Health agency pulls notice for anti-Israel essay contest

TORONTO —A government-funded health agency that serves gay and lesbian youth has removed an Internet posting that publicized an essay contest on the “ethnic cleansing of Palestine.”

The Sherbourne Health Centre announced last week that it had removed notice of the contest following complaints from activist Joanne Cohen.

Cohen complained to the Sherbourne Health Centre and George Smitherman, top left, Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, that an employee of Supporting Our Youth (SOY), a program run by the centre, had advertised the contest on a SOY e-mail list. The contest, which is open to students ages 17 to 27, is sponsored by the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF), Palestine House and the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) and is timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel.

Cohen contended that a government-funded agency that serves people of all backgrounds should not use its resources to promote “an explicitly biased anti-Israel essay contest.”

She said SOY employee Suhail Sameed, who co-ordinates the agency’s newcomer/immigrant project, sent a letter to a SOY newsgroup inviting participation in the essay contest. Cohen said Sameed’s posting suggested that SOY endorsed the contest.

Within 24 hours of learning of the incident, Smitherman asked Sherbourne Health Centre to “take appropriate action,” said the minister’s spokesperson, Laurel Ostfield. “We won’t tolerate any inflammatory or offensive language.”

Denny Young, director of community relations for Sherbourne Health Centre, said once the agency received Cohen’s letter of complaint, it held internal discussions that led to the removal of the Internet message.

“This gives us an opportunity to review how we post things on that forum,” Young said. The Sherbourne Health Centre received $6.9 million in provincial funding in the 2007-08 fiscal year; 71 per cent of the agency’s budget in 2006-07 originated with the Health Ministry.

A longtime gay rights activist, Cohen fired off a letter to a number of SOY employees, as well as senior management of the Sherbourne Health Centre, Smitherman and Barbara Hall, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, when she learned of the essay contest.

Her letter asks “why our public funds are now apparently being used to endorse only one side of the relatively irrelevant issue of politics in the Middle East, in relation to your GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer) youth programming and in a way that is patently intellectually biased, if not dishonest.”

Participation in the contest would cause Jewish or Israeli clients and staff of the agency to”feel marginalized,” and could lead to an unsafe work place in which those who hold other views of the Mideast conflict feel intimidated, she stated.

Cohen told The CJN she learned of the contest through a non-Jewish colleague who has been “offended by the discourse and apparent political bias of the organization for years.”

Young said SOY encourages “lively debate within a respectful atmosphere.” It also stresses good interpersonal relations and conflict resolution.

However, Cohen’s letter noted “the absence of Jewish referral listings on SOY Toronto’s ‘links’ page, despite the existence of many supportive Jewish GLBTQ groups and welcoming liberal congregations and associations in the Toronto area.

She said Jewish organizations and individuals have supported equality rights pursued by the agency while, “I note with regret the absence of any meaningful legal intervention for same-sex marriage from members of the Canadian Arab or Muslim community… To my knowledge, no meaningful contributions to same-sex rights in Canada have been made by the CAF, Palestine House or the CIC, the last of which was vehemently hostile to same-sex marriage. So why would SOY Toronto or Sherbourne Health Centre endorse them?”

Cohen goes on to note that Israel, while a flawed democracy, “offers immigration protections for GLBTQ citizens fleeing persecution in surrounding Arab countries, whose Supreme Court and NGOs have repeatedly protected women’s and GLBTQ and minority rights, where a transgendered artist won the Eurovision song contest in 1998, where same-sex common law status and benefits entitlements are protected by law, and where same-sex couples are now permitted to register same-sex marriages performed abroad, as well as to register same-sex couples as parents for the purposes of Israeli law. Has this record been matched anywhere in the Arab world or Palestinian territories? I think not. Perhaps SOY Toronto and Sherbourne Health Centre have more to learn from the Israeli example.”

CAF executive director Mohamed Boudjenane said he was unaware a SOY employee had publicized the essay contest. The essay sponsors publicized the contest by notifying subscribers to the organizations’ mailing lists and the news media. Educational institutions or other agencies that work with youths were not sent notice of the contest, he said.

Boudjenane questioned the claim that the topic was inflammatory or offensive. The same term – ethnic cleansing – is widely used and has been employed by former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, he said.

Furthermore, contestants need not agree with the essay’s premise. “We’re not asking anyone to take sides. We’re asking people to bring their perspective to the issue… We didn’t put out the contest to generate one side of the story.”

*   *   *

Meanwhile, B’nai Brith Canada (BBC) called on schools and universities to refuse to participate in the essay contest. The contest “is based on the false assumption that the Jewish presence in the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland is illegal,” and is “a blatant propagandistic initiative that distorts reality, deligitimizing the existence of the Jewish state in any shape or form.”

“The contest, directed at Canadian youth, intentionally distorts reality and serves only to engender hate against Israel, its Jewish citizens and supporters here in Canada… We call on Canada’s academic establishment – from heads of universities to faculty members and trustees and directors of school boards – to issue clear directives to staff that the contest… is contrary to the equity and human rights policies of these institutions.”

The BBC news release was followed by one from the three essay sponsors, who condemned BBC’s “scurrilous attack.”

“This call to shutdown academic research and free speech is typical of B’nai Brith’s contempt for the basic principles of academic institutions. These tactics of intimidation are becoming an all too common refrain of pro-Israel organizations and are simply designed to stem the growing public awareness of Israel’s apartheid policies.”

On a related matter, Len Rudner, director of community relations for Canadian Jewish Congress, said a new organization, High School Students Against Israeli Apartheid, was created last month at Israeli Apartheid Week, an annual event held on university campuses.

Congress is concerned that “outside agents provocateurs” would attempt to radicalize high school students and create “a hostile and harassing environment for students who are Israeli, or pro-Israel or who don’t agree with the Palestinian narrative.”

Congress has brought its concerns to the attention of Ontario school boards and has asked Jewish agencies across the country to do the same in their regions.

“This is not about the right of students to pick sides but about the potential of people with no business in the schools of mixing in the schools,” Rudner said.

These people, he continued, are promoting a political agenda “and don’t have the welfare of the students at heart but want to turn the schools into incubators for radical politics at the universities,” he said.