Criticize Israel, go to jail
Professor Michael Keefer analyzes perceived antisemitism
Malcolm Azania / firstname.lastname@example.org
During the recent G20 protests in Toronto, the Canadian government spent $1 billion on security alone, dispatching 20 000 security forces that, among other tasks, broke down the doors of citizens in night raids to arrest some “pre-emptively,” and detained over 1100 people, most of whom never faced an actual charge.
So while anti-big-government conservatives, big and small C alike, are conspicuously silent on such a heavy hand, inquiring minds want to know what other sorts of freedom-denying goodies our current parliament might have in mind.
“Their goal seems to be in the long term to criminalize criticism of Israel, to say, effectively, that to criticize Israel is to engage in [illegal] hate speech,” says Michael Keefer, University of Guelph English professor and author of Antisemitism Real and Imagined.
Keefer’s not saying that the government itself is behind this gambit, but a club of MPs calling itself the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism. Despite the name, the group has no mandate from parliament to conduct its affairs, and includes former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler and neo-con attack dog and current Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney.
Is this for real? Can the CPCCA really be aiming to attack free speech and political debate with the power of imprisonment? “Some of the people involved in [the CPCCA] are quite explicit about what they’re trying to do,” says Keefer, noting that Irwin Cotler coined the term “lawfare” to describe the crusade. “[Cotler] says that human rights activists or ‘pretended human rights activists’ have been using international law against Israel, or, he would want to claim, against the Jewish people—which is false—and therefore, it’s time to use human rights law as a kind of legal warfare against those [activists] themselves” to brand them as bigots and have the country go along with their silencing.
Keefer is certain that any such attempt would violate Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Charter Section I.2.b. seems clear enough: “Everyone has the fundamental freedoms of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.” Criticizing a government isn’t the same thing as criticizing its citizens, because if it were, the ruling Conservatives would have been guilty of hate speech for attacking the previous Liberal government or waging war on Afghanistan’s in 2001; Jason Kenney’s own 2009 citizenship guidebook warns new Canadians that Canada won’t tolerate “barbaric cultural practices”—which means Kenney’s ministry is teaching, by example, that criticizing a culture isn’t hate speech, either.
While Keefer acknowledges some will dismiss him for fear mongering, he says the CPCCA poses a serious threat to free speech. But could the day really come when police and courts could throw critics of Israel into jail? In France, which Keefer says has rigorous anti-hate crime laws, “People are being taken before French courts for the ‘crime’ of handing out pamphlets advocating a peaceful program of boycotts, divestment and sanctions [BDS] to persuade Israel to end the occupation. That has been redefined by the French legal system as a hate crime! That’s pretty serious ‘lawfare’ … There’s an attempt underway to do very much the same thing in this country.”
Keefer describes as “hallucinatory” the case of Jason Kenney accusing the NGO KAIROS of being anti-Semitic. KAIROS is an NGO that had extensive contracts and a long-standing relationship with CIDA and is run by a coalition of Canada’s mainstream churches, including Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Mennonites. Kenney’s claim that KAIROS was anti-Semitic apparently rested on the charge that it had advocated BDS, which KAIROS has specifically said it would not advocate. And even had it done so, says Keefer, “that still wouldn’t make them anti-Semites.”
According to Keefer, it’s Muslim Canadians and Arab Canadians, but especially Muslim Arab Canadians, who face the “significant threat.” Kenney also accused the Canadian Islamic Congress and the Canadian Arab Federation of anti-Semitism, and “he shut down funding for a well-respected program that [the CAF had] run, not simply for Arab immigrants to Canada, but immigrants more generally.” According to Keefer, Kenney accused the CAF of being anti-Semites “because they’d criticized his unbalanced statements in support of violent actions of the Israeli government,” adding that such “smear tactics” are standard operating procedures for the ruling Conservatives, “a kind of new McCarthyism.”
Other victims of the new McCarthyism, outside Canada and France, include Israeli academics including Nief Gordon at the University of the Negev who’ve received death threats and demands to leave Israel. Then there’s Richard Goldstone, the Jewish South African judge who led a commission investigating Israel’s late-2008-early-2009 attack on Gaza which the BBC says left more than 5300 Gazans wounded and 1300 dead, including 412 children.
According to Larry Derfner in The Jerusalem Post, Israeli President Shimon Peres labelled the distinguished jurist and lifelong Zionist as “a small man,” while American lawyer Alan Dershowitz denounced him as “evil” and “a traitor.”
Keefer’s no stranger to being a target of the new McCarthyism. When he publicly criticized the framing of defendants in the Toronto 18 case in which Muslim Canadians faced terrorism charges, “a chorus of unpleasant people” pressed his university to fire him, while unknown parties hacked his email, adds Keefer with a bitter laugh. “So that was unpleasant.”
Keefer’s book, Antisemitism Real or Imagined, takes a look at how these strategies and the work of the CPCCA are contributing to the perception of anti-Semitism. V
Mon, Sep 27 (7 pm)
Criticize Israel, Go to Jail?
Telus Building Room 236/238
University of Alberta (111 St & 87 Ave)