Canadian satire hints at hidden biases

When we point out that a particular statement or an image echoes those of traditional anti-Jewish stereotyping, there is very often a wall of outrage in response.

The flags of Israel and Canada (photo credit: REUTERS)
The flags of Israel and Canada
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Canada’s October 19 federal election replaced the emphatically pro-Israel Conservative government of Stephen Harper with a Liberal government led by new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Days before the election, Trudeau’s party promised that, while the government might change, Canada’s support for Israel would not. Almost immediately after, there was talk of a change in “tone,” so it is to be seen whether Canada will remain one of Israel’s most vocal friends in the international arena.
In what may seem an insignificant aside, a satirical article that first reared its head a year ago started making the rounds on social media again about the time Trudeau was sworn in as Canada’s new leader.
The Canadian online fake news outlet the Beaverton, which occasionally hits nails on heads with its wit, ran a story titled “Israeli Prime Minister Stephen Harper returns after long visit in Canada.”
The article jokingly reported that “after nine long years traveling in Canada to promote his country, Israel’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper is finally back in his homeland....”
The piece quotes Harper as saying, “They let me write their own foreign policy, argue with the opposition and watch Canada lose the UN Security Council seat that the government said it didn’t want anyway.”
It is a comparatively harmless piece of satire, but it illustrates something larger.
In online reaction, several people noted that the approach of the piece dovetails neatly with centuries of stereotypes of Jewish duplicity and dual loyalty. These tropes have been especially powerful since the return of Jewish self-determination in 1948, with allegations of the “Israel lobby” or other eminences, somehow outside the realm of legitimate politics, controlling the foreign policy of the United States or Canada or other places.
Predictably, assertions that the humorous article – or that criticizing Canada’s pro-Israel policies – had any relationship whatsoever with anti-Semitism were met with defensive denial. This is understandable.
Nomenclature is a problem.
The term “anti-Semitism” is associated with the worst atrocities of the 20th century. To associate it with a fairly harmless satirical article seems orders of magnitude beyond fair comparison.
While anti-Semitism may not be the right term, what the article does do is reinforce long-lasting and perhaps unconsciously held biases about Jewish power, control and manipulation.
When some online commentators suggested the article veered into this territory, the defense was, as it almost always is, that “legitimate criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism.”
Indeed, in some or most cases, it may not be. But terms need qualifiers.
First of all, who determines what is legitimate? Secondly, if “legitimate criticism” of Israel is not anti-Semitism, does that mean anti-Semitism plays no role here whatsoever? The knee-jerk defensiveness in these cases seems to disregard the very idea that prejudices or biases about Jews could play any role in discussion about Israel and that is just silly. It is impossible to imagine attitudes toward Jews playing no role in a discussion about the Jewish state.
As one Facebook discussion heated up and sides quickly polarized, one group tried to point out how the depiction of Stephen Harper as an Israeli plant has a clear parallel with the most familiar stereotypes of Jewish and Israeli manipulation of other nations’ politics, which further rests on concepts of Jewish power and underhandedness.
From the other side came the self-righteous insistence that criticizing Israel, or Canada’s support of it, is not anti-Semitic. Moreover, they insisted, citing anti-Semitism is a tactic Jews and Zionists always use to silence criticism of Israel.
Given the global “silence” about Israel today – at the UN, in street marches, campus protests and boycott movements – this tactic seems to be failing wretchedly.
The problem in arguing with some critics of Israel is that they lack enough knowledge about the history of anti-Semitism and its diverse manifestations to understand when their “legitimate criticism” looks proximate to or exactly like traditional forms of anti-Semitism.
Among the most obvious examples is the present-day blood libel that is very much alive and well, for instance this month at the University of Minnesota when renowned Israeli ethicist Moshe Halbertal was silenced by anti-Israel mobs screaming to drown out his lecture and calling him “baby killer.” The idea that Israelis deliberately set out to kill babies is both a prevalent motif of the anti-Israel movement and one of the oldest and most effective calls to anti-Jewish incitement.
The point we should take from the comparatively minor incident involving an attempt at humor is this: Lacking knowledge of how anti-Semitism and Jewish stereotyping looks makes it difficult for people to identify it, stand up to it and condemn it.
In fact, the opposite is happening.
When we point out that a particular statement or an image echoes those of traditional anti-Jewish stereotyping, there is very often a wall of outrage in response, allegations of “silencing” (which, again, rests on extraordinary control by the tiny minority of Jews in North America) and outright denial that anti-Semitism or preconceptions about Jews could possibly play any role whatsoever in this discussion.
Given the circles in which anti-Israel activism is most prevalent in North America these days – among self-described “progressives” who see themselves as enemies of racism and advocates of social justice – a statement of concern from any other cultural community would almost certainly lead to a process of self-examination and attempts at reconciliation with the offended group. Unless the offended group is Jewish, in which case the perpetrators circle the wagons, deny all wrongdoing and lob counter-allegations of conspiracies to silence.
More than any silly satirical article, this is the real concern.
The author is a Canadian writer and commentator, a member of the editorial board of The Jewish Independent, and spirituality columnist for The Vancouver Courier.