Activism

Fight over wine labels demonstrates power of Israel lobby, duplicity of Canadian government

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In the catalogue of antisemitic tropes, it’s one of the hoariest — dual loyalty. Late last summer, a chorus of Canadian Zionists accused prominent Montreal lawyer, journalist and activist Dimitri Lascaris of deploying it against a pair of Canadian Members of Parliament.

Lascaris had called on Michael Levitt and Anthony Housefather, members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal caucus, to condemn a racist, violence-laced attack on their party leader posted by a pair of Toronto Zionists in an outrageous half-hour Facebook video. They didn’t. So, in early September, Lascaris fired off another Tweet. “Apparently, Liberal MPs Anthony Housefather and Michael Levitt are more devoted to apartheid Israel than to their own prime minister and colleagues in the Liberal caucus,” it read.

Dimitri ended up getting crucified on Twitter by the leaders of all four Canadian political parties. An impressive feat.

As hazardous as it is to suggest such a thing in the wake of the horrific slaying of a dozen Jews in Pittsburgh, I think Dimitri was spot on — certainly regarding Levitt, from the Toronto riding of North York.  Back in the Summer of 2017, in union with B’Nai Brith Canada (BBC) and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (Canada’s AIPAC), Levitt helped engineer the quashing of a ruling by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that unlawful Jewish settlement wines labeled “Product of Israel” could not be sold on Canadian store shelves. The CFIA’s decision had been based on Canadian consumer protection laws and regulations and on international conventions Canada is solemnly committed to uphold.  Levitt — sworn to uphold Canadian law — felt Israel’s rights should prevail. How loyal to Canada is that?

Truth be told, I was the one who initiated the settlement wine labelling complaint, and Dimitri Lascaris has been providing me with pro bono counsel in my quest to have the original CFIA ruling restored. Our Memorandum of Fact and Law was filed on Nov. 2. The government will respond in late January with a factum of its own. A hearing before a Federal Court of Canada judge has been scheduled for late May 2019. Dimitri and I will be standing up for justice and the rule of law next Spring. What or whom will Michael Levitt be standing up for?

Israel, probably. But Levitt’s confusion is rooted in his political philosophy, not his ethnicity or religious faith. I’m Jewish, and I haven’t a scintilla of loyalty to the “Jewish State.” Nor do any of my Jewish friends. The flip side of the coin are Christian Zionists like John Hagee, the Land of Israel in their DNA and Jew hatred in their heart.

I first lodged my wine labeling complaint to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) in January 2017.  As the Canadian government agency in charge of regulating consumer packaging and labeling, the CFIA got involved. The sequence of events that followed are revealed in a 300-page sheaf of documents and communications provided to Dimitri and I in support of our case. Government emails and third party posts reveal the truly awesome power of the pro-Israel lobby here in Canada, and the duplicity of the Canadian government.

Psagot Winery, outside of Ramallah in the West Bank. (Photo: David Kattenburg)

For six months, a pair of senior CFIA compliance officers and a half dozen specialists on policy, operations and labelling laboured over my complaint. CFIA regulations stipulate that at least 75% of the juice from which a wine product is derived must have been squeezed from grapes grown in that country, the specialists soon confirmed. “Product of Israel” designation, they also determined, would run afoul of subsection 5(1) of Canada’s Food and Drugs Act, that prohibits “false, misleading or deceptive” product labels. (Also Section 7(1) of the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, Dimitri and I argue in our case).

CFIA regulatory experts also confirmed that the Canadian government doesn’t recognize the West Bank as being part of Israel, that it considers the West Bank to be occupied territory, that Israel, the occupying power, is subject to the Fourth Geneva Convention, and that settlements are therefore in grave breach of international law.

Having concluded all this, on July 6, 2017, the CFIA duly informed the Liquor Control Board of Ontario of its ruling: “Product of Israel” would not be an acceptable country of origin declaration for settlement wines produced from grapes that are grown, processed, blended and finished in the West Bank occupied territory. The LCBO would be required to draft an “action plan” to rectify the misleading labeling situation. On the morning of July 11, the LCBO informed its vendors of the CFIA’s decision.

It didn’t take long for the shit to hit the fan. Within hours of the LCBO’s internal dispatch to sacramental wine vendors, Itay Tavor, head of public affairs at Israel’s embassy in Ottawa, was on the horn to the president of the LCBO. Senior officials in Canada’s Department of External Affairs and International Trade (Global Affairs Canada) also got a piece of Tavor’s mind. “The Embassy of Israel reached out to Global Affairs at senior levels today,” a GAC official informed the CFIA by email. “The Embassy has expressed [deleted] and noted that the Government of Israel [deleted] to this matter.”

Israeli officials were hopping mad. True to form, though, they played a clever hand. In their bid to keep falsely labeled settlement wines on Canadian store shelves — in flagrant breach of Canadian law — Israel pulled out a wild card: an obscure clause from a free-trade deal few Canadians have heard about, the 1994 Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA).

Article 1.4.1(b) of the original CIFTA (now “modernized”) defines “Israel” as “the territory where its customs laws are applied.” (intriguingly distinct from “Canada,” — “the territory to which its customs laws apply.”) Israeli customs laws are applied in the “West Bank,” Tavor and others phoning in from Jerusalem must have barked at the Canadians, so “Product of Israel” settlement wines are clearly legal.

Canadian officials should have rejected their claim. Having quickly established the original context and authority for Israel’s expanded customs union — the 1994 Protocol on Economic Relations between Israel and the PLO; the “Paris Accords” — they would have pointed out that the Protocol extended Israeli customs arrangements to Palestinian “Areas,” not to settlements. Other than the Protocol’s Article V, providing for the transfer of income taxes collected from Palestinians working in the settlements, nowhere had settlements been specified as part of Israel’s expanded customs union. A follow-up 1999 Canada-PA economic “Framework,” explicitly based on the Paris Protocol, had confirmed this. The Framework (attached by Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland to her government’s affidavit, as Respondent in my wine labeling case) was silent on settlements. Therefore, Canadian officials should have told their Israeli counterparts, CIFTA 1.4.1(b) cannot be interpreted as conferring preferential tariff treatment on settlements.

Interpreting the Paris Protocol and its implications for settlement wine labeling would end up baffling Canadian government officials, as they attempted to explain their way out of the outrageous wine labeling ruling the CFIA had cooked up, harangued by Israeli government flacks, BBC and CIJA, and by pro-Israel parliamentarians of conflicted interest in the Canadian House of Commons. (possibly the Senate too). Confusion over what precisely the Protocol meant for Israel-Canada trade relations is revealed in an email from a Canadian Foreign Affairs official to a CFIA colleague, a few weeks after the government bowed to Israeli demands, describing how “trade policy team” needed “to undertake further consultations with Finance to understand how we have actually interpreted and applied the Customs Union.”

They shouldn’t have sweated the arcane stuff. Canadian government officials had another, much more prosaic reason to dismiss Israel’s wine labelling sleight of hand. The explicit purposes of Canada’s trade deal with Israel were to “eliminate barriers to trade,” “facilitate the movement of goods,” “promote conditions of fair competition” and “increase investment opportunities.” Regulating Israeli product labelling on Canadian stores shelves was not a CIFTA purpose, and so CIFTA’s definition of “Israel” could not be used to thwart Canadian consumer protection laws against misleading, deceptive or erroneous product labels. Nor did truthful labeling constitute a “technical barrier,” as defined by the WTO.

The most principled arguments Canadian officials should have put to Israel and its domestic agents would have been based on Canada’s commitments under international law. Settlements are considered a “grave breach” under the Fourth Geneva Convention (incorporated into Canadian domestic law as the Geneva Convention Act), therefore a crime under the Rome Statute, to which Canada is a signatory. Viewed in its entirety, the settlement enterprise amounts to de facto annexation, a major crime Canada is duty bound to oppose. Article 1 of the FGC obliges High Contracting Parties like Canada to hold miscreants accountable for their crimes — certainly not offer economic aid and support, which is what preferential tariff treatment amounts to. Furthermore, Article 25 of the UN Charter obliges Member States to abide by and enforce UN Security Council resolutions, a whole raft of which have condemned settlements. Most recently, UNSC 2334 called on Member States like Canada to “differentiate” in their dealings between Israel “proper” and its West Bank settlements.

Really, the Canadians could have added, with barely disguised glee, settlement products should be banned from Canada outright. Be thankful you just have to label them truthfully.

Of course, they didn’t. What matters most for the senior Canadian officials whose strings got pulled in the hours after the LCBO settlement wine ruling back in July 2017 are friendly relations with Israel, and the campaign cash and votes that follow. For those pulling the strings, Canadian lobbyists scurrying around on Israel’s behalf (including MPs like Michael Levitt), nothing matters more than Israel’s right to do whatever it wants, and Canadian laws be damned.

And so, informed of the CFIA’s ruling by Israeli government officials, they snapped into action. Late on the morning of July 12, BBC (a “staunch defender of the State of Israel”) declared “shock” on Facebook and vowed to respond. Throughout the day and into the evening, emails flashed up and down the CFIA hierarchy and between the CFIA and senior direction at Global Affairs. The Privy Council Office, advisor to the Prime Minister, got involved. Mr. Trudeau surely weighed in, in response to angry calls from deep-pocketed Montreal donors.

Around midday on July 12, less than 24 hours after the LCBO messaged its vendors, the CFIA received instructions from the highest of on high: Israel has every right to sell its settlement wines in Canada, duty free and labelled “Product of Israel.”

At 6:25 on the evening of July 12, a senior CFIA manager wrote: “Hi folks. Just spoke to [CFIA President] Paul [Glover], we need the statement asap. We are ultimately going to rescind our decision. Statement should note, we regret any confusion this may have caused, these things are subject to interpretation, and that we will continue with the status quo will and are following up with LCBO [all sic].”

At 6:42 PM, from one of the CFIA’s Vice Presidents: “I hope it is because the info on [Global Affairs Canada’s] website [indicating that Canada doesn’t recognize settlements] was inaccurate and we were misinformed by partners.”

An hour later, in suspiciously similar wording, BBC publicly reported the happy news.  “B’Nai Brith Canada is expecting that the CFIA will soon rescind its recent decision to order the removal of certain Israeli wines from stores shelves … B’Nai Brith has received a lot of information on this matter from multiple sources and officials during the past 24 hours as we were advocating on behalf of the community.”

The next day, around half past four on the afternoon of the 13th, the CFIA announced apologetically at its webpage that it had reversed its ruling, and that Israeli settlement wines could continue to be sold on Canadian store shelves, labelled “Product of Israel.” Deleted from the very end of the apologia (revealed in a released email): “We respect all our trade agreements and we very much value the Canada-Israel relationship.”

Having successfully defended Israel’s right to thwart Canadian consumer protection law and Canada’s solemn commitments under a host of international conventions, Israel’s good friend Michael Levitt was among the first to lift a glass in celebration:

“Whether in times of crisis or celebration, I will always be a strong voice for the Jewish community in a government that is committed to the friendship and unwavering bond between Canada and Israel … I will continuously work towards building and strengthening the bond between our two countries. As a testament to this, I will be traveling to Israel later this month and look forward to connecting with both wineries to demonstrate my support.”

Israeli government officials and outlaw wine producers no doubt toasted their faithful agent with a glass of chilled Chardonnay. Bottles of these, and a red wine product from the unlawful settlement of Shiloh, smack in the middle of the Israeli-colonized West Bank, would continue to be imported into Canada tariff-free, labelled as having been produced in Israel. For Levitt and his settler friends, it was the “Product of Israel” designation that mattered the most. Under the original CFIA ruling, settlement wines could still have been imported into Canada, tariff-free. They would simply have had to be labeled truthfully. One of the settlement wine producers summed it up sublimely to a CBC reporter: Obliged to label his wines “Product of West Bank settlement,” he would opt not to export his wines to Canada at all.  Staking claim to the fertile land of his forefathers was worth more to him than tariff free access to Canadian markets.

In Michael Levitt’s mind, Israel’s right to make that claim on Canadian store shelves is more sacred than the right of Canadians consumers — constituents of his own, perhaps — to know where their food or drink comes from.

Is it unbecoming for a Canadian parliamentarian to be so conflicted in their loyalty?  I think so. But in defense of Michael Levitt (whose confusion arises from his political philosophy, not his ethnicity or religious faith), more senior Canadian government figures, of other denominations, have declared their loyalty to Israel in more graphic fashion. Just the other day, at an Israel Council on Foreign Relations gathering, standing beside a beaming Benjamin Netanyahu, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland reportedly declared that, if Canada wins one of ten non-permanent seats coming up on the UN Security Council, it would proudly act as an “asset for Israel.” How’s that for confused loyalty?

No doubt where my loyalty stands. I’ll be rooting for Ireland and Norway.

All the while preparing for legal battle. To this end, on November 2, my attorney and good friend Dimitri Lascaris submitted a Memorandum of Fact and Law to the Federal Court of Canada. The government will be responding with its own factum in January. Late next May, in a court room in Toronto, we’ll be asking a judge to declare the importation and sale of settlement wines labeled “Product of Israel” to be unlawful; that neither CIFTA nor Canada’s CIFTA Act authorizes products of the OPT to be labeled “Product of Israel”; that “Product of Israel” settlement wines violate Canada’s Food and Drug and Packaging and Labelling Acts, and that the CFIA’s decision to permit the importation and sale in Canada of settlement wines labeled “Product of Israel” violates Canada’s Geneva Convention Act, the Fourth Geneva Convention and the United Nations Charter.

We shall see what happens. Donations to our court case can be made here.

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While you dither over wine labels, due to man made global warming, the planet has 12 years left before everything goes teats up.

Best of luck David, you will need it. The Canadian/Israel free Trade Agreement did not describe the scope of the agreement, I suspect the Israeli side must have insisted that the Israeli customs applying to the OPT must be agreed to. When the European court had to interpret the Association agreement between the EU and Israel, and the EU and the Palestinian Association Agreement this is how the European Advocate General’s Bot interpreted both agreements… Read more »

I had complaints turned down by the UK Authorities, The Trading Standards Authority and the Food Standards Agency, more on those at ‘comments section’ after Kate’s article ‘France ends requirement to label goods from West Bank settlements’, 10th October 2018. The Actual Law is enshrined in various EU Regulations like the one below…. The Indication of provenance detailed in Regulation 607/2009 Article 55 sets out the compulsory particulars required for third country wines [outside the… Read more »

I attempted to have a summons issued at the Wirral Magistrates court UK, based on the Regulations above and is my right under the ‘Prosecution of offenders act 1985’ [litigant in person] the case was presided over by District Court Judge Abelson, an Israel- firster if ever there was one, he refused to issue a summons. Here was one of the questions he asked me. “What makes you think Katzrin is not part of Israel?”… Read more »

While Dmitri may have been spot on, in your assessment, he should have had the political awareness to realize he was about to step on a land mine when he raised loyalty as an issue. It was entirely unnecessary to do so in order to make the point about the silence over death threats. I have a general issue with regards to all of these old tropes in any event. All too often they are… Read more »