Selina Robinson is mulling her future after quitting the B.C. NDP over its ‘silence’ on antisemitism

Selina Robinson
Former B.C. cabinet minister Selina Robinson returns to the Legislature on March 13 for the first time since she quit the NDP on March 6, 2024. (Ellin Bessner photo)

It’s been a week since Selina Robinson scorched her premier and former B.C. NDP colleagues for their “silence” after Oct. 7, and for the way they’ve treated the prominent Jewish politician ever since. Robinson quit the governing party on March 6—the day of her 60th birthday—releasing a blistering five-page letter.

Robinson said she was heartbroken, but felt compelled to leave when her premier, David Eby rejected her “too political” offer to host a bridge-building initiative between Muslims and Jews. He’d already fired her from her cabinet post as the minister responsible for post-secondary education back in February.

Her troubles began when she participated in a live webinar hosted by B’nai Brith in January, wherein she described pre-1948 Israel as a “crappy piece of land” without an economy. Despite issuing two long apologies and offering to take anti-Islamophobia training, the premier declared she had “screwed up” too badly.

Since the controversy began, she’s received a death threat that forced her to leave Canada for a while. Her constituency office was vandalized with posters comparing Zionism to Nazism. But Robinson vows she won’t be cancelled so easily.

Selina Robinson sat down with The CJN Daily ahead of Wednesday March 13, the day she sits in the provincial legislature for the first time as an independent MLA representing her Coquitlam-Maillardville riding in Vancouver.


Selina Robinson: “They don’t even understand that Israel was, was offered to the Jews who were, who were misplaced displaced. So they have no connection to how it started. They don’t understand that it was a crappy piece of land with nothing on it. You know, there were, you know, several hundred thousand people. But other than that, it didn’t produce an economy.
It didn’t have…

Ellin Bessner:

That’s the voice of Selina Robinson, the former Minister of Post Secondary Education in British Columbia. Now I say former because as you’ve heard by now, she got fired by her premier from cabinet following the uproar over those comments which she made during a B’nai brith webinar at the end of January.
Although Robinson apologized at least twice and offered to take anti-Islamophobia training it wasn’t enough to calm the firestorm of criticism which she and the NDP government received from Palestinian groups, Imams, First Nations communities, academics and teachers unions.
The heat got so bad, protesters vandalized her constituency office with signs that said “Zionism is Nazism.”
She received a death threat and that convinced her to leave town and go to Mexico for a few days for safety reasons. While she was away, Robinson says she tried to reach out to the premier, Dave Eby, and offer her qualifications as a trained social worker to head up an official government bridge-building effort between Jews and Muslims in the province.
She heard nothing until last week when her idea was rejected for being “too political”.
That was the final straw and Robinson celebrated her 60th birthday by returning to the B.C. legislature and quitting the NDP caucus where she sat for over 10 years. And boy, did she tear a strip off of them.
She penned a scorching five page letter detailing all the incidents of antisemitism that she’s experienced over the years from some of her caucus MLAs and even more since October 7th.
But their silence was the most heartbreaking.

Selina Robinson:
I guess I’m, I’m saddened that I had to leave caucus in order for the premier to pay attention because I feel like I’ve been screaming into the abyss now for five months.

Ellin Bessner:
I’m Ellin Bessner and this is what Jewish Canada sounds like for Wednesday, March 13th, 2024.
Welcome to the CJN Daily, a podcast of The Canadian Jewish News sponsored by Metropia.

Selina Robinson first served in office as a city councillor in Coquitlam and then was elected as an NDP MLA where she served for the last 11 years, holding four important cabinet posts including Minister of Finance. She joined the NDP because she believes in “Tikkun Olam. And over the years, she’s been in the headlines for fighting for the rights of surrogate mothers and for gay rights. She’s also been a strong Jewish voice at the B.C. legislature.
She helped to get B.C. to support the IHRA definition of antisemitism and to make Holocaust education mandatory.
Critics say her “crappy piece of land” comments were offensive because they denied the historic ties of many Muslim and Christian communities to the land pre-1948.
And they felt her comments just reinforced the narrative that Jews are settler colonialist.
But that wasn’t the only reason people wanted her gone.
They felt her words were racist against First Nations too when she said “regular people” shouldn’t mix into internal disputes between different Indigenous communities.
Still others felt it was inappropriate for her as minister responsible for universities and colleges to have requested the firing of that Langara College professor Natalie Knight who had openly praised Hamas’s massacre in Israel on October 7th and indeed she was eventually canned.

But Jewish groups say there’s a double standard playing out here.
And they point to what happened when Premier Eby’s staff tweeted out a message on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day showing only support for people impacted by Islamophobia and saying nothing about Jews or the Holocaust.
His apology to the Jewish community was accepted.

Robinson is taking her seat later today in the B.C. legislature for the first time. But on the opposition benches: she’s sitting as an independent MLA.
She wants to finish out her term representing the constituents in the Coquitlam area until the next election this fall.
She joins me from her home to tell us what the past seven weeks have been like for her.

First of all, welcome to the CJ N Daily. It’s an honour to meet you.
What was your worst experience with antissemitism as a younger person before this all happened?

Selina Robinson:

So I you know, growing up in Montreal really in a very protective Jewish community, even though I went to public school and participated in very public secular life, I didn’t experience any anti-semitism.
Although my Dad told stories about, you know, going to synagogue as a young boy, growing up in Montreal and getting beat up for wearing a kippah and, and walking to school, but I’d never experienced anything until I moved to Richmond in 1978.
And a next door neighbour, don’t know how he knew we were Jewish, but decided to put a sign in his kitchen window that we could see from our kitchen window that said “Jews aren’t welcome here.”
And it was just stunning, absolutely stunning, shocking.
That was probably the most blatant.

Ellin Bessner:
What did you do about it? What did your parents do about it?

Selina Robinson: You know what? I don’t remember. I think they were shocked.
I think they may have called the police. The police went and knocked on the door and just told them to take down the sign and we were just told to stay away from the next door neighbour and which we did, like, willingly.
And then I didn’t experience any other form of antisemitism really until I went to school in Richmond. And I remember getting docked marks because I missed a bunch of P.E. classes for the Jewish holidays,

Ellin Bessner: Physical education, for those younger people who don’t know what PE is.

Selina Robinson: And my Dad having to go to school to explain that the reason I wasn’t in school is because it was a Jewish holiday. Like, you can’t dock someone for taking their holidays. And so he won that fight. And the other one was back in 1978. The Richmond school board still had the Lord’s Prayer every morning and I very openly identified Jewish my entire life. And so it’s like this is really weird. I’d never experienced that in the public schools in Montreal. And so the teacher would say, well, “Given that you’re Jewish” and then would point to the kid who was Sikh, who was a baptized Sikh. So he had a turban on his head.
He’d say “Given that you’re Sikh, the two of you could go stand in the hall while we do the Lord’s Prayer”, somehow thinking that that made us more comfortable.

But in fact, it was the exact opposite. It targeted us, it shamed us and truth be told, they were saying the Lord’s Prayer out on the Public Address system so you heard it in the hallway. It didn’t make a difference.

But it was again, one of those things where you’re different and we’re going to let everybody know how different you are and, and shame you in some way.

Ellin Bessner: That was then. And now living in B.C., you once told “The Jewish Independent”, one of our colleague papers, before your 2017 election, that the Jewish values are NDP values.
If you remember these words “they’re in our Kishkes”.

Selina Robinson: I have to say in so many ways, I still believe that, right? For me what drives me in leadership roles always has and even from when I was in B’nai Brith and you know, whatever work I was doing, I was a BBYO chapter president, I mean, all that was this value of Tikun Olkam, to heal the world. It is what propels me, it’s what drives me every day.
There are days when I wish it didn’t because it’s exhausting to feel compelled to continually try to repair the world.

You see the pain and you want to address it and I do believe that New Democrats are keyed into that in many, many ways I think. And this has become more apparent to me that I don’t think people understand the Jewish experience and antisemitism.
I don’t think New Democrats understand it. This is a blanket statement and that’s never fair.

Ellin Bessner: There’s very high profile Jewish people in the NDP at all levels. And historically too,

Selina Robinson: It’s the subtle ways in which we recognize that there are people hurting and there’s one group of people that appear to be hurting another group of people, and rather than looking at a more complex and more nuanced way to say, “How is it that these people continue to hurt each other? And how can I help heal that rather than point fingers or accuse?
Because what we’re seeing right now where there’s these accusations such as “You’re bad.”

“No, you’re bad.”
“Well, you started it.”
“No, you started it.”

It’s like we are not going to solve this by doing that. And that’s the part that I guess disappoints me the most about my colleagues. It’s when, you know, my last straw in terms of considering myself a New Democrat, is that if we can’t rise above these accusations, if we can’t commit ourselves to working together with these two communities that are in agony, they are in agony, they are weeping every day, how is it that we can call ourselves New Democrats?

Because to me, that’s not the party that I signed on with. We have a different kind of responsibility.And that to me was the biggest disappointment.

Ellin Bessner:

You asked when you came back from your vacation in Mexico to try to do some healing work with these two communities you just mentioned and you offered the premier yourself to do a kind of a project to bridge the gap and have conversations. Can you walk me through what you offered to do and why you thought that you could be best placed to do this work?

Selina Robinson:

So what you call the vacation wasn’t a vacation.
There was a lot of heat directed my way.
A lot of I’ll say trash talk on social media.
I had a credible death threat.
And for me, it was about getting out of Dodge.
I needed to go away.
Firstly for safety, but also to just get some distance, it wasn’t a vacation, it didn’t feel anything like a vacation.
But it was actually I called the premier from Mexico.
I was in Mexico and I called him from there and said I have an idea.
I want you to think about it.
I think really what communities need, what these communities need, is a space to come together, they need leadership to help them do that.
I have really good relationships.
Of course, here with the Jewish community here in British Columbia, I’m well respected.
I know that I can bring my community along, and identify folks who want to do this work really at a grassroots, as well as at a leadership level.
I think we can make this work.
I have committed to reaching out to Muslim Arab, Muslim leadership in particular.
And I want to be able to engage with them and start to see this notion of how do we help each other heal?
How do we use compassion and empathy and understanding to bridge the gap that we see that is only pushing us further and further away.
So how do we bring Canadian values of living together peacefully in harmony and support?
And that’s what I pitched to the premier who two weeks later as we flushed out a little bit more what that could look like, including antisemitism training and anti-Islamophobia training for the caucus.
I was told it was too political. You know, when the Premier’s chief of staff tells you, you believe it’s from the premier himself,

Ellin Bessner: Don’t call us. We won’t call you. Go away.

Selina Robinson:

It was really go away. This isn’t on our agenda.
There is an election coming up in October and I can appreciate that, you know, government has a message and a political party has work to do to make sure that they’re re-elected.
What saddened me is that this is about governing, right?
This was an opportunity to do the right thing for two communities that are being pit against each other. I think there’s other other players here who are continuing to drive this.

Ellin Bessner: Professors from universities. Left wing Jews, the Indigenous community, Abu Lewis and his wife?

Selina Robinson:
So, so I think there’s lots of folks out there who are driving it, who are driving a wedge who are relishing in that.
And it’s the wrong approach.
That is not, it’s not who we are as Jews.
First of all, I don’t think it’s who we are as Canadians.
And in my conversations with Arab Muslims, that’s not what they want either, right?
They too want to find peace and a path that we can come together to me, that’s what I signed up for as an ML A and as a leader to me, that’s Tikun Olam, that’s about repairing the world and that’s not what what we’re seeing happen. And so, if my government and my party weren’t interested in doing that work, if they were more interested in driving a wedge or being silent about what was happening because it was more silence that I was noticing, ignoring the problem, it’ll go away.
That’s not acceptable to me because leadership is takes courage and it’s about not being silent and I didn’t want any part of that.

Ellin Bessner: I want to unpack two things.
You just mentioned. We go back to two things.
First of all, the death threat.
Are you getting extra security?
What is happening with the safety of yourself and your family for that?

Selina Robinson:

Thanks, thanks for for checking on that. The death threat. We, I mean, we reported it, we have legislative security, of course, and I will say over the last number of years, I mean, I’ve been an ML A for almost 11 years.
It’s really in the last few years that we’ve seen elevated violence towards elected officials that is problematic.
I think it’s dangerous. It erodes our democracy.
And again, I think there are other actors that are fuelling that.
So for me personally, I’ve got a little bit of extra security at my community office because it was vandalized.
We have you know, a bit of extra police monitoring, not just for me, but for my staff, I think people need to recognize that my staff are also under threat, but your family and yourself personally.

Ellin Bessner: Are you going with escorts and things?

Selina Robinson: No, it’s not at that.
And you know, but my husband, you know, we have a bat in our bedroom, he has a bat in the closet.
I mean, it has real impact, it has real impact on your emotional well being when people, when people march around with signs calling for your head.
I mean, that was at the NDP convention just to give you an example at the NDP convention, the BC NDP convention, which was very stressful for me because I was very concerned about the kind of resolutions that were going to be coming out of various electoral districts.
There were a number of my colleagues, as well as the premier, you know, we had a strategy for how to manage that and we, we were able to work with it.
They were able to work with me in the Jewish community to create a balanced resolution about looking for a cease fire.
You know, Hamas, giving up its terrorism acts, releasing hostages.
Really, it was a call for peace.
It was a call for peace in all sides to really down to all right.
But we’re a sub national government.

We’re provincial in nature.
We don’t have any international expertise.
We don’t do international work.
There was no call for what’s happening in the Congo or in Chad or in any other international conflict.
Only this one. This is the only one which always says, well, so what’s that about?
But there were people outside calling for my death as a Jew and I was named and nobody said anything, nobody said a word.
They, nobody, nobody said a word and I just said, I can’t be there the day that the resolution was being debated.
I just said, I’m not going, I’m not going.
I don’t need to hear that.
It’s too painful but nobody said a word.

Ellin Bessner:
Would you be able to compare, I don’t know if that’s a fair word, but we have to talk about Annamie Paul and let’s talk about other progressive Jewish women leaders in Canadian left wing politics. They were with the Green Party nationally who got drummed out by their own people. They didn’t give her experience any credibility as a Jewish woman.
Never mind Jewish black woman. And similar things are happening to you.
What message does this send to women who want to get into public life who are Jewish in Canada?

Selina Robinson: So I’ll even one up that. They put George Heyman out last week to somehow contradict on International Women’s Day.

Ellin Bessner: What did you think that when they put out the other Jewish person in long time service in BC on the day that you went public?

Selina Robinson: So let’s talk about, I mean, talk about Shanda, right?
Talk about a shame for anyone.

You know, it’s like people can have their lived experience, but we’re going to demonstrate that you’re wrong because we’re going to put somebody else up, a man who comes from the same background.
So I think it’s important to qualify, I live my life as a Jew every day.
I light the Shabbat candles.
I post it on Facebook, I make Challa, I post it on Facebook.
People love it.
In fact, people will reach out to me to say Selina we didn’t see you post non Jewish people.
We didn’t see you post for two weeks is everything OK?
I do the holidays.
My kids are raised Jewish.
They have strong Jewish identities.
I’ve lived in Israel.
Like I live my life.
I’m connected to the Jewish community.
I can name all the rabbis.
I’m connected to all the different organizations.
George Heyman lives a very different life.
He doesn’t identify as a Jew.
Yes, he’s born to Jewish parents.
His parents are Holocaust refugees.
His own sister sent me a letter, as an MLA. His own sister basically saying that what my colleague, Mabel Elmore said in November was antisemitism.
She didn’t acknowledge that the reason that IDF forces are in Gaza was because of the perpetration of terrorism on Israeli soil on October 7th.
And so George’s own sister was, was calling out antisemitism by one of my, by one of our shared colleagues.
So it was really the, I think it was the worst of the worst.
So believe all women except Jewish women, it was more of that same.

Ellin Bessner: And what about public life now as a place for Jewish women in Canadian politics?
You’re sort of the next canceled person.

Selina Robinson:
Well, we’re Jewish women so we’re gonna persist.
And we have to persist and we can’t, we can’t let our voices be silent.
We just can’t.
And that’s why I mean, I could choose to go away quietly not to do this podcast, not, not do all the media that I have been doing pretty much solid for the last week.
because it’s not ok, it’s not ok for us to not be believed or to be heard.
And so I want to encourage Jewish women to rise up.
We are good at that.
And we need to persist.

Ellin Bessner:
So you’re saying that there’s an election, you’re sitting as an independent, but that’s it for you in public life as far as election, elected public life of October. What will it look like for you after that?

Selina Robinson: That’s a good question.
And I think it’s important for your listeners to know that I decided to not run.
I was 50/50 last summer.
And then by December, I had called the Premier and said, listen, you know, I’m going to be 60.
And I’ve given a total of about 16 years to public life as an elected person for city council and then as MLA, my Dad is getting older.
And I want the flexibility to just spend time with him. Being an elected official, means other people are in charge of your calendar and I want to be in charge of my calendar. My kids,
I hope, one day, will make me a bubbie.
I am like “From my mouth to God’s ears.”
I should only be a bubbie, so I want to be around for that. And I did say to the premier in December and since October 7th caucus hasn’t been the same for me. and that helped sort of push it over the edge for me. because it was just too hard, too emotionally challenging.

It’s like I can’t keep fighting this battle. I was losing energy for it and, the premier didn’t say anything. I mean, he did say, I mean, sorry we’re going to lose you.
You know, you’ve been a good voice in caucus but he didn’t say anything about, he wasn’t curious about why it was hard in caucus. What was going on? What could he do?
I mean, he’s publicly saying “Wish she’d come to talk to me.”

But I did, I did let him know it wasn’t the same caucus for me. But he didn’t, he didn’t, he wasn’t curious, he didn’t seem interested.
And so again, it was one of those things like, oh, so this doesn’t matter to you. And so my thought was, and I don’t know what the future looks like. We never do.
I never thought I would be a politician.
Never in my life did I think that this would be what I would do.
So I’m always open to, you know, what comes my way, what are the opportunities?
I’m not ready to sit, you know, and knit and, you know, make baby booties and do that.
I have lots to contribute. I did promise my husband that I wouldn’t take on any commitments until 2025. So stay on as the MLA till the writs are dropped in mid-September and I’ll take the Fall to figure out what I want to do. Maybe take up pickle ball. Everyone’s raving about it, you know.

Ellin Bessner: Did you know B’nai Brith has hidden or scraped the video off their website where you did the that Zoom. I don’t know if you’re aware that they took it off.

Selina Robinson:

Well, I’m glad that they did but I have to say how disappointed I was when they didn’t back me. They ran that first week when things went viral.
B’nai Brith said, I mean, I got right off Twitter but I’ve had a number of people say that on Twitter. They said that they didn’t support my comments and I think that was a Shanda as well.
I think B’nai Brith failed me and failed the Jewish community. Very disappointed.

Ellin Bessner: The premier did say recently that he’s going to double down now that he realizes, he had come to Come to Jesus moment, to say that in a nice way: Oh, there is systemic anti-semitism and here’s some examples that I’ve just discovered.
So I’m going to do better and see if I can fix it. How does that sit with you? I mean, it could be legit.

Selina Robinson: For five months, I have been bringing this to government’s attention.
I have been handling anti-semitism on campus, which we all know is one of the worst places I was and it’s beer that I was the minister responsible because I’ve been able to talk to the presidents, meet with them, remind them of their responsibility to keeping campuses safe.
Some have been more effective than others.
I’ve been able to work with Deborah Lyons on this as the special envoy on Holocaust remembrance and anti-semitism.
I’ve been able to reach out to Steven Lecce, who is the Minister of Education in Ontario.
Stephen has been a fabulous resource for me and saying I need your help.
Can you can, can you call a meeting of all of the Ministers of Education so we could talk about this.
And so I was a pretty strong voice and, and had, and have clarity about what needs to happen on campuses,, and how we need to work together across the country.
And, I guess, you know what’s frustrating is I was doing that work.
The premier is now saying we need to be doing that work.
It’s like, but I was the one doing the work and you thought I was a liability.
And so I guess it saddens me, because, I don’t know where the leadership is going to come from.
I don’t know that my colleague, the woman Lisa Beare who’s now the minister responsible for post-secondary education.
She was one of those people who sent me heart emojis.
I mean, she’s a nice person.
She cares about me.
I get that. She sent me this heart emoji. And I said, “Lisa, I don’t need your heart emoji.
I need you to stand up to antisemitism.” And her response back to me was “We always do”.
And I thought, no, “We don’t, you don’t know. You have no idea what’s going on.”
You know, another example, Ellin, was after I left caucus.
Now the Opposition hadn’t been at all challenging government on antisemitism at all.
Until I left. And the Opposition asked the premier or asked the minister for post secondary education about what the AMS’s (Alma Mater Society at UBC) proposed resolution on canceling Hillel House, canceling Hillel’s lease.

Ellin Bessner: AMS would be the the campus club, the student society.

Selina Robinson: So there was this 1000 person petition calling on the AMS society to have a resolution, a multi pronged resolution, to cancel the lease of Hillel House. Hillel House had been there for decades as s refuge for Jewish students and others.
Lots of folks go to Hillel House for the good food. And I was horrified, I was absolutely horrified at the antisemitism had now switched into not just about a conflict in Gaza but was now around cancelling outJewish presence on campus, how it needed to be disappeared.

And when the Opposition asked the question of government and the Premier stood up and first said, ‘Well, it’s illegal, first of all. It’s illegal because it’s discrimination and I have faith that the AMS leadership executive will deny the resolution hitting the floor, won’t accept the resolution.”
And then he sat down and again, my heart sank because he didn’t call it antisemitism. And he didn’t talk about the impact of the Jewish community.

It was a Jewish community that was putting out the call and it was going to be up to the Jewish community if it should come to pass, because it was illegal. Who’s going to, who’s gonna lay charges, who’s gonna call the police, who’s gonna sue the AMS?

It’s gonna be the Jewish community where’s government’s voice in this.

And so even then the premier and the government did not see that they had a voice here that they had to call it for what it was and that they have a role to say this is not acceptable.

Ellin Bessner:
When do you go into the legislature?

Selina Robinson:

I did have (vacation) leave, when I had to get leave to do my birthday weekend: I went skiing, which was fabulous. So I wasn’t planning to be in the legislature until tomorrow.
So I’m going to be there tomorrow, I’ll be taking my new seat in the House tomorrow morning, tomorrow afternoon.

Ellin Bessner:
Are you bringing anything? Are you going to do anything?

Selina Robinson: I don’t, I don’t know, I’m just going to go into the chamber and see what happens. I’m going to take my seat like I still, I represent the people of Coquitlam-Maillardville.
I proudly represented them for almost 11 years. They’ve been incredibly supportive, the people that I represent.
I’ve gotten lovely emails and cards. I had someone deliver blue and white roses to me this weekend. A non Jewish person, right?
Just to say thank you for all of your years of service.
So people have been incredibly generous and I have been incredibly touched by people.
It’s been hard but I have a job to do and I’m going to keep doing it because I love it.

I loved the gift of representing people, of making a difference in my community and in my province.
And what’s happened to me as a Jewish person doesn’t take away all the good work that I was able to deliver for people here in British Columbia.

Ellin Bessner: And that’s what Jewish Canada sounds like for this episode of The CJN Daily, sponsored by Metropia: Integrity, Community Quality and Customer Care.

Although Robinson accused B’nai Brith during our conversation of not having her back and of failing her after they’d invited her on to their Zoom webinar, I checked the Twitter feed and I couldn’t find any examples of the organization critical of her words. [Ed. Note: B’nai Brith was quoted in several media outlets after her firing, distancing themselves from the words she had said during their webinar Jan. 30, 2024]

I did find one post where they said they were outraged over Jewish politicians’ offices being vandalized and named her specifically as an example. And just to clarify one more part of our conversation, when Robinson talked about feeling betrayed by her fellow Jewish NDP MLA George Heyman.

That’s because he made a point of speaking to reporters the very next day after Robinson quit the caucus to say he had never experienced antisemitism from within the NDP.

Thanks for listening to The CJN Daily.

As always, you can write to me at [email protected] and let me know what you think of this interview.

What we talked about

  • Read about the B.C. Jewish community’s outrage after Selina Robinson got fired from cabinet, in The CJN and here.
  • Watch the controversial remarks which Selina Robinson made on Jan. 30, 2024, during her webinar with B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights
  • Read the full text of Selina Robinson’s resignation letter from the B.C. NDP caucus


The CJN Daily is written and hosted by Ellin Bessner (@ebessner on Twitter). Zachary Kauffman is the producer. Michael Fraiman is the executive producer. Our theme music is by Dov Beck-Levine. Our title sponsor is Metropia. We’re a member of The CJN Podcast Network. To subscribe to this podcast, please watch this video. Donate to The CJN and receive a charitable tax receipt by clicking here. Hear why The CJN is important to me.