May 2112 min

Criticizing human rights abuses is not antisemitism

Ilan fixing my tie before my swearing in ceremony.

This website is a place for me to communicate with you, the constituents of Nanaimo-Ladysmith. It’s a place to share my work in the House of Commons and to highlight important issues. This is not a space I share with other writers, but this specific blog is an exception. The blog post below was written by my good friend Ilan Goldenblatt, who is also my Chief of Staff. I have known Ilan for fifteen years, we cycle together, camp together and have worked together on projects to uplift our community, support the environment, social justice and world peace. One of the issues I have always relied on Ilan for advice on is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Together we have been watching in horror and anguish as the situation has once again devolved into bloodshed and extreme violence. What Ilan shares in this blog is a long but important read.


I was born and raised in Haifa, Israel, the son of Montreal Jews who emigrated to Israel (made “Aliya”) in 1972 as Zionists. My childhood home was full of books about antisemitism and the Holocaust. I went through the Israeli K-12 public education system. I celebrated Independence Day every year, stood in silence on Rememberance Day and Holocaust Memorial Day, and went to Poland on a highschool tour of the Nazi death camps when I was 17. After highschool I was conscripted into the Israeli military, which I joined full of motivation and a desire to serve my country. I served for 3 ½ years as a non-commissioned officer in military intelligence. I was an intelligence analyst. It was an eye opening experience. My older brother was a paratrooper, who served in the West Bank during the first Intifada.

I moved to Canada in 1998. I have family who are part of the Jewish community in Montreal and Toronto. I’ve spent time with them and I am aware of the passionate views on Israel held by many Canadian Jews. My mother still lives in Israel, as do my two sisters and their families. I have many cousins in Israel (with whom I am close) and many dear friends. I have extended family members who are serving in the Israeli military at this very moment. In non-COVID times I go to Israel every 1-2 years for 2-4 weeks at a time. I speak, read and write Hebrew fluently, and I follow Israeli media in Hebrew.

I believe my background makes me uniquely positioned to speak credibly about this crisis.

Israel has been on fire this month. Internally, gangs of Kahanist (followers of the late openly racist rabbi Meir Kahana) Jewish thugs have been roaming the streets, yelling “death to Arabs”, assaulting Arabs and destroying Arab businesses. Gangs of Arabs have been doing the same to Jews and to Jewish property. In some cases police and border patrol officers have been present for vigilante Jewish mob actions and have done nothing to stop it. The biggest existential threat to Israel is the internal conflict, not the Hamas rockets.

This crisis must be laid at the feet of Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel’s longest lasting prime minister was about to be outside of government for the first time in 12 years, when the latest conflagration saved his hold on power (here, here and here)

Netanyahu is Israel’s Trump. The parallels are uncanny. From delegitimizing his critics, to putting unqualified sycophants into positions of power around him, to calling any unfriendly media “fake news”, all the way to indictments for corruption. Netanyahu has been fanning the flames of racism and intolerance for years, and every time he is in trouble he looks outward and does something to start a conflict in order to hold onto power. By winking at extremists, and by more than dog-whistling at racists, Netanyahu has legitimized the worst of Israel’s extreme right wing, and has helped steward extremist elements into the Israeli parliament (here). The current Israeli Knesset (parliament) is the most rightwing parliament Israel has had in my life time. There are Kahanists (followers of the late openly racist rabbi Meir Kahana) in that parliament: Ben Gvir and Smotrich (who are also anti LGBTQ+ rights). Their party is called Jewish Power (No joke - “Otzma Yehudit” in Hebrew). There are several settlers in that parliament. To support Netanyahu’s rule in any way is like supporting Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan or Hungary’s Orban. All populist Right wing demagogues who flirt with the extreme right, with nationalism and with racism, and whose main motivation is their own political survival.

Not so fun fact: on May 14, 2021 Israel chief of police Kobi Shabtai reportedly briefed Netanyahu that Kahanist MK Itamar Ben Gvir is responsible for ongoing riots in Jewish-Arab cities within Israel, adding that Ben-Gvir “always shows up to fan the flames” and is trying to start an internal Jewish Intifada (violent uprising). (here)

The settlement project in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (including East Jerusalem) is a violation of international law. There are those in Israel who are openly calling for a transfer of Palestinian population blocks, i.e. ethnic cleansing, included among them are spokespersons for settler organizations and some members of the Israeli parliament. What is happening in East Jerusalem is ethnic cleansing. The families being forcibly removed from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah are Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in 1948. They were settled in Sheikh Jarrah in the 1950’s by Jordanian authorities (who controlled the area before Israel conquered it in 1967). The houses they live in were built in the 1950’s. Settler organizations have been making a claim in Israeli courts that the lands of Sheikh Jarrah belonged to Jews in the 19th century. That may be true. But even if the land those houses were built on was owned in the 19th century by Jewish land owners, to claim that as justification for removing the Palestinian families who have lived there since the 1950’s is insanity. Those Palestinian families had homes in what is now Israel before the 1948 war. Some 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes in 1948. None of them are given any rights by Israeli courts to reclaim their homes and their lands. How can anyone justify having these Palestinian families now lose their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, without having the right to claim their lost homes and lands in Israel?

As for apartheid, Human Rights Watch and Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem have both accused Israel of apartheid (B’Tselem, HRW). In the West Bank there are roads that are for Jews only, streets in Hebron that are for Jews only, tunnels that are for Jews only, towns that are for Jews only. Jews can move freely while Palestinians have to face humiliation and endless delays at checkpoints. Jews can take over land and start building houses immediately, while Palestinians in their own villages can’t get a permit to build on land they own, and regularly have houses demolished by bulldozers backed by armed military escorts. This is indeed apartheid! I have been to Hebron and Beithlehem, as well as to East Jerusalem and a couple of other Palestinian villages. I have seen these things with my own eyes. I have also seen the issues in Arab villages within Israel where people can not obtain building permits. Israel has neighbourhoods within it that are for Jews only, where an Arab Israeli citizen can not buy a home. I have also heard first hand accounts of horrible incidents from friends and family members who have served in military units in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

A ceasefire was announced last night to Israel’s latest conflict with Hamas. According to the latest numbers, on the Israeli side 12 people have died. Nine of them were Israeli citizens, including two children. Three of them were foreign workers in Israel. On the Palestinian side at least 232 people have died, including 65 children. Israeli officials have said repeatedly in the media that in order to punish Hamas for its latest rocket attacks, Israel was engaging in a disproportionate response. Proportionality is a fundamental component of international law on the use of force and armed conflict (here). By openly stating the objective of inflicting a disproportionate response against Hamas, Israeli officials were declaring Israel’s intentions to violate international laws.

None of my friends who are Palestinian solidarity activists would want to live under Hamas rule. No religious fundamentalist regime of any kind is something I would wish on myself or anyone else. Hamas is an Islamist fundamentalist organization which does not even pretend to believe in democracy. It doesn’t put any stock in women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights or freedom of speech and assembly. They condone honour killings and practice the death penalty. It is not a progressive organization, and not an organization that I would ever support. However, Hamas being what it is does not justify the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem, nor the illegal settlement building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, nor the Jewish only streets in the middle of Hebron in the West Bank. Hamas is only in power in the Gaza Strip, and even that doesn’t justify the collective punishment of 2 million Palestinian residents of the strip, nearly all of whom are decendents of refugees who fled their homes in the war of 1948 from lands that are within what is now Israel.

A handful of stats about the Gaza strip (from here and here):

  • Size: 41km long and 10km wide. 365 square kms.

  • Population: 2 million people living in one of the highest population densities on the planet.

  • Demographics: 70% of the population are under 30 years old and 50% are under 20.

  • Unemployment: Before the current conflict Gaza had an unemployment rate of over 40% and a youth (15 - 29 year old) unemployment rate of 65%.

  • Siege: The Gaza strip and its 2 million inhabitants have been under an ongoing land, air and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas came to power 14 years ago in 2007.

  • 70% of the population relies on aid - mostly food aid.

Vancouver Island by comparison is 456km long and 100km wide (at its widest), or 31,285 square kms, and has a population of less than 1 million people.

A critically important historical fact that must be noted is that Hamas represents “blowback” to Israeli policies. I am not only talking about Hamas being the result of enough Palestinian Gazans feeling completely hopeless about achieving a life of dignity and a future for their children through peaceful means with Israel, though that is no doubt true. As Martin Luther King famously said “A riot is the language of the unheard”. Millions of Palestinians have been unheard for too long and Hamas is one of the results. But I am also talking about the fact, reported in credible media outlets such as the Times of Israel, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, that Israeli intelligence agencies helped fund Islamist resistance forces within the Palestinian population in the late 1970’s (here and here). Israel did this as part of a divide and conquer policy and a “counterweight” aimed at weakening Yasser Arafat’s secular leftist Fatah and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). This is counter-insurgency 101, and like many other times in history it turned out badly for the instigators (in this case Israel) in the long run. These actions by Israeli intelligence agencies to strengthen the Islamists against Arafat lead circuitously but inevitably to Hamas ruling Gaza today. In an interview not long before he died, Arafat referred to Hamas as a “creature of Israel”. During the 1980’s Israel’s investment in the Islamist “counterweight” bore fruit, as they fought pitched battles in the streets against the secular Palestinian resistance forces and both weakened each other. But the chickens have come home to roost and now Hamas is seen as one of Israel’s greatest enemies.

Two more things need to be stated here in regards to Israel’s conflict with Hamas:

  1. Hamas does not represent an existential threat to Israel. Hamas rockets, incendiary balloons, terror attacks using tunnels, abductions, etc... all these are terrible things. They cause injuries and deaths to innocent people, not to mention trauma, PTSD and property damage. But they do not constitute an existential threat to Israel. Israel has one of the most advanced and best equipped militaries in the world, the asymmetry in the forces aligned against each other between Hamas militants and the Israeli military can not be overstated. Even as Hamas launches thousands of “stupid” missiles against Israel, 90% of them are being intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system (according to Israeli military sources). At the same time Israel is using some of the most advanced fighter bombers the world has ever seen, plus attack helicopters, and lots of “smart” weapons (laser guided, satellite guided, etc). Israel also has unmanned aerial drones, latest technology naval vessels, and many more deadly high tech weapons to attack Gaza with (some of them with Made in Canada components). Israel also has the financial and military support of the world’s number one superpower: the United States.
     

  2. Despite Israel’s unimaginable advantages in weaponry versus Hamas, and despite Israel also having one of the most sophisticated intelligence apparatuses in the world, it also must be stated that there is no military solution to Israel’s conflict with Hamas. Israel will never, and can never, defeat Hamas through military action. Every few years Israel’s leaders and generals make a bunch of bravado statements about how they are going to finally knock out Hamas once and for all. What follows is a barrage of thousands of missiles and bombs, hundreds of deaths, destruction of countless buildings and infrastructure, the killing of a few militant leaders, the destruction of weapons caches and of tunnels, etc. But Hamas is still there when the dust settles. It even declares victory at the time of the ceasefire. Hamas keeps going and rebuilds until the next conflagration.

The only hope for a solution will be through dialogue and diplomacy. Through statesmanship. For starters, Israel must stop the settlement project immediately and begin to dismantle existing settlements. Critically important is this: negotiations can not stop every time an extremist takes violent action. The extremists on both sides can not be given the power to determine whether the leaders of both sides talk or whether they fight. The talks must be committed to, and carried on with, no matter what the extremists do outside. Otherwise the terrorists on both sides win and everybody else loses.

In the meantime, I can not say this often enough: criticizing Israel’s government and its actions does not equal antisemitism. Equating the Israeli occupation with apartheid does not equal antisemitism. Calling what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah ethnic cleansing is not antisemitism. None of these are antisemitism, any more than saying that Canada was built on a genocide and disenfranchisement of Indigenous people is anti-European or anti-white.

This is not to say that there aren’t antisemites who hide behind criticism of Israel. There is no doubt that there are some who criticize Israel who also harbour despicable ideologies. It is likely that many social justice movements have extremists who hide their bad faith ideas behind a movement of good faith. But this is where rhetoric and reasoning and Venn diagrams are more helpful as meaningful tools than listening to Israeli “Hasbara” propaganda. “Hasbara” translates to “explaining” in Hebrew. It’s the historic term for Israel’s efforts at making its case to the world.

My mother lives in Haifa and will die in Haifa and she thinks Israel is an apartheid state. I have many friends and family members who believe Netanyahu is chiefly to blame for everything that is happening right now, and some who think that Israel is an apartheid state. I also have friends and family who suspect critics of Israel of harbouring hatred of Jewish people. My uncle has been going to demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan for a few years now to protest against the forced evictions of Palestinian families. Israel has a vibrant culture of political discourse and protest. Zionist Jewish organizations in North America regularly attack statements that are tame in their criticism of Israel when compared to things being said in Israeli media by Israeli Jewish commentators. Many in my Israeli family and friends believe that the right wing Kahanist Israelis are much more dangerous to Israel’s future than any Palestinian person or organzation.

It is important to call out racism and antisemitism any time they raise their ugly heads. It is critically important to root out antisemitism from advocacy for Palestinian rights. Those who attack Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and organizations in the name of protest against the Israeli occupation are engaging in hate crimes and are also doing a terrible disservice to the cause of Palestinian rights. They should be called out by friends of Palestinian rights and dealt with by police and the courts.

Standing up against Israeli provocations, against Israeli violations of international law, and against a hard right Israeli government is the right thing to do morally, as a stand for human rights, justice and in hopes for peace. We lose moral ground by being neutral on this issue. BLM activists, Indigenous activists and feminist activists are standing up against occupation and for Palestinian rights.

I am standing up for Palestinian rights and against occupation. My friend and member of parliament Paul Manly, who I am chief of staff to, and the other two members of the Green Party Caucus, MP Elizabeth May and MP Jenica Atwin, are standing up for Palestinian rights and against occupation.

We stand with peace loving people all over Canada and the world, including people of all religions, including Jewish people, and including Israelis and Palestinians who want and deserve nothing less than peaceful coexistence and security for themselves and for their children.


The references hyperlinked above again:

Gaza up close - Israeli non-profit organization Gisha report on life in Gaza as of September 2020: https://features.gisha.org/gaza-up-close/

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister on why Netanyahu’s agenda is served by Hamas’ existence: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/palestinian-resistance-shatters-israeli-consensus-by-shlomo-ben-ami-2021-05

Thomas Friedman in the New York Times on why Hamas and Netanyahu need each other: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/16/opinion/israel-netanyahu-hamas.html?referringSource=articleShare

Israeli independent journalist Orly Barlev on the series of events orchestrated by Netanyahu led to the eruption of violence that allowed Netanyahu to stay in power: https://twitter.com/orlybarlev/status/1394411501197398017?s=09

Some Gaza facts from the BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-20415675

Times of Israel: Hamas Israel’s Own Creation: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/hamas-israels-own-creation/

The Wall Street Journal: How Israel Helped to Spawn Hamas: http://web.archive.org/web/20090926212507/http:/online.wsj.com/article/SB123275572295011847.html

Human Rights Watch accuses Israel of the crimes of apartheid and persecution https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/04/27/threshold-crossed/israeli-authorities-and-crimes-apartheid-and-persecution

Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem accuses Israel of being an apartheid regime: https://www.btselem.org/topic/apartheid

Times of Israel report on Israeli chief of police warning Netanyahu about extreme right Kahanist MK Itamar Ben Gvir: https://www.timesofisrael.com/police-chief-said-to-blame-far-right-lawmaker-ben-gvir-for-internal-intifada/

Australian Jewish News: There is a monster in the Knesset (Itamar Ben Gvir): https://ajn.timesofisrael.com/there-is-a-monster-in-the-knesset/

Times of Israel: On Netanyahu courting the extreme right and Kahanism: https://www.timesofisrael.com/kahane-lives-focus-turns-to-would-be-mk-ben-gvirs-exact-brand-of-extremism/

Proportionality in international law: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-journal-of-international-law/article/abs/proportionality-and-force-in-international-law/2467804012E9FC8B3485D0732EB87001

Photo of East Jerusalem by Anton Mislawsky on Unsplash