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June 29, 2009

Independent Jewish Voices Fights For Justice

Reuel S. Amdur

Reuel S. AmdurIn May NDP MP Libby Davies presented a pair of petitions to Parliament related to the Palestine question.

One was from a Vancouver school, calling for a UN war crimes investigation of the bombing of a UN school and of the use of white phosphorous against civilian areas in Gaza.

The second one called on Canada to change its political position on the Middle Eastern situation and "to initiate concrete action to hold Israel accountable for its ongoing violations of international and humanitarian law." In an interview, Dr. Diana Ralph, a social work professor, took partial ownership of the second petition on behalf of her group, Independent Jewish Voices (IJV).

"Independent Jewish Voices endorsed the petition and helped collect signatures for it," she said. As for the first petition, IJV is also fully supportive. "Last January," she charged, "the people of Gaza were guinea pigs for Israel to field test and eventually market new horrific weapons specifically designed for powerless urban populations, such as fleshettes, white phosphorous bombs, and remote controlled predator drones which it used purposely to target children playing on roofs."

Since the presentation of the two petitions, Davies has also drafted a motion for Parliamentary consideration:

(That this House calls on the Government of Canada to act swiftly as part of the International Community, to end the 20 month blockade of Gaza; To follow through on its promise for aid and assistance to the people of Gaza; And exercise its responsibility under international law to condemn the use of force and violence; And begin the process for normalized relations to attain a Palestinian state and peace for the region, including the ongoing control of Gaza’s border.)

Independent Jewish Voices has sent letters to the four party leaders in Parliament in support of Libby Davies’ motion.

IJV is a small organization, with about 140 members and a mailing list of 500 people, and it is unclear just what portion of Canadian Jewry it speaks for. "We may undertake a survey," she said. Ralph challenged the notion that organizations such as B’nai B’rith and the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) represent all Canadian Jews in their attitudes toward Israel. For one thing, CJC has restructured itself to disenfranchise its individual members from any voice in the running of the organization.

While Canadian data are unavailable, a 2008 survey of 800 Jews in the United States found that they "overwhelmingly disapproved of the Middle East policies of the George W. Bush administration and felt that Israel was less secure as a result of his policies by a 61-25 margin."

When asked about IJV, she explained that its origins can be traced back to 2006. Israel was engaged in military action in Gaza and Lebanon, and the United Church of Canada was considering a resolution calling for divestment of companies contributing to Israeli occupation. The Canadian Jewish Congress waged a campaign against the United Church, its leadership, and those proposing the motion, accusing them of anti-Semitism. In reaction, a group of Jews who agreed with the United Church sprang to its defence and supported the resolution, using an on-line petition and handing delegates a booklet that they produced. Delegates approved the motion, with minor changes.

The Canadian Jewish Congress met its nemesis in Diana Ralph and her associates. "In March of 2008, last year, we organized a national conference of Canadian Jews who were already promoting a just peace in Israel /Palestine. We invited unions, churches, peace and student groups, and Palestinian, Muslim and Arab groups to send delegates. It was the largest gathering of progressive Jews and allies Canada had ever seen. We came from all across Canada. About ¾ of us were Jews ranging from secular to Orthodox, from young adults to seniors, representing 18 Jewish organizations. We unanimously adopted a statement of unity and launched Independent Jewish Voices (Canada)."

Among the Jewish organizations participating were the United Jewish Peoples Order, Montreal’s Palestinians and Jews United (PAJU), Not in Our Name (NION), and Palestinians and Jews for a Just Peace, from Halifax. Naomi Klein was the principal speaker. Their first Annual General Meeting will be in Ottawa from June 12 to 14, with Judy Rebick as the keynote speaker.

IJV "organized a cross-Canada tour by Jeff Halper, Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and a tour of Al-Haq (a Palestinian legal rights organization), which is challenging the legality of Canada Park, built with Canadian funds in the Occupied Territories where three Palestinian villages had stood. We also co-sponsored performances of the play ‘My name is Rachel Corrie’ across Canada and Israeli Apartheid Week activities on several Canadian campuses." More recently IJV has been presenting Sarah Churchill’s play "Seven Jewish Children," which garnered considerable attention in Montreal and Toronto where B’nai B’rith has attacked it as anti-Semitic. It attempted to get it banned in Toronto.

What has motivated Diana Ralph in her efforts and in her activities as the primary organizer of IJV? In part it may have something to do with the fact that her father took part in the Nurenburg War Crimes Tribunal. And then there is the fact that she is a Jew. The prophet Jeremiah "insisted that, rather than blaming Yaweh for their misfortunes, they must acknowledge that it was their own sins-especially the sin of enslaving and oppressing others-which had led God to exile them."

She pointed to the historical opposition of Zionism to Judaism, which only in the 1940’s changed to most religious Jews embracing Zionism, basically because of the Holocaust. Ralph finds the two belief systems as still fundamentally antagonistic.

Where the Jewish ethos is one of serving God, the Zionist serves Israel (nationalism). The Jewish principle is one of ethical behaviour even at personal risk, while Zionism favors security above ethics. For the committed Jew, the Golden Rule is for everyone, while for the Zionist the duty is only to Jews. While the committed Jew is committed to peace, the Zionist wants power, the committed Jew is committed to humility, while the Zionist is prideful. A religious Jew believes in a return of all Jews to Israel only when they are free from sin, in a Messianic age. The Zionist favors a military/legal Jewish control of Israel.

She was asked which Canadian political party currently in Parliament takes the best position on justice in Israel/Palestine. "The Bloc Québécois," she replied with a laugh.

* Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer living near Ottawa.

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