Skip to main content

For decades, the three of us have been active in progressive causes in Canada. Now, an increasingly vocal part of the Canadian left has, over the issue of Israel and Palestine, made our position untenable. We are being asked to choose between our support for Israel and our credentials as leftists.

This covert test of loyalty provides for no nuance, little context, relative silence on the historic persecution of Jews and insufficient recognition of Israel's right to protect its citizens from deadly attacks. Similar tests of fidelity have been imposed on Jews in centuries past when they have been called on to declare their allegiance to a secular or religious authority -- forfeiting their identity as Jews.

We won't be bound by this invidious choice. Neither will we shirk our responsibility to criticize Israeli policies when it's deserved. Along with many others, we've called for a suspension of settlement expansion. We've called for a negotiated end to occupation and the establishment of a democratic independent Palestinian state to exist side by side with Israel, with security for both states.

But the singularity of focus on Israel, which is increasingly common within the Canadian left (for example, equating Israel with apartheid South Africa), raises our fears that anti-Semitism has emerged as a powerful force in the polemic.

The infamous non-governmental organization forum at the UN World Conference Against Racism held in Durban last year produced a climax of international hostility to Israel. Hatred rained down on Jewish delegates, and anti-Semites didn't even refer to the differentiation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, which in the past provided them with moral cover.

The forum established a new permissiveness for anti-Jewish expression, whether on the streets at antiglobalization demonstrations, at polite social functions or in college classrooms. In Canada, "Death to the Jews" has now been chanted at Palestinian-organized protests and coins have been tossed at Jewish students, raising the old canard of Jewish usury. Just this week, the Concordia University Student Union moved to freeze the budget of the campus chapter of Hillel, the international Jewish student group, and suspended its right to set up campus information tables.

Meanwhile, a vocal part of the Canadian left has persisted in making the artificial distinction between Israel and Zionism, on one hand, and Jewish identity on the other. For the vast majority of Jews -- leftists and others -- Israel, Jews, Zionism and Judaism are inextricably bound and not so conveniently separable by terminological sleight of hand. The Jewishness of Israel is central, not irrelevant, to the debate on the Mideast.

A balanced analysis of the Middle East should be based on universally accepted, measurable standards of conduct. Israel should be held accountable, but no more accountable than other nations, including Palestine. Such balance has not always been apparent.

Despite Israel's functioning democracy and independent judiciary (which frequently finds in favour of Palestinian appellants), despite its freedom of elections, religion, speech and press and the protection of labour, homosexual and women's rights, Israel has been cast as one of the world's most evil nations. Meanwhile, vicious anti-Semitic propaganda and widespread detention of peaceful political opponents remain a hallmark of most of Israel's neighbours.

Some of these neighbours have even engaged in the mass killing of their own people. The behaviour of repressive regimes does not, of course, justify the harshness or recklessness of some Israeli policies. Ever. But it is disingenuous and hypocritical to disregard the brutality of large numbers of undemocratic nations. Yet only Israel is labelled "pariah state" and is subject to calls for economic sanctions and academic boycotts.

While criticism of Israeli policies obviously does not, in itself, constitute anti-Semitism, we reject any allegation that our historical and moral responsibility to speak out against the demonization of Israel represents an attempt to censor critics of Israel. It is the refusal to consider the anti-Semitism present in the Middle East debate that represents the most dangerous form of political prohibition.

Not just Jewish leftists, but all leftists, have a right and obligation to denounce anti-Semitism wherever and whenever they see it. That includes the debate about Israel and Palestine. We reject as anti-Semitic the shameful double standard applied to the only Jewish state. We call on the Canadian left as a whole to reject this double standard as well. Philip Berger is a physician, Jeff Rose is a trade unionist, Clayton Ruby is a lawyer.

Interact with The Globe