Canada's Mideast conflict
TheStar.com - Opinion - Canada's Mideast conflicthttp://www.thestar.com/comment/article/594424
Minister's threat crosses the line into wedge politics
March 01, 2009
Ripples from the Arab-Israeli conflict have always reached Canada. A war there usually meant a war of words here.
It was inevitable that the Israeli attack on Gaza would increase tensions between the Canadian supporters and critics of Israel.
This time, though, the debates seem nastier, and their impact wider on Canadian institutions and policies: universities, immigrant settlement programs, the issue of free speech vs. hate, etc.
As campuses gear up for Israel Apartheid Week starting tomorrow, there are fierce arguments over Israel's "right to defend itself" vs. its "war crimes," and also over what can or cannot be said on posters and T-shirts here. University officials are accused of muzzling speech or tolerating "intimidation."
Who's the greater culprit? That depends entirely on your view of the Middle East conflict.
Similarly, the solidly pro-Israeli stance of Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff has been applauded or condemned mostly on the basis of such polarized views. The two are either principled models of moral clarity, or they are "whores."
That appellation was used by Khaled Mouammar, head of the Canadian Arab Federation, at a Jan. 17 rally at the constituency office of Peter Kent, junior minister for foreign affairs, who had defended an Israeli attack on a UN-run school.
Mouammar said the Gaza conflict exposed two types of politicians: "Professional whores who support war, as (American author) Norman Finkelstein said in a speech at the U of T – people like Peter Kent and Jason Kenney and Michael Ignatieff ... who said that Israel has a right to defend itself by killing women and children" and those politicians "who have lost their tongues" and been silent about Gaza.
Among others, the comments were condemned by Kenney, the immigration minister. He was quoted by Elizabeth Thompson of Sun Media as threatening to withdraw $447,000 from the Arab federation, funding that is used to teach immigrants English and job search skills. He said he had ordered his department officials to weigh the words of Mouammar. And that he had urged other ministers to do the same.
The reaction was swift.
The federation said cutting off funding would constitute the collective punishment of innocents who received its services. And it asked: "Is the muting of our voices now a condition for receiving funding?"
But two leading Jewish groups applauded Kenney.
B'nai Brith accused the Arab group of engaging in "inflammatory rhetoric" and promoting "anti-Semitic and pro-terrorist propaganda" for Hamas and Hezbollah.
Bernie Farber of the Canadian Jewish Congress said that while his group used to work with the Arab federation, it couldn't work with Mouammar. The latter had "lobbied Ottawa to remove Hezbollah from the list of terrorist organizations" and had once forwarded someone's email during the 2006 Liberal leadership race, saying Bob Rae's Jewish wife, Arlene, had worked with the Jewish Congress, etc.
Not everyone at the Arab group was happy with Mouammar, either.
There were murmurs that as dedicated as he was, he tended to get carried away and that his words helped those who want to muzzle criticism of Israel and weaken Arab organizations. Still, Kenney's tirades – there have been others – were too much.
Jehad Aliweiwi, former executive director (1996-2002) of the federation, wrote that Mouammar's words, "however irresponsible or objectionable, are neither hateful nor criminal." Thus the threats to cut off funding are "irresponsible and vindictive."
Addressing himself to Jewish groups, he said: "Combating anti-Semitism is an objective we all should be committed to, but it must never be a convenient tool to target Canadian Arabs who have the right to question their government's policy, actions and practices."
The same point was made more sharply by Independent Jewish Voices, a small group that fights for Palestinian human rights. It said Kenney attacked the Arab group because it "stands for justice for Palestinian people and expresses principled criticism of oppressive Israeli policies. (This) is an ethical imperative, which our government should support."
MPs Maurizio Bevilacqua (Liberal), Thomas Mulcair (NDP) and Nicolas Brisson (Bloc Québécois) said that as inappropriate as Mouammar's words were, penalizing his group was wrong. Brisson added that Kenney was pouring oil on the fire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said he felt that Mouammar's comments were "more in the realm of an insult than of a hateful character."
That argument was further advanced by Fo Niemi, head of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations in Montreal. Not only should the Tories not be playing politics with funding, he said, but they had better define the difference between free speech and hate. "When we don't have a clear set of objectives and transparent criteria, there could be room for subjective or even arbitrary interpretations" in funding decisions.
What's happening is clear:
Mouammar uses intemperate language, a reflection of his personality and his people's anger and helplessness at what's happening to Palestinians and also at Ottawa's marginalization of Arab Canadians. His words are then used to try and further limit their political space.
Arguments and debates are the staple of democracy. Groups have a right to advance their causes, in a civil fashion.
But cabinet ministers, especially ministers of multiculturalism, usually try to stay above the fray.
But not Kenney. He is using Republican-style wedge politics to advance Tory fortunes. He is injecting foreign conflicts into domestic politics to do so. And he is employing despicable tactics to malign those who dare question his government's policies.
Haroon Siddiqui's column appears Thursday and Sunday. firstname.lastname@example.org