Blockbuster Interview on Canadian National Radio
Stephen Harper’s cringe-provoking performance of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” at an Israeli state dinner last week (he plays piano better than he sings) received enormous media attention, certainly up here in Canada.
More germane to current debates were his comments about “the new anti-Semitism” before an august gathering of the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem — the first-ever address by a Canadian Prime Minister.
“We have witnessed, in recent years , the mutation of the old disease of anti-Semitism and the emergence of a new strain,” Canada’s 54 year-old Conservative Party leader — a staunch Zionist — told the rapt crowd. “We all know about the old anti-Semitism. It was crude and ignorant, and it led to the horrors of the death camps.”
“Of course,” Harper went on, “in many dark corners, it is still with us. But, in much of the western world, the old hatred has been translated into more sophisticated language for use in polite society. People who would never say they hate the Jews for their own failings or the problems of the world, instead declare their hatred of Israel and blame the only Jewish state for the problems of the Middle East.
“As once Jewish businesses were boycotted, some civil-society leaders today call for a boycott of Israel. On some campuses, intellectualized arguments against Israeli policies thinly mask the underlying realities, such as the shunning of Israeli academics and the harassment of Jewish students. Most disgracefully of all, some openly call Israel an apartheid state … It is nothing short of sickening.”
Well, this past Friday morning, Stephen Harper’s Criticizing-Israel-Is-Anti-Semitic screed came up for close scrutiny on CBC Radio’s flagship current affairs program, The Current.
A radio journalist and loyal CBC Radio listener myself, I was most amazed to hear Friday morning’s exchange between Joseph Ben-Ami, a former Stephen Harper aide, and Rima Berns-McGown, who teaches diaspora studies at the University of Toronto (“Muslim by choice, Jewish by descent,” her Twitter feed declares).
Trenchant analysis of what’s going on in Israel-Palestine is not something I’m accustomed to hearing on CBC Radio. Some of the most insightful commentary on Israeli behavior can certainly be heard on programs like The Sunday Edition and The Current, but reports on Israel’s occupation and growing Palestinian non-violent resistance are virtually absent from CBC’s half-hour evening news. The subject seems to be taboo.
Indeed, at the close of her Friday morning interview with Ben-Ami and Berns-McGown, The Current‘s stand-in host Pia Chatapati speaks of letting “the conversation begin.”
Berns-McGown’s comments about the criticism-of-Israel taboo are as full-throated a call for telling the truth as one can imagine. Her voice trembling at times, she had things to say I don’t recall ever being articulated over Canadian airwaves (time codes in brackets):
[5:24] “I think it’s really problematic to equate the [state of Israel] with the Jewish people. I think that’s a really problematic and, one could argue, deeply antisemitic stand.”
[11:00] “If you’re critiquing the fact that Israel privileges one ethno-religious group, and discriminates against and actively, in some cases, oppresses another ethno-religious group (notably Palestinians, but not only Palestinians), and has used and continues to use expulsion and occupation and institutional marginalization to achieve those goals, those are very legitimate observations.”
[13:16] “[Israeli government] policies are fundamentally un-Judaic, because a central tenet of Judaism is that you do not do unto others what you do not want to have done to you. And many Jews, and a growing number particularly of young Jews, are separating themselves from self-identifying with being Jewish because they don’t want to be associated with this, precisely because establishment organizations conflate the idea of being Jewish with these policies.”
[19:12] “We desperately need to have a conversation about this. It’s only when you talk about these issues, and you’re not afraid to talk about them for fear of being smeared as a racist that you can actually talk it all out. Not talking about it is not doing Israel or Jews any favours. We need to lift the taboo and we need to stop exempting Israel from criticism.”
In response to the central argument of Israel supporters that everyone else commits horrid crimes, and that Israel gets singled out (anti-Semitically), Berns-McGown articulates the counter-position in succinct and compelling fashion:
[16:31] “Of course there are lots of states that do nasty things. But Israel purports to be a Western democracy. If you want to be in the club of Western democracies, you are going to be held accountable and expected to hold the standards that Western democracies hold, and criticism is not only fair game, but it’s essential … Israel behaves in ways, again, that many Jews and many Israelis see as un-Judaic and really problematic and not true to the core of what it means to be Jewish … Israel is actually being singled out for exemption from criticism by remarks like the Prime Minister’s.”
Go straight to the audio here.