British Columbia’s Jewish community is outraged after MLA Selina Robinson is removed from cabinet over remarks about Israel

Selina Robinson speaking at a virtual panel discussion hosted by B'nai Brith Canada on Jan. 30, 2024.

Leaders of the British Columbia Jewish community have reacted with dismay to the decision by David Eby, the province’s premier, to remove Selina Robinson from her position as minister of post-secondary education and future skills on Feb. 5 due to remarks she made the previous week during an online discussion.

While speaking on a panel at the event on Jan. 30, titled “An Evening with Our Jewish Public Officials” and hosted by B’nai Brith Canada, Robinson lamented the lack of knowledge young Canadians in the 18-34 demographic showed when asked about the history of the Holocaust and the beginning of the State of Israel in 1948.

Robinson, a prominent Jewish politician in B.C., said there was a need for more education as many young people do not believe the Holocaust happened and only see Israel as a very powerful country. She added they “don’t understand that (Israel) was a crappy piece of land with nothing on it” when it was established.

Those comments, and not the context in which they were said, became headline news in B.C. for several days, with a number of groups calling for Robinson’s resignation. Late last week, Robinson issued an apology and promised to take anti-Islamophobia training.

Over the weekend, the ruling provincial NDP cancelled a fundraising dinner in Surrey due to protests as pressure from various pro-Palestinian groups calling for Robinson to step down continued to mount. 

On Feb.5, Robinson issued a second apology, but by that time Eby had scheduled a press conference in which he announced “the challenging but necessary decision that Selina will be stepping down in her role as advanced education minister.”

Monday night, Robinson’s constituency office was vandalized with what Eby described on social media as “hateful messages.”

“This is wrong. Peaceful protest cannot include spreading hate,” Eby posted on X (formerly Twitter).

A video posted online by Canadian Antifa showed numerous signs stuck on her office including ones that read “Zionism is Racism,” and “Crappy Piece of Parliament.”

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver put out a sharply worded statement expressing their deep disappointment in Eby’s decision to remove Robinson from her cabinet post.

“The removal of MLA Robinson, who apologized for her comments and promised to do better, sends a chilling message that Jewish leaders are held to a different standard than non-Jewish ones,” said Nico Slobinsky, CIJA’s vice-president for the Pacific region.

Slobinsky outlined the numerous occasions in recent years when the Jewish community has been called upon to accept apologies, instead of demanding resignations, after antisemitic comments were made by BC NDP politicians.  As recently as International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, one of Eby’s staff released a social media post stating “we stand with the Muslim community.”

“Today, as the Jewish community in B.C. is confronted by an alarming increase in antisemitism and by frequent pro-Hamas protests calling for the Jews of Israel to be eradicated, the loss of MLA Robinson is especially distressing as we no longer have our strongest advocate—who understands the challenges and sensitivities of the Jewish community—at the table,” Slobinsky said.

He went on to say that a double standard existed in the present government and that the Jewish community was profoundly hurt and offended by the manner in which the loss of Jewish representation in the cabinet occurred.

Ezra Shanken, the CEO of the Vancouver Jewish Federation, said the B.C. government needed to demonstrate stronger leadership to make the province more cohesive and less divisive.

“It is shameful that Premier David Eby has bowed to pressure from a loud minority whose campaign to discredit MLA Robinson was centred in anti-Jewish bias and lacked the offer of grace they demand when others falter,” Shanken said.

A letter from the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver to Eby pointed out that Robinson should not be judged by one mistake, and that she had immediately issued “a lengthy, heartfelt and genuine apology.”

“Only two weeks ago, you issued a hurtful statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day asking our province to ‘stand together against the deeply troubling rise of Islamophobia,’” read the letter signed by nine of the community’s rabbis.

“You said it was a mistake, conflating the Holocaust with Islamophobia. We accepted your apology, and though deeply offended we moved on with trust in you. MLA Robinson did not receive the same empathy or consideration.”

Robinson had been an ardent proponent for Holocaust education in the province and a strong voice in the fight against antisemitism – urging B.C. to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.

Jewish groups pointed out that her departure from the cabinet comes in the midst of a disturbing increase in antisemitic hate crimes since Oct. 7 in B.C. and across the country.

Leaders of the pro-Palestinian movement and others in B.C. seized upon Robinson’s comment about the poor quality of the land in Israel at the time the state was formed in 1948.  Last week, many had accused her of using her role as minister of post-secondary education to pressure Langara College in Vancouver to fire an English instructor, Natalie Knight.

At a pro-Palestinian rally in November, Knight had described the Oct. 7 attack on Israel as “amazing” and “brilliant.”  She was placed on leave while the school conducted an internal investigation and was reinstated in January. Robinson said she had expressed her concern to the school that Knight was reinstated.

Knight was fired late last month after attending a pro-Palestinian rally near campus where she could be seen holding a sign reading, “There is one solution: INTIFADA, REVOLUTION.”

On Feb. 1, the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C. issued a statement saying that Robinson should resign for “inappropriately intervening” in the college’s affairs and undermining democratic freedom of expression. In his press conference on Monday, Eby said those allegations were false.

Other comments Robinson made at the B’nai Brith event which compared a conflict among First Nations with the current situation in the Middle East have come under fire from Indigenous groups.

“If there was a conflict between the Tsleil-Waututh and the Squamish Nations over a piece of land, would we weigh in? Regular people?” Robinson asked.

Adam Olsen, a Green Party MLA and member of the Tsartlip First Nation, took exception, writing on his blog, “It appears Minister Robinson holds a uniquely non-21st century belief it is okay to classify humans, if not hierarchically then perhaps just basically as ‘regular’ and ‘non-regular.’”

Some factions of the BC Greens had been upset with Robinson recently as well. In November 2023, Sanjiv Gandhi, the deputy leader of the party, liked a post on X, formerly Twitter, which compared Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry to Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. At the time, Robinson labelled the comparison as “absolutely outrageous.”  Gandhi was later removed from his leadership position by the party.

In his press conference on Monday, Eby added, “The perspective that I have here is that Selina has a remarkable track record as a politician representing her community, representing the Jewish community, and that she screwed up. That screw-up was not a small one. It was a big one. And she’s caused a lot of hurt, but that she’s willing to engage with communities to address it.”

Robinson, an MLA in the suburban Vancouver riding of Coquitlam-Maillardville, will be staying on the NDP caucus but has announced she will not seek re-election when the province goes to vote later in the year. Robinson has represented the district since 2013.

Before entering provincial politics, Robinson served as the associate executive director of the Jewish Family Service Agency in Vancouver. She worked as a family therapist and was a city councilor in Coquitlam. She was B.C.’s finance minister from 2020 to 2022.