Keep Canada's intellectuals honest

In key circles, those who believe that Israel is not the singular culpable player in the Middle East conflict do so silently.

By ANNA MORGAN, GERALDINE SHERMAN & RACHAEL TURKIENICZ
October 3, 2006 18:58
4 minute read.

There has always been a strain of anti-Americanism in the Canadian cultural scene. Some still romanticize Fidel Castro and others consistently exaggerate the benefits of Canada's socialized medicare system. However, in these anti-Bush days, support of anything American in certain circles has become pure blasphemy. Unfortunately, in the post 9/11 world, anti-Americanism in Canada has taken a troubling turn for anyone who sympathizes with Israel. In its quest for "root causes" to the destruction of the World Trade Center, the Canadian intelligentsia has begun to sympathize with Israel's most implacable enemies. And that has meant that liberal supporters of the Jewish state have found themselves on the unpopular end of the intellectual debate. It has in recent years become apparent in literary and academic circles that those who believe that Israel is not the singular, culpable player in the Middle East dispute - believe so silently. Otherwise, they may find themselves left off invitation lists, shunned at conferences and frozen out of the press. At the same time that support of Israel has been silenced on the intellectual Left, anti-Semitism has begun to reappear in Canada in the form of vandalism, graffiti on synagogues, and even several firebombings of Jewish schools (fortunately empty at the time). It became clear a few years ago that unless the chill on pro-Israeli views was attacked on our campuses, among our journalists and within our intellectual and artistic communities, Canada would be tainted by the same anti-Jewish atmosphere spreading across Europe. THIS ALARMING trend has been apparent for some time to those on the political Right; and to paint a more complete picture of Canada, it should be said that the Conservatives ousted the long ruling Liberals in last year's federal election, forming a new government with pro-American, pro-Israel foreign policies. The problem, however, has remained in the intellectual world and in the chattering classes. The challenge has been to find common ground in Canada's cultural elite - and especially among the non-Jewish intellectuals - so that they could take a stand against anti-Semitism. Surely great minds would agree that hatred against a single group in Canada was bad. Wouldn't they? That's how our first Solidarity With Jews At Risk project began with a vigil outside the French Consulate in the spring of 2002. Letters went out to Canadians asking them to sign a petition demanding that French government acknowledge that anti-Semitism was a problem. The response was tremendous. Thousands signed the petition. But more importantly, a dialogue began on Toronto's downtown streets that brought groups of people with different political views together. The next project addressed the growing chill in Canadian universities. It was decided that an ad placed in one of Canada's national newspapers was the best way to initiate a discussion on the intimidation on free speech that was being felt on campus. Letters went out. Input was gathered from some of Canada's foremost academics, money was collected, and finally the ad was placed. Our co-signers included novelist Margaret Atwood, historian Michael Bliss, and social activist June Callwood. Once again, Canada's intellectuals had found a way to agree that all points of view, short of hate, should be allowed to flourish - even when it comes to the difficult questions of the Middle East. Since then, Solidarity with Jews at Risk has initiated a petition against anti-Semitism which was taken to Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, Allan Rock. The petition encouraged Canada, usually an influential, if not particularly outspoken player at the UN, to support the World Jewish Congress in its failed bid to have a stand-alone resolution condemning anti-Semitism passed by the General Assembly. The list of names represented many of the same academics and intellectuals who had supported the campus campaign. It was hard for the government to ignore. Although it was never planned, Solidarity With Jews at Risk started and has remained an independent, unaffiliated, ad hoc group. Each campaign is different and finite with a specific objective, but each sets out to address a particular injustice or threat to the Jewish people, wherever they live. Our latest project has been the most arduous. THIS TIME we stood in solidarity with Jews at risk not in Canadian universities, or in France, but in Israel. Specifically, we decided to announce our support for the residents of northern Israel who endured a summer of Hizbullah's rockets. The presence of nearly 40,000 Lebanese-Canadians in Beirut - thousands of whom were evacuated - had ensured that one side of the war had a voice in the Canadian press, and so we decided that a prominent ad in Canada's national papers would allow for the other side's view to at least be expressed. Once again, hundreds of letters went out. Our statement called for the disarming of Hizbullah. A common ground, it was hoped, that many could agree with. But this time, many journalists, writers, academics, and the like refused to allow their names to be used. A few said they feared losing their jobs. Others said they agreed with the statement but feared doing so publicly. Some of our previous supporters simply didn't respond at all. But many did. In the end, we had 62 great names - from the political left, center and right. While some probably believe that Israel used "disproportionate" force in the war, all agreed that Hizbullah needed to be disarmed. But more than that, they all understood that the intellectual fashion of anti-Israelism has got to stop. Canadian intellectuals need to fight against a growing trend to freeze out one side of the discussion. Morgan is a journalist and author. Sherman is a former television producer and writer. And Turkienicz is a professor of education and TV host/producer.


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