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CMU logoBy BERNIE BELLAN

The issue whether certain events that have recently been held in Winnipeg can be fairly termed anti-Semitic has certainly caused quite a furor – at least among some segments of our Jewish community.

 

It began with a panel discussion held at the University of Winnipeg on February 28 and continued with a speaker at the Canadian Mennonite University on April 25. What both events had in common, at least to one extent, was that they  had some organizations sponsoring both events. In our last issue I wrote about the recurrent involvement of certain Mennonite organizations in events that can fairly be described as “anti-Israel” in tone. I also noted that it is not unfair to criticize Israel in and of itself; heck, I’ve been doing that ever since I began writing this column. All that I asked for is some semblance of balance when it comes to criticizing Israel.

Palestinian Anglican Priest Naim Ateek

What I – and so many others, Jews and non-Jews alike, find so hypocritical about the numerous critics of Israel out there, is that they give a total pass to Palestinian sins. Israel is always the “oppressor” and Palestinians are always the “victims”. Wouldn’t it be something if any of those anti-Israel groups that are so fond of holding demonstrations against Israel and castigating the “Zionist oppressors” were to call out Palestinians for killing innocent civilians, for instance - or rewarding the families of “martyrs”, or continuing to include the most vile anti-Semitic tropes in Palestinian textbooks?
As a result of my criticizing Canadian Mennonite University in particular for holding an event at which a Palestinian priest continued the trend of demonizing Israel without ever holding Palestinians to account for their own considerable failings (See http://jewishpostandnews.ca/local/2575-canadian-mennonite-university-plays-host-to-anti-israel-speaker for my report on Rev. Naim Ateek’s talk.), I was asked to come down to CMU to meet with some representatives of that institution and discuss my concerns with them.

Subsequently, I attended a meeting on May 1st at CMU. I had asked Belle Jarniewski to come along, as I have immense respect for Belle’s involvement in inter-faith dialogue; also her considerable knowledge of theology – which I thought would prove useful if the discussion were to move to that subject area. I had also asked Shelley Faintuch, the former director of community relations for the Jewish Federation, to attend, but Shelley unfortunately was unable to be there.
As it turned out, the discussion that ensued was very productive. Both Belle and I wanted to stress the significance that so many in the Jewish community attach to constantly seeing the involvement of certain Mennonite organizations, particularly the Mennonite Central Committee, at events where Israel comes in for sharp criticism.
I tried to make the point to the representatives of CMU who were at that meeting (also Dean Peachey, acting executive director of Global College at the University of Winnipeg, who was also there) that all that I was interested in seeing was “balance”. During the course of our conversation I mentioned to them that just a couple of weeks ago the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada had presented a program featuring renowned historian Margaret MacMillan at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue.
The talk Dr. MacMillan gave, I said, was so even-handed that one would be hard put to suggest that she came down one way or another on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That was an event sponsored by a Jewish organization held in a synagogue, I noted. Now, couldn’t Canadian Mennonite University try and do the same? I asked.
Instead, I argued, certain Mennonite organizations have taken upon themselves the role of spokespersons for Palestinians – as if Mennonites are the “big brothers” to the Palestinians. One of the problems, I also suggested, is that if CMU were to try and hold an event at which, for instance, a pro-Israel speaker and a pro-Palestinian speaker were to participate, while one might expect that the pro-Israeli would be willing to accept that Israel is not without blame when it comes to analyzing the reasons for the conflict between the two peoples, you would be hard put to find a pro-Palestinian who would be equally forthright.
 I noted that when Irshad Manji (who is a Muslim), author of The Trouble with Islam spoke at the Asper Campus several years ago, she was actually threatened with physical violence for daring to criticize Islam by a  male Muslim  who was in the audience that evening. It didn’t seem to phase that individual in the least that he was in a Jewish centre. The fact that a Muslim didn’t feel intimidated into not threatening a fellow Muslim’s life for being a traitor to her religion - despite the fact he was in a Jewish centre, and despite much of the audience being shocked by the level of hatred emanating from that guy, spoke volumes about the difference in attitudes between Jews and Muslims when it comes to free speech.

Yet, my impression was that the representatives of CMU who were at that May 1st meeting are sincerely interested in mending fences with the Jewish community. I, along with several other members of our community, including representatives of the Jewish Federation, received very conciliatory emails from two of the CMU representatives who were at that meeting in which those individuals expressed the desire to come to the Campus and meet, both with representatives of the Federation and the Jewish Heritage Centre. Maybe something good can come about as a result of the criticisms of certain Mennonite organizations that were printed in our last issue, particularly the very strongly worded letter written by the Jewish Federation.

It’s all nice to exchange pleasantries about inter-faith dialogue, but at a certain point words of a stronger nature are called for when it comes to expressing dissatisfaction with the manner in which certain groups behave, especially when it comes to criticizing Israel but avoiding any criticism of Palestinians.

In the interest of balance, however, here are two letters we received that take quite a different tack regarding the two events that have caused such a strong reaction:

Response to JP&N criticisms of Mennonite groups
Dear Bernie,
The ‘My Jerusalem’ event has certainly got under your skin – and revealed some distasteful things there. In a period during which the IDF has apparently targeted (mostly) unarmed demonstrators, including children, and shot and killed two clearly identified members of the press, you choose to talk about what some Mennonites did in Manitoba 140 years ago. This is about as relevant to current activities as the Israelites’ slaughter of Amorites, Midianites and other inhabitants of the Promised Land in Biblical Times; it is nothing but an attempt to malign and defame members of the MCC. As for the long quotation from the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs, a quick look at Wikipedia reveals that this has been led by Dore Gold, a longtime advisor to Netanyahu and, until recently, a key member of his department of foreign affairs. It is hardly a source of the balance you claim to want. Finally, you continue to ignore the United Jewish Peoples Order’s sponsorship of the ‘My Jerusalem’ event. UJPO is a long-established Jewish organization with a wide range of interests and activities, including (since January only) a talk on the work of Leonard Cohen and a panel on Jews and the Russian Revolution. I am one UJPO member who is proud to work with MCC on ‘My Jerusalem’ and other issues; their record for humanitarian work all over the world is exceptional.
Mark Golden

Response to JP&N letter
Bernie, you used to proudly (and accurately I believe) note that you gave coverage to a variety of views on Israeli - Palestinian issues. Unfortunately the paper has been doing this much less lately.
Now, I am surprised at your mounting hysteria about the CMU hosting a speaker whom you describe as anti-Israel (CMU to play host to anti-Israel priest; April 25, 2018). You suggest that the event be titled “Just why is it that Mennonites criticize Israel so much, but remain silent about Palestinians”. The outrageous letter from Jewish Federation of Winnipeg executive members in that same edition states “…local Mennonite institutions are not only hypocritical but also plagued by an unhealthy, obsessive hostility toward the world’s only Jewish state”.
Bernie, why not just say it, rather than beating around the bush. In your view, and that of the Federation spokespeople, these Mennonites are anti-Semites.
I suggest that you and the Federation leaders develop some more persuasive ideas about how to justify Israel’s behaviour, rather than taking your same old tack of calling anyone who criticizes Israel an anti-Semite. First please acknowledge some facts which are the causes of the criticisms you seem to find so inexplicable. You might begin with these well-documented facts (from Haaretz, March 29, 2018):
“In the mass expulsion that both preceded and followed Israel’s founding, about 750,000 Palestinians were expelled and forced to flee their homes and become lifetime refugees. 250,000 of those uprooted flooded into Gaza...As a result, the population of Gaza...tripled overnight...Gaza became one huge refugee camp...Submerged by waves of displaced people...”
Mennonite organizations (e.g. the Mennonite Central Committee) are well-known for their work with refugees world-wide. What do you think is so odd about their concern for Palestinians who have been displaced?
In addition, when asking why there is continued criticism of Israel, despite your view of its stellar human rights record, perhaps consider Moshe Dayan’s answer (April, 1956, also from Ha’aretz, March 29, 2018): ”What we can say against their terrible hatred of us? For eight years, they have sat in the refugee camps of Gaza, and have watched how, before their very eyes, we have turned their lands and villages, where they and their forefathers dwelled, into our home.”
Israel’s founders and leaders were well aware of what their policies and practices meant for the Palestinians. Why shouldn’t the Mennonites notice too?
Sincerely,  Mark Etkin MD