Doorstep Postings: The apartheid gap in how Canadian activists talk about Israel compared to their home on native land

The Toronto Sun, March 5, 2023.

This is a special edition of Doorstep Postings, the periodic political commentary column written by Josh Lieblein for The CJN.

Many of us in the Jewish community are aware of the ongoing efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state in Canada.

To wit, the attempt to normalize the idea that Israel is not just a country headed by an “extreme right-wing government”—as if any government would be acceptable. Or that there exists a minority of violent settlers—as opposed to the entire country being a violent settler-colonialist enterprise—who carry out the intentions of that government.

Criticism of the State of Israel leads to the suggestion that it should not, or should never have, been there. 

However, because the delegitimization of the State of Israel has particular implications for Jews here in Canada, we tend to forget that this very old game isn’t the only game in town.

A parallel track of delegitimization exists and has different implications for everyone who lives here too. I speak, of course, of the efforts to paint Canada itself as a racist, imperialist, settler-colonialist society that has no more right to exist than Israel does. 

Being aware of the relative progress of these two initiatives, as well as their points of overlap and departure, raises a whole host of very interesting and provocative questions that are asked far too rarely, in my personal opinion. 

For example, when Canadians hear calls for “land back” from Indigenous activists, their minds do not immediately go to Israeli settlements. Indeed, if you were to go into Canadian polite society and try to make the case that Montreal be ceded back to the Kanien’kéha Nation, you would get some very funny looks. Canadian reserves are not usually spoken about in the same way that refugee camps are.

We condemn calls to liquidate Huwara, but talking about violence perpetrated by Canadian police seems to be a harder sell. If someone were to suggest that the Canadian practice of land acknowledgements be incorporated as a way of keeping peace in Israel, it might unite both sides of the conflict in condemnation. Ask a white Canadian in the middle of a rant about Israel being an apartheid state whether Canada also merits that classification, and there is a better-than-average chance that they will stop with their mouths hanging open. (Try it! It really works!)  

One might argue that the situations of the two countries are not exactly the same, but two things are undeniable: the Israel-delegitimizers and the Canada-delegitimizers are deeply aware of what they can and cannot say in both cases—and in both cases they are trying ever-so-subtly to expand the window of what can be said. 

Once we have done this mental warm-up, we are in a much better position to address the flap over yet another NDP candidate and Ontario MPP hopeful who’s made a particular point of going after Israel.

Instead of trying to nail disability advocate Sarah Jama over her attendance of a rally where they chanted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and her posing with a sign saying “Black lives don’t matter in Israel,” we can simply ask whether the New Democrats would have approved her if she’d been as vocal about delegitimizing Canada.

It’s been a week or two since singer Jully Black was condemned by all sides for calling Canada “our home on native land.” If Jama had held up a sign saying “Black lives don’t matter in Canada,” what would the NDP have done? And if Jama is less willing to delegitimize Canada than she is Israel, well, that just raises further questions, doesn’t it?

You can also apply this framework to the efforts of your friendly neighbourhood Jewish organizations, if you so choose.

They were very quick to act when a strange poster appeared in downtown Toronto, trying to normalize the idea that anti-Zionism wasn’t antisemitism. It was illegally inserted into two ad pillars owned by Astral Media.

A billboard can’t talk back, so down it went. But Jama’s views on Israel were well known for years, and I happen to know a few orgs were trying to get the word out about them, with quite a bit more resistance.

Again: why can you get away with one, but not the other?

We won’t get an answer, but we do know this: When people who want to erase both countries talk about those countries in a different way, it says more about them. 

Josh Lieblein can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Doorstep Postings.