As someone with gutter-level musical talents who often winds up behind a mic, I sympathize and support. I imagine Harper will look back on this moment as one of the greatest in his life, and I wouldn’t begrudge him that.
But it was this performance that really made an impact.
So on to the issue at hand:
Last week, Stephen Harper sent a powerful message to the Israeli people: that, besieged by bombs and hatred, they are not alone. For reasons I cannot fathom, Harper waited 8 years before his first visit to Israel, but as they say, he knows how to make an entrance. His trip was front page news daily in Canada, but it also made headlines in Israel and around the world, because Harper, alone among world leaders it seems, came with a message of unbridled support for Israel.
Harper has been blasted for this back home on the ranch, and the favourite word of those attacking him is ‘balance’. Why couldn’t Harper balance his support of Israel with criticism? Why couldn’t Harper balance himself midway between Palestinian and Israeli claims?
They are looking with too small a lens. Look beyond Harper, at the environment in which Harper went, and see that balance left the station years ago. Harper went to Israel to bring a little back.
There is no balance in the constant accusations from church groups, unions and academics of Israel as a criminal state; the everyday denunciations from the UN’s so-called human rights councils led by such stalwarts as pre-Arab Spring Libya and Syria; the virulent hatred towards this tiny, constantly endangered democracy where even the absence of war crimes is twisted into proof of Israel’s unmatched evil. There is no balance when Quebec politicians can march in an anti-Israel rally in solidarity with Lebanon, but Israeli representatives are not even permitted to speak at our universities.
The Taliban government in Afghanistan was never criticized with the kind of emotional intensity and viciousness that Israel suffers routinely. While Westerners may deplore Taliban attacks on female schools, few are so obsessed with them as they are any perceived injustice on the part of Israel.
Where were the boycotts of the Assad and Ghadaffi regimes? Where were the marches against Hamas when they took final control of Gaza by throwing rival Fatah officials off rooftops?
After the Gaza War of 2009, Israelis were condemned harshly for the deaths of Gazan children, being used as human shields in a conflict zone, while roughly the same number of children (200-300) are estimated to have been killed in drone strikes ordered by President Obama in Afghanistan and Pakistan (and while Syria’s civil war has claimed 11,000 children). Will these latest anti-Israel academics show some ‘balance’ by abandoning and renouncing their own colonial home in the United States?
Israel is accused of ethnic cleansing in territory they control, while the Arab population has increased there, and where life expectancy and other health standards are actually higher than in much of the Middle East. But thousand-year old Jewish communities have been violently chased from Morocco, Iraq, and Kuwait. Ever hear about that? Here’s a tip: when a population vanishes, that may be ethnic cleansing. When a population increases, that is not ethnic cleansing.
Nor is this criticism of Israel harmless. These ‘balanced’ critiques provide cover for the most vicious racism, and it is growing. Go on any European news site on the Internet and read the commentary, and tell me if Jews should feel safe. Schools and synagogues are firebombed, and Jews are beaten in the street in Europe. I fear for my own children in a way I didn’t imagine years ago.
In a part of the world where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Syrians are killed and displaced by sectarian violence; where chemical weapons are deployed against civilian populations; where gays and women are stoned to death for how they love and live; where terrorist groups are trained to bomb Jewish children worldwide, Harper went to the one country where Jews, Christians and Muslims live together with even a semblance of state protection; where hospitals and charity groups day-in-and-day-out reach out their hand to aid the ‘enemy’ with full support of the government, and said, We support you.
(I am well aware of racism in Israeli society and institutions, as in the United States; I feel perfectly free to criticize this knowing Harper is not labeling me an anti-Semite, because I understand that as reprehensible as that racism is, it is still not the worst crime in the world).
This is the environment in which Harper went to Israel. Harper has never called Israel blameless or perfect. He went to bring a bit of balance.
Good for Harper.
He has not changed Canada’s position, which has long been in support of a two-state solution and opposed to Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Canada is still a major donor to the Palestinian Authority as well as humanitarian efforts in the West Bank.
Harper did not go to Israel to tell them what they should do differently. As if the criticisms of Israel would be news to them! What? Some in the West are against the settlements?
He went to Israel knowing this was an opportunity to make a statement that would be heard around the world, and he made a powerful one: that Israel is defensible, that it has allies, and that, in the context of this awful world, Israel should be supported. As Harper pointed out, none in the media were concerned Harper might not sufficiently critique Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority; but back home how many waited breathlessly for Harper to put Netanyahu in his place?
So many wrongly believe Harper will have harmed Israel with his ‘misguided’ support. In fact, when Israel is blamed in such an imbalanced way all the time, Israelis grow deaf to the criticism. They don’t feel they will ever be given a fair hearing in the rest of the world, so why would they take serious risks to curry favour abroad? By establishing himself as an unshakeable supporter of Israel, Harper has made himself a voice that will be heard in their halls of power.
Despite the viciousness of her detractors, Israel still has supporters worldwide. In much of the West they are still the majority, if silent. Harper has identified himself worldwide as a leader to all of these.
Much has been made of Harper’s speech to the Knesset in which he leveled the charge of anti-Semitism against Israel’s critics.
Of course, criticism of Israeli government policy is not in and of itself necessarily anti-Semitic.
But what else can we call criticism that selectively condemns only the Jewish state and effectively denies its right to defend itself, while systematically ignoring – or excusing – the violence and oppression all around it?
What else can we call it when Israel is routinely targeted at the United Nations?
And when Israel remains the only country to be the subject of a permanent agenda item at the regular sessions of its Human Rights Council?
It’s a beautiful speech, and I recommend reading it in full, here. It is absolutely clear to me that Harper is not delegitimizing criticism of Israel. I do not know how much more clearly this can be said: “criticism of Israeli government policy is not in and of itself necessarily anti-Semitic.”
Harper then goes on to list the context in which certain criticisms can be considered rooted in anti-Semitism. Now, Harper’s government holds official positions critical of the State of Israel. But Harper will not allow Israel’s critics to hold onto their façade of innocence. It is the criticism of Israel, alone among the Middle East states in its place of infamy in the minds and mouths of a significant and loud minority in the West, that is unbalanced. To Harper, and to many, it reeks of anti-Semitism.
Many fair-minded people, including Israel-supporter-critics like myself, have taken offense at Harper’s speech, that Harper is tarring folks for their opinions. I am myself no Likkudnik. I have never supported Netanyahu. I am a critic of Israel, but you could also say I am a critic of Canada. Not because these are the most criminal states in the world, but because I care about the direction of these countries. Funny, I don’t feel targeted at all by Harper’s speech.
I am not sure I agree that anti-Semitism is at the root of the unbalanced attacks on Israel; in another post we’ll discuss other possibilities, such as Israel as the target of White Colonial Guilt. This is itself an enormously important topic. What I do know is that whatever the ultimate reasons, the attacks on Israel are unbalanced, loaded with hatred, and extremely dangerous, and if they don’t spring entirely from anti-Semitism, they surely contribute to it.
That’s what is important in the big picture, and that is what Harper went to fight.
Israelis are under psychological siege from a world that speaks only in hatred to them. Harper brought them a branch of hope and friendliness to grasp, a priceless gift.