Last week, Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, paid a three-day visit to Israel, with brief stops at Ramallah and Amman. The delegation was so huge and unbalanced that the reaction of many Canadians has been negative and sarcastic. It included one token Palestinian among hundreds.
The National Post’s Jonathan Kay commented that the size of the delegation, relative to Israel’s population, was the equivalent of taking 42,000 Canadians to China. Toronto Star columnist, Rick Salutin, who happens to be Jewish, wrote that “Canada is now a province of Israel”, adding that Harper’s trip “... embarrassed me as a Canadian. It was so unrestrained and disproportionate. It’s unseemly to go so gaga for another country.” Gerald Caplan, in the January 24, 2014, Globe & Mail addressed the PM thus: “We will not be instructed by you about the limits of our free speech and we will not be silenced in the face of injustice.”
Harper did not mince his words during his trip to Israel. His zealous support of Israel is unparalleled by any other nation, including the US. He spoke extensively of anti-Semitism, but the ruse of conflating criticism of the actions of the government of Israel with anti-Semitism to silence the opposition has been used so frequently that many people are beginning to see through it. In the immediate wake of this visit, I listened to an excellent debate titled ‘Are Israel’s Critics Fuelling a New Anti-Semitism?’ on CBC Radio between two Jews, Rima Berns-McGowan, a Toronto University professor of Diaspora Studies and Joseph Ben-Ami, a former policy aid to Stephen Harper himself and now the president of the Arthur Meighen Institute. Ben-Ami felt that because Israel is a Jewish state, criticism implied criticism of Jews as a group. Berns-McGowan, herself a Jew, pointed out how problematic it is to equate the state of Israel with the Jewish people, adding that critiquing discrimination, expulsion, occupation and oppression is very legitimate. Ben-Ami claimed that one could not separate criticism of the state from that of the people, because the state does not exist independently from the people who live in it. “I absolutely can! I absolutely can!” asserted Berns-McGowan, explaining that such policies are the ideology and perspective of a certain group of people and are not endemic to Jews, many of whom think they are fundamentally un-Judaic, because the central tenet of Judaism is that you do not do unto others what you do not want done unto you.
Ben-Ami’s trump card was why those who criticise Israel are silent to the abuses against Palestinians in Arab countries. Berns-McGowan said: “If you want to be in the club of western democracies, you have to be prepared to be held accountable. Criticism is not only fair game; it is essential.” In turn, she wondered why Harper refused to attend a Commonwealth summit conference for the declared reason of Sri Lanka’s mistreatment of the Tamil people and yet would adopt a double standard for Israel?”
At least since the days of prime minister Pierre Trudeau, Canada had won the admiration of the world for adopting a fair and balanced stance and voting record in the Middle East. Harper has signalled a marked and escalating departure from that record, angering most Arab Canadians, and many others. This has been steadily achieved by delegitimising any debate about Israel that questions its human rights record and smearing those who dare to do so as anti-Semites who want the destruction of the state.
KAIROS is a respected Canadian organisation that suffered the wrath of this government. It is a human rights NGO run by 11 Christian organisations. It backed Palestinians peacefully protesting against those practices of the Israeli government deemed against human rights. This resulted in its loss of public funding after the minister of immigration declared the government’s zero tolerance for what he called those who “advocate the destruction of Israel and the destruction of the Jewish People”.
Similarly, this government changed the board members of another human rights organisation, Rights and Democracy, which had simply felt that basic human rights should also extend to Palestinians under occupation. Such action has naturally placed a chill on the work of human rights groups. Harper has just appointed Vivian Bercovici as Canada’s new ambassador to Israel. As Michael Bell of the Globe & Mail put it: “Bercovici’s crystal-clear belief system, as characterised in her writing, had drawing power: Simply put, no Arab can be trusted, bent as they universally are on Israel’s annihilation.”
For me personally, the trip bellows fiscal irresponsibility at a time of belt tightening. As a taxpayer, I am appalled at this needless squandering and can only hope that this contrived extravagance will be severely punished come Election Day.
What comes next, then? If re-elected in two years, it is certain that Harper will continue his current policy with evangelical zeal. However, he won his majority with only 37 per cent of the votes, because of Canada’s archaic first-past-the-post electoral system. The latest poll shows that his level of support dipped below 30 per cent.
There is hope — if Canadians stop complaining and start contributing their votes!
Dr Qais Ghanem is a retired neurologist, radio show host, poet and author. His latest non-fiction work is My Arab Spring My Canada (Amazon.com) and his combined English/Arabic poetry book is From Left to Right. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at www.twitter.com/@QaisGhanem