Palestinians, B’nai Brith and Canada’s New Democratic Party
Niki Ashton injects vital ideas and principles into the NDP leadership campaign
Photo by Jonathan Allard
Like many NATO countries, Canada has suffered from an impoverishment of free and open debate when it comes to the issue of relations with the Israeli government and the Palestinian people. In country after country the Israeli lobby dominates not only governing parties but opposition parties as well.
The Canadian Parliament has epitomized the pattern. Elected federal officials have conspicuously failed to reflect the anxieties felt by many Canadians of conscience who have managed to become well informed on Palestinian-Israeli relations. There has been little in Canadian parliamentary debates or in mainstream media reports to reflect the views of those most attuned to the unmitigated suffering of Palestinian people under the jack-booted authoritarianism of Israeli domination.
In recent years the Liberals and Conservatives and the New Democrats (NDP) have maintained a blind eye towards Israeli assaults on the Palestinian people especially in Gaza and in the Occupied Territories seized through Israeli conquest a half century ago. Typically Canadian parliamentarians parrot one another across party lines on the sanctity of the “Israeli right of self-defence.” Concurrently our elected representatives mostly fail to notice that Palestinians share with all peoples a basic human right to protect themselves against systematic bouts of dispossession, disempowerment, mass incarcerations, and industrial-scale military murders sometimes heartlessly described as “cutting the grass.”
In 2016 Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined with the Conservative Party of Canada in backing a motion to condemn all groups and individuals supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement aimed at penalizing Israel for its anti-Palestinian infractions. Only one federal party, the diminutive Bloc Québécois, has openly argued that “the BDS campaign constitutes legitimate criticism of Israeli policies.”
In the prelude to the federal election of 2015 Tom Mulcair, the leader of the party that is supposed to embody Canadian social democracy, highlighted his own attachment to Zionist extremism by purging the New Democratic Party of federal candidates who expressed support for Palestinian rights. For Mulcair, those seeking to represent the NDP under his leadership were punished for noticing that the United Nations agencies had accused the Israeli Defence Force of “war crimes” in the military invasions of Gaza in 2009 and 2014.
B’nai Brith Canada versus NDP Leadership Candidate, Niki Ashton
The NDP’s venerable veteran parliamentarian, Libby Davies, was an early casualty of Tom Mulcair’s marked bias in taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Other casualties included Morgan Wheeldon, Jerry Natanine and Paul Manly, the son of long-serving NDP parliamentarian and United Church clergyman, James Manly. The son’s alleged crime was to have called for the release of his father from custody after the elder Manly was arrested in a Finnish ship carrying humanitarian supplies through the Israeli-enforced blockade encircling Gaza.
Is the conformist complacency in the glum parliamentary proceedings concerning Palestine and Israel about to come to an end? Perhaps that change will occur if a spark of controversy in the NDP leadership race ignites wider debate on such crucial issues of Canadian public policy.
The contest to replace Tom Mulcair is showing signs of vibrancy that began with a clash of interpretations pitting NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton’s pro-Palestinian politics against B’nai Brith Canada. B’nai Brith Canada is the local extension of the US and Israeli-based Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
Ms. Ashton represents a huge and largely Aboriginal riding in the northern part of the Canadian province of Manitoba. As many see it, Ms. Ashton’s convictions concerning the importance of Palestinian rights are a natural extension of her representation in Parliament of so many Indian and Metis people. In both Canada and the Middle East, Indigenous peoples share similar perspectives on the incursions of newcomers bent on asserting ownership and control over their Aboriginal lands.
The conflict between Niki Ashton and B’nai Brith Canada has much to do with how disparate perceptions of history impinge on contemporary politics. The nub of the current dispute has to do with Palestinian perceptions of the founding acts of the new Jewish state in 1948 as a “catastrophe,” as the “Nakba” in Arabic. The Palestinian view of the Nabka is very close to the Jewish perception of the Shoah. Shoah is the Hebrew term to identify the disaster engulfing European Jewry during World War II.
In 1998 Yasser Arafat instituted May 15 as Nakba Day. The timing was meant as a response to the annual commemoration on May 14 of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. As many Palestinians see it, the founding of Israel led to the initial violent displacement of about 700,000 of their people, almost half of the Palestinian population at that time.
The horror of the Israeli military assault was epitomized by the murderous atrocities committed at Deir Yassin of the Irgun and Lehi militias. Led by a future Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, Irgun and Lehi had been instrumental in displacing the British administrators of colonial Palestine through a hugely publicized act of international terrorism at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946.
In reflecting on this history, NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton announced on her Facebook page,
For more than 60 years, Palestine has been struggling to simply exist. Many in our country have been fighting in solidarity for many years. This week in Montreal I was honoured to stand with many in remembering the Nakba. It was also powerful to join many at a rally in solidarity with those on hunger strike in Palestine today. The NDP must be a voice for human rights, for peace and justice in the Middle East. I am inspired by all those who in our country are part of this struggle for justice.
Michael Mostyn, the CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, responded as follows to Ms. Ashton’s actions and comments. In a Toronto Sun opinion piece Mr. Mostyn observed,
The re-emergence of the Jewish State in 1948 is a miraculous story of indigenous survival and resilience, not a “catastrophe” to be mourned.
Mr. Mostyn’s rejection of the Nakba narrative harkens back to many similar divergences when it comes to the position of Indigenous peoples on a variety of commemorations in the colonized world. Not surprisingly, Native groups often have severe problems and reservations when they are asked to join in anniversary celebrations of, say, 1492, or 1776, or 1867.
Not satisfied to stop at insisting that the founding of the Jewish State must be universally embraced, even by the Palestinians, as a “miraculous” event to be lauded, he goes on to attempt to turn the tables on groups he clearly sees as classes of criminals. Mr. Mostyn thereby seeks to transform the Palestinian memory of the Nakba into the lionization of an Israeli military campaign to clear aside the human obstacles to Israeli ascendence. He writes,
Had Jewish forces not prevailed [in 1948], the likely result would have been another genocide of the land’s Jewish inhabitants, just after the Holocaust, by invading Arab armies who had sworn to exterminate them.
In a news item on B’nai Brith Canada’s own web site Mr. Mostyn adds
To suggest that we should commemorate and mourn the Arab world’s inability to successfully commit a genocide against the Jewish people is beyond comprehension.
In her Facebook post Ms. Ashton combined her comments on the Nakba with a reference to Palestinian hunger strikers currently making their stand throughout the elaborate Israeli prison system. Mr. Mostyn treats this act of protest with contempt. He accuses Ms. Ashton of joining in solidarity with “convicted murders,” with her “advocating for vile terrorists.” The B’nai Brith CEO fails to mention in his remarks on the hunger strike that many thousands of jailed Palestinians are being held for months and even for years under “administrative detention certificates.” They have been jailed but not charged with any crime.
Mr. Mostyn concludes by condemning Ms. Ashton as the possessor of “a defective moral compass.” He asserts
Ms. Ashton’s comments are a shocking and insulting departure from the traditional position of her party and those of mainstream Canadians….Every Canadian, and every honest NDP supporter, should be shocked by Ashton’s ignorance, callousness, and blatant double-standards… Her ignorance as to the reality of the situation in Israel, particularly when it comes to the hunger strike of convicted murderers, is alarming from someone aspiring to be leader of this country.
Who Is Out of Step with the Opinions of Mainstream Canada?
Yves Engler has closely studied the controversy and concluded that it has worked in the favour of Niki Ashton’s leadership campaign and against the credibility of B’nai Brith Canada. He observes that the B’nai Brith backed down once it realized that its interest in Ms. Ashton’s politics was feeding a broader discussion rather than discrediting its target. Engler writes,
Their silence on Ashton’s recent moves is deafening. B’nai B’rith is effectively conceding that their previous attacks backfired and they now fear drawing further attention to Ashton’s position since it would likely strengthen her standing among those voting for the next NDP leader.
Reflecting on the experience Engler observes,
The first ever pregnant major party leadership candidate in Canadian political history has gained this support by speaking truth to power and taking a principled position on an issue most politicians have shied away from. And, she has demonstrated that the purpose of Israeli nationalist attacks is to silence them, not to have a debate. In fact, real debate is what organizations like B’nai B’rith fear the most because the more people know about Israel and the Occupied Territories, the more they support the Palestinian cause.
The injection of Israeli and Palestinian issues into the NDP leadership campaign is a promising development that is attracting considerable attention domestically and internationally. This turn of events holds out the promise of bringing the parliamentary facet of Canadian social democracy more into line with the existing Middle East policies of agencies like the United Church of Canada, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, the Canadian Labour Congress and student groups like the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario.
The enthusiasm generated by open debate is proving to be infectious. About 80 prominent academics and community activists have come up with an open letter urging the NDP to formulate a more balanced, enlightened and intelligent Middle East policy. Among those who signed the document are Noam Chomsky and former UN special rapporteur on Israel-Palestine, Prof. Richard Falk.
B’nai Brith Canada accuses Ms. Ashton of making “a shocking and insulting departure from the traditional position of her party and those of mainstream Canadians.” Yves Engler and others conclude otherwise. They allege it is B’nai Brith Canada that is increasingly out of step with mainstream opinion of well informed Canadians.
I agree. Certainly I continue to be dismayed at B’nai Brith Canada’s deployment of the hate speech deceptions of Joshua Goldberg in the initiation of a campaign of smear and disinformation against me. The campaign began with a publicity stunt based on the planting on my Facebook wall of a reprehensible Facebook post whose origins go back not to me but to Joshua Goldberg and quite possibly to B’nai Brith Canada and related agencies.
Some explanations are in order from the responsible parties. The time is past when Mr. Mostyn can play the victim card when the B’nai Brith is so deeply implicated in hate speech victimization of others. To accuse an attractive and rising social democratic politician like Niki Ashton of “advocating for vile terrorists” is a blasphemy of a high order. Taking the side of oppressed groups over the side of their oppressors is not only legitimate but laudable in the context of these dangerous times through which we are living.
This article originally appeared on AHTribune.com.