The education of Ontario’s New Democrats remains a work in progress.
As a progressive party, it leads the fight against racism.
But when its own progressives are accused of antisemitism ― and the lesser sins of insensitivity, hostility or absence of empathy ― the NDP reverts to lagging, not leading.
How can New Democrats be so anti-discrimination and anti-introspection at one and the same time?
For the party’s new leader, Marit Stiles, it is proving to be a steep and bumpy learning curve.
When she took over last month, the NDP and many of its supporters were still reeling ― and squirming ― over the shamelessness of an outspoken MPP on its back benches: Joel Harden had boasted bizarrely in public about his practice of confronting Canadian Jews about Israeli government policies when canvassing door to door.
Yes, on their Canadian doorsteps. Which is known, in diversity and anti-racism circles, as the sin of viewing Jews and other religious or racialized groups as “the other” ― guilty of dual loyalty and answerable for foreign actions on the basis of their ethnicity, faith or origin.
When the story surfaced late last year, many in the party blustered. Harden spouted the customary shibboleths about not being antisemitic, merely anti-Israel-oppression-and-occupation.
But Harden wasn’t the only problem. The pattern was becoming the problem.
Earlier in 2022, star NDP candidate Steve Parish had also poked Jews in the eye by stubbornly defending his decision as mayor of Ajax to erect a street sign honouring a Nazi naval commander. Beyond expressing regret for any inferred “hurt,” he wouldn’t back down.
The NDP’s then-leader, Andrea Horwath, stood by him at first, proclaiming breezily if obtusely: “His values are very, very much the same as my values, as NDP values.”
Until, under pressure, Horwath re-evaluated those values. On second thought, she dumped Parish as a candidate.
Fortunately for New Democrats, veteran MPP Peter Tabuns had taken over as interim leader by the time the Harden door-knocking fiasco hit the headlines (Horwath retired after the last election loss). He quietly arranged for the NDP’s avowedly anti-racist caucus, which preaches diversity training for all, to sit down for a refresher course of sorts — “Understanding the roots of antisemitism.”
Tabuns also asked the two visiting human rights consultants, Bernie Farber and Len Rudner, to deliver a private tutorial for the offending MPP. Harden did some listening and reflecting and apologizing (which doubtless left his defenders speechless).
Now, Stiles has taken over from Tabuns — and finds herself leading a party that is still lagging. For the third time in just over a year, the party is embroiled in controversy over alleged antisemitism.
Sarah Jama emerged as the NDP’s star candidate in this week’s Hamilton byelection (to replace Horwath after she quit as MPP). It also emerged that she had a “messy history” of activism, as she put it in a testy all-candidates’ debate where she was accused of “triggering” Jews.
Yet Jama pointedly declined to distance herself from the slogan used at a rally by Palestinian rights groups she’d attended: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
The phrase is controversial because it speaks of liberation from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea — with no Israel to speak of. It’s a slogan I heard covering countless rallies in Gaza and the West Bank when I spent four years as the Star’s Middle East bureau chief, and while it’s open to interpretation, I’m not sure it translates well to the streets of Hamilton or Toronto.
Mainstream Jewish groups note it “rejects the right to self-determination for Jewish people and calls for the destruction of Israel. This is hateful toward the Jewish community,” as Ottawa-based CIJA described a previous incident at Toronto schools.
Jama dismissed various allegations of antisemitism and antipathy to Israel, arguing that critics shouldn’t “conflate” the two. While most Canadian Jews understand the distinction, the “conflation” defence is often used to camouflage an obsession with Israel that speaks volumes.
Many Jews at home and abroad are increasingly critical of Israel’s transgressions — it’s all about context — without being defensive. What’s indefensible is that the candidate was disinclined to clarify.
Oddly for a politician who preaches transparency, Jama refused to be interviewed by major media — including the Star, The Globe and Mail and The Canadian Press — in the days before the vote. Revealingly, before Jama ran for the party nomination last year, her social media tracks were scrubbed of any offending tweets or posts.
We may never know what she didn’t want us to see, but a few glimpses of her past activism escaped the sanitization exercise. A bizarre video clip shows her making “wild conspiratorial accusations,” according to Michael Levitt, head of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center:
“It’s fine that, you know, Israel’s illegitimate,” Jama railed at a Nathan Phillips Square protest. “The same people will continue to fund the killing of people here locally and globally.”
The same people? Which people, precisely?
This was too much for Stiles. After defending her candidate for days, she presided over yet another NDP apology.
“I apologize for my comments which have been harmful,” Jama said in a written statement, using new phrasing: “Jewish people deserve to feel safe, and should never be targeted because of their faith or their culture.”
As a human rights activist, she’d always insisted she wasn’t antisemitic, merely fighting for the rights of groups targeted for hate. Yet she had not previously cast herself as a champion of Jews, who have historically been heavily targeted for hate in Canada — a fact that’s forgotten by some of the most righteous human rights advocates.
For New Democrats, Jama’s byelection victory Thursday should have been a day of celebration, not trepidation. But as Stiles welcomes a new member of caucus, the rookie leader must be thinking hard about her party’s continuing education on antisemitism.
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