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Larry Haiven: Accept Zaman’s apology and fight the real anti-Semites

Re: Why equating Israelis with Nazis is beyond the pale.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Rabbi Yakov Kerzner’s Dec. 24 opinion piece is noteworthy not by what he says, but by what he doesn’t. Kerzner wants Herald readers to understand his part in the cruel smearing, humiliating and demeaning of Rana Zaman, one of Halifax’s finest human rights campaigners. As a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada (www.ijvcanada.org) I, like many other Haligonians, must rise to Ms. Zaman’s defence.

Since Kerzner presents his Holocaust credentials, I shall do the same. My late father, a 1948 immigrant to Canada, was a survivor of Auschwitz (where more than a million lost their lives, nine out of 10 of them Jewish). I grew up in a haunted milieu with six million ghosts.

My mother, fortunately, came with her immediate family before the war; the records at Pier 21 show her arrival in 1927. But as kids, we would look at old-world photos of aunties, cousins and our great-grandparents and ask: “What happened to them?” All exterminated.

Judy and I and our two sons have fought our entire lives against all forms of discrimination, racial and anti-Semitic. And we have paid for it. During one incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan in Toronto where we organized resistance, somebody broke into our apartment and painted anti-Jewish slogans on the walls. My bruises from confronting white supremacists have healed. But, even in my 70s, I am still willing to challenge hatred and bigotry wherever I find it. Disappointingly, several of the attacks have come from the institutional Jewish organizations that felt uncomfortable with our criticism of Israeli policies and actions.

So why am I defending someone who compared Israel to Nazi Germany?

First, I’ve worked with Rana, a Muslim woman of colour, on many human rights campaigns and know her and her reputation as a tireless activist well. To know Rana is to know that she is not an anti-Semite.

Second, we must know the context of her now-infamous tweets in August 2018. She was horrified and outraged by Israeli forces killing almost 150 unarmed Palestinians and injuring at least 10,000 others, including 1,800 children, 400 women, 100 paramedics, 100 journalists and Canadian emergency room physician Tarek Loubani (who went to school in Halifax). Loubani’s shooting had drawn a rebuke from the Canadian government.

Rana’s tweets were crude and ill-conceived. One does not have to compare Israel to Nazi Germany to dramatize that carnage. It speaks, quite eloquently, for itself.

Third, when the tweets became public, Rana immediately and unreservedly apologized to the public, to the NDP and to the Atlantic Jewish Council. In part, she said: “I am grateful to (my Jewish friends) for taking the time to share personal stories of the horrors their families suffered in the Holocaust … I now appreciate that my tweets comparing Israeli actions to those of Nazi Germany were inappropriate, hurtful and sadly may be perceived as anti-Semitic.” The Atlantic Jewish Council has rejected this apology. Judge for yourself: the full apology can be found here.

Fourth, Rana has worked closely with members of the Halifax Jewish community on social-justice issues. She and Rabbi Raysh Weiss together formed the Muslim and Jewish women’s inter-community peace group Salaam-Shalom. Weiss’s husband, Rabbi Jonah Rank, sent a moving tribute about Rana to Human Rights Commission CEO Christine Hanson, which calls Ms. Zaman “a friend to the Jews, a courageous changemaker.” Does this Rana Zaman sound like an anti-Semite, or rather a person who misspoke and realizes the error?

Fifth, and finally, this is not about Jews or anti-Semitism at all. This is about some people defending Israel at all costs. For instance, Jewish institutional organizations have developed the so-called International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – Working Definition of anti-Semitism in which seven of 11 examples are about criticism of Israel. Even its original author, legal scholar Kenneth Stern, has now disavowed it, citing its threat to freedom of speech. He recently wrote in The Guardian, “I drafted the definition of anti-Semitism. Right-wing Jews are weaponizing it.”

We live in days when real anti-Semitism has, amid anti-black racism and Islamophobia, once again raised its ugly head, when shooters kill praying congregants in synagogues, when bigots, like Viktor Orban, Yörg Haider and Richard Spencer use love of Israel to cover their dreadful acts and views, when torch-bearing neo-Nazis march chanting, “the Jews will not replace us.”

The Atlantic Jewish Council needs to stop attacking friends — I witnessed its bizarre May 2016 invasion of the Halifax Pride AGM when a motion critical of Israel was on the floor — and consigning friends like Rana Zaman beyond the pale. We need to unite to go after the real haters.

This op-ed was originally published by the Chronicle Herald. It is posted here with the kind permission of the author.

Larry Haiven is professor emeritus at Saint Mary’s University and a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

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