The Canadian House of Commons held a special 3 ½ hour late night debate on Tuesday, February 24th focusing on “the troubling rise in antisemitism around the world”, winding up with a unanimous resolution of condemnation. The debate was proposed by Liberal MP Irwin Cotler and Conservative Minister Jason Kenney, supported by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the main Israel lobby group. What was the real objective of the debate and how important was it?
Of course antisemitism should be opposed, wherever it appears. But to call this special session a “debate” is a bit misleading. It was an opportunity for MPs from each party to outdo each other saying how much they oppose antisemitism. Between 30 and 40 MP’s from four parties participated, talking about antisemitism in Poland, Hungary, India, Belgium and France, among other places. NDP Paul Dewar spoke no less than nine separate times to indicate just how much he opposes this form of racism.
However, in the lengthy session, there was remarkably little discussion on antisemitism in Canada. While gruesome examples of antisemitism from Auschwitz to Mumbai were evoked repeatedly, the situation in Canada today was barely mentioned. A few passing references were made to recent disgusting and apparently antisemitic acts in Montreal (including the spraying of a swastika on several cars). Hamilton-area MP David Sweet decried “Israeli Apartheid Week” on McMaster Campus, which he characterized as “antisemitic”. But no other evidence was introduced by any MP of a rise in antisemitism in today’s Canada.
Canada’s sorry antisemitic past also abundantly evoked
Elizabeth May remembered some shameful episodes of antisemitism in Canada’s past. So did Jason Kenney, Paul Dewar and a host of other interveners. (Every Canadian over 60 will certainly remember a time in which Jews were excluded from private clubs, their enrolment in prestigious universities was limited, and when distasteful jokes about Jews were rather common.)
But no current examples of anti-Jewish discrimination were offered, probably because discrimination against Jews in Canada is not only against the law, but now overwhelmingly against our culture. Canadian Jews have been accepted into every profession from law to medicine to academia, where they have made significant contributions.
Of course some antisemitism does continue to exist here, and should be strongly resisted whenever it appears. But how extensive it is, how big a threat it is, and whether it is rising or not in Canada, is not clear. Apparently none of the MP’s thought it was a big problem in Canada because few of them even mentioned it.
So… what was the purpose of the Parliamentary debate?
The Parliamentary debate was orchestrated by MPs Cotler and Kenney and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), whose key parliamentary lobbyist, Richard Marceau, could be seen actively at work behind the scenes. It was not really about raising awareness about a rise in antisemitism in Canada, nor about how to deal with it. In fact, there were three other objectives:
- The first was to allow individual parliamentarians to go on record in Parliament vigorously denouncing antisemitism. Their speeches appear in Hansard and are recorded by video cameras so they can be played back to their Jewish supporters.
- The second is that it implies that Canada is caught up in the “global rise in antisemitism” without actually saying so, and demonstrates resolve in fighting antisemitism here.
- The third objective, and no doubt most important to Cotler, Kenney and CIJA, was to use the debate as a way to get an all party vote in Parliament to endorse the Harper government’s strong pro Israel stance. This was accomplished by including in the resolution an endorsement of the “Ottawa protocol on Combating Antisemitism”, which holds that strong criticism of Israel is a “new form of antisemitism”. As Irwin Cotler said in his remarks: “Compared to most previous anti-Jewish outbreaks, this [new antisemitism] is often less directed against individual Jews. It attacks primarily the collective Jews, the State of Israel.”
The significance of the debate and the unanimous vote which followed from it should be neither ignored nor exaggerated. On the one hand, it does demonstrate the considerable skill and power of the Israel lobby and its ability to manoeuvre MP’s from all parties into showing support for Israel and implicitly tarring any who criticize Israel, or who want to put pressure on Israel, with the “antisemitic” brush. On the other hand, it also shows the limits of CIJA’s power. While the vote was officially “unanimous”, fewer than 40 MPs bothered to participate and it was not covered in any of the mainstream media which (rightly) judged that this was mostly a pre-electoral show orchestrated by the Israel lobby.