Israel lobby warning to Canadian politicians – “If you criticize Israel, we will call you antisemitic”

Ontario MPP Joel Harden came under intense criticism for an interview he did last year with OFIP chair, Peter Larson on National Truth and Reconciliation Day. He compared colonialism in Canada to that of Israel. Now, a year later the Israel lobby is “shocked, shocked” to discover the interview and has accused him of “antisemitism”. It put enough pressure on the Ontario NDP that Harden chose to apologise for some of his remarks. It’s a stark warning to other politicians. Read more…

In the wake of intense criticism from CIJA and elsewhere, NDP MPP Joel Harden was forced to apologise for the use of “antisemitic stereotypes” in an interview with OFIP last year. B’nai Brith Canada even demanded that Harden be expelled from the NDP caucus.

In the interview, Harden was very critical of Israel for its brutal treatment of Palestinians, and drew a parallel between Canadian and Israeli settler colonialism. (The interview took place at the time of Truth and Reconciliation Day in 2021).

His strong criticism of Israel apparently angered the lobby, including CIJA and B’nai Brith Canada.

But instead of challenging Harden on what he said about Israel, or trying to defend Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, or disputing whether “settler colonialism” is an appropriate paradigm for understanding Israel, they chose instead to accuse him of “antisemitism”.

This, notwithstanding the fact that Harden was quite clear during the interview in his opposition to antisemitism. (Ed. Note: OFIP basic principles include “Rejection of all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia”. We would not have run any interview which disseminates antisemitism.)

When asked about whether his outspoken support for Palestinian rights was an issue while campaigning, Harden said it rarely came up – even when he would sometimes wear a button supporting Palestinian human rights. And if that provoked a conversation with Jewish constituents who feel strongly in support of Israel, Harden explained that he was quite willing to have a respectful discusson about why he felt that we should call out Israel for its human rights abuses.

CIJA and others made it appear that Harden was roaming around his Ottawa Center constituency looking for Jews to challenge why they support Israel. They even claimed that Harden was “blaming Jews as a collectivity” for Israeli actions, a complete distortion.

But it served its purpose. Faced with the chorus of criticism, Harden chose to apologize, and continues to serve in the NDP caucus. (British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, apologised but lost his job anyway after repeated attacks over his alleged antisemitism undermined his leadership.)

Politicians beware

The Israel lobby’s attack on Harden is meant to be a clear warning to other politicians: “You criticize Israel at your own risk”. The lobby likes to claim that its OK to criticize Israel, of course, but… just try it and see what happens.

Independent Jewish Voices Canada issued a statement strenuously objecting to the villification of Harden and declaring that he deserves support.

Independent Jewish Voices Canada has issued a strong statement of support for Harden based on his record over many years

In part, the IJV statement defended Harden’s record of fighting anti-semitism while also fighting for human rights for Palestinians.

“Joel Harden has a clear record on fighting antisemitism throughout his political career. He is also proudly a strong defender of Palestinian human rights. These two facts are not mutually exclusive, yet the same pro-Israel groups attacking Harden right now would like to lead people to believe that advocating publicly for Palestine constitutes antisemitism. This is why they’re pushing so hard for institutions and governments to adopt the divisive IHRA antisemitism definition, which equates antisemitism with criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinian cause.“, read the statement in part.

What next?

Until this week, Harden was seen to be one of the front runners for the leadership of the Ontario NDP. Harden has now apologised for using “anti-semitic stereotypes” in the interview. That should put the issue to bed – but it may not.

Some elements of the lobby seem to still be out for more. David Cooper, Vice-President of CIJA and Andrea Freedman, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa wrote a joint letter demanding that Harden be stripped of his responsibilities at Queens Park.

The controversy has increased viewership of the year old interview with Harden by tenfold.

For anyone who has not seen the full 24 minute interview with Harden, it is available here. When it was originally made, over a year ago, it had been seen by barely two or three hundred people. Now, thanks to the controversy, it has been viewed by over 3,700 people.

Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

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  1. Of course Canada and Israel have shared values. Both are settler colonial states, built on land stolen from the Indigenous people.

    1. I could’t agree more. And we need to address and remedy our past while not turning a blind eye to others. Shared negative values aren’t something we should cherish.

  2. It’s profoundly ironic that as Israeli politics shifts farther to the far right of the political spectrum, left of centre parties like Labour in the UK and the NDP in Canada are the most assiduous to engage in slanderous witch hunts against critics like Corbyn and Harden, each of whom has an impeccable record of standing up to anti-semitism and far right racism – in all countries, without exception.

    1. I dont see how it’s merely ironic. Pretending that party members, polls of the electorate, major donors wishes and lobbyists arent involved is necessary to invoke mere irony.

  3. I’m not at all surprised at the actions of pro Israel groups although I find their logic bizarre and irrational. There is an interesting op ed in the Jerusalem Post from 2018 on the nation state law and what it means for non Jews. The premise is that according to Jewish tradition, Jews are obligated to care for non Jews and to help them become better people, and,as opposed to Christianity, non Jews do not need to convert to Judaism to find salvation. There is nothing that I can find in Jewish law or history that emphasizes the supremacy of Jews over non Jews, although as treasured people, they are expected to act as spiritual guides for non Jews.
    The behaviour of rabid gangs of extremist Israelis who attack and murder Palestinians supported by Israeli police and government policies is profoundly contrary to Jewish teachings. It is alarming that critics of this behaviour are called antisemites, when in fact it is the Israeli right wing’s open declaration of racism towards non Jews that is truly antisemitic. Stifling debate on this issue is simply defending the indefensible and enabling further atrocities against Palestinians, and allowing further drift towards fascism. It diminishes both the credibility of pro Israel groups and the danger of real antisemitism . The true danger to Israel and Jews in general, is within Israel, not without.

  4. Was most impressed and inspired with Joel Harden’s views and passionate support for the Palestinian people. I could not detect an anti Semitic statement anywhere during his presentation. He was speaking the truth about apartheid in Israel.

    1. I suspect that you’re not Jewish, so your radar for such things is off to begin with. In the interview he did, he said at 10:20:00: “If I were to name the single biggest threat to, the single biggest origin, of violence in the Middle East, it is unquestionably the state of Israel and the way in which they feel absolutely no shame in defying international law and doing whatever they want.”

      Do you see the problem here? I mean, I can kind of forgive the inappropriate analogies he makes, seeing Israel as a settler colonial state (Oh really? what colonial metropole sent the settlers to Palestine? If a Mohawk tries to reclaim ancestral lands, are they a settler colonialist?), thinking that Palestinians in the WB & Gaza are discriminated against because of race, and so forth, but this? Does he not know the death toll in Syria? In Sudan? In various campaigns against the Kurds? Saddam in 1987-88 alone killed more Iraqi Kurds than the number of people who died on both sides since the 1880s in Arab-Israeli conflicts. What the hell?
      Either he’s ignorant, or he willfully makes such errors. I suspect the latter, because he seems knowledgeable enough on select issues and is well spoken. The guy thus meets the IHRA definition of anti-semitism when he has this warped view of Israel as the biggest source of all violence in a hyper violent region, when that is such a demonstrably absurd view and fits right in with demonization of Jews as the real source of all evil in the world.

      At 15:40:00 he also says, “When I’m at Palestinian solidarity demonstrations and I hear someone say something anti-semitic, I take them aside and I tell them ‘you’re not helping. You’re not helping us here.’ We’re not here to call Israel names. We’re here to humanize the Palestinians.'” O.K. — so he doesn’t take them aside to say that’s wrong, he takes them aside to tell them they are not helping the Palestinian cause. It’s an instrumental aside, not a moral objection.
      I’m sure he doesn’t think he’s anti-semitic, but he walks the walk when it comes down to it. Since he’s on the Left, it’s a lot more sophisticated and subtle than what we often see, but it’s clear to me when he uses this kind of language. When he is willing to return Ottawa to native control, I’ll take his “dismantling colonialism” discourse seriously. As it is, his “decolinization” talk in Canada carries next to no cost, financially or security-wise, so it’s little more than virtue signaling.

      1. Hey David, thanks for your dissenting but thoughtful comment.

        I would like to respond, if I may to 5 specific questions you raise.

        1. Whether Israel can be called a “settler colonial” state. I think it reflects a general trend in academic discourse about settler colonialism everywhere – Canada, Australia, etc. etc. Settler colonialism, as distinct from “classic” colonialism, aims at replacing one society with another. That is what Britain did in North America, and what the French tried to do in Algeria. It is also what the Jewish colonists aimed to do in Palestine. They said so themselves. They wanted to create a new “Jewish state” replacing the one that had been there for over a millenium..

        2. Whether Harden meets the IHRA definition of “anti semitic”. I think he probably does, but this points to a problem that many others have raised with respect to the IHRA definition itself. It includes many forms of opposition to Israel as “antisemitism”. I am not the first one to point out this problem with the IHRA definition.

        3. Does Harden’s comment at a pro-Palestine demonstration to someone yelling anti semitic slogans to the effect that ‘this is not helping” indicate that he is anti-semitic? I have been to many demonstrations on various topics. (Perhaps you have as well). If someone is saying stupid ugly things, while others are changing slogans, its not easy to ahve a serious conversation. Perhaps “this is not helping” is a tiny bit better than saying “shut up you stupid racist”. But to imply that Harden doesn’t really oppose anti semitism, but was simply against unhelpful slogans, is unfair. It does not fit with the rest of his interview.

        4. Finally, you say that when Harden is “willing to return Ottawa to native control”, you will take him seriously. That is an ad hominem argument. Harden may, or may not, be hypocritical. (I don’t think so, but others might.) But the argument about anti colonialism does not hang on whether the person saying that is honest or not. I believe that Canada is a settler colonial society built on unceded Algonquin land. (The City of Ottawa also agrees with this.) Whether or I am a straight shooter or an inveterate hypocrite is not relevant.

        5. On whether Israel is the biggest source of violence in the middle East. I think that is an exaggeration. But it certainly ranks among the top 4 or 5. Harden should have said “Israel is one of the biggest sources of violence…” His bad.

      2. Thank you Peter for the interesting, thoughtful and considered reply (unlike some of the other comments here). I agree with you on 1) settler-colonial definitions in academia vs common use of the term. Unfortunately most people using the “settler-colonial” phrase are not really interested in academia vs non-academia (they’re not interested in calling other non-Western countries this, even when the label from that definition fits even better — for instance, when Iraq, Turkey, Syria or Iran deport Kurds from their homeland and replace them with Arabs, Turks or Persians, they don’t yell “settler-colonialism”). So they will use the term with Israel, the U.S. and Canada as part of a kind of far-Left epithet.

        For 2) I think it’s important to realize that when he says, against all evidence and in line with long-standing demonizing tropes against Jews, that ““If I were to name the single biggest threat to, the single biggest origin, of violence in the Middle East, it is unquestionably the state of Israel and the way in which they feel absolutely no shame in defying international law and doing whatever they want” — this is a problem. IHRA helps us recognize it’s a problem. If he just said “Israel’s unilateral actions in repressing the Palestinians defy international law and worsen instability in the region,” none of us would bat an eyelid.

        3) Fair enough. When combined with #2 though, one starts to wonder.

        4) This is a bit complicated. If he’s saying that one country needs to make serious sacrifices and take very serious risks to undo its settler-colonialism, but he does not advocate that for his own country or any other, then we’re back to #2 and #3 and we have more evidence of a problem with his views when all of these are taken into account. That’s why the IHRA definition directs our attention to double standards (e.g. “hypocrisy”). But maybe he does advocate serious sacrifices in Canada to make up for what was done to Algonquins, Iroquois and myriad others — I haven’t examined his actual positions enough to know.

      3. Also, regarding #1, I think the settler-colonialism discourse clouds and confuses more than it illuminates. There’s a big difference between the genocide that Canada, the U.S., and Australia inflicted upon natives there and a group of natives return to their original homeland and seeking to carve out from it a state within which they are the majority (but despite a brutal civil war and then subsequent wars, still has over 20% of its population consisting of the other native population). That’s not quite replacing one society with another. The Israelis also don’t engage in the forced assimilation inflicted on the natives in the New World, or on Kurds and others in the non-Western world. That’s not to say they don’t repress and rule militarily over the West Bank and such, but it’s different. More different than similar.

      4. Hey David,
        The political Zionist project was to create a new Jewish state in a land that had had a predominantly Muslim population for over 14 centuries, with a tiny population of Jews and Christians. Jabotinski, Ben Gurion and others saw themselves as colonists. They were explicit about it. There was no shame.

        I don’t know how much time you have spent in Israel/Palestine, but Israel has definitely replaced Palestinian society. Inside Israel (or 48 palestine), Israel feels European/American, the west bank and Gaza feel Arab. Sorry. But its very stark.

        Today, colonialism is a bad word, and there is an attempt to move away from admitting the original intention was colonial.

        I agree that there was no genocide. But settler colonialism does not require genocide. There are other methods to the same end. Population transfer (eg Nakba) is one. Apartheid is another. Assimilation is a third.

        In Canada we could try assimilation because the numbers of indigenous peoples is small in proportion. Israel could never have “assimilated” a majority of Muslims. Expulsion became the main tool.

  5. I watched the interview conducted by Peter Larsen with Joel Harden, as a result of the letter put out by CIJA and the Jewish Federation of Ottawa. I’m pleased to hear that Joel Harden did the right thing and apologized for the aspects of the interview that crossed the line into antisemitism.

    The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism was developed in consultation with real Jews experiencing real antisemitism. They reported that when they encountered antisemitism it was sometimes connected with cases like this, in which legitimate criticism of Israel crosse line as a line and promotes hatred against Jews. That is why the IHRA definition, which does not mention Israel in its body, cites examples, some of which are related to criticism of Israel.

    Non-Jews are sometimes unaware that what they are doing is antisemitic, just as white people may be unaware that they are unintentionally promoting racism. I believe that’s what happened here. I’m disappointed that while Joel Harden appears to have taken the lesson to heart, OFIP is still missing the point.

    Citing Jeremy Corbyn, who was found by an internal Labour Party inquiry to have presided over a culture of systemic antisemitism during his tenure as head of the British Labour party, as a “victim” of the Israel lobby along with Joel Harden, is exactly the wrong lesson to take away from this incident.

    The fringe in Britain which continues to defend Corbyn, and to accuse British Jews of trying to suppress legitimate criticism of Israel, is an example of the enduring power of antisemitism that lurks just under the surface in the culture of western society, and which can emerge even in nominally progressive circles.

    It’s disappointing to read the IJV statement which repeats the false claim that the IHRA definition “equates antisemitism with criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinian cause”.

    In fact the definition does not mention Israel and the IHRA examples begin with the following statement:
    “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

    Just as Joel Harden stated his personal opposition to antisemitism in the OFIP interview and ought to be taken at his word, the IHRA definition begins its examples by stating that criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. The IHRA examples ought to be taken as written rather than misrepresented as saying the opposite.

    Those who would like to read the entire IHRA definition with its examples can find it on the website of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance here:

  6. The attack on Harden coming at this time is beginning to make sense in the context of Harden running for leadership of ON NDP. No question the lobby would like to scratch him off the ballot even before the race is launched because of the challenge he would pose to the lobby should Harden win.

  7. What bothers me most about this is that those who claim to speak for Israel in accusing Canadians of uttering antisemetic slurs are Canadian citizens who not only enjoy the benefits of living in a democracy like Canada, but want to use Canada’s distaste for racist behaviour as a truncheon to attack their fellow Canadians as brutally as they can for speaking out against far worse than what they are accused of.

  8. It seems to me that the Israeli lobby in Canada is selective when it comes to anti-Semitism, and they use it as a political tool to intimidate those who criticize Israel. For example, did this lobby describe Trump as anti-Semite for calling Netanyahu ‘your prime minister’ at Jewish Republican event?

    I agree with previous comment from Robert that the Israeli lobby is targeting Harden mainly for his political views. They do not want him to be part of the ON NDP leadership race. The timing suggests that.

  9. “Until this week, Harden was seen to be one of the front runners for the leadership of the Ontario NDP”

    This is incorrect- Harden announced several months ago that he wasn’t running in the leadership election.

  10. Strange how the only argument Israel supporters have is the antisemitism one. No discussion of law and order, human rights, equality for everyone, respect for democratic values, freedom etc. Although they insist criticism of Israel is not necessarily antisemitic, that’s their only response ,that and the deflection that “ if you think what Israel does is bad, just look at all the other bad actors in the region”. Every time Israel gets a pass on it’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians it sinks further away from a democratic society , and supported and enabled by western governments, it will ultimately destroy itself.

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