I like to think I’m not easily offended, but a recent speech by Justin Trudeau at the Yom Hashoah Virtual Holocaust Remembrance Day Commemoration pierced my spirit.
In this ceremony, Holocaust survivors and their descendants not only remembered the crimes committed against the Jewish people, they celebrated who they are and the beautiful traditions that persist. It was a testimony to the power of truth and love over lies and hatred.
Prime Minister Trudeau took an historical and spiritual celebration and made it political. He equated criticisms of the state of Israel with being anti-Semitic, saying, “Attacks against Israel, including calls for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) … will not be tolerated … and … we (the Canadian government) adopted the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism.”
I believe the Holocaust, or Shoah as it’s known in Hebrew, is one of the most tragic episodes in human history. We must all be aware of this horrendous crime and the racist beliefs that led to it.
I also believe in the human rights of all people. I believe that each person is sacred and deserving of respect.
But Trudeau insinuated that because I support the rights of Palestinians, I must be anti-Semitic, and that if I question the actions of the state of Israel, I have no place in Canada.
These words from the leader of my country nearly drove me to tears.
I was part of the anti-Apartheid movement of the 1970s and ’80s. I called for actions similar to BDS toward the state of South Africa and for the liberation of Nelson Mandela.
I heard similar statements then toward black South Africans to what I’m hearing now regarding Palestinians.
Sanctions against the South African government provided non-violent international pressure that influenced the white-only government to finally allow equal rights for all their citizens.
According to the BDS Movement website, “BDS is an inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement that is opposed on principal to all forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”
It should also be noted that many progressive Jews are a part of this international movement. Would they too be called anti-Semitic?
The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism to which Trudeau referred is very narrow. It’s strongly opposed by many human-rights activists and academics, Jewish and non-Jewish, because it could easily be skewed to categorize those who question the state of Israel as anti-Semitic.
As an educator and a columnist, it even makes me fear the repercussions of writing this article.
On a hopeful note, I see great compassion between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s not uncommon, for example, for Palestinians to receive medical treatment in Israeli hospitals. As noted earlier, many Jews are outspoken supporters for Palestinian rights, both within Israel and internationally.
A 2018 edition of the YouTube program Middle Ground brought together three Israeli and three Palestinian young adults. Though four of the six participants had lost loved ones in the conflict, including members of their immediate families, they talked respectfully and were able to not only find middle ground, but friendship and mutual respect.
Though I’m an Arab-Canadian, I have never lived in the Middle East. I don’t know the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and it’s not my place to decide.
But I do know the effectiveness of non-violent economic pressure and soft diplomacy. It worked in South Africa and it can work in Israel.
The people of Israel and Palestine are all children of Abraham and I have confidence that they will find a way forward.
The answers will not come by throwing hurtful words at one another.
Trudeau needs a clearer definition of anti-Semitism. He doesn’t seem to understand that for someone like me to be anti-Semitic, I would have to hate a part of who I am and that’s something I could never do.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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