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May 7, 2013

Justin Bieber and the University of Manitoba controversy

Corey Levine

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Last weekend brought another knot in the string of controversies that has surrounded Justin Bieber of late. Currently on a European tour, the Canadian teen heartthrob had a guided tour of the Amsterdam house where Dutch Jewish teenager, Anne Frank, hid from the Nazis until her arrest in 1944. She later died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp a few months before the end of World War II. While in hiding, she wrote a diary, which was a sharp-eyed window into life during wartime.

It was published after the war and has become the most widely read document to come out of the Holocaust. Anne Frank's diary has been translated into at least 60 languages as well as being adapted in a long-running stage play and a Hollywood movie. Her story has become such an iconic symbol of suffering and oppression that in 1999 Time magazine named her one of the heroes of the twentieth century, stating that she “lent a searing voice to the fight for human dignity.”

The “Biebs,” who has millions of fans known as “Bielebers” who follow his every move, left his imprint in the guestbook after his tour of Anne Frank’s house, writing that “Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a Bieleber.” Cue to the outraged comments and the storm of controversy after his comments were posted online by a museum staff member.

Back in Bieber’s home country, the University of Manitoba was also mired in controversy at the other end of the same spectrum after their student’s union voted to strip Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) of official club status on campus. The ban bars SAIA from receiving student union funding or using campus space for their activities. The vote passed despite the advice of a lawyer for the student union.

Supporters of this action justified the ban under the terms of the Manitoba Human Rights Code, claiming that the group was guilty of “discrimination” and “harassment” because it advocates economic, academic and diplomatic sanctions against Israel similar to the boycott movement against Apartheid-era South Africa. Some Jewish organizations have applauded the ban. B’nai Brith, for example, claims that SAIA’s activities have “created a poisoned environment for pro-Israeli students,” and equates opposition to Zionism with anti-Semitism (a conflation commonly made by supporters of Israeli state policies). 

Other Jewish groups, in contrast, signed on to a letter to the student union from Palestinian solidarity groups, which stated that “there are many Jewish-identified Canadians in Manitoba and across Canada who define their religious and/or ethnic identity as separate from the ideology of Zionism,” and pointed to the fact that Zionism excludes “many of the 1,617,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel who are subject to multiple forms of discrimination despite citizenship because of the fact they are not Jewish.” The letter also noted that, “according to the logic of UMSU’s Motion, criticism of South African Apartheid would have been a form of discrimination against White Afrikaner Nationalists in South Africa.”

Back in Amsterdam, the Anne Frank museum acknowledged that Justin Bieber’s guestbook comment “wasn’t very sensible,” but commended the singer for visiting the museum and taking an interest in her story.  A representative observed that “what’s special is that a 19-year-old comes to the Anne Frank House and spends an hour visiting on a Friday night, which is more important than the commotion that we’re now seeing. We hope that his visit will inspire his fans to learn more about her life and hopefully read the diary.”

I wonder what the University of Manitoba’s student’s union would make of the Anne Frank museum’s comments in light of its own home-grown controversy of what it means to be Jewish in the modern world. I think we all need to learn from Anne Frank, who in her diary preached tolerance and understanding for all peoples, and raged against the blinkered hatred that forced her into hiding. Were she alive today, I suspect that Anne Frank, like many Jews in Canada and around the world, would recognize the injustice of the Palestinians' situation and raise her voice in support of their struggle for human dignity.

Corey Levine is an international human rights consultant.

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