Should a social democratic party’s spokesperson on foreign affairs address the Israel lobby’s top annual event and legitimize an explicitly racist institution? These are questions those currently vying for leadership of Canada’s New Democratic Party must be pressed to answer.
According to the Canadian Parliament’s recently released disclosure of members’ sponsored travel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) paid for the New Democratic Party’s foreign affairs spokesperson Hélène Laverdière to speak on a panel at its conference last year.
The notorious anti-Palestinian lobby group spent more than $740 on her flight and accommodation in Washington, DC.
Months after her AIPAC speech, Laverdière participatedin a Jewish National Fund tree-planting ceremony in Jerusalem. During a visit to Israel with Canada’s governor general, Laverdière attended a ceremony with the fund’s world chairman Danny Atar and a number of other top officials.
The Jewish National Fund controls 13 percent of Israel’s land, which was mostly seized from Palestinians forced from their homes by Zionist militias during the 1947-1948 ethnic cleansing known to Palestinians as the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe.
The JNF systematically discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up a fifth of the population. According to a UN report, Jewish National Fund lands are “chartered to benefit Jews exclusively,” which has led to an “institutionalized form of discrimination.”
Echoing the UN, a 2012 US State Department report detailing “institutional and societal discrimination” in Israel says the Jewish National Fund “statutes prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews.”
If Laverdière doesn’t trust the State Department or the UN’s assessments she could just read the Jewish National Fund’s own website.
Responding to Palestinian citizens’ attempts via the Israeli high court to live on land controlled by the Jewish National Fund, the website explicitly denies their right to do so, despite being supposedly equal Israeli citizens.
The court “has been required to consider petitions that delegitimize the Jewish People’s continued ownership” of the land. The website states that these lawsuits were “directed against the fundamental principles” on which the Jewish National Fund was founded.
The petitions to the court amount to a demand that the JNF, “which serves as trustee for the lands of the Jewish People,” no longer have the “right to make use of these lands for the continuation of the Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel.”
It adds that over 80 percent of Israeli Jews “prefer the definition of Israel as a Jewish state, rather than as the state of all its citizens.”
It is a moral outrage that the New Democratic Party foreign affairs spokesperson would legitimize an organization that practices discriminatory land-use policies outlawed in Canada six decades ago.
Laverdière legitimizing the Jewish National Fund and AIPAC reflects the backroom politics that dominate the New Democratic Party. In fact, the issue of Palestinian rights goes to the very heart of democracy within the party.
During the 2015 general election, the New Democratic Party ousted several individuals from running or contesting nominations for parliament because they had defended Palestinian rights on social media.
In the most high profile incident, Morgan Wheeldon was dismissed as a party candidate in Nova Scotia because he accused Israel of committing war crimes during its summer 2014 invasion of Gaza.
More than 2,200 Palestinians, including 551 children, were killed during the Israeli attack.
Leadership candidates must commit to respecting local party democracy and ending the purge against those who defend Palestinian rights. Standing up for Palestinian rights also represents popular will.
A February poll confirms that New Democratic Party members – and most Canadians – are critical of Israel and open to the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on that country.
According to the poll of 1,000 Canadians, almost 80 percent of those who expressed an opinion said they believe the Palestinians’ call for a boycott is “reasonable.”
In the context of the recent UN Security Council denunciation of settlement building in the West Bank, respondents were also asked “do you believe that some sort of Canadian government sanctions on Israel would be reasonable?”
Eighty-four percent of New Democratic Party supporters responded they were open to sanctioning Israel.
Leadership contenders must be pressed to make their position on Palestinian rights reflect members’ views. A 16 May Facebook post by leading candidate Niki Ashton is an important step.
“For more than 60 years, Palestine has been struggling to simply exist,” Ashton wrote. She added that she was “honored to stand with many in remembering the Nakba” at a recent event in Montreal that was also “a rally in solidarity with those on hunger strike in Palestine today.”
Ashton added: “The NDP must be a voice for human rights, for peace and justice in the Middle East. I am inspired by all those who in our country are part of this struggle for justice.”
In response to criticism from Israel lobby groups and Conservative Party leadership contender Brad Trost, Ashton stood by her participation in the rally.
“One must speak out in the face of injustice, whether here at home or abroad,” she said, and called for Canada to support “a balanced position and a just peace in the Middle East.”
While Ashton’s move is an important step, grassroots activists shouldn’t be naïve about the array of forces, both within and outside the party, that prefer the status quo. Asking nicely will not spark much-needed change.
Before a “youth issues” leadership debate in Montreal in March, the Young New Democrats of Québec asked the party leadership to include a question about Palestine. They refused.
At the upcoming leadership debates Palestine solidarity activists within the party should press the issue.
Contenders need to answer if they believe it is okay for the New Democratic Party foreign affairs spokesperson to speak at AIPAC or legitimize an explicitly racist institution like the Jewish National Fund.