biannual policy convention. Two proposed resolutions have generated significant controversy, one calling for the NDP to oppose arms sales to Israel and trade with illegally occupied settlements (the Palestine Resolution) and another calling on the party to oppose the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of antisemitism (the IHRA resolution).

The IHRA definition differs from other definitions by defining antisemitism to include certain criticisms of Israel, including statements seen to be holding the country to a “double standard.” It has been criticized for being overly broad, and its own lead author has raised the alarm about its misuse to silence criticism of Israel.

A letter signed by 17 Jewish New Democrats and sent out to other party members this week criticized opposition to the IHRA definition of antisemitism as contrary to the party’s own equity statement, writing that “for primarily non-Jewish individuals and organizations to use an outlier opinion held by a small percentage of the Canadian Jewish community in such a fashion also smacks of tokenism.” The letter’s lead author, Noah Tepperman, declined to be interviewed for this piece.

Within 48 hours, a counterletter signed by over 60 Jewish members of the NDP was released. It argued that “this definition and its examples make it possible to equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism,” and took umbrage at being described as “tokens.” The authors endorsed alternative definitions, such as the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, and cited an Ekos poll from 2018 showing that Jewish Canadians were “sharply divided” on the issue of Israel and Palestine.

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It’s the latest flare up in a long-simmering debate that recently saw NDP MP Niki Ashton called an antisemite for speaking on a panel with former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and MP Charlie Angus likewise accused of antisemitism for criticizing Israel over its failure to distribute vaccines in the occupied territories.

Last month, former MP Svend Robinson tweeted that he looked forward to attending the panel with Corbyn and Ashton. Rick Smith, the head of the NDP-affiliated Broadbent Institute, tweeted criticism of Robinson that appeared to imply his support for the event was antisemitic. That tweet, alongside a statement from party leader Jagmeet Singh that responded to the kerfuffle by restating the NDP’s opposition to antisemitism, ended up in a National Post story that leaned on them to imply that the event itself was antisemitic.

In a CBC interview last week, Singh was asked a question about Israeli policy towards Palestinians and again responded by stating his opposition to antisemitism. He later tweeted that he had “miss[ed] the opportunity” to fully answer the question and stated his support for the human rights of Palestinians, but that seeming inability to take a position on the actions of the Israeli government raised the ire of many party members, and added new fuel to the controversy.

The social media debate over the two resolutions has been vigorous, and for many casual observers it raises the question of why these resolutions, on what could appear to be relatively minor points of foreign policy, have overshadowed what seem like more pressing domestic issues.

The answer is complex, and goes back more than a decade, but in a nutshell it’s an example of the Streisand Effect at work.

A fight with a long history in the NDP

It’s June of 2011, a few months after the NDP’s Orange Wave swept the party into second place in the House of Commons. The party convention is taking place at a swanky waterfront conference centre in Vancouver. Libby Davies, a longtime Vancouver MP, is at the mic in a stuffy breakout room where delegates are debating the prioritization of policy resolutions. She gives an impassioned speech backing a motion to support Palestinian human rights, and the motion passes with a significant majority. People cheer, and many leave the room.

After maybe half the delegates have left, an MP from southern Ontario stands up and calls for the question to be reconsidered, and for the motion to be deprioritized. The chair, somewhat inexplicably, accepts his motion despite it being both out of order and clearly contrary to basic principles of natural justice and procedural fairness. The motion is defeated in the re-vote while many of its supporters are taking a coffee break, unaware that they’ve been ratfucked.

And so it goes.

Ratfucking might sound vulgar, and it is, but it’s a term popularized by famed Watergate journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to describe dirty tricks and political sabotage. Nearly half a century later, no one has come up with a better word to describe the process of underhanded political gamesmanship. And so it is that we can say NDP conventions have been an orgy of ratfuckery, on the issue of Israel and Palestine specifically, for as long as I can remember.

“We’ve seen so much clampdown around this issue. We’ve seen the party use so many internal tricks to suppress this conversation.”

Under Jack Layton, the issue of Palestine was a distraction to be avoided. Under Thomas Mulcair, it was an affront to the leader’s strongly held support for Israel. Under Jagmeet Singh, the party leadership seems mostly scared of the controversy.

But the other constant has been that a majority of party members consistently support Palestinian human rights, making all the ratfuckery necessary — at least from the perspective of party leaders, who want nothing to do with the issue.

And that’s where we see the Streisand Effect in action: all these efforts to tamp down discussion of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians have had the opposite effect.

Debate suppression irks members

Sam Hersh has been a member of the NDP since 2013. In the past eight years he’s held various positions within the party, including co-chairing the party’s youth wing in Quebec for three years and serving a stint on federal council, the NDP’s highest decision-making body.

“This isn't really a debate about antisemitism,” Hersh argues. “It's a debate in bad faith about Israel-Palestine.”

Hersh is Jewish, and along with a group of other Jewish and Palestinian party members he drafted the Palestine Resolution. Earlier this week it was ranked second in the foreign affairs panel prioritization and is all but guaranteed to make it to the virtual convention floor this afternoon for a vote of the full membership. He also supports the resolution opposing the IHRA definition.

“The goddamn International Court is ready to go after Israel on war crimes, it’s hardly a fringe position.”

“Part of the reason why this is such a big issue for me, and for people like me, is democracy, and internal democracy. We’ve seen so much clampdown around this issue. We’ve seen the party use so many internal tricks to suppress this conversation.”

Hersh tells me he remembers being called by a party official when the NDP student club at McGill University he helped run endorsed BDS during a student referendum on the controversial call to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. They threatened to disband the club, something the party didn’t actually have the power to do, if he and his co-president didn’t rescind their endorsement.

They complied, out of fear more than anything, but it didn’t sit right with Hersh. In 2018, he supported a motion on Palestinian rights at the party’s convention that he says was once again the victim of organized dirty tricks by the party establishment to prevent an open vote.

“The party is scared,” Hersh says when asked why there is so much opposition to his motion from party leadership. “The Israel lobby, CIJA, CJPAC, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, B’nai Brith, they have a lot of power in the political sphere and have really sort of monopolized Jewish identity in a way. It’s to the point where myself and other Jews who are critical of Israel or who are anti-Zionist are seen as though they have marginal opinions.”

Hardly a fringe position

“Even if we are a minority, it doesn’t mean we’re wrong!”

Judy Rebick is best known as a pioneering feminist advocate who fought for abortion access and equal rights and once even saved Dr. Henry Morgentaler from an assailant wielding garden shears. The former TV host and author of several bestsellers is Jewish and a lifelong NDP member.

She brought the IHRA motion to her downtown Toronto riding association, where it passed unanimously.

“There is a culture of silencing activists, academics, and those who speak out on Palestinian rights.”

“Of course the community is divided. The mainstream Jewish community believes the Jewish groups, because that’s who they hear from. But if we’re talking about NDP members, no we’re not a fringe at all. I’d say the Jews in the NDP probably mostly support this resolution. In the NDP we’re certainly not a fringe, and I don’t think we’re a fringe in society either. The goddamn International Court is ready to go after Israel on war crimes, it’s hardly a fringe position.”

Rebick points out that the IHRA resolution was endorsed by over 50 riding associations, and the party’s youth wing voted overwhelmingly for it at their recent youth convention. It has been prioritized sixth, which insiders say suggests it may not make it to the floor for a vote.

“It’s not what I’m worried is going to happen, it’s what’s already happening. This IHRA definition is being used to go after anybody who is for Palestinian rights, calling them an antisemite. That’s what’s happening. It’s happening to academics, it’s happening to people in the media, it’s happening to people in politics, and it’s really serious.”

Anxiety-provoking debates

Bernie Farber is the former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and an activist against all forms of hate and discrimination. He doesn’t view either motion as antisemitic, although he says he has “difficulty” with the “unnecessarily provocative language” in the Palestine resolution and views the IHRA resolution as “ignorant.”

“I know there have been attempts to impose the IHRA definition at universities and colleges and say ‘if you don’t follow this it’s antisemitic.’ But in fact it hasn’t worked that often. Most universities really do try to embrace the whole concept of ultimate free speech based on Canada’s anti-hate laws.”

“People say to me, ‘Shouldn’t we enshrine it in law?’ We have [prohibitions on hate speech] enshrined in law, which has been approved and accepted three times by the Supreme Court of Canada. That’s all we need. Nothing else is necessary, other than perhaps getting a more visceral understanding of antisemitism, and that’s what these definitions do.

The fight over it, I find really obscene. Whether it’s this definition, or that definition, or whether Israel should be part of it, or shouldn’t be part of it.”

“The thing that worries me most,” says Amy Kishek, a Palestinian NDP member and one of the Palestine Resolution’s sponsors, “is the potential and the very likelihood that [the IHRA definition] will be used in a discriminatory manner in terms of its application, particularly to silence Palestinian voices.”

“There is a culture of silencing activists, academics, and those who speak out on Palestinian rights. I speak with a lot of folks in the Palestinian community, and there is a lot of anxiety here in the community in Canada about speaking out on those issues, because it can have ramifications. Being vilified, or targetted, when comments are rooted in lived experiences speaking about human atrocities reaching for international law that have long been well documented — so I do worry what that will mean for Palestinians and Palestinian Canadians in particular.”

“I see it as an invalidation of Palestinian lives and rights,” says Omar Burgan, a sponsor of the Palestine resolution whose grandmother was expelled from her home by Zionist militias in the 1940s and never returned. “I find it incredibly frustrating, and I think a lot of other people are frustrated as well. Frustrated that any time you advocate for human rights, or a human rights organization, you get smeared as a bigot, just for saying Palestinians are human and should have the same rights as everybody else.”

Competing definitions of antisemitism

Farber notes that there are three working definitions of antisemitism being advanced globally: the IHRA definition, the Nexus Task Force definition and the Jerusalem Declaration. Farber says he supports them all, although he favours the Nexus definition over the other two. Opponents of the IHRA definition have often backed the Jerusalem Declaration as a superior alternative.

“Perhaps this could have been a time for the NDP to have looked at all three definitions that are out there, and tried to formulate something that they can embrace as their own understanding of it, instead of making it such a divisive debate.

“I think there are one or two pieces of the working definition that could have been better worded, and we need to show great care to ensure that it doesn't halt speech around Israeli policy, but I don't think it is at all overly focused. I think it's focused on hatred towards Jews, and there are several of the working pieces that people have concerns about. I get it. But it hasn't actually really played in the way people feared it would play out. Not to say that groups like CIJA or B’nai Brith or others won't sometimes try to do that, but it has stood the test so far, and for those who have problems with IHRA, now these other two definitions have come up. Put those into the mix as well. It shouldn't be a yes or no debate on IHRA, it should be a conversation about these three definitions.”

“Israel is a state. A political state. And it has always been up for debate. It’s not anything else other than that.”

All three definitions provide examples of antisemitism that reference Israel. The Jerusalem Declaration uses examples most people would agree are clearly antisemitic, like holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s actions, or accusing them of having dual loyalties. The Nexus Task Force, created by a group of liberal Jewish academics in 2019 in response to “a disturbing trend to politicize and exploit antisemitism and Israel,” differs from the IHRA definition on one key point.

While the IHRA definition includes as an example “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation,” the Nexus definition argues that “paying disproportionate attention to Israel and treating Israel differently than other countries is not prima facie proof of anti-Semitism.”

The Nexus definition notes that there are valid reasons to single out Israel for criticism, such as caring about the country more, or being concerned with its special relationship with the U.S. and the $4 billion in aid the American government provides to Israel each year.

“It is anti-Semitic to treat Israel in a negative manner based off of a claim that Jews alone should be denied the right to define themselves as a people and to exercise any form of self-determination,” the Nexus definition also reads.

While the others have mostly languished in academic circles, the IHRA definition has been eagerly embraced by Israel advocacy groups and vilified by critics because of a focus on Israel — seven of its 11 examples reference the state. While critics like Rebick say that it has been and can be abused to define criticism of Israel as antisemitism, advocates like Farber say there’s no avoiding Israel when it comes to defining antisemitism.

“You can't leave Israel out of the definition, because it happens to be a state filled with Jewish people. It can play a role, but there's a difference between policy, Israeli policy, and using Israel as a weapon against Jews.”

The risk of the definition being misused to target critics of Israeli policy “would have been a problem for me, had there not been the proviso within IHRA that says boldly that legitimate and credible criticism on Israeli policy is not to be considered antisemitic. People blow it off as not being important, but to me that is important.”

“I’ve stood very publicly against BDS. I don’t like it, I don’t think it works, but people are certainly allowed their opinion and BDS deals with Israeli policy. I know that there have been members of my community who have said it’s antisemitic. I certainly don’t like it, but I think logically it would fall under the IHRA definition as being credible criticism of Israel.”

For Hersh, that argument is unconvincing.

“The definition might seem a bit innocuous or benign, but once you get to those examples. ... One of the examples in the IHRA is calling Israel a racist endeavour. If we put the same scope on Canada, no one would say that calling Canada a racist endeavour is anti-anything, or racist.

Israel is a state. A political state. And it has always been up for debate. It’s not anything else other than that.”

The pro-IHRA resolution letter quotes a 2018 statement from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which reads, “We are launching a national campaign to have government and police adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association definition of antisemitism … because it explicitly confirms that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”

CIJA and B’nai Brith both declined to be interviewed for this piece.

“There is a rise in antisemitism, but it’s coming from the right, not the left.”

Rebick says that arguments like this elide the long tradition of anti-Zionism in the Jewish community.

“This was a big debate in the Jewish community at the time of World War Two. Not everyone agreed with Zionism. A lot of socialists didn’t agree with Zionism because they saw it as taking the side of the oppressor over the oppressed. I went to Israel when I was 22 years old, and I was horrified by how racist of a society it was against Arabs. I didn’t know anything about it, I just went because you could get work there and I was travelling. So I’ve been an anti-Zionist since I was 22, since before I was a feminist! I’ve been to Israel and Palestine several times since then, and it just gets worse and worse.

“That Israel should be protected from international criticism and international approbation, like being accused of war crimes, because they’re Jewish and because they equate Judaism and the existence of the state of Israel I think is a tremendous injustice. And then the Palestinians don’t get the attention that they should have in terms of being one of the most persecuted people on earth. It’s something that really bothers me.”

“There is a rise in antisemitism, but it’s coming from the right, not the left. This equation of antisemitism with any serious criticism of Israel is a smokescreen for the real antisemites, who are right wing, who are neo-fascists. We’re worried about a rise of fascism, and fascism is always antisemitic, as well as racist.”

In the 1990s, notes Rebick, it was neo-Nazis who tried to equate the state of Israel with Jewish people. Now it is Israel itself that encourages that conflation.

“CIJA is an advocacy organization,” Farber adds. “Their major job is to defend and support the state of Israel. And so they will try to do that. I don't think it's been terribly successful, because of that proviso [about legitimate and credible criticism]. I would rather look at everything else in relation to that definition, so people understand what holocaust denial means, and how Israel can be used as a very blunt weapon that invokes antisemitism. Because of course it can be.”

Debate exposes fracture between party leadership and grassroots members

Hersh describes Singh’s response to the question about Israel as “extremely offensive.”

“The host even said, that’s not what I’m asking about. I’m asking about Israel and Palestine. Jagmeet went automatically to talking about Jewish people when talking about the state of Israel, even when they don't have anything to do with the topic. I was angry about that. That response essentially erases a huge swath of Jewish history. It makes it sound like anti-Zionism is this incredibly marginal opinion, but it's a big part of Jewish history. As long as there has been Israel, there have been anti-Zionists in the community. That response said to me that he was falling into the narrative that supporting Palestinian human rights can be seen as antisemtic.

“And even in his clarification response [on Twitter] he didn't distance himself from that. It was a better response in a way, but he didn't say anything like ‘anti-Zionism doesn't equate to antisemitism.’ He didn't backtrack on that so I found that quite disappointing. There are clearly people at the top level of the party who are trying to make sure this doesn't come up.”

Hersh adds that Singh isn’t “an average person who's being exposed to this debate for the first time. It's not like we never talk about Israel and Palestine in the NDP. He's been exposed to this debate, many many times. Especially with the Corbyn thing, and with Rick Smith, it was such a knee jerk reaction [from the leader]. Rick Smith was one of the first people I saw online to oppose the prioritization of the Palestine resolution in 2018. So I think he was deliberately sharing that [criticism of Robinson and Ashton] to [undermine the resolution].

“People pick and choose who they listen to in the Jewish community.”

Young New Democrats back resolutions

Gabriel Masi is co-president of the party’s Quebec youth wing and helps run the national Young New Democrats. Over 90 per cent of delegates at their recent youth convention voted to back the Palestine Resolution, while the IHRA resolution also passed with overwhelming support. A McGill student, Masi worked as an organizer for the party during the 2019 election campaign.

“Groups like CIJA have really been trying to push this definition,” says Masi. “They’ve made it clear that it has nothing to do with defending antisemitism, it has more to do with stopping any meaningful and legitimate criticism of Israel and the abuses it has committed. They like to claim otherwise, but there are many examples.”

“This should have been passed decades ago. The NDP claims to be a party that defends human rights, but you can’t pick and choose which nations to apply it to. … The NDP was fine condemning China’s human rights abuses, but they’re not fine for some reason to condemn Israel and their actions in regards to the Palestinian people.”

Burgan agrees.

“We think this is just the bare minimum that a party could do. But that’s what leads to growing frustration. Year after year we’re always told ‘now is not the right time, now is not the right time,’ and there’s only so long you can say that to people who care about human rights and who have witnessed the suffering of Palestinians before they say ‘well we’re going to make this a priority, because you should have done this 40 years ago.’ We’re well beyond the acceptable time frame for a party to implement international law.”

“Especially when it comes to young Jews, views are changing,” says Hersh. “When it comes to CIJA, talk about marginal opinions. CIJA and B’nai Brith supported moving the embassy to Jerusalem, and the annexation as well. By all accounts, those are marginal positions. Those are extremist positions. I would go so far as to call CIJA, and particularly B’nai Brith, extremist organizations. They blindly support the Netenyahu regime, where the majority of the world I would say does not.”

“There is certainly a demographic shift happening among younger Jews when it comes to Israel and Palestine. The voices of younger Jews are changing when it comes to Palestine, compared to our parents. It’s a generational thing.”

Masi agrees the debate is part of a larger generational shift taking place across society to embrace bolder, more leftist policies.

“There is a clear generational split between older members and younger members. … A lot of the older members are just very cautious about doing anything that would rattle people, and the youth are much more concerned about doing what's right.”

“The party is doing a deplorable job of addressing the issue of Israel and Palestine,” Masi adds. “Take the Broadbent Institute — which in my view is nowhere on the left, it’s the centre — which for years has tried to influence the party’s policy and keep it in the centre, has been stopping progress. We’ve seen that with these smears of antisemitism towards Svend Robinson and Niki Ashton.

With the majority of youth members there’s a sense of consensus that the party is not left enough, we want to see it go more left. But the party does not seem to be listening. It keeps going with the strategy of sticking to the centre, where they think you’re going to get more voters, instead of getting more voters by having a bold, left-wing platform and getting youth to actually turn out to the polls.”

Hersh agrees.

“This is part of a bigger debate. There's another resolution [being debated] to put socialism back in the constitution. I think people want the party to be bolder. When Jagmeet was elected he promised to be bolder, and he really hasn't been. Especially when it comes to Israel and Palestine. That's what he promised, but he really isn't doing it.

“We're living in a particular context, in a particular moment, with COVID-19, with the rise of different left wing movements across the world. There is a small window open to push for a much bolder policy agenda. Frankly, the party is really not doing that. And I think people are frustrated. People want to have a party they can believe in, and feel like they have a political home.

“Instead we get leadership by focus group. It's all about how to gain the most votes.

‘But a lot of the folks who support CIJA or B’nai Brith would never vote for the NDP anyways. The people who would vote for the NDP are people who support a strong stance on Palestinian human rights, and are not voting for the NDP because they don't have that position right now.

A lot of people care about this issue. It's one of the most important human rights issues of the past century. People ask why we're focused on Israel, it's the longest military occupation of any territory in history. That’s a major human rights issue.”

“All Singh had to say” adds Rebick, “was ‘our party has always been supportive of Jewish people, we're the first party that ever had a Jewish leader, we will always fight antisemitism, but we also have strong positions in favour of Palestinian human rights.’ It's easy to say it, there's no reason why you can't say ‘we’re against antisemitism, but we're also against what Israel is doing in the Middle East.’

“So of course if it's not a burning issue for [the leader], you want to avoid it if you're a politician. They want to avoid everything good. We’re in a moment where the left could really make big gains, if they were bold! But we're not seeing any sign of that. This is a place they could have been bolder.

“There are 50 ridings supporting this thing. It's the number one resolution for the Quebec chapter. It shouldn't be the number one resolution! There are more important issues than this. But it is, because otherwise they would just bury it.

“I think the grassroots of the NDP feels strongly about this, because the party has backed down too much. And now the Liberal Party has moved to the left, to an extent. The NDP has a chance to really be bold, and this is one way to do that.”

“Focus on the real issue,” concludes Hersh, “which is the rise of the far right, the extreme far right. That's the real threat of antisemitism. The threats of violence, acts of violence, a lot of that is happening on the right.

I've certainly encountered some antisemitism on the left, and what I would say is that a lot of how that manifests itself is through rhetoric. And the way it manifests itself on the right is through rhetoric but also violent action against people of colour and Jewish people and other religious or ethnic minorities. So in that sense I would say it's felt a lot differently on the left. That might be a controversial thing to say, but I don't really hear about things like [antisemitic violence] happening on the left.”

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