At the recent Liberal Party convention, a flyer, electronically circulated among delegates, denounced leadership candidate and former Ontario premier Bob Rae for having once delivered a speech to the Jewish National Fund. The flier stated that the JNF is "complicit in war crimes and ethnic cleansing," adding that "Rae's wife is a vice-president of the CJC [Canadian Jewish Congress] a lobby group which supports Israeli apartheid." It concluded: "Bob Rae supports Israeli apartheid" and, therefore, should not be elected leader of the party.
The Canadian Jewish Congress condemned the flyer and blamed Khaled Mouammar, the president of the Canadian Arab Federation, for circulating it. The federation, in turn, denied producing or distributing the flyer but, nevertheless, said it supported its content and accused the CJC of habitually suppressing any criticism of Israel. Charges of anti-Semitism started flying.
Take a deep breath, everyone.
Bob Rae is no supporter of apartheid. Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion has condemned the hateful comments against Mr. Rae and his wife, Arlene Perly Rae, and so should all of us.
The flier was in very bad taste, and does not represent the majority view of Canadian Arabs.
Nevertheless, it must be said that many people agree with former U.S. president Jimmy Carter who, in his recent book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, accused Israel of practising a system of apartheid against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But not in the way one might think. In a recent article explaining his views, Mr. Carter says he has "made it clear that the motivation [of apartheid]is not racism but the desire of a minority of Israelis to confiscate and colonize choice sites in Palestine, and then to forcefully suppress any objections from the displaced citizens."
Indeed, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has always been a political one about land and identity, not about race. No doubt, emotions are inflamed, and have been for decades. History continues to weigh heavily. The Holocaust remains a determinant of Jewish psyche. The wounds of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories and the oppression of Palestinians continue to fester. Violence goes on unabated, and many people have become radicalized. For their part, Canadian Arabs and Jews have been preoccupied with actions such as the separation wall or the targeting of civilians perpetrated by their Middle Eastern brethren. By doing so, they have encouraged hateful sentiment, animosity and a denial of each side's humanity. How un-Canadian.
Through it all, some of the fiercest critics of Israeli policy have been Jewish. Noam Chomsky and Rabbi Michael Lerner, in the United States, come to mind, as do the brave souls of Jewish Women Against the Occupation who have, for years, been holding weekly vigils in front of the Israeli consulate in Toronto. Many Canadian Jews have recognized Palestinian rights and suffering, though prominent ones tend to do so only privately.
It hasn't helped that some people have used the anti-Semitism label as a stick to silence criticism of Israel. Nor has it helped that some critics of Israel have, indeed, been anti-Semites in disguise. The Canadian government added fuel to the fire with its total support for the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon this past summer, with seeming disregard to Lebanese civilian losses. Our government's one-sidedness was seen as grossly divisive and as a cynical ploy to attract Jewish electoral support.
But none of this -- none -- justifies racist sentiments against Jews. Canadian Arabs and Jews have traditionally joined hands against all forms of hate and discrimination. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia remain serious threats to both communities.
Multiculturalism, democracy and human rights are values that are equally shared. It is time that representative leaders from both sides recognized each other's humanity and discussed their differing views in civil, dispassionate ways. It would be wise that they put their Canadian-ness to work for the benefit of peaceful co-existence. Let them lead their Middle Eastern brethren by example, instead of by emulating their enmity.
Raja G. Khouri is a member of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and former president of the Canadian Arab Federation.