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September 2, 2010

A Mideast reading list (including Keefer's) for Tories willing to learn

Gerald Caplan

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U.S. President Barack Obama is bringing together Israeli and Palestinian leaders next week in yet another attempt to find agreement between them. It seems a futile quest.

The Palestinians remain impossibly divided and agree on little.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his extreme right-wing coalition also have disagreements but are united on the biggest issue of them all: As they’ve repeatedly demonstrated by word and deed, they will never accede to even the minimum demands and will never accept a viable Palestinian state on the West Bank.

Despite this, Mr. Netanyahu can always count on the knee-jerk support of the Canadian government.

Stephen Harper’s automatic stand on any and all aspects of this monumental crisis is clear: Israel is always right, the Palestinians always wrong. There is Pavlovian solidarity with Israelis, an almost visceral hostility towards Palestinians.

The basis for this unwavering bias has never been shared with Canadians.

Is it simply another example of the Prime Minister’s notorious contempt for information, evidence, facts?

Can he be as oblivious as he seems to the mountains of information documenting the complex realities of Israel-Palestine.

Let me suggest just three serious books that permanently open the eyes of anyone genuinely willing to learn.

Phillip Winslow wrote Victory for Us Is to See you Suffer: In the West Bank with the Palestinians and the Israelis after 2½ years of doing humanitarian work on the West Bank with the United Nations.

Every day Mr. Winslow witnessed the fear, humiliation and violence routinely faced by Palestinians as they negotiate the endless series of Israeli walls, checkpoints and military operations that deface the West Bank, which Israel illegally occupies.

Of course if you’re afraid of real information, you could simply smear Mr. Winslow as just another anti-Semite, since that’s how critics of Israeli governments are normally treated.

But it’s obvious he fully understands Israel's legitimate security needs and anxieties.

Yet he also sees what anyone who has ever been around the West Bank quickly grasps. The way Israeli soldiers casually humiliate and torment Palestinians goes way beyond any legitimate security needs. Both Israelis and Palestinians recognize this reality.

“Despite Stephen Harper’s best efforts, it’s obvious Canadians still care about facts and evidence to back up their convictions.”

The result is inevitable: the emergence of a group of young Palestinians for whom, as one of them tells Mr. Winslow, the only small victory left for them is if Israelis suffer too.

Much is explained in that one pungent sentence. Every day, Israel wittingly creates more bitter, despairing, hopeless Palestinians with nothing to lose, and so the existing vicious cycle is perpetuated.

Does our government understand this?

Now Avraham Burg can hardly be an anti-Semite. So when the Harper government dismisses any critic of the Israeli government as an anti-Semite, as it invariably does, Mr. Burg will give them trouble.

His father, barely escaping Hitler, went on to become a prominent Israeli cabinet minister. Himself a sabra (born in Israel), he has been a leader of the Labour Party, speaker of the Knesset and chairman of the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Executive.

Try dismissing this man as your typical self-hating Jew.

Mr. Burg's remarkable thought-provoking book, The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes, is like an intense debate between him and much of Israel's conventional wisdom.

From the heart of Israel itself, Mr. Burg has the courage to accuse his fellow Israelis of deliberately exploiting the Holocaust as an excuse to treat Palestinians deplorably. “We must admit that present-day Israel and its ways contribute to the rise in hatred of Jews.”

That's precisely what Phillip Winslow shows is happening in the West Bank.

Over the years, as Mr. Burg documents, a fringe coalition of Israeli Jews – the Arab-hating racists, the fanatical ultra-orthodox, the violent lawless gun-toting settlers, the chauvinists of “Greater Israel” –have migrated from the margins to become the country's rulers.

In his hard words: “Jews and Israelis have become thugs.”

The Harper government needs to hear Mr. Burg’s idealistic perspective as he calls for universal solidarity, a theme with a long and glorious tradition in Jewish history.

A look at the zealous, reactionary, and above all dangerous government that now rules Israel demonstrates this tragic truth. This is a regime that must be vigorously opposed by all who support equity, justice and peace.

But watch out. When it comes to Israel and Palestine, you stand up for justice at considerable personal risk, as both Avraham Burg and our final book point out.

The Harper government has cynically made attacks on the Israeli government a partisan domestic issue in Canada.

They’ve been milking it in the most flagrant way. I've written about this despicable tactic several times in the past year, and the shameful failure of the Canadian Jewish establishment to condemn it.

“Every day, Israel wittingly creates more bitter, despairing, hopeless Palestinians with nothing to lose, and so the existing vicious cycle is perpetuated. Does our government understand this? ”

For that reason, I highly recommend Michael Keefer's indispensable new book, Anti-Semitism Real and Imagined: Responses to the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism.

Mr. Keefer, a professor at Guelph University, has pulled together writings of his own and others to expose the ugly attempts by the Conservative government and influential Jewish organizations to damn any criticism of the government of Israel as an attack on the very existence of the Jewish state.

So criticizing what Avraham Burg calls the “thugs” who run Israel makes you automatically an anti-Semite. Too bad if the critics happen to be Jewish Israelis.

Mr. Keefer makes another important and timely contribution.

I have in earlier columns noted a remarkable paradox: This generation of Canadian Jews is among the most fortunate in the world, indeed in the history of the world, with anti-Semitism rarely touching any of our privileged lives.

Yet the B’nai Brith, echoed by the Conservatives and the mysterious and rather sinister Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism, insist that Canada has seen a dramatic resurgence of such hatred.

Mr. Keefer does a thorough analysis of the available data to show what virtually all Jews know from personal experience: this is groundless fear-mongering.

He shows that many so-called incidents of anti-Semitism are trivial, overblown or imaginary; they may be reported (unlike other criminal acts), but they’re often completely unverified.

Worse, many others are not really examples of anti-Semitism at all but mere criticism of the government of Israel. And that's precisely the point of the bloated numbers.

They are exploited – with frightening success – to create a climate in which no critical debate about Israel is legitimate and anyone who does criticize is smeared as an anti-Semite who wants Israel to disappear.

This is truly opportunism of a perverse kind.

There is a certain amount of real anti-Semitism in Canada, although possibly less than any other country in the world.

And there's a good deal of ugly anti-Semitism in Europe and, sadly, in many parts of the Muslim world, where understandable anti-Israel sentiments are only too easily conflated with old-fashioned Jew-hating.

How does it help to exaggerate this tragic phenomenon?

Here's the good news: Despite Stephen Harper’s best efforts, it’s obvious Canadians still care about facts and evidence to back up their convictions.

Now everyone who cares about anti-Semitism in Canada can read Mr. Keefer's welcome book and breathe a deep sigh of relief.

But here's the bad: I fear that the Harper government will continue to use a fictional increase in anti-Semitism to woo Jewish voters to the Conservative camp and to smear dissenting views.

Just as Avraham Burg's rationality and idealism has no influence on the dangerous extremists that controls Israel, so will Michael Keefer's rationality and hard data be ignored by the know-nothing government that now controls Canada.

Special to The Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Aug. 27, 2010.

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