Uniting for Change as Israel Turns 60

Progressive Jewish organizations are coming together to challenge the occupation, the barriers to peace, and the Gaza crisis

By Diana Ralph

This April saw the formation of a new national progressive Jewish organization at a conference organized by The Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians, to promote real peace and justice in the Middle East. More than one hundred Jewish people from twenty-six cities across Canada, and from eighteen different groups opposed to Israel's policies, took part.

Also attending the conference were representatives of US and European Jewish organizations and representatives from the Canadian Arab Federation, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the United Church of Canada and the Canadian Peace Alliance. Representatives from labour unions, in particular, discussed the tactics of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.

The need for a progressive and critical Jewish group arises out of the political position of the Canadian Jewish Congress, an organization that claims to speak for all Jewish Canadians in its unquestioning support of Israel. Governments in North America and Europe have been organizing and participating in celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel.

George W. Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy were among the heads of state to visit Israel during May 2008. In the US, George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton are honorary co-chairs of the national committee for Israel-60. In Canada, Prime Minister Harper has been attending Israel anniversary celebrations, stating, "in this ongoing battle, Canada stands side by side with the state of Israel, our friend and ally in the democratic family of nations."

The background for establishing an opposing voice is twofold. First, Israel has persistently violated international humanitarian law, and there is conclusive evidence that Zionists planned the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian people in 1948. Second, the Canadian government has an increasingly biased position as reflected in its pro-Israel positions at the UN, in the Canada Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA), and in a Declaration of Intent, signed March 23, 2008, to establish a security partnership with Israel. This partnership is particularly troubling as it includes cooperation in areas encroaching on civil rights protections, such as correctional services and prisons, illegal immigration, and border management and security with biometric applications.

At the conference, Naomi Klein presented the keynote address and called on Canada's Jewish people to challenge Israel's "normalization" of policies such as torture, targeted assassinations, collective punishment, and permanent war in the name of security. Israel, she said, depends heavily on both its tourism and its security industries. These are inherently in conflict. For tourists, Israel needs to project an image of peaceful normality. But to justify its demand for massive military aid and uncritical support for its aggressive treatment of Palestinians, it needs to claim to be in imminent peril. Klein said that the Harper government is enthusiastically signing onto this dangerous model.

Participants at the conference unanimously endorsed these principles, adapted from the statement of unity of Britain's Independent Jewish Voices:

1. "Human rights are universal and indivisible and should be upheld without exception. This is as applicable in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories as it is elsewhere.

2. "Palestinians and Israelis alike have the right to peaceful and secure lives.

3. "Peace and stability require the willingness of all parties to the conflict to comply with international law.

4. "There is no justification for any form of racism, including anti-Semitism, anti-Arab racism or Islamophobia, in any circumstance.

5. "The battle against anti-Semitism is vital and is threatened whenever opposition to Israeli government policies is automatically branded as anti-Semitic."

These principles are contradicted when those who claim to speak on behalf of Jews in Canada and other countries consistently put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people. The Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip face appalling living conditions with desperately little hope for the future. We declare our support for a properly negotiated peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples and oppose any attempt by the Israeli government to impose its own solutions on the Palestinians."

The new national Jewish organization takes its place alongside other coalitions in the US and Europe that aim to make it possible to criticize their own governments and the State of Israel. In May, the Canadian-Palestinian Network published a statement: "We cannot celebrate ....while Israel starves and bombs the people of Gaza; while Israel extends its apartheid wall; while Israel continues to violate United Nations Resolution 194, refusing to let Palestinians return to their homes; while Israel continues to promote wars and expand its nuclear arsenal..." It was signed by prominent Canadians, including Ursula Franklin, pianist Anton Kuerti, and Naomi Klein.

In Israel, former Jerusalem deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti, Dr. Nurit Peled-Elhanan, who lost her daughter to a suicide bomber, and film director Avi Mograbi were among several hundred Israeli professionals who signed the Olga Document for Truth and Reconciliation, for Equality and Partnership. "The State of Israel was supposed to be a democracy; it has set up a colonial structure, combining unmistakable elements of apartheid with the arbitrariness of brutal military occupation." Let us hope that a public airing of the real situation will lead to change.

For further information, contact jewish.conference@yahoo.ca.

Diana Ralph is an Ottawa-based associate professor of social work and one of the coordinators of the Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2008

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2008, page 6. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Diana Ralph here

Peace Magazine homepage