Green Party Exodus: Israel and anti-Semitism played role in key departures

Jennica Atwin (Mélanie Provencher, House of Commons Photo Services) and Noah Zatzman (LinkedIn photo).

The Green Party’s infighting over the recent war between Israel and Hamas contributed to Green MP Jenica Atwin’s decision to cross the floor and join the Liberals on Thursday, June 10. The move also left Jewish advocacy groups sounding concerns, as did a sitting Liberal MP and a former one.

Atwin’s surprising move to join the government capped weeks of internal bickering within the Greens over the party’s stance on the most recent Middle East conflict.

While a “distraction,” the stinging back-and-forth on social media “certainly played a role” in her decision, Atwin told reporters at a news conference in her home riding of Fredericton, where she announced she was joining the Liberals.

“It’s been really difficult to focus on the important work that needs to be done on behalf of my constituents,” she said, and that she found herself “at a crossroads” in the past month.

That month saw some of the most public disagreements a federal political party could muster over a foreign policy issue, especially one that has fuelled so much debate and divisiveness among the Greens.

At the same time, Noah Zatzman, a senior advisor to Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, said he’s stepping away from his duties because of anti-Semitic harassment and threats he’s receiving.

The origins of the schism

It all began on May 10, when Green MP Paul Manly said the reported removal of Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah was “ethnic cleansing.”

On May 11, Atwin broke with Paul, who the day before called for “de-escalation and a return to dialogue” in the Hamas-Israel fighting. Paul’s words were “totally inadequate,” Atwin said.

In a separate tweet on May 11, Atwin said: “I stand with Palestine! There are no two sides to this conflict, only human-rights abuses! #EndApartheid.”

Atwin made no attempt at the June 10 news conference to distance herself from those views.

“Everything that I’ve said and done still stands,” she said. “To the voters, I would say, ‘I’m still me.’”

She did not reply before deadline to The CJN’s queries, including how she will reconcile her views, or whether she would voice them, in a party that does not share them.

The fires were further stoked when, in a Facebook post on May 14, Zatzman condemned the “appalling anti-Semitism and discrimination” from “many Liberal, NDP and sadly, Green MPs.”

Without naming names, he said the Greens “will work to defeat you and bring in progressive climate champions who are antifa and pro LGBT and pro indigenous sovereignty and Zionists!!!!!”

A subsequent letter with more than 1,400 signatures demanded that Paul remove Zatzman.

In a joint statement following Atwin’s defection, the Green Party’s two remaining MPs, Manly and Elizabeth May, said they were “heartbroken” by her departure and bluntly blamed Zatzman.

“Unfortunately, the attack against Ms. Atwin by the Green Party leader’s chief spokesperson on May 14 created the conditions that led to this crisis,” they said in a statement.

“Sustained anti-Semitic harassment and violent threats”

The CJN spoke with Zatzman prior to Atwin’s defection. He said he’s stepping back as an advisor to Paul over “sustained anti-Semitic harassment and violent threats” against him coming from a Facebook group associated with the party.

“The extent and tone of the harassment has frightened my family and friends more than me,” he said. “It’s a bit of a shock this has happened in Canada in 2021.”

Another reason for his stepping away is not because his six-month contract was not renewed, as had been reported, but “by mutual consent. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false. It was always going to happen.”

Asked how the ongoing spats over the Middle East will affect Paul herself, Zatzman said the party rank-and-file prides itself on being anti-racist and would “be crazy to break with the first Black and Jewish leader.”

At a press conference on June 8, Paul was asked about fissures in the party arising from Israel. “There are differences of opinion that come up naturally within parties,” she said. “And certainly, Israel and Palestine is one that has demonstrated the differences of opinion.”

Paul, who was elected leader last October, later downplayed the notion that Atwin quit the Green Party over the Israel-Palestine dispute.

“I take Jenica at her word,” Paul said. “She said that her decision had nothing to do with me, that it wasn’t a factor in her decision, that she wished me well, that she hoped that we would remain friends. And so I will take her at her word that this is a decision she took for other reasons.”

She declined to discuss Zatzman’s post.

Community reactions vary

As for reaction to Atwin’s defection, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) said it was “troubled” by the Liberals’ decision to welcome her without her disavowal of “troubling statements on the Middle East that are incompatible with the government’s own positions.”

CIJA called on the Liberals to clarify whether Atwin fully accepts the party’s positions on domestic Jewish issues and Mideast policy.

Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, said Atwin’s comments “are at odds with what we understand is the Liberal Party of Canada’s position. And we look for assurances from the Liberal party that her comments do not reflect the government’s stance.”

Mount Royal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who also chairs the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group, told The CJN that he “clearly” disagrees with Atwin’s views on Israel, which are “radically different” from those of the government and its leaders. But he said he looks “forward to respectfully engaging with her and explaining why I believe her positions on this issue should change.”

The CJN requested, but did not receive, a response from York Centre Liberal MP Ya’ara Saks.

Former York Centre Liberal MP Michael Levitt, now head of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, said he was “disappointed and concerned” by Atwin’s joining the Liberals, “given her inflammatory, one-sided and divisive rhetoric” during the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Perhaps the bluntest criticism came from one-time Liberal backroom stalwart Warren Kinsella, who tweeted that given her statements about Israel, it is “disgusting but revealing that the Trudeau Liberals would want” Atwin.

Others took Paul to task. Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), which supports boycotts of Israel, called on the leader “to abandon her toxic, anti-Palestine approach to politics before it destroys the party,” and said it was “no wonder” Atwin left.

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