B’nai Brith Canada lobbyists convinced Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman to argue that American activist Linda Sarsour should not be allowed to speak at an event organized by the city’s Social Planning Council. B’nai Brith claimed she is anti-Semitic. But the Council stood its ground, Sarsour did not make anti-Semitic remarks, and the event was a huge success. See CTIP video interview with a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada in Winnipeg about what we can learn from the experience. Read more.
B’nai Brith, a radical pro-Israel lobby group suffered a spectacular defeat recently by unwisely overplaying the “anti-Semitism card” in an attempt to prevent a human rights activist from speaking at a public event in Winnipeg. The organization pulled out all the stops against Linda Sarsour, well known as one of the co-organizers of the huge Women’s march in Washington, by launching a “Sarsour not welcome in Winnipeg” petition and issuing an aggressive press release.
At first, the campaign seemed to be working. Under pressure, the Seven Oaks school division which was to provide the venue cancelled the event. B’nai Brith was jubilant. “B’nai Brith Canada lauds Seven Oaks for deciding not to provide a platform to Sarsour’s brand of indefensible hatred,” crowed Michael Mostyn, Chief Executive Officer of B’nai Brith Canada.
When organizers found a new location for the event, B’nai Brith doubled down. It joined with the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg to convince Brian Bowman, the Mayor of Winnipeg to call for Sarsour to be removed from the agenda. Flanked by representatives from B’nai Brith and The Jewish Federation, Mayor Bowman read a prepared statement which claimed it was not “appropriate to provide this individual a public platform to further propagate anti-Semitic views and hate.” He called on the Social Planning Council to cancel their invitation to Sarsour.
But it didn’t work. A counter campaign began quickly, contesting the description of Sarsour as “anti-Semitic”, and urging the Social Planning Council to stand its ground. Many organizations wrote to both the Mayor and to Kate Kelher, Executive director of the Social Planning Council, urging that the event continue as planned. In the end, the Social Planning Council held a joint a press conference with Sarsour announcing that the Council was not backing down.
Social media was annoyed over B’nai Brith’s clumsy usage of allegations of anti-Semitism as a smokescreen for trying to shut down an activist who has been openly critical of Israel. Even the Winnipeg Free Press objected to the Mayor’s call on the basis of free speech.
One very effective intervention was an interview on CBC radio with Rabbi David Mivasair who knows Linda Sarsour personally. He has also had experience with B’nai Brith leading him to believe that the organization manipulated the mayor.
Aftermath and lessons learned
In the end, the event was a huge sold out success. In fact, Sarsour even joked that the controversy around her must have increased attendance.
CTIP spoke to Harold Shuster of Winnipeg about the event and its aftermath. (Apologies for the quality of the video. The image occasionally freezes, but Mr. Shuster’s voice comes through loud and clear.)
CTIP does agree that anti-Semitism is a reality and believes the Mayor is right to be concerned about it. But he should be wary of being drawn into a debate by those who would use the “anti-Semitism” label as a way of shutting down legitimate criticisms of Israel.
Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) encourages and promotes a thoughtful discussion among Canadians on the Israel/Palestine issue, including a well informed and sensitive discussion about solutions. CTIP encourages serious people who disagree with any column to make comment. Disagreements respectfully offered are welcome. To learn more about what CTIP does, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.