Thursday, May 03, 2012

United Church report shows how Israel-haters have lost the argument

From the National Post, May 1, 2012 by Jonathan Kay, Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.:
According to a new report from the United Church of Canada, “the deepest meaning of the Holocaust was the denial of human dignity to Jews.”
Oh, really? Actually, I’d say that the “deepest meaning of the Holocaust” was the slaughter of six-million human beings. Being strip-searched by police for no good reason is an infringement of one’s “dignity.” Getting thrown into a gas chamber is a little bit more serious. I’m guessing the last thoughts of the victims at Auschwitz, as their silent shrieks left their throats, wasn’t “Oh my, but this is undignified.”
So why that choice of phrase — “human dignity” — on the first page of the United Church’s Report of the Working Group On Israel/Palestine Policy? The answer becomes obvious in the very next paragraph: “The working group is also aware that the Occupation has meant a loss of dignity for Palestinian people” — including “the denial of the legitimacy of the Palestinian experience.”
See how they did that? See how that magically expansive, all-encompassing word “dignity” works? The Holocaust damaged “human dignity.” So does the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees. So does a pundit who fails to ponder the “Palestinian experience.” Why, it’s all part of the same struggle. (Incidentally, the same trick works with “social justice” — which is why you see that one thrown around a lot by Middle East peace-studies types, too.)
The pity of it is that the substance of the United Church’s report, which was released on Tuesday, isn’t particularly radical. Yes, it repeats the slander that Christians “are leaving Palestine because of the Israeli occupation, not because of conflict with Muslim Palestinians” (one wonders if the dreaded Israeli Occupation is equally to blame for the even greater mass exodus of Christians from Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq). But it also clearly states that questioning Israel’s “legitimacy” and its “right to exist” is unacceptable. That’s a proposition that most of us find obvious, but which is a live controversy in the left-wing NGO circles where United Church types travel.
The report also sensibly states that “It is impossible to overstate the threats to the existence of Israel,” including Iranian threats. The authors discourage use of the term “apartheid” — since it “shuts down conversation,” and oppose radical BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) initiatives that target the entire Israeli economy. Instead, they call for “focused economic action directed at products produced in the settlements.” (This won’t please supporters of Israel, of course. But keep in mind that activists have been calling for this sort of boycott for years, and such efforts have never caused so much as a blip on Israel’s economic radar.)
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the United Church report is its extraordinarily defensive tone. Like the aforementioned sophistry involving the term “human dignity,” much of the report seems aimed at justifying the author’s own continuing obsession with Israel, and at fending off the many critics who accuse the Church of anti-Zionist monomania.
One section of the report, for instance, addresses “questions about why Israel is currently the only country in the world being challenged by a global boycott.” The answers supplied are wholly inadequate: One is left wondering, for instance, why United Church functionaries seem to care more about Israel than Sudan and Nigeria, where real, murderous anti-Christian pogroms are a regular occurrence. Yet the mere fact that the Church feels compelled to address these obvious questions is good news, as it goes against the prevailing wisdom (in conservative circles) that elites are becoming more and more blindly hostile to the Jewish state.
In fact, the opposite phenomenon has been obvious for years in Canada. Like the United Church, Canadian public-service unions and academic groups that target Israel have been harshly criticized — often by their own members. Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, a small but noisy group that once insisted on marching in Toronto’s annual Gay Pride parade, was forced to bow out. On campuses, Israeli Apartheid Week recently has proved something of a dud — as left-wing student activists move on to other causes, such as the Arab Spring and, closer to home, the fight against Stephen Harper.
Yes, the Globe & Mail and Toronto Star still feature occasional anti-Israel pieces from former UN ambassadors and the like. But their heart isn’t really in it any more. Even the CBC, once the bugbear of Canadian Israel-defenders, now features (largely) balanced coverage on the subject. The scathing criticism of Israel that once was featured regularly in these outlets is now relegated to niche web sites such as, and tiny fringe groups such as Independent Jewish Voices. As the United Church report shows, mainstream critics of Israel no longer are willing to make common cause with such radicals — which is why the movement now has descended into schism.
The battle for balance on the Israeli question was won at the Parliamentary level, thanks to Stephen Harper’s government — but also through the grass roots: by countless bloggers, journalists, activists and rabbis putting hard questions to Israel’s critics. (For a sample, see this great 2011 National Post interview with a vocal United Church pastor, in which reporter Charles Lewis simply would not let the pastor get away with evasive answers on the question of singling Israel out for boycott.) This week’s United Church report, no matter the objectionable nature of some of its recommendations, provides a good opportunity for defenders of Israel to take stock of how profoundly they have changed the terms of debate.

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