Justin Trudeau taps top Israel lobbyist [Canada’s Ronny Naftaniel] to police speech in Canada

Nora Barrows-Friedman

The Electronic Intifada  /  November 26, 2020 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday named prominent Israel lobby figure Irwin Cotler as Canada’s “special envoy” for combatting anti-Semitism.

In that role, Cotler will lead the country’s implementation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) “working definition” of anti-Semitism.

The definition conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry.

Independent Jewish Voices Canada, a group that opposes imposition of the IHRA definition, said it was “deeply troubled” by the appointment.

The group noted that Cotler “is one of the leading proponents of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ movement, which seeks to label criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.”

Trudeau’s announcement sends a clear message to civil society in Canada: Criticism of Israel will not be tolerated, and Israel’s lobby can set the terms of the debate.

This comes just weeks after Ontario’s premier Doug Ford forced through a measure to adopt the IHRA definition without allowing the public to voice concerns or lawmakers to cast a vote.

Irwin Cotler is Canada’s former justice minister and the long-time unofficial adviser to Israel’s former defense minister and war crimes suspect Moshe Ya’alon.

Cotler will become a special envoy to the IHRA delegation, Trudeau said.

Trudeau said last year that Canada would use the IHRA definition as part of its strategy to “combat racism and discrimination.”

Cotler, Trudeau said on Wednesday, “will support advocacy and outreach efforts with Canadians, civil society and academia to advance the implementation of this definition across the country and its adoption internationally.”

Israel and its lobby have been pushing for the IHRA definition to be codified into law in the US, Canada and European countries in order to shield Israel from criticism over its human rights violations.

In the past, Trudeau has acknowledged Cotler’s influence on the Canadian government’s extreme pro-Israel policies, including its smear campaign against the nonviolent boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

Cotler’s role “will be to stifle dissent in civil society about Israeli human rights violations,” Michael Bueckert, vice president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, said.

This is only the latest effort to try to block organizing for Palestinian rights by smearing human rights defenders as anti-Semites.

Anti-democratic move

On 25 October, Ontario premier Ford adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism by executive order.

Civil rights groups and thousands of human rights supporters had participated in campaigns calling on members of Ontario’s provincial parliament to reject a private bill to adopt the IHRA definition.

Many had prepared testimonies opposing its adoption into Ontario law.

The testimonies were to be presented before the legislature’s Standing Committee on Justice Policy in a public hearing.

“It was anti-democratic to just shut down the hearings,” Corey Balsam, national director of Independent Jewish Voices Canada, told The Electronic Intifada.

“We were really gaining momentum. When the committee was announced, people started showing up and organizations were taking an interest,” he added.

Adoption of the IHRA definition has been opposed by hundreds of Canadian scholars who warn of its chilling effects on academic freedom and free speech.

There have been dozens of examples around the world where the IHRA definition has been used to smear Palestinians and advocates of Palestinian rights, Independent Jewish Voices Canada notes, including at least three incidents in Canada.

Moreover, adopting the IHRA definition conflicts with the beliefs of most Canadians.

Just last month, a national survey found that the majority of Canadians don’t believe that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, despite well-financed efforts by Israel lobby groups.

Three major Canadian cities – CalgaryMontreal and Vancouver – have rejected or declined to adopt the definition.

From anti-BDS bills to IHRA

Ford’s move to ram through the IHRA definition without public input is being welcomed by Israel lobby groups and pro-Israel lawmakers.

Ford may have taken this undemocratic route to avoid what happened in 2016, when lawmakers rejected an anti-boycott bill.

That bill would have blacklisted supporters of the BDS campaign for Palestinian rights.

It was rejected after a debate in which supporters falsely accused the BDS movement of encouraging 1930s-style boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses.

They also tried to tie Palestine solidarity activism to attacks by suspected Islamist militants in France.

Bueckert noted that Michael Levitt and Anthony Housefather, members of Canada’s federal parliament and hardline supporters of Israel, co-authored an op-ed last year celebrating the IHRA definition because it goes after the BDS movement and speech critical of Israel.

“Yes they are trying to ban Palestine activism, they just don’t want you to talk about it,” Bueckert tweeted.

Institutionalized chill

After Ford signed the order adopting the IHRA definition, Ontario parliament member Kaleed Rasheed told civil society groups that the definition’s “illustrative examples” explicitly conflating anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel were excluded from the order.

However that was refuted by other members of parliament, and Rasheed then denied making the claim.

Since the Ontario government left it unclear whether the IHRA definition’s “illustrative examples” – most of which focus on Israel – are included in the executive order, “we can expect to see powerful actors interpreting the definition as they see fit,” Hammam Farah, a Toronto activist and board member of the Palestinian Canadian Community Centre – Palestine House, told The Electronic Intifada.

Farah expects more cases of institutions denying jobs to scholars or refusing to give organizations funding and access to resources in fear of violating the vague IHRA guidelines.

Palestine House and allied groups have condemned the order, saying that “the Israeli government knows that it lost the public debate and that it must resort to cowering behind anti-democratic laws to protect its colonial endeavor against the Palestinian people.”

Farah explained that ever since Israel’s “long-term campaign against BDS reached the Canadian government, we’ve found ourselves on the defensive, having to scramble to declare our opposition against government attacks on our freedom of speech.”

Human rights and civil society organizations say that while they consider legal options to challenge Ford’s order, they will continue to expose Israel’s apartheid system and resist censorship efforts.

“We want to encourage other people to not be silent either,” Balsam told The Electronic Intifada.

“The fear is the institutionalization of that chill.”

Balsam hopes that solidarity groups will continue to “open up doors to talk about racism in Israel, Zionism’s relationship to racism and the impact that this definition has on Palestinians and on people of color.”

“We can’t let them dictate the terms of the debate,” he said.

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014)