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Canada and Israel

Boy Scouts and Commandos

The two men sat across from each other in identical black suits – very Brooks Brothers, very corporate machismo. Their feet firmly apart, they leaned forward on their chairs with purpose, as if they were discussing sales figures at an AGM.

The two shared similarly thinning hairlines and a certain pudgy middle-aged smugness. They occasionally smiled and guffawed good naturedly, called each other by their first names and one mentioned that ‘we go back a long way, don’t we?’ One almost expected them to reminisce about a long lost golf tournament.

But these chummy cohorts were in fact Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Peter Mansbridge, the long time host of CBC’s television’s flagship nightly news program The National. One was supposed to be interviewing the other, but it played more like an advertorial for the Likud party.

The timing couldn’t have been better. As Netanyahu did his best to present himself – and his country – as reasonable, civilized and even ‘peace-loving’  (‘Let’s meet in a “peace tent”,’ he said smilingly, of a proposed face-to-face meeting with Abbas, reaching for a kind of earnest boy scout demeanour) and the beleaguered Palestinians as troublesome terrorists or mere Iranian pawns, terrible images of Israeli commandos boarding a Gaza-bound aid convoy and killing some of its apparently unarmed occupants (amongst the group were two Canadians), flashed on television screens worldwide.

Perception vs Reality

The pre-taped interview and the time difference conspired to create a bizarre contrast. Channel flipping to BBC World, there was correspondent Jon Donnison talking about the suffering of Gazan civilians under the Israeli siege, the lack of basic foodstuffs, medicines and building materials (not to mention the shortage of artificial limbs) that make life a daily struggle for survival. Then there was that chilling footage of commandos beating peace activists, their bloodied comrades lying on stretchers in the hold.

It was pure televisual gestalt. The two faces of Israel exposed simultaneously. The slightly smarmy, PR-concocted apologies for an ongoing brutal occupation and an open defiance of international law, and the naked, violent reality of that.

In fairness to veteran correspondent Peter Mansbridge, (who did ask Netanyahu why, in the light of enthusiastic criticism of Israel by its own media, other media’s challenging of Israeli positions was deemed ‘anti-Semitic’?) one sensed that he wanted to take his questions a bit further, but something was stopping him from going too far. Might it have been his producers?

Pride not Apartheid

Might the corporate bosses at CBC have feared an attack from the likes of B’nai Brith, who just the other week conspired with like-minded pro-Likud organizations to prevent a group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid from participating in Toronto’s Pride Parade? (Apparently B’nai Brith has very recently had a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion on the issue of gay rights, having come out rather poorly in the whole same-sex marriage debate, and aligning themselves with rightwing Christian Zionist groups who think gay people should burn in hell.)

Or was Mansbridge’s timidity part and parcel of the general chill factor that has descended of late on any person or organization that dares to criticize Israeli policy in the occupied territories?

While Canada and Israel, a recent book by Yves Engler, puts paid to our national mythology that we ever were an ‘honest broker’ when it came to Israel/Palestine (the book documents the history of Canadian Christian Zionism, Lester Pearson’s important role in UN negotiations to create a Jewish state on Palestinian land, the millions of dollars in tax-deductible donations used to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service ties to the Mossad), there have been some disturbing developments, even in the last year.

Funding cuts to Israel critics

In December 2009, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) cut funding to KAIROS, a faith-based human rights organization it had funded for the previous 35 years. Their crime? A vigorous defence of Palestinian human rights. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), who provide assistance to 5 million Palestinian refugees, and the Al Haq and Al Mezan human rights organizations have all been victims of Canadian funding cuts. The Canadian Arab Foundation (CAF) also had its funding cut following its outspoken criticism of the failure of the Canadian government to speak out against Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, described in the UN Goldstone report as ‘war crimes’.

Also troubling are the ongoing campaigns of harassment and intimidation of student groups on Canadian university campuses who dare to criticize Israeli policies. Not to mention the Koffler Centre of the Arts decision to renege on a commission from artist Reena Katz, when they discovered that she was critical of Israeli policies, or the pressure exerted on the Toronto District School Board from rightwing Jewish groups to remove from school reading lists The Shepherd’s Granddaughter, a book told from the perspective of a Palestinian girl whose family land is destroyed by Israeli settlers.

In a further Orwellian development, the self-appointed Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti Semitism (CPCCA), which deceptively conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, has set out to eliminate all criticism of Israel in Canada. The group has no official mandate from the Canadian parliament – although its members include Conservative MP Jason Kenney, the current Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, as well as prominent members of the Liberal Party of Canada – but held a series of hearings in late 2009 and early 2010.

An end to colonial denial

There are of course many courageous and progressive Jewish groups in Canada who actively condemn human rights abuses in the occupied territories – among them Independent Jewish Voices. And there are new media sites like rabble.ca and The Daily Nuisance that tread where mainstream press dare not.

And Sunday night’s benign broadcast of Likud propaganda on the National, while images of Israeli commando violence played worldwide, may well mark a turning point in Canada’s national consciousness about Israel. We too are a settler nation who displaced and ethnically cleansed local indigenous peoples to build the Canadian dream.

Isn’t it time we were a little more honest about the brutality that accompanies colonialism? Maybe the National should hire a Gazan to report on RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) violence on rural Canadian reservations?

Until then, let’s at least take our heads out of the sand and stop Disney-fying Israel. Can’t we be as bold as the Israeli press is when it comes to calling a spade a spade?

Increasingly, cosy, uncritical interviews with the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu are about as far away from the reality of Canadian public opinion as Bibi’s feel-good charm offensive is from the brutal tactics of his state.

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