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JSpace panellists differ on where to draw boundaries

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From left, Mira Sucharov, Joan Garson, Sara Lefton and Jacqueline Swartz JODIE SHUPAC PHOTO
From left, Mira Sucharov, Joan Garson, Sara Lefton and Jacqueline Swartz JODIE SHUPAC PHOTO

People in the Jewish community who try to silence others who hold disparate political views about Israel was the main topic of a panel at JSpace Canada’s 2015 biennial conference.

Entitled “How do we talk to each other? Do we even have the same language?” the session was one of several at the event, held Nov. 14-15 at the University of Toronto’s Multi-Faith Centre.

JSpace calls itself a Jewish, pro-Israel, pro-peace group that provides “Canadians with a fair and balanced alternative to the rigidly pro-Israel right and the anti-Israel left.”

Several dozen people attended the panel, moderated by Walrus editor Jonathan Kay. It featured Joan Garson, chair of the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIFC); Sara Lefton, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA); Mira Sucharov, associate professor of political science at Carleton University and a contributor to Ha’aretz and The CJN; and Jacqueline Swartz of the Canadian Friends of Peace Now (CFPN) executive.

The speakers addressed the hostile environment during the recent federal election and the tensions that flared between supporters of former prime minister Stephen Harper and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, and those who vocally criticized the latter.

Though the speakers differed on whom they’d engage in discussion about Israel, they agreed that negatively labelling Jews from different positions on the political spectrum harms the community.

Garson referenced a recent incident that she said exemplified “the kind of oppression that can impair open discussion.”

She said the NIFC was recently asked to organize an event in a Canadian city on the topic of pluralism. When right-wing U.S. blogger Pamela Geller heard about it, she called those involved “traitors,” and the shul cancelled the event. “They were bullied,” Garson said.

Kay said to Lefton that CIJA is accused of being “monolithic” and asked her about censorship in the community. Lefton said she’s regularly accused of being “a shill for the Conservatives, a shill for the Liberals and a shill for the NDP.”

She said CIJA was similarly concerned about the divisiveness and abusiveness during the election, and said it seemed “everybody felt they were being attacked.”

Kay replied that he sensed it was people on the left who felt particularly attacked due to “the combination of the Tories being in power and the mainstream, muscularly pro-Zionist community being empowered by that,” as well as “the rhetorical factors that created the line of ‘If you’re not for Netanyahu, maybe you’re on the wrong side of the war on terror.’”

Sucharov said CIJA has been accused of partisanship because of “the tone it has helped promote – though CIJA didn’t create the tone – which says there’s only one way to engage with Israel and to be a loyal Jewish community member,” and that CIJA tapped into the Conservatives’ “binary view of the world,” which included a “Likud-led Israel as the right way to proceed.”

Sucharov, who said she’s often called “a self-loathing Jew,” noted “quiet corners of shunning” in the community, such as when parents in a bar and bat mitzvah group she recently organized told her they didn’t feel comfortable with having her in their home because of a column she wrote on Israel.

Lefton said CIJA encourages diverse opinions, but draws a line at boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. “Our starting point is that we want to work with groups who believe in the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, and we won’t work with groups who threaten that,” she said.

Swartz said Peace Now opposes BDS, but supports labelling goods from the territories, which it sees as “a counterweight to BDS, because then we clearly demarcate sovereign Israel from the occupied territories, and we want people to buy goods from Israel.”

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