Jewish groups wary of anti-Israel elements at Montreal event

The World Social Forum is held annually. This is the first year it's being held in a "northern" country.

Jewish groups are raising concerns about a large international gathering taking place Aug. 9 to 14 in Montreal, in particular the attention being paid to calls to boycott Israel and the presence of groups known to be inimical to the Jewish state.

The World Social Forum (WSF), being held for the first time in a so-called “northern” country, brings together civil society organizations from around the globe. It has been held annually since the first in Brazil in 2001. Last year it was in Tunisia.

Montreal was chosen because of the series of student protests here four years ago.

Among the headlines of this year’s edition is a call for “mobilization for a world without apartheid.”

While WSF bills itself as an opportunity to discuss the “most pressing social issues” and come to solutions through a democratic process, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is skeptical.

“The WSF is an annual gathering of some of the most radical and extreme elements within the global left,” said CIJA Quebec co-chair Patrick Benaroche. “Its agenda spans from legitimate issues such as the environment to conspiracy theories, far-left revolutionary ideologies and boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS, against Israel].

“As such, WSF merely provides the BDS movement with a meaningless opportunity to preach to those who already embrace the cause.”

In addition to programming for the close to 10,000 registrants, the WSF is offering numerous public events, including an “agora” in Jarry Park where participating groups can disseminate information. In all, some 1,500 activities are scheduled at various venues.

The WSF website lists the federal and Quebec governments and City of Montreal as “partners.” Among others named are the Université du Québec à Montréal and McGill University, as well as major unions.

David Ouellette, CIJA Quebec director of public affairs, said that the province, through the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, gave the event a $100,000 grant, under a program to promote Montreal’s image internationally.

He said it is “murky” whether Ottawa or Montreal contributed anything financially or in the form of co-operation.

“CIJA has called on all three levels of government to denounce and distance themselves from the one-sided, anti-Israel agenda and unacceptable anti-Semitic tone and content in the WSF’s program. We have also requested a meeting with the organizers to address our deep concerns,” he said Aug. 5.

Later that day, the government of Canada’s logo had been removed from the WSF’s website.

Liberal MPs Anthony Housefather of Montreal and Michael Levitt of Toronto together brought their concerns about the WSF to officials in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and requested that the government logo be removed.

“We are deeply concerned with a number of the sessions that are scheduled [at the WSF] and, in particular, we are disgusted by the blatantly anti-Semitic cartoons and images that appear on the WSF website,” they stated.

“The prime minister, the government of Canada and the Canadian Parliament have been very clear that we oppose the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and that anti-Semitism is never acceptable.”

(A particularly egregious cartoon with grotesque representations of presumably a Saudi Wahhabist being consumed by an American, who is, in turn, consumed by a stereotypical Jewish man that publicized a session on “Terrorism, Wahhabism, Zionism,” was removed from the website on Aug. 5.)

Housefather told The CJN that he could not track down any evidence that the federal government gave funding to the WSF.

“The only related contribution was from the Public Service Commission of Canada, which is an independent agency, which reportedly funded two students at some point,” he emailed Aug. 8.

Efforts to reach the province and the city for comment were unsuccessful.

More than 1,200 groups are listed as being represented at the WSF, some holding their own conferences within its framework. They range from well-known non-governmental organizations to the obscure, with strong representation from those with clear anti-capitalist aims.

CIJA takes wary note of the presence of the Center of Religious Dialogue for Peaceful Co-Existence, which has a history of excusing terrorism and castigating “world Zionism,” and the Global Campaign to Return to Palestine, which has expressed solidarity with the intifadah, as well as that of Palestine House, the Mississauga, Ont.-based organization that lost its federal funding in 2012 because of apparent support for extremism.

The Toronto-based Jewish Defence League (JDL) has vowed to protest at the gathering of Sabeel, a Jerusalem-based Palestinian Christian organization that claims to seek peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

In JDL executive director Meir Weinstein’s opinion, Sabeel is “pro-PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine]” and trying to get Canadian Christians to join the BDS campaign.

“It is incomprehensible that at a time when Christians are being massacred in the Middle East, that Israel and the Jewish people are being depicted as evil by these church organizations,” Weinstein wrote in a JDL newsletter.

Sabeel has a Canadian Friends support organization and, according to publicity it released, the United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches of Canada are co-hosts of the Montreal get-together, along with Canadians Against Israeli Apartheid and the Canadian Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid.

CIJA, however, is warning against confrontation with WSF participants.

“Their biggest victory would be in the attention we give them,” said CIJA Quebec co-chair Rabbi Reuben Poupko. “Counter-protests and campaigns against the conference would only succeed where the [BDS] movement itself has failed in securing a platform to expand the reach of their messaging to the mainstream.”

B’nai Brith Canada has also expressed alarm that the WSF is “promoting anti-Semitism” by giving a platform to those hostile to Israel.

It notes the website states that among the WSF’s “commitments” is “to exclude all people, organizations or activities that promote any kind of oppression, supporting Palestinians and all the people struggling for their emancipation and freedom.”

B’nai Brith thinks this is, effectively, a ban on the participation of Israelis or anyone who supports Israel.

At time of writing, The CJN had not received a response from WSF organizers to questions about the event’s funding and CIJA’s criticism from either the WSF media department or Pierre Beaudet, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies and a member of the WSF International Council, who has been a key figure in the 2016 event.

In response to a request for comment, WSF co-ordinators Raphael Canet and Carminda MacLorin emailed: “We wish to reiterate the 2016 WSF Collective’s commitment to creating an open and inclusive meeting space… It is especially important to reiterate this commitment considering the complex geopolitical situations that construct the relationships between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Even though it is not in its mandate to take a position on a specific cause, the collective reiterates the fact that all actors of civil society around the world that wish to participate in the WSF in a spirit of dialogue and peaceful search of solutions to the pressing issues of our time, all in the respect of the charter of principles of the WSF, are welcome.”