Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Canada: A Case Study on Attitudes Toward Middle East Issues

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By Barry Rubin Toronto, Canada

Canada is a good laboratory for assessing attitudes toward Israel and Middle East issues today. With a political culture somewhere between Europe and the United States, this is a country that can tell us a lot regarding governmental policy, public opinion, media, and both pro- and anti-Israel activism.

I toured parts of the country during the supposed peak of anti-Israel activity called, revealingly enough, Israel Apartheid Week (IAW).

On the governmental level, Canada can well be considered the country in the world most friendly to Israel. Prime Minister Steven Harper, a Conservative, is personally committed to supporting Israel as a fellow democracy. One should always remember that government policy is more important than what happens on campuses or in the media.

On public opinion, Canadians like to look at their international involvement as high-minded, even-handed, and morally based. This is a pattern seen in a number of countries whose direct national interest in different foreign issues, or at least in the Middle East, is low. More than two-thirds of Canadians in polls don’t take sides on Arab-Israeli questions. There is not a strong reaction among the public against Harper’s policy, though it would also be willing to accept a very different set of positions.

As in other Western countries, the media today may seem to be dominated generally by journalists and editors who hold left-wing ideas and a view of the world rather hostile toward Israel. Yet such a picture would be misleading regarding the English-language media. CanWest newspapers reach a large percentage of Canadian readers and provide them with a mostly pro-Israel editorial position, though this chain is under bankruptcy protection and may soon be sold. The Toronto Globe & Mail, the single most prestigious newspaper, has an editorial position generally supportive of Israel as does the Sun chain of newspapers. While the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) is often slanted against Israel, its main competitor, CTV, is more even-handed.

The really terrible situation, then, is on the campuses or at least many of them. And again, one should not overestimate their overall social and political importance. Yet this problem has an extremely important point to teach us, the implications of the decline of Arab nationalist activism and its replacement by a mix of Islamism from some Muslims allied with post-Marxist leftism from many professors (many of them Jews) and leftists who went into trade unions to inject their political agenda there.

It is by no means clear that the IAW movement, the main anti-Israel activity, represents the kind of people and ideologies most likely to win mass support among ordinary Canadians, and certainly not Canadian policymakers.

In the past, campus activists were Arab nationalists. They had a higher level of knowledge regarding the conflict and often used logical and detailed arguments. In more recent years, they also had the option of posing as moderates, their critique being that they really wanted peace and a two-state solution but Israel didn’t. As a result of all these characteristics, they could more easily build stronger sympathy and support from a far wider audience of “average” citizens.

A parallel evolution has happened with their leftist allies. In the past, they represented more coherent movements with systematic Marxist analyses. Their intellectual background and goal of winning over the “masses” made them self-conscious about developing marketable arguments.

Now, however, the movement is far more strident, extreme, and in a real sense anti-intellectual. The level of knowledge among activists is far lower. They are more interested in pleasing themselves or, in the case of the Islamists, their Middle East patrons (Iran, Hamas, Hizballah) than winning over local people. Consequently, their slogans are more emotional; their arguments incoherent.

In one respect, their approach is totally divorced from the Middle East and calculated to current thinking in the West: a reduction of all issues to “racism.” Yet in many cases rather than traditional leftism (which tried to win over the local masses) this approach portrays the audience as the villains. Thus, some of the leftists involved in IAW portray Canada itself (and the United States and European countries) as equally racist, colonial enterprises both at home and abroad.

Not stopping with hatred of Israel, the IAW activists often evince hatred of their own countries, a standpoint which, at least in North America and Australia, limits how many people you are going to convince. In Canada there is a special situation in Quebec where local Francophone nationalism, itself relatively hostile toward Israel, also does not take kindly to those who say that nationalism is evil

Their approach provides the IAW movement with three assets—intimidation, the persuasion of passion, and the ability to push the agenda from debate over a two-state solution to serious discussion of Israel’s destruction—but also isolates them from a larger constituency. The more closely mainstream people observe them, the more likely they are to be repelled or disinterested.

Another irony is that the anti-Israel activists have no ostensible interest in anything else that goes on in the Middle East. Not a word is spoken on behalf of the Palestinian Authority or to demand a two-state solution—the kind of thing that does appeal more to the politicians and media.

Nor are there demonstrations in favor of the Iranian opposition or Lebanon’s independence from Iranian-Syrian control, nor against repressive dictatorships. Consequently, given the movement’s generally Islamist orientation and lack of concern over repression and tyranny in the region, I met students who did not support the IAW movement but who were moderate Arab nationalist, Lebanese independence, or Iranian opposition people They may have their criticisms of Israel but do want real peace and appreciate that the main threat to their countries are revolutionary Islamists and Iran’s regime.

Moreover, the IAW movement’s stridency and obsessive hatred also makes it hard to form strong alliances with other Third World-oriented groups. If, say, Tamil activists over Sri Lanka won’t get help from a movement obsessed not with democracy or human rights but merely bashing Israel, why should they support anti-Israel activities?

Indeed, one of the ironies visible here is to what extent students are nowadays victims of the bad education they got from radical professors in which a knowledge of facts, as well as following logical processes and constructing rational arguments, is replaced by a very small number of slogans and epithets. That is also precisely why they have turned to intimidation—a measure of their extremist goals and weakness on talking about the substance of issues.

Given their single-minded and strident anti-Israel emphasis, the most vocal elements in the anti-Israel movement—especially but not exclusively the IAW--is not concerned with human rights’ or social justice but merely a hate-Israel movement based on hypocrisy, thinly veiled antisemitism, and hysteria. As a result, a lot of Muslim and Middle East immigrants who are more assimilated, moderate, and/or nationalist are left out and even antagonized. “Anti-racism” is merely a cover for the real goal: to install radical Islamist dictatorships that would oppress their own people, drive out Christians, repress women, murder gays, and wage wars of terrorism against their neighbors and the West

A lot of the money for this, apparently, comes from trade union and student activity funds meant for different purposes but making the movement a very well funded one.

But is it a widely supported one? This year, though, the Israel Apartheid Week was a dismal failure. For example, the kick-off event on one of the most radical campuses in the country drew only two dozen people, mainly the organizers. The very stridency of the movement alienates all but the already committed. Observers have also noted that some campuses—Concordia in Montreal being the most notable example—have periods of intense activism but as those involved graduate or students react against their universities being turned into places of hatred and intimidation, activity declines.

Equally or even more significant is the reaction against this behavior by the media—where there was significant criticism—and in Canadian politics. In Ontario, all the political parties represented in the parliament jointly passed a resolution condemning the week, a signal to just how little extreme anti-Israel views have become acceptable in Canadian politics, no matter how many have milder criticisms. In the national parliament, three of the four main parties—the New Democratic Party, a smaller left-wing grouping, refused though its branch in Ontario joined the others—supported an anti-IAW resolution.

This is not to deny that there is a negative impact. Most obviously there is intimidation. On two campuses where I met with faculty friendly to Israel the atmosphere felt semi-clandestine, like an underground cell in a dictatorship. At one of these schools, a student is under investigation for posting blogs urging that all Jews in Canada be killed. Teachers openly berate students who dissent from their anti-Israel indoctrination in class. While this didn’t prevent students at other places from being quite active, clearly many people are frightened into passivity knowing that speaking up will damage their careers, grades, or even put their life at risk. While the demonstrations and extremist speakers probably have little lasting effect, the real damage is done in the classrooms.

But there is also a readiness to go beyond mere words. In early April, ten men attacked two pro-Israel activists--one of them the vice-president of the students' association at Carleton University, who isn't Jewish--near the campus, shouting that they were Zionists and Jews. At least some of the men were also students and one of them used a machete in the assault.

Ironically, while extreme and false claims are made about Israeli aggression, the only violence, threats, and intimidation in Canada has been used by the anti-Israel forces. In theory, this should galvanize Canadian opinion, which prides itself on fair play and moderation, against the undemocratic extremists. This has not yet happened very much, however. Will it in future?

As for the classrooms, what was once unthinkable has now become routine, and it isn’t just about Israel. There is often an extraordinary politicization with professors and teaching assistants joining in to promote open indoctrination in which those who dissent or raise questions are also intimidated. A student who spoke up against female genital mutilation was scolded in class for daring to criticize another culture and was called—by the course’s teacher—a “Canadian imperialist.”

This combination of indoctrination on what to believe combined with intimidation on what not to think could destroy the university’s basic function. Yet in terms of activism if not classroom propaganda, temporary upsurges on specific campuses usually don't last, in part because other students become disgusted, at least in regard to how their school's bad reputation could harm the prestige of their degrees. Concordia in Montreal is a case in point, with massive disruptions over several years now followed by a period of quiet.

Perhaps the main difference in making things worse in Europe than in North America is that the latter lacks a critical mass of Islamists and leftists to make their intimidation stick on campus while the general public does not favor and is repelled by extremist views. In North America, at least, one should not overestimate the degree to which strong and long-lasting anti-Israel attitudes have gained hegemony.

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