Signs of intelligent life found in Canada

June 27, 2010

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

By Thomas Walkom National Affairs Columnist

Canada’s politicians are wary of criticizing Israel. So is much of Canada’s media. As a fringe group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid found when they were banned from using their name in Toronto’s annual Gay Pride parade, the established order has little patience for those deemed overly critical of the Jewish state.

That’s why My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play about an American pro-Palestinian activist killed by Israeli troops, was cancelled in Toronto three years ago (another theatre troupe eventually staged it).

That’s also why the Toronto District School Board is currently investigating whether the children’s book The Shepherd’s Granddaughter is too hard on Israel.

So it should come as no surprise that official and semi-official Canadian reaction to Israel’s high-seas attack on a Gaza-bound aid convoy Monday has been so muted.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he regretted the fact that at least nine civilians on the aid convoy were killed, but hoped to get more information.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said much the same thing, adding only that Israel’s responses to perceived threats to its security should be “measured.”

The media, which usually like nothing better than black-and-white stories, have been unusually convoluted.

We have no compunction about branding North Korea a rogue state for attacking a South Korean naval vessel in international waters. But Israel’s unprovoked attack on civilian ships in international waters — well, that’s a different sort of thing.

Indeed, some of the coverage has suggested that wily peace activists lured Israeli commandos into boarding their vessels in the middle of the night just so they could attack the armed soldiers with sticks.

But my sense is that while politicians and media remain fearful of criticizing Israel the public is starting to move on.

On university campuses, the Palestinian campaign to equate Israel’s settlement policy with that of apartheid-era South Africa is gaining ground — in spite of efforts by federal and provincial politicians to stamp it out.

Similarly, more and more Canadians are refusing to accept the either/or orthodoxy of the Middle East (you are either with Israel or the suicide bombers of Hamas) and are saying that, regardless of whom they happen to elect, the people of Gaza should not be abandoned.

That, presumably, is why 53-year-old former marine engineer Kevin Neish of Victoria and Guelph grandmother Mary Hughes Thompson joined the Gaza aid convoy.

Indeed, the tone from the optimistic, if naïve, emails that Neish wrote home before Monday’s attack is resolutely Canadian.

“Since the Israeli military always try to seize the media first to destroy evidence, my job is to non-violently get in the way of the Israeli commandos in a narrow passageway for about 30 seconds so the journalists can upload their reports,” he wrote. “It should be interesting to say the least. I guess all my young years spent playing rugby and football are going to come in handy: i.e. being able take a hard hit and keep standing and not lose my temper. . .

“I don’t think the Israelis are going to attack us, as the bad press coming from this would be enormous.”

None of this is to suggest that the plight of Palestinians has become top of mind in Canada. That would be an exaggeration. But my sense is that within the public the residual goodwill for Israel is wearing thin.

Holocaust guilt, which in the past has been skilfully used to mute criticisms of Israel, no longer has the same effect. Nor do ritual charges of anti-Semitism. The politicians tiptoe around Israel. The public is coming to understand that it is just another country.

Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday and Saturday.