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Criticizing Israel's Politics Isn't Anti-Semitism

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The recent announcements that NDP candidates Morgan Wheeldon and Jerry Natinine will not be representing the NDP as candidates in the federal election should disturb Canadian progressives.

The Conservatives and the Liberals have for many years accused those who criticize Israel's behaviour of being anti-Semitic. They have adopted the thinking of staunch defenders of Israel, who maintain that critics of Israel's violent birth, and its continuing policies of forced displacement, house demolitions, administrative detention, torture, indiscriminate use of force, and the warehousing of entire civilian populations through mass control and surveillance, are in fact bigots who criticize these actions as a means of expressing their hatred of Jewish people.

When individuals condemn Israel's brutal mistreatment of Palestinians, the term "anti-Semitism" is meaningless. If an irrational hatred of Jewish people explains a growing grassroots movement to criticize these state practises, and to challenge this ongoing behaviour through popular boycotts and divestment campaigns, then we have effectively hollowed out the meaning of the term anti-Semitism.

While the term "Semite" refers to anyone of Middle Eastern origins, its historical usage in Europe has made the term anti-Semitism refer specifically to a hatred of or discrimination against Jewish people. Anti-Semitism is what many Canadian Jews experienced who faced quotas when applying for professional degrees, or who were barred from joining certain golf clubs. Anti-Semitism is what my ancestors experienced in Eastern Europe with pogroms, frequent assaults and massacres in Jewish communities. Anti-Semitism is the murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust.

How can it be in any way appropriate to use this term to describe individuals who criticize a modern political entity -- the state of Israel -- which systematically violates the rights of Palestinians?

Israel, while claiming to be a "Jewish state," does not mean "all people of Jewish descent." Most of the world's Jews have chosen to reside outside of Israel. Many Jewish people, including in Canada and in Israel, also oppose a state that gives exclusive privileges based on ethno-religious background, as Israel does currently. They would prefer an Israel-Palestine in which equal rights are granted to Jewish-Israelis and to Palestinians, the native inhabitants of the land, while acknowledging both peoples' rights to self-determination. To claim that criticizing Israel and its policies is a form of hatred or discrimination against Jewish people is to equate Jewish people everywhere with the state of Israel. Is this not itself a form of anti-Semitism?

The Conservatives and the Liberals will claim that criticizing Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic, but "singling out" Israel for selective condemnation is. This is a meaningless statement. What does it mean to "single out" Israel? When criticizing any country, that country is unavoidably being singled out for condemnation. How would one go about criticizing Israel and its behaviour without singling it out? Would one have to criticize every other human rights-violating regime in the world, all in the same breath?

Yes, it's true that Israel faces a large number of resolutions at the United Nations that criticize its treatment of the Palestinians. But rather than addressing the substance of these resolutions, which have dealt for decades with Israel's flagrant violations of international law, the Conservatives and the Liberals have used this disproportionate focus on Israel to champion the idea that Israel is indeed the victim.

Morgan Wheeldon's Facebook post from last summer revealed that he has learned about Israel's historic and ongoing mistreatment of the Palestinians, and for telling the truth, he was vilified by Israel lobbyists. Rather than dismissing these false allegations of anti-Semitism or any sort of wrongdoing on the part of Wheeldon outright, the NDP legitimized and ultimately strengthened this toxic atmosphere -- perpetuated by hawkish Israel lobby groups that falsely claim to represent Canadian Jewish opinion -- by forcing Wheeldon's resignation.

While the NDP has not been as vocal as the Conservatives and the Liberals in their agreement with the perverse ideas around anti-Semitism promoted forcefully by Israel lobby groups, it is indeed helping to perpetuate these dangerous ideas. Another prospective candidate, Jerry Natatine, is not allowed to run for the party since he was told that NDP headquarters feared that his comments fairly criticizing Israel on social media could be attacked as "anti-Semitic" by the NDP's political opponents.

The reality is that the Conservatives' and Liberals' view that criticizing Israel equates to a form of Jew-hatred is anti-Semitic in itself, since it requires equating all Jewish people with the modern political entity known as Israel. That would implicate all Jewish people in Israel's violent and immoral behaviour against Palestinians. It is also clear that both the Conservatives and the Liberals are outwardly racist toward Palestinians, whose rights and well-being they completely ignore, and whose occupier they idolize in an unquestioning and unapologetic fashion.

The NDP should know better as Canada's mainstream progressive party. Stooping to the level of the Conservatives and the Liberals on this issue will gain the approval of Israel lobby groups, but it may hurt their chances of gaining or maintaining the support of progressive Canadians.

Tyler Levitan is the Campaigns Coordinator for Independent Jewish Voices - Canada.