Whither the NDP, now that it would sanction Israel?

It has come to pass that the official policy of a major political party in Canada is to sanction Israel. At their meeting in April, delegates to the New Democratic Party’s virtual convention voted to approve Resolution 04-10-20, headed “Justice and Peace in Israel-Palestine,” found under “Redefining Canada’s Place in the World” in the party’s platform.

The resolution charged that Canada and Israel “trade millions in arms facilitating an illegal occupation,” and that the 24-year-old Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement “violates international law” and United Nations resolutions “by encouraging illegal settlements.”

The resolution calls on the NDP to work with partners for peace in Israel and Palestine, respect UN resolutions and international law, support peaceful co-existence in viable, independent states with agreed-upon borders, an end to “Israeli occupation of Palestinian land,” and an end to violence targeting civilians.

The kicker: New Democrats now believe in ending all trade and economic cooperation with “illegal settlements in Israel-Palestine” and in supporting an arms embargo against Israel “until Palestinian rights are upheld.”

Upon the resolution’s passage, Jewish advocacy groups slammed the NDP’s “toxic obsession” with Israel, which has become “pathological” and “unbalanced.” But for some observers, this was a natural place for the party to arrive at, given time and currents at that end of the waters. Others are scratching their heads – or shaking them. There have also been shrugs.

Being critical of or often hostile to Israel is nothing new in leftist circles. Or rather, it’s relatively new, given that Israel, at least in the first 30 or so years of its existence, was widely admired on the left for its Labour-Zionist underpinnings, successful agricultural collectives, and the Histadrut, the state’s muscular trade union movement.

To explore (briefly) how we got to the point where the NDP seeks to punish Israel, one would have to start with David Lewis, stalwart of the party’s predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, and a chief architect of the NDP, which he led from 1971 to 1975.

Lewis was a secular, Russian-born Jew with roots in the socialist Bundist movement, which opposed the Zionist ideal of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In his memoirs, Lewis acknowledged that as early as in 1938, he “personally never had any faith in the Zionist idea.” It was the Holocaust and “the dreadful tribulations of my people after Hitler came to power” that changed his mind, rendering his old arguments about the possibility or practicability of a Jewish homeland “irrelevant and out of date.”

Lewis did not become a vocal Zionist but he ceased being critical of Zionism. The survivors of Nazism, he reasoned, “were entitled to find a home where they would feel secure and free as Jews.”

He also acknowledged the luxury of commenting on Israel from the safety of Canada. Could he be so coldly objective, he wondered, “if I were a Jew living in beleaguered Israel rather than in safe and comfortable Canada?” This was “a wrenching and insoluble moral problem.”

In 1975, no less a Canadian social-democratic luminary than Tommy Douglas was much surer, declaring that Israel was “like a light set upon a hill – the light of democracy in a night of darkness.”

The CJN reached out to Ed Broadbent to get a sense of how he feels that the party he inherited from Lewis embraces sanctions against Israel. A staffer at his namesake Broadbent Institute in Toronto replied and asked what the subject matter was. When told, the response was that Broadbent was not available.

As for some of Broadbent’s successors, the news website Ricochet summed it up this way recently: “Under Jack Layton, the issue of ‘Palestine’ was a distraction to be avoided. Under Thomas Mulcair, it was an affront to the leader’s strongly held support for Israel. Under Jagmeet Singh, the party leadership seems mostly scared of the controversy.”

The grassroots attending the virtual NDP convention didn’t seem too scared when the Israel-Palestine resolution was endorsed by 33 riding associations and the party’s young wing, and approved by 80 percent of voting delegates.

Singh didn’t seem too concerned about the measure’s passage, saying that to find a solution to the Mideast conflict, “some pressure is required. And that’s something I support.” He rejected suggestions that this could open his party to accusations of anti-Semitism. “I have a really strong commitment to fighting anti-Semitism,” he said.

In 2016, while still an Ontario MPP, Singh was the sole voice to oppose a motion, which was adopted, to reject the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. He said he could not support a measure that “in effect, bans the right to dissent.”

For Jewish NDP member Noah Tepperman, approval of the party’s resolution on Israel represents frustration – “real frustration that Israel and Palestine are no closer to the goal of permanent, secure and recognized borders for two states than they were almost 20 years ago.”

A 47-year-old business owner from Windsor, Ont., Tepperman is also disappointed that delegates to the convention prioritized a resolution that simply amended “existing policy” over matters on which he says the party has no existing policy, namely, the genocide of the Uyghur people and China’s ongoing assault on Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

Even so, he still feels the NDP continues to be a “viable and meaningful option” for those Canadian Jews interested in issues that reflect Jewish values, including social justice, tikkun olam, and responsible support of both Israelis and Palestinians, “with democratic and independent states for each.”

Sam Hersh, a Montreal-based Jewish member of the NDP since 2013 who helped draft the Israel-Palestine motion, told The CJN soon after its passage that it simply builds on policies which are already “extremely popular” within the party, the labour movement and the Canadian population at large.

How accurate the latter is depends on who’s asking. Several surveys carried out for groups that support the BDS movement have suggested that far more Canadians have a negative view of the Israeli government than a positive one, and that Canadians overwhelmingly believe that sanctions against Israel are reasonable. On the other hand, one poll in 2014 found Canadians evenly split in their support for Israel (17 percent) versus Palestinians (16 percent), while 64 percent claimed neutrality.

Hersh said that to bring peace to the region, “we must apply more pressure on Israel with whatever diplomatic powers Canada has.” This includes boycotting products made in Israeli settlements and a freeze on arms sales.

As a “proud, queer Jewish progressive,” Jess Burke, a 28-year-old Jewish activist in Toronto, believes she can effect more change by engaging from within the NDP, but remains concerned about a small group of activists who “are blinded by their obsessive hatred of Israel and will stop at nothing – including splitting the party – to hijack the conversation to advance their agenda.”

Her primary concern was the “singling out of Israel with the intent to harm its security. When we examine the resolution and the language of its motivators, it becomes clear that it isn’t really about settlements or arms. It’s another shameful attempt at promoting BDS and antagonizing the vast majority of Jewish supporters of the NDP.”

And it made no sense for the resolution to be prioritized, she argued, noting that the resolution to support Uyghur Muslims placed eighth on the foreign policy agenda prioritization list.

As a descendant of Holocaust survivors, “I found that to be the convention’s greatest disgrace,” Burke said.

Burke sounded bitter but defiant: After volunteering with the NDP for years, she feels that her participation in progressive spaces is becoming increasingly contingent on checking an essential element of her Jewish identity at the door: her Zionism.

“I will never accommodate this form of erasive anti-Semitism,” she said, “and I won’t hang my Jewishness or Zionism at the door to make anti-Semites feel accommodated.”

How much Jewish support does the NDP have, anyway? The 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada found that about 10 percent of Canadian Jews identified with the party, and of those, only nine percent thought it was not supportive enough of Israel (47 percent said its support for Israel was “about right,” and 27 percent it was too supportive).

Jewish support also declines with age, the study suggested. Eighteen percent of respondents aged 18-29 said they support the party, compared to eight percent over the age of 74.

One interpretation of these findings is that young Canadian Jewish adults lean more to the left than do older Canadian Jews, “but are more likely to regard working for justice and equality in society as a universal human value rather than a distinguishing feature of Jewishness,” the survey suggested.

Tepperman believes his involvement with the NDP is actually an expression of Jewish values – “my commitment to justice, healing the world, charity and kindness to others, the importance of the sanctity of human life.”

As “painful” as they’ve been, his experiences leading up to and including the recent convention “have only highlighted just how necessary it is for people like me not only to stay with the party, but to be vocal, engaged and active.

“If not us, then who?” he asked.

Morton Weinfeld, a sociologist at McGill University and watcher of Jewish trends in Canada, believes the NDP’s new stance reflects the left’s shift away from support for Israel – not just politically, “but in the academy and the culture broadly.”

He believes the approved resolution could have been far worse, at least compared to the discourses on university and college campuses. As for whether the NDP’s posture has any political weight, it depends on whether the Liberals offer something even more critical, “which is unlikely. But who knows? This NDP vote is more likely a symptom rather than a cause.”

Winnipeg-based historian Allan Levine sees things in blunter terms: Even if the NDP, which hold the balance of power in Parliament, defeated the government over this or any issue, the odds of a future NDP government federally “remain slim as ever. The NDP can say what it wants about Israel,” Levine said. “They remain a third party.”

Montreal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, the new chair of the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group, is similarly certain that the NDP will have no influence “whatsoever” in Canada-Israel relations.

“We are in a minority Parliament but Liberal and Conservative members make up a large majority of seats and both parties are committed to supporting Israel and rejecting boycotts and sanctions,” Housefather said.

He feels the NDP now stands to alienate “a very large percentage of the (Jewish) community.”

But for Dr. Hal Berman, who was the NDP candidate in Toronto’s York Centre riding in the 2015 federal election, the party’s approval of sanctions against Israel represents no policy shift.

“This resolution merely focuses on one part of the party’s existing policy,” he said. “(It) does not change the NDP’s position, which calls for a peaceful negotiated settlement agreeable to both parties.”

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