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B’nai Brith, Rabble, and why words matter

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Most Jews have strong opinions about their community, Israel and the Middle East. The words they speak and actions they take can therefore have a profound effect on these topical and, at times, volatile discussions.

Here’s a recent example.

On Aug. 19, B’nai Brith’s website featured a review of Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy’s new book, Underdog: Confessions of a Right-Wing Gay Jewish Muckraker.

Sounds harmless enough, right? For the most part, it was.

Yet, some people noticed the review contained a striking passage about Uzma Shakir, the City of Toronto’s director of equity, diversity and human rights: “After investigating Shakir’s background, Levy discovered that she has contributed to the racist, white supremacist and anti-Semitic website Rabble.ca.”

There’s no doubt that Rabble.ca, founded by left-wing activist Judy Rebick and several others in 2001, has made critical comments about everything from political conservatism to Israel. Regardless, most political observers wouldn’t use the labels contained in this review to describe the website’s staff, contributors and overall content.

It could have even led to serious ramifications for those associated with the (ahem) Rabble-rousers. 

John “Dr. Dawg” Baglow, a former Public Service Alliance of Canada vice-president, pointed out on his Facebook page that this description “certainly can be held to lower a person’s standing in the community to be accused of publishing on a ‘white supremacist’ website. As a professional writer, this certainly could affect me.” It’s a valid point.

So, who was behind this controversy?

It wasn’t Levy. When contacted by the progressive website Ricochet’s Ethan Cox and Derrick O’Keefe on Aug. 24, “she provided a copy of the page of her book as reference, confirming that she had not used the terms ‘racist’ ‘white supremacist’ or ‘anti-Semitic’ to describe rabble.ca.”

The focus then shifted to B’nai Brith Canada and the review’s author, Simon Pelsmakher. More specifically, to how this sentence could have survived any sort of vetting process and been green-lit for publication.

B’nai Brith Canada ultimately realized its error in judgment. It removed the review, and tweeted on Aug. 24, “The depiction of @rabbleca in a recent post we published was incorrect. We apologize for this and have corrected the post.” 

The piece returned later that day, without the offensive line. In its place was the following passage, “After investigating Shakir’s background, Levy discovered that she has contributed to the website rabble.ca, which Levy calls ‘a virulently anti-Israel website that strongly supports Israeli Apartheid Week and the BDS movement.’”

Whether this sentence is better, worse or the same as the previous one is up for debate. At the very least, it can be directly attributed to the author – and people are now free to judge on its merits. 

What caused the B’nai Brith-Rabble brouhaha? It was an explosion waiting to happen, caused largely by words, actions and perceptions.

In my view, it could have been easily avoided.

A critic of Israel, as I’ve argued before, isn’t necessarily an anti-Semite. The two sometimes go hand-in-hand. Yet, it’s not difficult to distinguish between pro-Palestinian supporters who are furious with Israeli military tactics, and unsophisticated bigots who believe Jews control everything from banks to the media.

This doesn’t mean you have to agree with the positions of Israel’s critics. Far from it. Rather, you have to accept the basic premise that free speech is, and has always been, the defence of ideas that are objective and objectionable.

Democratic societies must support views that appear right to us, and tolerate views that appear wrong to us. In turn, we must defend an individual’s right to support various positions in a nonviolent manner.

If you truly believe in free speech, you should be able to intellectually defend the rights of those who have less than desirable views about Israel. This includes organizations like rabble.ca, even if you believe that what they represent is abhorrent.