Former Canadian Minister of Justice Cotler: ‘Calling Israel an Apartheid State is Not Antisemitic’

Professor Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian Minister of Justice and Chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Commission for Combatting Antisemitism, recently told Ha’aretz journalist David Sheen:

‘You can criticize an Israeli policy or action as having been not only a violation of human rights and humanitarian law but also, you could even say it was a war crime,’ the former Canadian justice minister said. ‘It may be, as I say, distasteful to see that, or witness that, but I don’t regard that as being anti-Semitic content. I think that that’s part of what is called rigorous criticism and discourse.’

‘Where you say that Israel is an apartheid state, even then – that to me is, it’s distasteful, but it’s still within the boundaries of argument’.

Cotler’s remarks seem to have been received in relative silence by the blogosphere and others who comment regularly on antisemitism. This is curious to say the least given that Cotler is probably the most significant and influential international figure in the propagation of the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’, a key example of which is calling Israel an ‘apartheid state’. That what Cotler now says is a fundamental change in his position is clear from his past articles and speeches. In an ‘Alert Paper’, New Anti-Jewishness, written for the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and published in November 2002, Cotler gave examples of ‘new antisemitism’ under 13 headings. Under the third, ‘Ideological antisemitism’, he wrote:

This finds expression not only in the ‘Zionism is Racism’ indictment – and the singling out of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and Israel’s ideological raison d’être, for discriminatory treatment – but the further criminal indictment of Israel as ‘an apartheid state,’ and the calling for the dismantling of this ‘apartheid state’ – a euphemism for Israel’s destruction.

Although he has never said that all critiques of Zionism are antisemitic, Cotler has avoided foregrounding this view. But in the Ha’aretz interview he is clearly keen to redress the balance. He says:

I think we’ve got to set up certain boundaries of where it does cross the line, because I’m one of those who believes strongly, not only in free speech, but also in rigorous debate, and discussion, and dialectic, and the like. If you say too easily that everything is anti-Semitic, then nothing is anti-Semitic, and we no longer can make distinctions . . .

I think it’s too simplistic to say that anti-Zionism, per se, is anti-Semitic. It may cross the line into being anti-Semitic where it ends up by saying, ‘Israel has no right to exist’, or ‘the Jewish people have no right to self determination’, or, that the Jewish people are not even a people.

I can imagine that many who have rightly seen the Canadian MP and law professor as the standard bearer for exposing the ‘new antisemitism’, and have lauded him for coining the phrase ‘Israel is the Jew among the nations’, will be bitterly disappointed by this change of mind. And at the moment they are keeping quiet about it.

But it comes at a very significant moment in the context of developments in the UK in relation to controversies surrounding definitions of antisemitism. Just during the last week a challenge has been mounted by the celebrity lawyer Anthony Julius, on behalf of Ronnie Fraser, against the University and Colleges Union for ‘institutional antisemitism’, following the Union’s highly controversial decision to reject the ‘working definition’ of antisemitism drawn up by the now superseded European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). More or less immediately after the vote at the annual congress of the UCU, the establishment bodies of the UK Jewish community, such as the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Zionist Federation, went into overdrive as they started a campaign to label the UCU as institutionally racist and demand that the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigate. They have received significant backing from politicians. And when the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, wrote an op-ed for the Jewish Chronicle, in which he attacked the UCU, this was taken as governmental support for the organized Jewish community’s stand. Lambasting the union for ‘boycotting visits by Israeli academics for a number of years’, Pickles argues that it’s not interested in securing freedom of speech but rather in silencing dissenting opinion. Various UCU decisions have ‘left many Jewish academics and students uneasy’.

When seen in this context, the latest resolution is in fact sending out a chilling message. It says that Jewish academics and students who perceive that they are being harassed or bullied should understand that they will be held to a different standard. It says that they should expect to be fair game for invective, and learn to live with feeling more vulnerable. Little wonder that the UCU has already seen many members of the Jewish faith, other faiths and none, vote with their feet and leave.

Julius’s letter to General Secretary Sally Hunt setting out UCU member Ronnie Fraser’s case against the UCU is written in the strongest terms. It accuses the union of breaches of the Equality Act 2010, threatens that unless a series of demands by Fraser are met – including the abrogation of the resolution rejecting the EUMC ‘working definition’ and a ‘commitment to sponsor a programme (for a minimum of ten years . . . ) educating academics concerning the dangers of anti-Semitism, with special reference to the relationship between anti-Semitism and what now passes for “anti-Zionism” ‘ – Fraser will make an Equality Act claim to the Employment Tribunal.

The letter is full of bombast and ridiculous hyperbole, and in places is just factually incorrect, but my concern here is not to analyse or critique the entire text. Rather, I simply want to draw attention to the fact that in two paragraphs listing the causes for Fraser’s complaint – i.e. the evidence of institutional antisemitism – the first item in each is the constant ‘anti-Israel boycott resolutions’, and it’s clear that the issue of boycott is a central bone of contention.

Whatever position you hold on boycotting Israel as a means of bringing pressure to bear on it to fulfil its international legal obligations, end the occupation and so on – and I have always opposed boycotting as a means of achieving this – it’s difficult to regard boycotting Israel as a priori antisemitic. Professor David Newman of Ben Gurion University, who spent two years in the UK as the Israeli universities’ official coordinator of the campaign against the academic boycott, was adamant in remarks he made before finishing this assignment that it was both wrong and counterproductive to fight the boycott proposals on the grounds that they are antisemitic. If it reaches the point where the UCU had to defend itself against charges of institutional antisemitism at a tribunal, citing Professor Newman alone would be a strong defence.

Now that Professor Cotler has so publicly concurred with David Newman, UCU have an even stronger voice to use in their defence. It wouldn’t surprise me if Julius tried to use Professor Newman’s often strong criticisms of the Israeli government and his very dovish position on Israel-Palestine peace as a way of discrediting his view on boycott, notwithstanding the incontrovertible fact that Newman is a Zionist, heart and soul. But such a tactic would be impossible to use against Professor Cotler whose record as a defender of the Israeli status quo is impeccable and whose efforts to embed the concept of the ‘delegitimization’ of Israel in the international consciousness have been long-standing and sustained.

It’s true that Cotler says: ‘It’s where you say, because it’s an apartheid state, it has to be dismantled – then you crossed the line into a racist argument, or an anti-Jewish argument. ‘ In other words, that’s when call for boycott becomes antisemitic. But there are two problems with this argument. First, it would be extremely difficult to prove that the Union as a whole, in voting for boycotting Israel, is therefore saying Israel must be dismantled. Second, even if a handful of people in the Union do believe that boycott should lead to the dismantling of the Israeli state, however far-reaching or shocking such a view might be, it also cannot a priori be deemed antisemitic. If such people were arguing that the Israeli state should be dismantled in order to construct a single secular democratic state in which Jews and Palestinians, and anyone else living in the state, were fully equal, you might charge them with extreme naivety in believing that such a goal is attainable, but it would be grossly unfair to assume that they were advocating the proposal in order to implement an antisemitic agenda of exclusion, demonisation, dehumanisation and so on.

Of course, the Julius letter carries other alleged evidence of institutional antisemitism and I am not commenting on them at this point. As I wrote in an earlier post, I’m not in a position to judge whether the UCU is entirely devoid of institutional racism or antisemitism. I have no doubt that the Union may have behaved insensitively in some way, but I confess that it seems far-fetched to me that a charge of institutional antisemitism could be made to stick. Certainly, there is something about the bullying and aggressive tone of Anthony Julius’s letter that suggests he is simply trying to humiliate the UCU, frighten it into making redress, rather than demonstrating a serious determination to take the matter to a tribunal. But I would not take this for granted for one minute.

Follow me on Twitter: @tonylerman

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2 Responses to Former Canadian Minister of Justice Cotler: ‘Calling Israel an Apartheid State is Not Antisemitic’

  1. The response below was posted earlier today but sent to the comment thread of the wrong post. Sent in the name of ‘guest’ from a Canadian parliament email address, it seems clear that it was sent on behalf of Professor Cotler and, I presume, either has appeared or will be appearing in the Ha’aretz newspaper:

    Cotler: “the indictment of Israel as an apartheid state is false, defamatory and hateful…”

    LETTER TO THE EDITOR OF HAARETZ

    Your headline in the article “Canadian MP Cotler: Calling Israel an apartheid state can be legitimate free speech“ – as well as the inappropriate juxtaposition of disparate comments – suggest that the indictment of Israel as an apartheid state can be legitimate free speech.

    As all of my writing, my talk at the President’s Conference and my follow up interview with Ha’aretz make clear: the indictment of Israel as an apartheid state is false, defamatory and hateful, but the right to be wrong, defamatory and hateful – however offensive it may be, can nevertheless be an exercise in free speech. Simply put, the fact that the indictment is hateful – and may cross the line into being anti-Semitic when it calls for the dismantling of the State – does not mean that we should prohibit the hateful speech to begin with.

    It means, as I said in the interview, that we need to engage it, expose it, rebut it and thereby “delegitimize the delegitimizers” – not prevent their delegitimizing speech to begin with.

    The main theme in my writings – and in the interview – was regrettably not referenced in the article itself: that the real concern is not the phenomenon of the delegitimization of Israel. That has always been with us – what is new, and particularly offensive, is the laundering of the delegitimization of Israel under all that which is good, for example: the struggle against racism, international law, human rights, and the like. The result is not only prejudicial to the State of Israel – as in the indictment of Israel as an apartheid state or the singling out of Israel for differential and discriminatory treatment in the international arena– but prejudicial to the case and cause of the struggle against racism and human rights.

    To label Israel an apartheid state demeans the real struggle against apartheid – in which I was honoured to be at the forefront – as much as it falsely misrepresents Israel, however one may criticize Israeli policy and practice.

    Irwin Cotler
    Montreal, Quebec, Canada

  2. Mark Elf says:

    Cotler’s visit to Israel and his statement to Ha’aretz appear to coincide with the publication of the “Report of the Inquiry Panel of the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism. http://www.cpcca.ca/CPCCA_Final_Report_English.pdf

    Dr Dawg’s Blawg comments on it here:
    http://drdawgsblawg.ca/2011/07/canada-awash-in-anti-semitism–report.shtml

    The panel report draws heavily on the EUMC working definition.

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