The recent war between Israel and Hamas, along with a marked rise in European anti-Semitism and the feeling that Israel is held to a double standard internationally, saw many Canadian Jews rushing to declare their unequivocal support for Israel this past summer.
But alongside vocal calls for unity, there were Jews who criticized Operation Protective Edge, and many of these same people have also expressed consistent and ongoing opposition to Israel’s policies, such as its occupation of the West Bank.
The CJN spoke to a handful of Canadian Jews and representatives from organizations whose views on Israel range from somewhat critical to highly disaffected.
Some contest specific Israeli policies, but remain committed to Zionism and a two-state solution. Others identify as anti-Zionist, but maintain that this doesn’t make them anti-Semitic or “self-hating,” nor does it preclude their close emotional ties to Judaism. Several expressed the feeling that they’re denied a voice in Jewish community spaces.
But while their opinions on Israel may make some in the community uncomfortable, they firmly believe that their voices are worthy of being heard.
Sheryl Nestel, 63, calls herself “a recovering Zionist.” She’s on the national steering committee of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), a group whose mandate, according to its website, is to “promote a just resolution to the dispute in Israel and Palestine through the application of international law and respect for the human rights of all parties.”
IJV, which was founded in 2008 and has 493 dues-paying members across the country – and has 2,017 “likes” on Facebook – has not adopted a stance on the question of a one- or two-state solution, but feels that whatever transpires, it’s crucial for Israelis and Palestinians to have fully equal rights.
Originally from the United States, Nestel moved to Toronto with her Canadian husband after living in Israel for 15 years, from 1974 to 1988. There, she identified as a Zionist and was involved with some of the country’s left-wing parties. Her husband served as a soldier in the Israeli Defence Forces. They started to consider leaving after the first intifadah broke out.
“We felt there wasn’t enough support in the country for peace… I remember my daughter came home one day saying, ‘I can’t go into the forest. It’s too scary. There are Arabs there. They’ll harm me.’ We thought it was really bad, this ingrained fear [of Arabs] passed on in schools, in casual encounters.”
She thinks the situation is “too far gone” for a two-state solution, which she doesn’t favour in any event.
“I feel you can’t reconcile the Israeli state as it is today with its vision for a democratic state, because it’s basically an ethnocracy that favours one group over another.”
She said she doesn’t have an answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only that she’d like to see “Jews and Arabs living together in peace, security and full democracy.”
Tyler Levitan, campaigns co-ordinator at IJV, said the group’s politics have gotten it barred from Jewish spaces across the country.
Last year, IJV tried to rent a room at the Ottawa JCC so that one of its members, who Levitan said identifies as a Zionist but questions Israel’s democratic character, could present a slide show he’d created after a trip to Israel, where he’d explored what he saw as discriminatory laws against Israeli-Arabs.
“We wanted to give community members an opportunity to ask questions and engage in constructive dialogue,” Levitan said, but the JCC told the group it would not be permitted to rent space, due to its support for the United Church’s settlement boycott resolution and IJV’s opposition to the Jewish National Fund.
“The mainstream Jewish community is generally very fearful of any kind of open or critical discussion about what’s going on in Israel and Palestine,” said Levitan.
Howard English, senior vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said that “groups like IJV have the perfect right to express themselves, but we note that they are anti-Zionist groups not committed to the Jewish State of Israel… they ally themselves with organizations that seek the demise of Israel as it now exists… with organizations that advocate for total BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] against Israel, and Israel alone.”
English said it’s completely legitimate for a Jewish organization to be critical of Israel and its policies, and CIJA wants to create a safe space for Jews who believe in a democratic Jewish state to speak their minds, whether CIJA agrees with them or not.
But to be included under the “umbrella of organizations with which we will work,” he said, groups must be committed “in concept and practice to a Jewish democratic state of Israel.”
Last fall, a number of young Jews in Toronto formed a grassroots group called the Critical Jew Network of Toronto. Member Emily Green, 28, told The CJN that the group, which is still working out its stance on various issues, came together because, while some members may feel connected to certain elements of Judaism, “they aren’t finding other [Jewish] spaces that are comfortable for them” and wanted a safe place to discuss ideas about Israel and Zionism.
“It feels unsafe to have conversations around Zionism [in the Jewish community],” Green said, stressing she couldn’t speak in an official capacity for the group’s members, whose views are not homogeneous.
“What I mean by that is Toronto’s Jewish community is under Zionist hegemony. There is little space for challenging or even questioning absolute support for Israel. I don’t necessarily feel physically unsafe, but that my ability to hold a place of dignity and respect in Toronto’s Jewish community is challenged.”
Green said she herself is “anti-Zionist,” adding that, “I define that as I’m against any ethnic-based nationalism that is oppressive… I’m not against the more romantic Zionism that emerged in the 1800s and represented the vision of a refuge for Jewish people.”
She added: “I… am certainly not against Jews having safe spaces together… but the contemporary form of Zionism has become a particular political agenda to colonize and settle the entire territory of Palestine. I’m very against that.”
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University and a writer for Ha’aretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. She’s a Zionist, and maintains there is unquestionably space within Zionism for criticism of Israel.
“I struggle with the tension between Israel’s Jewish identity and its democratic character. As I’ve gone on record multiple times in blogs and public debates, I think it’s a tension that can be reconciled. But improvements have to be made.”
Israel should have made strides to work with the Hamas-Fatah unity government, she maintained, and to halt settlement-building in the West Bank.
“There’s a belief among some [in the Jewish community] that one doesn’t air one’s dirty laundry,” she said. “Some believe [criticism] gives fodder to Israel’s enemies, or serves to delegitimize it.”
Last May, Sucharov and journalist Max Blumenthal engaged in a public debate in Ottawa entitled “Can Israel exist as both Jewish and democratic?” It was sponsored, in part, by IJV.
Though Sucharov was on the side arguing that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic, her synagogue wouldn’t permit her to advertise the event there.
Jewish suppression of criticism of Israeli policies seems to have become more prevalent after the second intifadah, said Karen Mock, a human rights consultant, former head of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and a spokesperson for JSpaceCanada.
JSpace, which Mock said has about 200 members, was formed in 2011 and calls itself a “Jewish, progressive-pro-Israel, pro-peace voice in Canada.” It opposes the expansion of Israel’s Jewish settlements in the occupied territories as an impediment to the peace process, as well as “all initiatives that attempt to challenge Israel’s right to exist or impose boycotts, divestments or sanctions on Israel.”
Mock said JSpace attempts to marginalize both those who support the BDS movement and people who spout “Israel apartheid rhetoric,” and those who attempt to stifle all criticism of Israel.
“When someone who loves and supports Israel stands up in a synagogue and talks about how the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank might not be in Israel’s best interest and other Jews boo them and call them self-hating Jews, that’s outrageous.”
She is firm that one can criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic, but she warned that once criticism turns to demonizing only Israel and undermining its existence as a Jewish state, “you’ve crossed the line into anti-Semitism. Because then you’ve singled out the Jewish state as not being worthy of existing.”
In October 2013, JSpace held its inaugural conference in Toronto, where it discussed the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One of the guest speakers was former New Republic editor Peter Beinart, now a senior writer for the Daily Beast and editor of its Open Zion blog, as well as the author of the controversial book The Crisis with Zionism.
JSpace invited him in the interest of highlighting “the importance of engaging more people in support of Israel, even with different and critical viewpoints” said Mock, despite the fact that he has, in the past, advocated for a boycott of products made in Israeli settlements.
“Some people screamed and wanted to discredit us. We said, ‘Why don’t you come to the conference first?’ And some right-wing folks came, and after, some said to us, ‘Wow, that was fabulous,’ and even engaged with us more readily afterward in conversations about what was in Israel’s best interest.”
Though finding a middle ground between what JSPace considers two extreme poles – the Jewish Defence League on the right and IJV on the left – isn’t easy, Mock joked, “We must be doing something right if the far right lumps us in with IJV and IJV lumps us in with the far right.”
Ultimately, the group feels that if Israel is to be a model of democracy, equality and justice, the Jewish community must allow space for dissent.
“It’s the Jewish way to have these conversations, not to silence and exclude each other. And also not to boycott each other in our Canadian Jewish community.”