Canada 150 and 50 years of Israel’s occupation need sober reflection

A woman at a Toronto demonstration against the occupation of the Palestinian territories on the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War. sara marlowe FLICKR

Jews in Canada have two major anniversaries to consider this year. One – Canada’s sesquicentennial – is a cause for celebration, though with one important caveat. The other – the jubilee of Israel’s occupation (the 50th anniversary of Israel’s Six Day War) – is not.

Still, some will certainly celebrate the “unifying” of Jerusalem. (Israel annexed east Jerusalem after the 1967 war, but given that most of the city’s Palestinian residents in east Jerusalem are not citizens, it hardly feels like a unified city.)

In speaking of the terrible injustice that is 50 years of occupation, I hesitate to use the word “jubilee,” coming from the Old French word for “rejoice” and an earlier Hebrew formulation for “ram’s horn.” But 150 years of Canada and 50 years of Israeli occupation is what we have, and so 2017 deserves sober reflection.

In Canada, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine and University of Calgary law professor Kathleen Mahoney (Fontaine’s spouse) have identified a glaring hole in the narrative of Canada’s anniversary celebrations. In response, they’re trying to get the government of Canada to recognize Indigenous peoples as one of three founding peoples of Canada in time for the sesquicentennial. Their initiative, Recognition2Action, has a simple demand: “Put forward legislation clearly establishing Indigenous peoples’ status as founding nations of Canada by July 1, 2017.”


As Dammy Ogunseitan writes on the site’s blog, “Language trees like Algonquian, Athapaskan, and Inuktitut drove their roots into this land millennia before a word of English or French was spoken here.” Mahoney further explains, “In addition to being a human rights triumph, formal recognition that Indigenous peoples were partners in Confederation would provide irrefutable justification for inherent Indigenous rights, including self-determination, the protection and strengthening of Indigenous languages, cultures, legal traditions and institutions.”

There have been some informal steps made toward achieving this sort of recognition. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has enabled significant moves toward reconciliation and broad awareness. There has been vast curricular change since I was in elementary school, especially around Canadian pupils’ awareness of the shameful legacy of residential schools.

As well, the country’s only official study guide for the citizenship test, Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship, declares that Canada had three founding peoples: Aboriginals, the French and the British. But Recognition2Action is demanding legislative expressions as well.

Several weeks ago, when I attended a salon-style evening in Ottawa to hear Mahoney and Fontaine present their proposal, I posed a question: Would this kind of formal recognition foreclose future efforts at restitution? They said it would not. I have since signed on to the initiative.


In Israel, psychologist and peace activist Daniel Bar-Tal is marking the 50th anniversary of the occupation by launching Save Israel, Stop the Occupation (SISO).

Last month, SISO distributed The Jubilee Haggadah, edited by Tomer Persico. The text states: “In this 50th year, we must break free and set free, redeem ourselves and our neighbours from the house of bondage.” At the beginning of Maggid, the telling of the Passover story, Michael Lerner writes, “We have to get out of that narrow consciousness (Mitzrayim). Being ‘realistic,’ accepting ‘what is’ as the criterion of ‘what can be,’ is the essence of idolatry.”

As Jews, we may consider ourselves outside of the settler-colonial dynamics that defined early European settlement in Canada. For many of us, Canada was our safe haven. And as Canadian Jews, we might see Israel as exempt from political critique by those not living there. But we have a particular moral role to exercise in both places. In Canada, we can help forge justice for those on whose backs we landed. In Israel, we can help extend dignity to those who are oppressed by those who claim to speak in our name.