Liberal Jews wrestle uncomfortably with Zionism, Antisemitism and the Occupation

mira at jspace

Carleton University Professor Mira Sucharov was in Toronto recently at the invitation of the JSpace Canada to speak to a group of liberal (and some not so liberal) Jews about issues facing them. Here is a special report on what she said and how the audience reacted, by CTIP guest columnist Robert Massoud. Read more..

by Robert Massoud, CTIP guest columnist

Don’t you love it when the audience at a lecture is just as interesting and instructive as the speaker? This is the case with a recent Toronto talk entitled: What’s in a Word? ~ Facing Zionism, Antisemitism and the Occupation by Professor Mira Sucharov of Carleton University. The evening exposed the limits of progressives when considering the reality behind those terms.

About 80 people nearly filled First Narayever Congregation , a self-described progressive shul in downtown Toronto. Organized by JSpace Canada which describes itself as a “progressive Jewish voice”, the talk promised to push the boundaries of polite conversation in Canadian Jewish communities.

Professor Sucharov did not disappoint, she spoke with clarity and assurance; grounded in historical facts, contemporary evidence-based reasoning, and a decidedly human perspective.  Her manner was engaging, her conversation crackling and intellect sparkling when examining these emotion-ladened terms and what stood behind and against them.

Sucharov recounted a recent visit to the “Hand in Hand” bilingual school (Hebrew and Arabic) in Israel, perhaps an imperfect model of integration but also a source of hope for a vision and possibility of peaceful and productive coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.  The visit turned emotional as she saw the anguish of daily life across Israel-Palestine and the need to bridge the gaping chasm between the solitudes.

She made the point that one’s understanding of terms – Zionism, occupation, antisemitism – has a lot to do with personal experience.  Where you stand depends on whether you are on the hurt or benefit side.  Prof. Sucharov quoted from a recent Pew Research Center poll that showed 79% of Israeli Jews think there was no discrimination in Israel and only 20% of Israeli Palestinians said there was no discrimination. Most worrisome is that 79% of Israeli Jews said they deserve special consideration because they are Jewish i.e. are in favour of institutional discrimination.

Opened to questions, the evening became even more interesting, revealing the contradictions and multiplicity of views that exists in Canada within the Jewish communities.  Of the many questions, three were particularly instructive:

One member of the audience claimed that the fuel for the conflict was the economic and income disparity between Israel ($40,000 per capita), the West Bank ($4,000) and Gaza ($2,000) and then asked if the solution was to bridge the gap – a form of “economic peace.” It did not seem to have occurred to him that a 50-year occupation, 11-year siege and continuous dispossession and de-evolution of a population might be the major contributor. Nor did it occur to him that a start to remedying the unfathomable gap required an immediate end to the occupation and to the siege.

Another member spoke of the “Jordan Option” which apparently was discussed last October in Jerusalem.  It involves convincing the Hashemite kingdom’s ruling family to dissolve the country of Jordan so that Israel can “incentivize” Palestinians to move there en masse.  The man did not elaborate which incentives were discussed.  This is especially distressing in the 70th anniversary year of the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians during the Nakba.

The parallels with the Balfour Declaration escaped him – one party promising a second party the land belonging to a third – or maybe not. He ignored 100 years of progressive consciousness and development of international law, anti-colonialism and decolonization. Balfour repeated 100 years later – no lessons learned.

A third person earnestly wondered if it was acceptable or productive to use terms such as “occupation” or “West Bank” instead of “controlled territory” or “Judea and Samaria” respectively because the former may be offensive and antagonize the listener automatically blocking any discussion or hope for agreement.

This closed mindset and limited thinking was not exclusive to audience members. When introducing the evening, the moderator reiterated the policy of both Narayever and JSpace which does not tolerate or encourage discussion which seeks to “de-legitimize Israel” or to question “Israel’s right to exist.”

During Q&A when asked to comment on these two terms – legitimization and right to exist – Prof. Sucharov clearly felt they were unhelpful, if not in the no-sense category.  She said that the concepts exist within a legal context and an international framework, and should not be bandied about.  The measure of a state is not its existence (because it exists) but whether it fulfills its legal obligations within accepted internal state and global structures.

Near the end Prof. Sucharov, perhaps out of exasperation at the lack of openness to her message, almost pleaded for someone in the audience to challenge what she was bringing. She could more rightly have asked to be engaged.  Being challenged by constant hurling of the Hamas charter or Iran’s purported desire to wipe Israel off the map is hardly enlightening or useful to dialogue.  Quite the opposite – it  sinks conversation and kills intelligent discovery.

Of course no community is monolithic. More engaging questions were posed by others who identified themselves as Jews.  One grew up in an Israeli settlement and was concerned about the treatment of African refugees in Israel. Another who also grew up in Israel was frustrated by the many “peace processes” that go nowhere or only make things worse. A third was a member of an activist group called “If Not Now” comprised of young Jews opposed to the occupation.  The group’s stated goal is to end Jewish institutional support in North America for the occupation.”

The question came across as a cry for help and understanding from someone who was obviously struggling with their community when it comes to Israel and Zionism.

The talk served an important purpose: it contrasted the vibrant, intelligent and generous talk by Prof. Sucharov against a wall of blind spots so pervasive as to be spectacularly myopic.  The lack of vision or even an imagination of a different dynamic from a professed progressive audience was very distressing.

We can only hope that Jewish community venues continue to invite speakers like Mira Sucharov because it is only voices and messages such as hers which can rescue Canada’s mainstream Jewish communities from autopilot slumber and from moral stupor.  Such an awakening might help bring a just peace to Israel-Palestine.

robert massoudRobert Massoud is a Palestinian-Canadian. In 2004, he founded Zatoun to build bridges between Palestine and North America through the sale of cultural and symbolic products from Palestine. He is invited to speak to faith groups, activist networks and student bodies with a unique message of creative participation and nonviolent resistance engaging North Americans to learn and be in solidarity with Palestinians and their struggle for a just peace.  Robert believes that the Israel-Palestine situation is of direct interest to all humanity and its resolution vital to peace in the world and ultimately to the health of the planet. He can be reached at


Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue. We invite brief comments (under 100 words) from readers. No links to other websites/articles/YouTube, please. Both Zionist and non-Zionist opinion is welcome as long as it is expressed in a respectful way. Comments that include personal attacks on other commentators, foul language or are racist/antisemitic/Islamophobic will be deleted. 

To learn more about what we do, contact us at


  1. Writing..or righting wrongs. In this and other forums there is something that is rarely written about. Namely, when it comes to historical wrongs, how does one right these wrongs? How far back in time should we go to identify, write about, and right these wrongs? There is no question in my mind that severe wrongs have been, and continue to be imposed on Palestine and the Palestinian people. The same for Jews now and throughout history. The same for the aboriginal peoples of Canada, Australia, and South Africa. In some cases the wrongs go back centuries, or even millennia. In some cases the wrongs were small and in others large. Which raises another related question, “do we adjust our sense of ‘wrongness’ to the scale of the original wrong?”. And therefore should we invest more urgently in the righting of the wrong based on how the wrong was executed – or more importantly to today – how the wrong is remembered? I don’t know. This forum is doing a good job at step 1 – writing about the wrongs. Unless there is public awareness of the timing and extent of the wrong, there will never be pressure placed upon politicians to right the wrong. Canada right now is trying to address the wrongs imposed on our native people, but even the legal system seems unable to recognize that the laws that it wishes to imposed on first nations peoples, are laws written by the conquerers and hence include built-in biases against the first nations. This is a wrong that is just now producing a tiny mouse-like squeak of awareness. But there is huge pushback by folks who say ” why don’t they just get over it?”. So what to do? Well, clearly step one (again) is writing, and speaking, and video-ing – but not to the audience of the converted. But rather to the unconverted. So for those of you engaged in this forum, may I suggest that you find a medium, a tone, and a knowledgeable voice that directs this discussion to the opposition.

    1. Hey Doug, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that a big part of the challenge is to learn to listen to “the other guy”. Its easier to be indignant and cling to absolute truths.

    2. Doug, your comments stirred a long held belief in me, a Canadian and non-Jew, who sees a huge parallel between what Palestinians are struggling with and what our own First Nations, especially those who once saw the Canadian Prairies as their home and bountiful food basket with a never ending supply of food, clothing, tools etc.

      Anyone who has looked at what happened here to those FNs following the fur trade era when our new national government took “ownership” from the Hudson’s Bay Co. of that vast piece of land, will also see the parallels playing out complete with fear, ignorance and not a small amount of “settler privilege”.

      Most certainly Canadian politicians were concerned lest they encouraged the settling of the west by people loyal to Canada, that an onslaught of American settlers with “manifest destiny” ringing in their ears would surely arrive followed shortly by the US Cavalry with its then mighty thirst for indigenous blood and expansionist dreams.

      In summary, old John A, wanting to avoid that and perhaps the inevitable bloodshed that would follow, opted for a homesteading option that differed from the one south of the 49th parallel, at least in the “bloodshed” aspect.

      Still it’s no secret that our government essentially starved our FN into compliance through a refusal to provide any relief to the original inhabitants even though we all knew a drought was ravaging the west. Then, of course, as in the US, the one sure source of food, the buffalo were systemically slaughtered for both fun and effect.

      There was protest too and bloodshed, although never on the scale seen in the US.

      Today, most of us assume we are the “peaceful” country, yet FNs and their individuals continue to live as former landlords now reduced to life on isolated reserves and suffering the Clayton Bushie and family impact of racist police and political practices of being 2nd class citizenship.

      And, of course, like the Jewish questioner at that Toronto session who wonders of the fate of African Jews in Israel, here in Canada we have our own half “white” Metis struggling just like FNs communities or African Jew for rights and recognition.

      And, of course, when Canada along with much of the world finally stood up and opposed Apartheid South Africa’s lopsided claim to democracy, it wasn’t lost on South African politicians or diplomats that Canada too has a dark side while we profess equality.

      If we as Canadians ever hope to resolve our own shortcomings at home I say we have a responsibility to speak out when we see it happening elsewhere such as in the 70 year old Israel/Palestine divide.

      1. Well said Allan. But what is missing is a person to electrify the public about this set of issues. Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking electrified millions wrt. astrophysics – topics that the general public did not know that it was interested in. Likewise Jane Goodall with chimps, Al Gore with climate change, David Attenborough with nature, etc. etc. No one has yet achieved this with the unhappy topics that we have been discussing. We really are – despite the evidence in recent politics in the USA, Canada, and the UK, and intelligent compassionate species. There must be some person out there who can capture a global audience for the ‘writing and the righting of wrongs….’. Unfortunately as Bob Dylan said “It ain’t me babe…”.

  2. I read this article first with hope and then with dismay. There appears to be little if any concern for the situation of Palestinians and that is troubling. It is also worrisome that this lack of compassion for another struggling and desperate people still pervades the diaspora.

    Change can only begin when and where there is some ‘cognitive empathy’ for the situation of others…and I see very little of that possibility in the foreseeable future.

    Many thanks to Robert Massoud for his well written article.

  3. Massoud suggests that voices and messages such as Sucharov’s can rescue mainstream Jewish communities from slumber. Empirical evidence & informed reasoning suggests otherwise —
    Studies show that even after the evidence for people’s beliefs have been totally refuted, they still fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs.
    Belief in the power of reason to improve humankind is delusional, says UK philosopher John Gray.
    Confirmation bias affirms our tendency to process information by seeking or interpreting information consistent with our existing beliefs.
    Notions that living in a democracy enables citizens to make coherent and intelligible political decisions are naïve.
    Stories critical of Israel get repeatedly shot down through fear of in-group pressure and powerful lobbyists.

    1. Hey Frank White, that seems a very pessimistic view. There are certainly those who will not change their minds. But others will. I have a quite different view about the Israel/Palestine issue today than I had 7 or 8 years ago. At that time, my views were in line with liberal Zionism (I didn’t like a lot of what Israel was doing, but I saw no problem with the basic idea of a Jewish State). I now have a different view.
      I think the openness of Canadian Jews to Palestinian suffering is directly related to how fearful they are. The more they feel insecure or threatened here in Canada, the more they will cling to Zionism as the only ultimate protection for Jews. But if they feel confident and secure, Zionism will lose a lot of its appeal.

      1. To the point of pessimism and/or optimism, I think we need to keep in mind that there is no guaranteed outcome to any action or event especially in activism. It may have positive or negative or no effect. The closest we come is to guarantee our own personal action. And even then our activity is driven and constraint by time, health, resources and other worldly concerns. So both Frank and Peter have a piece of reality. In all this, the only point is to be as active and effective as you can be at any given moment and hope for the best. May sound unsatisfactory or simplistic but it is realistic and sound.

  4. Certainly can sympathise wih the difficult situation Jewish leaders, politicians, intellectuals and commentators – from Chomsky to Bernie Sanders to. HAARETZ Gideon Levy to Peter Beinart to Norman Finkelstein to Aipac chair and Ron Lauder who called for a 2 state solution to Professor Mira Sucharoff to Independent Jewish Voices IJV or Jewish Voice for peace to J street to Peace Now etc. Etc. – can find themselves in when they criticise the current situation prevailing in Israel and make proposals for improvement which are then met with strong dismissive criticism by the hardline Israeli government and mainline Jewish diaspora supporters of Israel. It is particularly bad when these well intentioned people are accused of being anti semitic self hating Jews out to destroy Israel and “kapos” or Jews working in the death camps.

    Seems to me that the only course is to continue to put forward arguments for a vision for a positive international legal and just settlement in Israel and Palestine that would ensure a maximum amount of peace and security and human rights and democracy for all the inhabitants within the bounds of Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism. This would entail possibly a two state solution with the Jewish state of Israel atanding equally wuth the Arab state of Palestine with their capitals in West and East Jerusalem respectively and with some kind of shared international regime for the holy places of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to make Jerusalem a city of peace, security, tolerance and pluralism.

    Because Israeli resistance is based on a combination of deep seated fear and dominating hubris, it is up to everyone – but perhaps especially Jewish commentators – to convince Israel and the broader Jewish community that such a peace accord is the best way to ensure the security and prosperity and internal viability and full integration of Israel into the international community.

Comments are closed.