Gerald Caplan is an African scholar, former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC’s Power and Politics.
75 years ago, J.S. Woodsworth, leader of the NDP’s predecessor the CCF, voted against Canada’s declaration of war against Hitler. In one of the Canadian social democracy’s proudest moments, Mr. Woodsworth stood alone, even within his own caucus. But he was a passionate, principled pacifist at the end of an honorable career and his party respected his lifelong commitment to this principles.
44 years ago, the NDP, in perhaps its finest hour, opposed prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act. The country overwhelmingly backed Mr. Trudeau but the NDP never hesitated in standing proudly against Mr. Trudeau’s unforgivable attack on Canadians’ rights and liberties.
Today, Israel’s shameful attacks on Palestinian civilians in Gaza demands once again that politics must bow to principles. That’s why it’s so disappointing that the federal NDP has failed to denounce unambiguously and forcefully Israel’s war on Gaza and the innocent people that live there.
Is it necessary to repeat all the obscene stats? Over 1,800 Palestinians killed, three-quarters of them civilians, 400 children. More than 10,000 wounded, 2,700 of them children. 375,000 traumatized children with no psychosocial support. Is this Israel’s vaunted pinpoint bombing and ostensible concern for civilian lives? What about 142 damaged schools? 22 damaged hospitals and medical centres? A quarter of the entire population displaced, their homes destroyed, refugees in their own land? Are they too Hamas’ “human shields”? Are UN shelters that Israel repeatedly attacks also “human shields”? Does Israel target dangerously scarce water supplies out of its declared solicitude for Palestinians civilians?, In the meantime, Hamas kills 66 Israelis, 64 of them soldiers. This is no war. This is mighty Israel shooting Palestinians in a barrel.
Prime Minister Netanyahu insists he is merely exercising his right to defend his country. Everyone agrees Hamas is guilty of war crimes; its rockets aim solely at Israeli civilians. But if Hamas is guilty of trying – unsuccessfully – to kill civilians, what is Israel’s guilt for trying and succeeding so consistently? This gross one-sidedness has led to Israel’s condemnation by multiple human rights organizations, including Israeli ones, Amnesty International stating that Israel has “flagrantly disregarded civilian life and property.”
Yet the Israeli government demands to be judged by a different standard from other nations. Whatever its crimes, Israel always emerges the victim. Israel is always the victim. Most Israelis, Diaspora Jews and some governments agree. But why would the NDP? Why should normal international standards of war and justice not apply to Israel? Around the world, in fact, many believe they must.
In Britain, members of all three parties, while categorically repudiating Hamas, have accused Israel of being an illegal occupier guilty of war crimes, the collective punishment of Palestinians, using excessive violence, undermining peace negotiations by building illegal settlements, stealing Palestinian land, keeping Gaza the world’s largest outdoor prison, and routinely attacking civilian targets.
Last weekend, even though the UN had “repeatedly informed” the Israel army of its location, Israel launched its third deadly attack on a UN school in Gaza sheltering Palestinians fleeing attacks on their homes and neighborhoods. The US, even while busily supplying its close ally with weapons, nevertheless announced that it was appalled by this “disgraceful” attack. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon condemned it as “madness,” a “moral outrage and a criminal act,” “another gross violation of international humanitarian law” by Israel.
The NDP has joined in this criticism, but in the usual cautious, balanced way. The party is obviously concerned about the political backlash that a stronger statement against Israel would almost certainly mean. But this is not a balanced conflict. As American Rabbi Michael Lerner dramatically says, we must “mourn for the Judaism of love and generosity that is being murdered by Israel and its worshippers around the world.”
The NDP too must now speak out for social justice and peace, putting principle before possible political repercussions. It’s true that compared to its political opponents, the NDP record over the past 4 weeks has been quite courageous. But what a low bar it has had to hurdle.
The Harper government, prisoner of its own one-dimensional dogmas, never thinks, never wavers, simply echoes Benjamin Netanyahu. Every Palestinian casualty caused by Israel is the fault of Hamas, full stop.
The Liberals wear their own great badge of shame. Two Liberal MPs and a Liberal Senator joined three Conservative MPs recently in what was cynically labeled a “fact-finding mission” to Israel. In fact the visit was an Israeli solidarity tour organized by Canada’s most powerful Jewish-Israeli lobby, the Canadian Centre for Israeli and Jewish Affairs. Shockingly, the “fact-finders” did not step foot in Gaza yet met and offered sympathy to wounded Israeli soldiers. For Conservative MPs, it was par for the course. But for Liberals John McCallum and Carolyn Bennett, who surely wouldn’t have participated without Justin Trudeau’s approval? It’s unforgivable.
As for the NDP, its leaders face strong pressure from their own supporters to show greater moral courage and to speak out finally with no equivocation or “balance.” For all the complexity of the Middle East, Israel bears the overwhelming responsibility for the last month’s carnage in Gaza. The NDP must say as much, and now.