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By BERNIE BELLAN
It’s always easy for someone in a position such as editor of a newspaper to pontificate about freedom of speech. We saw many examples of all sorts of media players joining in chorus lamenting the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism to free speech following the Charlie Hebdo massacre last month.


But, when it comes to putting actions behind those brave words we haven’t seen much in the way of evidence that would indicate any real change on the part of media when it comes to a willingness to step forward and face head-on the threats that inevitably result from being willing to allow true freedom of speech.
If you had read our last issue you would be aware that I was going to be interviewing someone who has gained much notoriety as an outspoken critic of Israel: Jeff Halper. I did interview Halper at the Free Press News Café on Monday, February 11 – and, to tell you the truth, I was as bored listening to Halper dissemble as I sat next to him as I’m sure most of you would be if you were to watch that interview (which, by the way, can be viewed on our website at http://www.jewishpostandnews.ca).
The problem with folks like Halper is they go on – and on – and on. I knew beforehand that I wasn’t going to be able to conduct the kind of interview that staunch supporters of Israel might like, to wit: a back and forth question and answer session during which I would constantly interject and rebut anything that Halper might say that would be considered the least bit dishonest or exaggerated.
Anyone with any experience listening to speakers like Halper would know that, notwithstanding his keen intellect – and he is exceedingly bright, he’s not much interested in participating in a dialogue. The Halpers of this world much prefer to be able to give a monologue – and generally when they speak, they speak to an audience that’s already converted to whatever cause it is they’re trying to promote.
I do try to listen to all sides in a discussion, however; maybe that sets me apart from most Israel advocates, but I do consider myself a strong advocate for Israel. I also think that it is very important to consider and understand the arguments advanced by critics of Israel and, furthermore, to concede that they do make some valid points.
It’s no secret that I’m no fan of Bibi Netanyahu or any of the right wing politicians who have been ascendant in Israel for years. And, it’s not easy to find an Israeli politician who is willing even to discuss the Palestinian situation, never mind talk about an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. (There I go again: referring to “Judea and Samaria” as “occupied territories”. Have I just lost any credibility I might have had claiming to be an “advocate” for Israel? Probably in the minds of many I have. That just goes to show how the discourse has changed so radically from years ago when it was taken for granted that Israel would withdraw to the “green line” in return for a true peace with Palestinians.)
But, to return to my boring interview with Halper – what I wanted to do was get in at least a few questions (in between his long monologues) that would attempt to hold Halper to account for some of the consequences of the BDS movement (boycott, divest, sanctions), of which he has been a leading proponent. I also wanted to avoid giving him yet another platform to launch into a denunciation of Israeli demolitions of Palestinian houses – not because Halper doesn’t have a solid case to make, but because I don’t think he has anything new to say on that point.
Also, there is a pattern of anti-Israel speakers coming to Winnipeg and speaking to crowds made up of Mennonites, United Church members, union activists, and Muslims. In other words, they preach to the converted. At the Free Press News Café, however, there were a good 20 members of the audience who had come to that event as a result of the efforts of Bradley and Yolanda Pollock (who have been the driving forces behind the newly formed Israel Advocacy group) to see to it that the audience at that event was not composed merely of the usual gang of anti-Israel advocates.
There were two questions in particular that I wanted to ask Halper that, I thought, might expose the hypocrisy of the BDS movement: One was about his own background as a former professor at Ben Gurion University. (Halper had been an adjunct professor of anthropology at BGU for a time.) I asked him whether he, too, would not have been subject to an academic boycott if he were still a professor at BGU.
Halper responded that the boycott was aimed only at specific academics, also at certain Israeli institutions of higher learning that are involved in research that has a military aspect. He added that, in Canada, the boycott is aimed at any Israeli schools that have co-operative agreements with Canadian schools. But, he went on for so long that, even though I would have loved to ask him how that would affect, for instance, the many achievements that the University of Manitoba and Hebrew University of Jerusalem have seen in the medical technology field through the IMRI program, I realized that I had limited time and that I wouldn’t be able to get in some of the other important questions that I had. (The interview was 45 minutes, during which Halper spoke for approximately 40 minutes.)
I would also have loved to point out that many of the resolutions passed by certain groups such as the American Studies Association, among others, target both specific Israeli academics and Israeli schools. Ben Gurion University is mentioned in some of those boycott resolutions. But it wasn’t a debate in which I was engaged and I didn’t want to be drawn into a point-by-point analysis of everything that’s wrong with the BDS movement.
Instead, I wanted to focus on what I consider to be a specific instance of the dire consequences of the BDS movement – not for Israelis, but for Palestinians. In this case I’m talking about the closure of the Sodastream plant in Maaleh Adumim last year. That plant had employed somewhere between 450-500 Palestinians in jobs that were paying considerably more than the average Palestinian wage, and with other fringe benefits, including health coverage. Even more, the company’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum, had pledged to keep the plant operating even should it eventually end up being on the land of a new Palestinian state.
But none of that was good enough for the proponents of the BDS movement. Sodastream had to go! When I asked Halper about that particular event he launched into an explanation of what had happened that certainly didn’t correspond with anything that I had previously read about the closing of the Sodastream plant. Halper claimed that the employees of the plant were all fired because they had asked to be able to bring food with them to the plant on Ramadaan – to be able to eat if at night after their shifts ended.
Now I don’t know whether there’s anything to that story or not, but to me it goes to the heart of what’s wrong with much of the criticism that’s leveled at Israel – and was part of my ongoing criticism of Halper and the anti-Israel crowd during the interview: They focus on Israel endlessly – and Israel certainly is not blameless, but they ignore anything else going on in the Middle East that might be worthy of far worse condemnation. And by this I refer specifically to the ongoing savagery that seems to constitute so much of daily life in Islamic countries, whether that’s the unbelievable brutalty of ISIS, the medieval orientation of Saudi Arabia, or the savage crackdown on civil liberties in Egypt.
Yes, Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinians is often deplorable, but groups such as Independent Jewish Voices or Jews for Justice for Palestinians would gain a great deal more credibility with soft liberals like me if they were also to denounce the injustices perpetrated by Palestinians one on another. As Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh has pointed out repeatedly, the gross hypocrisy of those who would single out Israel for condemnation, yet totally ignore the often worse behaviour of Palestinians toward one another, is outrageous.


On that point, I am compelled to comment on a press release that you can find elsewhere in this issue, from the Arab-Jewish Dialogue group here in Winnipeg. The gist of that release is that, out of respect for one another’s religion, media should avoid printing or disseminating any images of Mohammed. (I’m not even going to use the term “prophet Mohammed”. To me he was just another bloody tribal leader who happened to come along at a fortuitous moment in history and, as with many others before and after his arrival, through military conquest, build an empire.)
The idea that, out of some notion of respect for a particular religion, we should be enjoined from engaging in a specific form of communication, i.e. printing images of Mohammed, is a dangerous form of appeasement. I’m no great fan of Ezra Levant, but when his now defunct magazine, the Western Standard, reprinted those Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed in 2006, I had nothing but admiration for his courage.
I admit that I have a great deal of trouble with Canada’s “hate laws” and, as much as I respect David Matas for his ongoing defense of those laws, I find the curtailment of freedom of speech inherent in those laws to be worrisome – especially since it now seems that Muslims will be resorting to those laws more and more often to attempt to repress criticisms of their religion.
Ultimately, however, whether it’s Independent Jewish Voices being allowed to bring in a staunch critic of Israel such as Jeff Halper or Muslims calling for the avoidance of depictions of Mohammed, at least here in Canada, for the most part we can exchange in a healthy exchange of views. There aren’t many countries left in the world about which that can be said. That being said, on the page opposite you can find a submission from Palestinian Sam Bahour, a sometime contributor to these pages. I don’t agree with everything that Sam has to say but he is a thoughtful and articulate spokesperson for Palestinians. I want to know what Palestinians are thinking – even if most Israelis could care less.