This short text was submitted to the Canadian Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism on August 31, 2009, the announced deadline for submissions. Although it seemed to me most unlikely (judging by the inflammatory statements contained in its invitation of public input), that the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism would invite people critical of its presuppositions to speak at its oral hearings, I thought it important to give them the chance to hear a scholarly presentation that would deal with matters of importance in combating antisemitism—the development of integrated anti-racist curricula, and data collection—as well as with issues raised by the CPCCA's own documents. I was not invited to make an oral presentation—and the CPCCA did not take the trouble of informing me of that fact until March 2010, after the conclusion of its oral hearings. This text has not previously been published.
August 31, 2009
Canadian Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism,
Room 440C, Centre Block, House of Commons, Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6
Dear Members of the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism,
I would be grateful if you could give consideration to the following remarks in your deliberations; they have been prepared specifically for the Inquiry. I should emphasize that I am writing to you as an individual, and not in connection with any organization. I have read widely on the subjects you will be addressing, and have touched on them in some of my published writings (most recently in a short essay, “Antisemitism in Canada, Part 1: A Disgraceful History,” published this month at the website of The Canadian Charger, a new online journal of commentary and analysis). However, I have no specialist scholarly expertise on these matters, and write merely as a concerned citizen.
Due to pressures of time, my comments here will have to move as rapidly as possible from one issue to another. Though I will number them for the sake of easy reference, no particular order of priority is intended by that numbering.
1. Combating antisemitism in Canada through education
An informed understanding of the horrors of the Shoah should be one of the central goals of any decent education system. I believe it is equally important for young Canadians to come to a critical awareness of the shameful history of antisemitism in our own country. There is a large body of excellent historical research on the subject. I would hope that the recommendations of the CPCCA’s Report will include detailed discussion of this subject, as well as of ways in which this material can be integrated in a wide-ranging anti-racist curriculum. The Canadian history I was taught as a child in the 1950s and early 1960s was stultifying. Our history should be taught in a manner that can, among other things, stimulate and develop children’s moral imagination.
2. Collection of data on antisemitic incidents
One of the tasks of the Inquiry will be to assemble and collate data on the prevalence of hate crimes and other antisemitic incidents in recent years.
I would recommend that the Inquiry follow the example in this regard of the Community Security Trust (CST) in Britain, which has been collecting such data since 1984. As is noted in the Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism (London, 2006), the CST does “not always accept the belief of a victim that an incident was antisemitic in the absence of some supporting evidence. In 2005 they rejected 194 reports of incidents which could not reasonably be shown to have been motivated by antisemitism” (paragraph 38).
A much looser standard was recommended by the U.K. Macpherson Report, which proposed defining a racist incident as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.” Such a definition is unacceptable because it does away with any requirement for supporting evidence. It is crucial that data on an issue of such importance must be subjected, as in what appears to be the practice of the CST, to scrupulous critical analysis.
3. Antisemitic intimidation on Canadian campuses
I would urge the Inquiry to recognize that while there have unquestionably been some recent cases of antisemitic intimidation on Canadian campuses, it is also the case, within the Canadian academy and elsewhere, that false and deceptive accusations of antisemitism have been deployed on a number of occasions as a means of intimidation.
Analysis of widely-publicized cases of purported antisemitic intimidation in American universities has in a significant number of instances revealed the complaints and accusations to be groundless; I can, if the Inquiry wishes, provide detailed citations on these matters. (The situation is in some respects analogous, I would note, to accusations and counter-accusations of intimidation current in the North American academy during the so-called “political correctness debates” of the 1990s. This is a matter on which I do possess expertise, since I gave this issue extended analysis in my 1996 book Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars.)
I find it a matter for regret that—prior to having conducted research on the matter—the CPCCA declares on its website that “On campuses specifically, Jewish students are being threatened and intimidated to the point that they are not able to express themselves or are even fearful to wear a Jewish skull cap or star around their necks.” I would be interested to know what evidence the CPCCA possesses that would justify a blanket statement of this kind. To the best of my knowledge (and I make efforts to keep myself informed on such matters), the statement is wholly inapplicable to my own university. It is, in my opinion, injudicious and inflammatory.
4. The question of a “new antisemitism”
Much has been written on this subject since the early 1970s—most of it, in my opinion, uncritical and tendentious. I would be happy to substantiate this claim in detail.
For the moment, I would urge the members of the Inquiry to give close attention to two recent critical analyses of claims regarding the existence and dissemination of a “new antisemitism”: John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (Toronto: Penguin, 2007), pp. 188-91; and Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 21-85.
I find objectionable the manner in which the CPCCA website in its “Frequently Asked Questions” asserts the existence of a “new antisemitism.”
The claim is made there that antisemitism, though an age-old phenomenon, “is always re-invented and manifested in different ways. For example, while accusations of blood libel are still being made against the Jewish people, instead they are being directed against the State of Israel, such that anti-Zionism is being used as a cover for antisemitism.”
I am familiar with historical scholarship on the blood libel (which, given its role in the legitimizing of countless massacres and pogroms, I regard as a matter of the utmost seriousness). I am aware that the blood libel has been resuscitated on some recent occasions in the Muslim world—one of these being a 2003 Syrian television series, Al Shatat (The Diaspora), which is mentioned in the U.K. Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism (paragraphs 95, 99). But I am not aware that this mention of the blood libel has any relevance to contemporary Canada. Does the CPCCA—once again, prior to having commenced the formal process of evidence-gathering—have information to the effect that Canadian antisemites have been circulating this disgusting calumny?
The sentence on the CPCCA website looks like a transparent attempt to identify criticisms of the widely-abhorred policies of the State of Israel as antisemitic.
5. Antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and criticisms of Israel
I will comment only briefly on this issue. In its “Frequently Asked Questions” section, the CPCCA website seeks to reassure readers who may suspect that the CPCCA “is really about limiting legitimate criticism of the State of Israel” by remarking that “dissent and opposition to individual actions of the Israeli government are both permitted and encouraged in and outside of Israel, just as political dissent is permitted and encouraged with respect to any democratic nation.”
What then are we to say about criticism not just of “individual actions,” but of long-term and entrenched policies of the State of Israel? The European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) states in its Working Definition of Antisemitism that “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” is antisemitic; “However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
I share these opinions only to the degree that I think that Canadians who are not also prepared to offer rigorous criticisms of our own country’s rapacious and unscrupulous treatment of First Nations people, and of Canada’s participation in gross violations of international law in our engagements in Afghanistan and Haiti, should out of decency if not shame keep their mouths shut on the subject of Israel’s behaviour. (I have, by the way, publicly made such criticisms of our country.)
Beyond this point, I would reject the EUMC’s position, on the grounds that Israel’s behaviour is not that “of any other democratic nation.” Israel is a nuclear-armed state, yet anomalous in that, with assistance from its Western allies, it participates in the fiction of not being one; it is not a signatory of the treaties which attempt to govern the behaviour of states possessing nuclear technology. Throughout the 1990s, Israel was accused by well-documented reports of human rights organizations of systematic, extensive and judicially-approved torture of Palestinians. And so on. I will spare you further details.
The point I would make is this. Some criticisms of Israel are undoubtedly hypocritical; some are also made by people who wish to seduce their listeners or readers into antisemitism.
But the issues of Zionism, antisemitism, and criticisms of Israel have been seriously muddied by the partisans of Israel, often in a way that betrays the great ethical traditions of Judaism.
I would hope that in engaging with these matters, the members of the Inquiry will seek guidance from writings by the best and most humane of contemporary scholars and critics. In addition to those I have already mentioned, these include, to my mind, such figures as Marwan Bishara, Jonathan Cook, Baruch Kimmerling, Michael Neumann, and Ilan Pappe.
Yours sincerely and respectfully,
Michael Keefer, D.Phil.,
Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph.
Former President, Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English.