Okay, let’s talk about an elephant in the room. What do Faisal Bhaba, Desmond Cole, Javier Dávila, Nadia Shoufani, Rehab Nazzal, Rana Zaman, Linda Sarsour, Idris Elbakri and Fadi Ennab and countless others have in common?
They are racialized people who have been special targets of pro-Israel lobby organizations in Canada because they spoke out on Palestinian rights. And these examples suggest how the defend-Israel-at-all-costs industry has a racism and Islamophobia problem.
The answer to the question “Who is antisemitic?” might well be “Anyone, but especially a racialized person, who criticizes Israel.”
Faisal Bhabha, of South African and Québecois descent, is a prominent professor and specialist in human rights law at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School. On June 10, 2020, he took part in an online forum of the Toronto Metropolitan (then Ryerson) University’s Centre for Free Expression on the topic “Fighting Anti-Semitism or Silencing Critics of Israel: What’s Behind the Push for Governments to Adopt the IHRA Definition of Anti-Semitism.”
Both Bhabha and another panelist at that forum, Sheryl Nestel of Independent Jewish Voices, criticized the Israeli regime as a “racist endeavour.” But Nestel is a white, Jewish woman and Bhabha is a racialized, non-Jewish man. Guess who took the full force of the Israel lobby’s wrath? You guessed right.
B’nai Brith Canada sent a public letter to York University President Rhonda Lenton, cherry-picking among Bhabha’s quotes, not only disagreeing with Bhabha’s opinions, but demanding that Lenton bar him from teaching any human rights courses. They even charged Bhabha with denying the Holocaust, which a simple reading of the transcript shows is a false and outrageous accusation. Gratifyingly, Lenton declined this demand. But B’nai Brith likely never expected its wild proposal to be heeded. Their intention was subtler and more nasty—to intimidate and highlight race.
Desmond Cole is an Black journalist, activist and human rights campaigner who won the PEN Canada Ken Filkow Prize for freedom of expression. In September 2021 the Toronto District School Board invited Cole to give a series of four virtual workshops to six hundred senior TDSB staff.
In one of the sessions, Cole spoke about forms of bigotry other than anti-Black racism:
Saying ‘Free Palestine’ is the beginning of what we need to talk about on this issue. And the reason it relates to our country and to conversations about racism is because the fact that Palestinians do not have sovereignty on their own land is an issue of settler colonialism. And if we’re going to challenge settler colonialism and residential schools and graves near those schools in Canada, we are also going to acknowledge that other people in other parts of the world are not free on their own territories and want to be free. That is what ‘Free Palestine’ means.
Despite the fact that Cole did not mention Jews at all in his remarks nor attack Jews, Jaime Kirzner-Roberts of The Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC) jumped on Cole and the school board, insisting that “the remarks by Cole feed into the normalization of antisemitism in the education system. It’s time the TDSB be held accountable for permitting such expressions of exclusion and discrimination while failing to protect its Jewish staff members who have been traumatized repeatedly by the recent events.”
Kirzner-Roberts called on the Ontario Minister of Education “to continue and expand its commitment to combating Jew-hatred through educational programs.” What kind of educational programs? More of the ones the FSWC is already paid by the Ontario’s Ministry of Education to give already, and which use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism (IHRA-WDA) to label critics of Israel antisemitic.
In response, the TDSB apologized for causing “harm” to people involved in Cole’s workshop.
Javier Dávila, a teacher who identifies as racialized and queer, is Student Equity Program Advisor with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). That job entails, in Dávila’s words, “supporting programming, resources and training for educators and students in anti-oppression, anti-racism, anti-colonialism as well as in sexual and gender-based violence prevention.” When Israel attacked Gaza in 2021, Dávila complied with his job requirements and sent to his teacher contact list a set of resources on Palestinian rights and resistance to the Israeli occupation. He said nothing about Jews.
B’nai Brith Canada smeared Dávila suggesting that he had “attempted to abuse” his position to “spread hateful propaganda” and demanded he be terminated and lose his teaching license. The TDSB suspended him and launched an investigation. Over 5,000 students, teachers, trade unionists and community members signed a petition calling for his reinstatement. Thirty school board administrators and a group of Jewish parents weighed in and hundreds of high school students walked out of class to support him.
Dávila was eventually reinstated without any disciplinary measures. Despite that, B’nai Brith has sworn to continue its campaign to have him removed from the profession and apparently has filed a criminal complaint with Toronto Police. Dávila has brought a lawsuit against B’nai Brith.
Nadia Shoufani is an elementary school teacher in Mississauga of Palestinian background who spoke at a July 2016 rally in support of Palestine. She called popular Palestinian writer and activist Ghassan Kanafani (who was assassinated by Israel in 1972) a “martyr” to the cause and also criticized France’s detention of Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, also an activist. Both men were said to be linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, long the bugbear of pro-Israel campaigners. Shoufani said nothing about Jews in her public comments.
Piling on, all three of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and B’nai Brith Canada called on her school board to remove her from the classroom and she was charged with breach of professional conduct at the Ontario College of Teachers, the regulatory agency. At first suspended by her school board, she returned to the classroom exonerated by the College. Independent Jewish Voices Canada applauded Shoufani’s win against a “highly coordinated and malicious smear campaign against her [that] was designed to ruin her career.”
Rehab Nazzal is a Palestinian artist living in Toronto, whose work features elements of the Palestinian struggle. Included in an independently-juried show at the Ottawa city hall art gallery in 2014, one such piece featured flashing images of victims of Israeli extrajudicial killings; one included a recording of protesters attacked by Israeli forces in the village of Bi’lin and another showed Palestinians held prisoner.
The exhibition drew the public ire of Israel’s then ambassador to Canada, Rafael Barak. The Jewish Federation of Ottawa called on Ottawa’s mayor to shut the exhibition down. The mayor ordered the city’s policy on gallery showings to be reviewed. However, the exhibition remained open until its conclusion. Again, Nazzal said nothing about Jews in the show.
Said Nazzal: “I did not expect a representative of a foreign country to intervene in the artwork of a Canadian artist.
“This is extremely dangerous…[it is] really scary that it can be pushed further into the future to silence and censor any meaningful art in the gallery and the museums.”
Rana Zaman is a Pakistani-Canadian Muslim woman in Halifax who won the 2019 Individual Human Rights Award from the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission for her highly distinguished record of activism not only in her own community, but across the spectrum of groups and individuals.
However, the Commission stripped Ms. Zaman of that award soon after the ceremony that honoured her. The Commission, which often takes up to five years to resolve human rights complaints, took a mere ten days to rescind Zaman’s distinction. What did she do to merit this ignominy?
She spoke out on a forbidden political issue—Israel-Palestine. In the wake of the 2018-19 “Great March of Return” which eventually left over 200 Gazans dead and tens of thousands injured at Israeli hands, Rana wrote a number of angry tweets comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. She said nothing about Jews. This led to public accusations by the Atlantic Jewish Council (AJC) and two local rabbis that Zaman was an antisemite and a demand for removal of her Human Rights award.
The NDP removed Zaman as a candidate earlier in 2019 in the federal election for similar reasons.
Rana had promptly apologized for the over-the-top nature of her remarks and sought reconciliation with the AJC, reminding them that she had been a prime mover of an organization bringing together Muslim and Jewish women. She noted “it is an unfortunate fact of current political discourse that the words we use to describe injustice are often perceived as worse than the injustice itself.”
But it was for nought. She has been targeted and invalidated.
Linda Sarsour is a Palestinian-American and one of the leading organizers of the several Women’s Marches [against then newly-elected President Donald Trump]. She has spoken very critically of Israel, but has not attacked Jews. Indeed, she has campaigned actively for Jewish-American presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and forcefully condemned the October 2018 shootings in the Pittsburgh synagogue (however her opponents attempt to frame her as an antisemite with guilt-by-association).
In April 2019, Sarsour, invited by the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg and the Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute, was to speak there at a meeting entitled “Sorry, Not Sorry: Unapologetically Working for Social Justice.”
Unsurprisingly, despite the presence of others on the panel with her and the fact that she would not be speaking about Israel or Jews, B’nai Brith Canada and several other Israel-supporting groups singled-out Sarsour to be banned from speaking. These calls received support from Winnipeg’s mayor and the deputy Premier of Manitoba. When the first venue caved in to these entreaties and canceled the meeting, the event moved to another location and successfully completed.
I thought I was being invited to a democratic country where the Canadian people enjoy freedom of speech and want to afford it to everyone and I was quite shocked that a mayor would be denouncing a person he does not know,
This event tonight is about let’s agree to disagree—and I hold particular views as a Palestinian-American and I should be [allowed] to hold those views.
Idris Elbakri and Fadi Ennab are Palestinian-Canadians, the former Muslim, the latter Christian, who spoke at a 2018 meeting at the University of Winnipeg (UW) entitled “My Jerusalem.” The meeting, organized by several human rights groups (like Independent Jewish Voices and a local United Church organization), marked the moving of the US embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. While Esther Epp-Tiessen of the Mennonite Central Committee and Rabbi David Mivasair shared the podium with Elbakri and Ennab, the animus of B’nai Brith Canada was reserved almost solely for the two Palestinians. Nothing in the meeting criticized Jews, except for the accusation that some Israelis were calling for “an ethnic enclave in the middle of the Arab Middle East for Jews only.” Indeed, the language of the meeting was remarkably restrained, with a few rounds of “settler colonialism” and “apartheid” used to describe the Israeli regime.
Nevertheless B’nai Brith complained to the university that the meeting was antisemitic. UW’s human rights and equity officer, employing the IHRA-WDA, decided that the meeting was antisemitic. The university rendered a fulsome apology to the Jewish community and thereafter effectively barred the organizers from booking rooms for other events.
Those are only nine individual stories. But there are many more. Not one of the individuals attacked exhibited any antagonism toward Jewish people as Jews. Their criticism has been of Israeli policies and actions against the Palestinians. Of course, the pro-Israel organizations have now given us the IHRA-WDA which includes criticisms of Israel as part of a “new antisemitism,” and hence a broader net to scoop up more alleged antisemites.
A recent report by IJV entitled “Unveiling the Chilly Climate: The Suppression of Speech on Palestine in Canada” is the first systematic look at targeting of people who speak out in solidarity with Palestinians in this country. Many of the individuals reporting harassment are racialized. As described by the authors:
…the researchers collected 77 testimonies from 40 faculty members, 23 students, 7 activists and 7 representatives of organizations. Testimonies were collected from participants in Ontario, Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Alberta. Among the academics responding were representatives of eleven disciplines from 21 Canadian universities.
Interviewees recounted that their experiences included: political intervention into hiring; attempts to prevent access to event venues and the attempted cancellation of public events on Palestine as well as targeting and doxing, including the inclusion of 128 Canadian academics and activists on the website of Canary Mission, an organization which purports to document “individuals and organizations that promote hatred of the US, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses.” Threats of violence and genuine acts of violence were experienced by student activists and these often contained racial and sexual slurs including threats of sexual violence.
The report goes on to say:
Unsubstantiated allegations of antisemitic intent and support for terrorism are commonly levelled against pro-Palestine academics and activists. Significantly, Palestinians, Muslims and non-Arab racialized participants appear to have borne the brunt of direct attacks on their scholarship and activism. The emotional impact of harassment and suppression was felt most acutely by Palestinian students and faculty interviewed.
It has been known for some time that many of the top Israel-supporting organizations are also engaged in the spreading of Islamophobia. As far back as 2011, links between the “Islamophobia industry” and some Israel lobby organizations” have been documented in the US.
…the so-called ‘misinformation experts’ (as well as the politicians and media outlets) propagating Islamophobic ideas in the public sphere. While millions of Americans were being reached—and perhaps influenced—by these ideas, behind them was ‘a small, tightly networked group’ sustained by ‘funding from a clutch of key foundations’ pumping large amounts of money into the network. The data [the Center for American Progress] CAP compiled traced donations from the seven most significant donors to the eight most significant recipient bodies.
…In total, these seven foundations and charitable trusts put $42.5 million into the promotion of Islamophobia during the period studied (2001 to 2009).
A recent report entitled The Canadian Islamophobia Industry: Mapping Islamophobia’s Ecosystem in the Great White North by scholar Jasmin Zine, says:
Heightened fear and moral panic, proliferation of fake news, and political figures dog whistling Islamophobic ideologies have led to the widespread normalization of Islamophobia, creating the perfect storm for anti-Muslim hate crimes. Within this complex terrain, combatting Islamophobia is like playing a game of “whack-a-mole” as new Islamophobic agitators and groups continue to emerge, align, and gather momentum in a common cause of fomenting Islamophobic paranoia and mounting anti-Muslim campaigns.
In April 2022, the Arab-Canadian Lawyers Association (ACLA) produced a report entitled Anti-Palestinian Racism: Naming, Framing and Manifestations. In summary, it suggests the following symptoms:
- Anti-Palestinian racism most commonly occurred when Palestinians speak or write about the Palestinian struggle in the public sphere.
- The Orientalization of Palestinians, [where] Palestinians [are]seen to be inferior or biased, and institutions and governments [make]unsolicited decisions on behalf of Palestinians without consulting them or allowing Palestinians to speak for themselves.
- The erasure of Palestinians who are not invited by institutions or the media to speak on issues related to Palestine.
- The media’s tendency to invite Israelis to speak on the issue and regard them to be the only authoritative or objective party on the subject.
- Biased reporting in media was also raised by several respondents.
What is less well-known is that this pro-Israel Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism is increasingly coupled with an antipathy toward racialized people.
What seems to be at work here is a pandering toward the worst instincts of white prejudice. When a critic of Israel is Jewish, people often perk up and take notice. When a critic is white, people just might listen. But when a critic is racialized, many people tune out or assume the dissenter is biased or exaggerating—and antisemitic. Canadian scholars Abu-Laban and Bakan call this phenomenon, especially as it relates to the Israel/Palestine issue, “racial gaslighting” and “anti-Palestinian racism.”
What’s ironic is that many of the worst of the racists are no fans of the Jews either. For example, American white supremacist Richard Spencer (he of Charlottesville “Jews will not replace us” fame), Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn (who uses Jewish philanthropist George Soros as a political punching bag), Austrian politician Jörg Haider, Italian neo-fascist Gianfranco Fini, Dutch far-rightist Geert Wilders, all Islamophobes, have Jews as well as Muslims on their hate list.
But at the same time, all of the above love Israel. Many of the politicians have made the expected pilgrimage to Israel and, despite their dislike of Jews, are welcomed with open arms by Israeli leaders. Why would they love Israel when they don’t like Jews? One answer is that Israel is an ethno-nationalist state that they would like to emulate. After all, Richard Spencer, who calls himself a “white Zionist” says “I want us to have a secure homeland for us and ourselves. Just like you want a secure homeland in Israel.”
Another reason is that Israel does another thing these white supremacist politicians would like to emulate—whack Muslims. Indeed, Israel is one of the world’s most diligent attackers of Muslims. And Israel’s “most moral” armed forces and police spend a lot of their time making life miserable for Muslims and racialized people. So, the next time CIJA, B’nai Brith, Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Honest Reporting, Stand With Us, and the myriad of others in the defend-Israel-at-all-costs industry tell you that someone is antisemitic, look carefully at the ethnicity or religion of the accused.
Larry Haiven is Professor Emeritus at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.