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September 30, 2010

"Israel apologists cry 'wolf' with claims of 'antisemitism.'"

Back in March 2009, two federal heavyweights-Irwin Cotler, former Liberal justice minister, and Jason Kenney, current Conservative minister of citizenship-founded the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism. The name speaks for itself. A report featuring statistics and policy recommendations should be released sometime this fall.

But a new book titled Antisemitism: Real and Imagined penned by Michael Keefer, an English professor at the University of Guelph, argues that Cotler and company care little about combatting bigotry and much more about coddling Israel. Their strategy, to conflate criticism of Israeli policy with antisemitism, represents an assault on free speech and civil discourse.

I interviewed Keefer last Thursday at his friend’s home on Trinity Street near the PNE hours before he spoke at SFU Harbour Centre, the local stop on his two-week book tour.

Tall and broad-shouldered with a grey beard and glasses, the 62-year-old speaks with the perspicacity of a longtime literary scholar.

“If you come forward with ethical objections to the behaviour of Israel—that they’re violating Geneva conventions, they’re violating international law—this group will target you,” says Keefer, pointing to Israeli policy in Gaza and the West Bank. “The effect is to reverse the victimization so we’re no longer talking about the real evidence.”

Speaking of evidence. Or lack thereof.

During a speech on Parliament Hill last February, Kenney cited a “2008 audit of anti-Semitic incidents” tabulated by the B’nai Brith, a lobbying group known for its dim view of free speech. According to the audit, there was a “nine per cent increase” of reported “anti-Semitic incidents” in Canada between 2007 and 2008.

(Incidental footnote: my July 16, 2008 column about the scandalous treatment of a stupid yet law-abiding self-described white nationalist was labelled an “anti-Semitic incident” and included in the B’nai Brith audit.)

Speaking of the media. As usual, they’re part of the problem.

In 2008 in Toronto, home to more than half of Canada’s Jewish population, the police reported an 18 per cent spike in reported hate crimes. Sensational news stories followed, stoking fears of widespread antisemitism while ignoring the previous year’s hate crimes figures—the lowest numbers on record.

Similarly, following a StatsCan report released last June detailing a spike in so-called reported hate crimes in Vancouver, one local newspaper said the news was “particularly disturbing for blacks and Jews.” That same newspaper failed to mention that many of the “hate crimes” weren’t crimes at all, and were dismissed due to lack of evidence or proof of innocence. Also in June, Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies was crucified in the mainstream media for telling a video blogger that the Israeli occupation of Palestine began in 1948, a historically accurate assessment depending on your definition.

Outside the mainstream press, the smears grow darker. An editorial in the Sept. 17 edition of the Jewish Independent, a small local publication, fired a preemptive strike at Keefer’s Vancouver visit.

“Keefer’s book is a sort of culmination in the campaign of denial that has consumed the left in the past decade,” wrote the newspaper. “Antisemitism, it maintains, does not exist… but exists only in the conniving, perverse mind’s eye of Jews… Antisemitism is, indeed, alive and well. Those who declare it a chimera need only look in the mirror. They are its face.”

Back on Trinity Street, Keefer sighs and shakes his head. “They’re essentially calling me an anti-Semite. If they read the book, they’re misrepresenting it most grossly. If they didn’t read it, they’re misrepresenting themselves by making it appear like they did.”

An impartial reading of Keefer’s book exonerates him from wrongdoing. He dedicates large chunks of the book to the evils of antisemitism, noting the bloody history of Europe and the current situation in the Middle East, and spotlights Canada’s shameful thwarting of Jewish immigration before and during the Second World War.

But critics will remain. Because without significant evidence of antisemitism in Canada, folks like Cotler and Kenney must construct straw men of bigotry to discourage genuine debate about Israel and Canada’s increasingly cozy relationship with the Jewish state.

In a tragic paradox, their campaign—driven mainly by ideology and cheap political gain—diminishes the term anti-Semite and taints legitimate contemporary claims of that ancient hatred. By prostituting past horrors, these hatemonger-mongers forfeit all credibility.

The Vancouver Courier, Sept. 29, 2010

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M. Elmasry

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