By: Tyler Levitan
Being brought up in the mainstream Jewish community, I went through nine years of Jewish day school,five years of Jewish sleep-away camp and countless hours of Israel advocacy training.
I know first-hand the pressures that exist to conform to groupthink around Israel and its centrality to conventional Jewish life in Canada.
It started from the time I was a toddler, when I was instructed to put coins into a donation box to “redeem and reclaim the Land of Israel.“ It continued through elementary school and junior high school, with textbooks about the Arab-Israeli conflict that failed to mention the word “Palestine” or contain any reference to Palestinians.
I was taught that the Jews are the singularly most oppressed people throughout history. Jews are the eternal victims, and there was no escaping this.
By the time I entered university, I was psychologically primed to fear that around every corner stood an anti-Semite. I had been socialized to regard criticisms of Israel — which challenged what I was brought up to believe — as personal attacks on my identity.
It took years of grappling emotionally with the undeniable facts I was confronted with about Israel’s transgressions to eventually lead me to where I am today. This transformation (which is not uncommon amongst Jews of my generation) was only able to happen — however reluctantly — because of my willingness to wrestle with my beliefs.
I understood this to be a core part of my identity, following in a rich tradition of Jewish thinkers who pursued truth as an ethical obligation and stubbornly debated with those holding differing views.
I eagerly reached out to my rabbi at the time, excited to engage him in the age-old Jewish ritual of constructive debate. Instead, there was a total unwillingness to discuss these urgent moral issues in the open. I contacted other rabbis in the community and, not surprisingly, their reactions were almost identical.
It may come as little surprise that the marginalization of dissident Jewish voices pervades the entirety of organized Jewish life in Canada. From Jewish community newspapers and community centres, to the organizations purporting to speak on behalf of Canadian Jews, engaging in reasoned debate on the issue of Israel and Zionism simply cannot happen.
There is no organization more hallowed in mainstream Jewish communities around the world than the Jewish National Fund (JNF). European Jews founded the JNF in 1901 with the goal of establishing a Jewish state in historic Palestine. Despite successfully achieving its mission in 1948, rather than disbanding — as esteemed Israeli scholar Gershom Gorenberg and the Haaretz Editorial Team believe should have happened — the JNF was re-purposed.
The fledgling Israeli state regarded the JNF as a useful vehicle in the ensuing process of expropriating the lands of exiled Palestinians. The JNF quickly re-branded itself as an organization tasked with planting trees and with “making the desert bloom.” Its fundraising branches abroad — including in Canada — obtained charitable status, and the Israeli organization became a significant source of donations to the Zionist cause.
What the JNF fails to disclose to its unsuspecting donors is that most of the forests and parks it established as part of its “reclamation” efforts cover over the ruins of depopulated and demolished Palestinian villages — 89 villages to be exact.
The JNF refuses to acknowledge the historical presence of these villages, which its projects have erased from both space and consciousness. It continues to “reclaim” land at the expense of the native inhabitants.
Its branch in Canada, known as Jewish National Fund of Canada (JNF Canada), funded the flagship project “Canada Park,” which covers over the village sites of Deir Ayyub, Yalu and Imwas, and lands belonging to Beit Nuba.
The latter three villages are located entirely within the West Bank, which is considered Occupied Palestinian Territory under international law and official Canadian policy.
The truth about Canada Park and the JNF has been hidden from mainstream Jewish community discussions. Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) has been barred from renting space at Jewish Community Centres across the country due, in part, to our opposition to the JNF’s practices.
We have offered to engage JNF Canada in a public discussion or debate on two recent occasions. When the Global Justice Committee of the First Unitarian Congregation in Ottawa decided to screen the film Enduring Roots: Over a Century of Resistance to the Jewish National Fund, it invited both JNF Ottawa and IJV to participate on a panel. IJV agreed, while JNF Ottawa’s executive director declined.
In an email to a Unitarian congregant, the director noted: “As you may or may not know, the Independent Jewish Voices is not a Jewish organization, but rather is funded by anti-Semitic groups as a means to create divisions within our very small community.”
A few years earlier, in his column (p.25) in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, JNF Ottawa’s former President referred to “a soup” of Palestinian human rights organizations — including IJV — as “Jew-hating.”
Of course, baseless and defamatory allegations such as these — coupled with manipulation of the term “anti-Semitism” to discredit those who seek to expose the truth about Israel’s behaviour — are desperate and unethical tactics.
Despite such attacks, IJV once again reached out to JNF Ottawa, this time to engage in a debate with a Palestinian from Imwas who will be touring Canada for IJV. Not surprisingly, we received no response.
Last summer, it appeared that a breakthrough had occurred when Canadian Jewish News (CJN) columnist Mira Sucharov quoted me in her column challenging the JNF.
The JNF was immediately given space to respond and predictably diverted attention from the facts. Former Israeli ambassador to Canada Alan Baker had a response to Sucharov’s piece published as well, which focused exclusively on Canada Park even though Sucharov’s piece had made no mention of Canada Park.
IJV contacted the CJN’s editor asking for a response to Baker’s piece to be published as a guest column — preferably by Palestinian-Canadian Ismail Zayid from the village of Beit Nuba.
The CJN never bothered correcting the record for its readers: that the premise for Baker’s piece was erroneous. Nor did the CJN publish a brief letter to the editor by IJV Toronto chapter representative Sheryl Nestel, offering a different perspective on the issue, which made mention of the plight of the dispossessed Palestinians.
This is in line with the CJN’s editorial policy, openly reaffirmed by editor Yoni Goldstein in the September 2014 issue: “From time to time, members of IJV’s leadership team have requested editorial space in the CJN to explain their point of view. We have ultimately declined, because even though we promote inclusion as a virtue, there are limits to how inclusive we’re willing to be. Abetting BDS and rejecting Israel’s future as a Jewish state crosses the line.”
IJV supports BDS as a tactic of last resort to put pressure on Israel’s regime of apartheid, since Western governments refuse to pressure Israel to comply with international law. We also see this tactic as reflective of Jewish traditions of social justice and standing in solidarity with the oppressed.
Rather than debate these issues or merely discuss them openly, the Canadian Jewish establishment has preferred to bully Canadian individuals and organizations into silence by repeatedly utilizing the term “anti-Semitism” to quell legitimate criticism of Israel.
The recent anti-BDS motion in the House of Commons, championed by the Israel lobby group Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), is a prime example.
IJV has offered to publicly discuss or debate the issue of BDS with CIJA, who have refused to respond to our numerous overtures. Even the Canadian International Council (CIC) got the silent treatment from CIJA after asking CEO Shimon Fogel to participate in a public session on the issue.
As my last commentary on HuffPost Canada argued, Israel’s future as a Jewish state requires the denial of equal rights to the over 20 per cent of the population that isn’t Jewish.
With a viable and contiguous Palestinian state now off the table, millions of Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation without basic rights, under what is effectively one state of institutionally enforced Jewish supremacy.
The longer we delay discussion on these crucial moral issues in the Jewish community and in wider Canadian society, the more difficult it will be for us to extricate ourselves from Israel’s ongoing project of colonization.
Dealing with the facts will be uncomfortable, but the alternative spells deepening militarization and ultra-nationalism for Jewish-Israeli society, and perpetual discrimination, insecurity and dispossession for Palestinians.
This commentary was originally published on March 2, 2016 to Tyler Levitan’s blog in the Huffington Post Canada.