Bernie newBy BERNIE BELLAN
As much as it's becoming increasingly unpopular within our Jewish community to defend free speech, I'm going to continue arguing that it's terribly hypocritical to call for the preemptive banning of certain speakers whose views may be critical of Israeli government policy while forgetting that pro-Israel speakers have been - and are still being subjected to exactly the same treatment.

 

 

 

In 2002, students at Concordia University in Montreal prevented Binyamin Netanyahu from speaking there (he was not Israel’s prime minister at the time). Then, in 2004, the university itself barred former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak from speaking there.
In 2010, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was repeatedly interrupted by protesters during a speech he was giving at the University of California in Irvine. (He was eventually able to finish delivering his speech though.)
There has been an ongoing campaign on university campuses in the United States (and occasionally in Canada as well) to prevent pro-Israel speakers, not only from speaking, but from appearing at all. It is all part of the effort described as “anti-normalization”, which aims to disallow any sort of platform to anyone who would speak on behalf of Israel.
We don’t much like that, do we? But when someone such as Linda Sarsour is invited to appear on a panel that, by the way, had nothing at all to do with Israel, a huge hue and cry is raised, culminating in Mayor Brian Bowman himself (along with Provincial Deputy Premier Heather Stefanson) calling for the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg to rescind the invitation to Sarsour to appear here.
Do you detect a note of hypocrisy in wanting to bar Linda Sarsour from appearing here, at the same time that pro-Israel speakers have had to contend with exactly the same type of pre-emptive attempts to bar them from speaking on some university campuses?

It was just recently that Lex Rofeberg was targeted by certain individuals within our community for the same opprobrium. I’ve been asking: Who has the right to be the arbiter of what constitutes hate speech or anti-Semitism?
What we’ve seen in both instances is a couple of noisy individuals who have taken it upon themselves to decide who should be allowed to speak in Winnipeg. In both cases they became active on social media, whipping up passions, culminating in pressure being put on the Jewish Federation to call for, first Rofeberg, then Sarsour, to have invitations to them to come to Winnipeg rescinded.
The Federation is in an uncomfortable position when it’s asked to take a stand against alleged anti-Israel speakers. If it declines to acquiesce to the pressure, it itself would be accused of not standing up to anti-Israel voices. If it does join in the call to rescind invitations to speakers, then it opens itself up to critics like me, who advocate for free speech  - no matter how upsetting that speech may be.
I don’t expect that anything I have to say on the matter will have any impact on future situations which may resemble what we’ve just seen with Rofeberg or Sarsour. Let’s just be aware how totally hypocritical it is though to want to repress free speech when it might be critical of Israel, yet we protest when anti-Israel protesters do exactly the same thing to pro-Israel speakers. When it comes to defending the right to free speech, some Jews can be highly selective in deciding who should be allowed to exercise that right. I say, take off the blinkers and reflect on how you are going to be perceived by the general public.

And – speaking of perception, while I go on at great length in describing the entire BerMax story in this issue, I have a couple of observations on how this story played out in the five short days between the time that the police issued their first bulletin about what had happened at BerMax and their second bulletin, which was that the owners of BerMax had perpetrated the entire affair themselves.
The police bulletins were unambiguous in describing the nature of the crimes. On April 19, what happened at BerMax was described as a “hate-related crime”; but by April 25 the language shifted to saying  “Investigators believe that the initial report of a robbery was staged. Further, the anti-semitic graffiti and vandalism were also falsely reported as being done by outside suspects.”
Having gone from whipping up passions at one end of the spectrum – by inciting terrible fears among Jews and non-Jews alike about a terrible instance of anti-Semitism, to doing the exact opposite, and inciting fury among so many at the Berents for allegedly staging the entire affair, the Winnipeg Police Service did not couch their language in unambiguous terms either in the first or second bulletin they released.
I, for one, was immediately suspicious about the “hate-related crime” bulletin – suggesting to Winnipeg Police in an email I sent to them on April 19 that the fact this was the fourth occurrence of this type at BerMax in a space of less than six months could very well have been a distraction from something else that was going on.

But then, when I, along with everyone else, was shocked to read that it was the Berents themselves who were charged with staging the entire affair, I immediately wondered what the evidence for coming to that conclusion was. I realize that the police do not, as a rule, release information that would explain why they laid a certain charge, but in this particular situation, the charge was so absolutely unexpected, that simply to say that the charge was based on a “combination of video surveillance, forensic evidence and interviews” left all of us wondering just what it was that led police to that determination.
But, as I note in my story elsewhere in this issue, it was my visit to BerMax Caffé itself on April 25, at Maxim Berent’s invitation (when I was there with a CBC reporter and camerawoman) that led me to conclude that the Berents probably did stage the entire affair. I admit it took me days to put together the pieces and I was speculating about  all sorts of scenarios on our website and Facebook page, but it did finally dawn on me that the Berent story just didn’t add up. It’s sad to have to admit that because I’ve developed a close relationship with Maxim and Oxana Berent over the years, but in the end, their story is just too full of holes.