Sometimes silence in politics speaks louder than words.
Israel lobby groups’ response (or lack thereof) to NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton’s recent support of Palestinian rights suggests they believe previous criticisms backfired.
Two months ago B’nai B’rith attacked Ashton for attending a rally in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike and a subsequent Facebook post commemorating the Nakba, which saw 750,000 Palestinians driven from their homes by Zionist forces in 1947/48. The self-declared ‘human rights’ organization published a press release titled “B’nai Brith Denounces MP Niki Ashton for Standing in ‘Solidarity’ with Terrorists.” Rather than harming Ashton, the attack solidified support amongst the Left and youth within the party. B’nai B’rith’s smear generated significant media attention, but Ashton refused to back down. In response the Manitoba MP told the Winnipeg Free Press she felt obligated to “speak out in the face of injustice” and “I have consistently spoken out for peace and justice in the Middle East, including for Palestinians.”
A few days after accusing her of “Standing in ‘Solidarity’ with Terrorists” B’nai B’rith CEO Michael Mostyn took another shot at Ashton. Clearly writing to the Toronto Sun’s editors and his own organization’s donors, Mostyn linked Ashton’s position on Palestine to sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement, which most NDP members probably support. On top of this own-goal, Mostyn opened the door for a rejoinder by the president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East. In his response Thomas Woodley described Ashton’s promotion of the Palestinian cause as an outgrowth of her “support for Indigenous rights in Canada” — for every NDP member Mostyn swayed against Ashton I’d bet Woodley convinced fifty to favour her.
Since the dustup at the end of May, B’nai B’rith — and other Israeli nationalist groups — have remained silent regarding Ashton. Yet when asked a question about Martin Luther King during an official party leadership debate six weeks ago Ashton went out of her way to link those campaigning for Palestinian rights to the US civil rights leader. Then, in a widely circulated FightBack interview at the end of June Ashton decried the NDP’s purge of pro-Palestinian candidates in the 2015 federal election campaign as “totally unacceptable.” She also called “justice for Palestine…a key issue” and referenced “the Nakba.”
Last week Ashton was part of a fundraiser in London, Ontario, put on by five prominent Palestinian solidarity activists, while this week she put out an appeal for individuals to join the party titled “End the Gaza Blockade.” It stated: “Today marks three years since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, the 50-day Israeli military offensive on Gaza…Ashton has demonstrated that she will show leadership and will never hesitate when standing up for Palestinians.”
In the past B’nai B’rith has labeled lesser transgressions “support for terrorism” or “anti-Semitism.” Their silence on Ashton’s recent moves is deafening. B’nai B’rith is effectively conceding that their previous attacks backfired and they now fear drawing further attention to Ashton’s position since it would likely strengthen her standing among those voting for the next NDP leader.
According to a February poll of 1,000 Canadians, most progressive Canadians back Palestinian rights. Eighty-four per cent of NDP supporters said they were open to sanctioning Israel, when they were asked in the context of the UN Security Council denouncing settlement building in the West Bank: “Do you believe that some sort of Canadian government sanctions on Israel would be reasonable?
While somewhat of a long shot at the start of the race, Ashton now has a reasonable chance of becoming leader of the NDP. According to a July 5 Mainstreet poll of 1,445 party members, 22.6 per cent of those asked supported Charlie Angus as their first choice candidate while 20.4 per cent backed Ashton. 7.5 per cent chose both Jagmeet Singh and Peter Julian (who has since dropped out of the race) as their top choice and 6.1 per cent went for Guy Caron while 35.9 per cent had not made up their minds. Ashton is far and away the favourite among NDP millennials.
The first ever pregnant major party leadership candidate in Canadian political history has gained this support by speaking truth to power and taking a principled position on an issue most politician have shied away from. And, she has demonstrated that the purpose of Israeli nationalist attacks is to silence them, not to have a debate. In fact, real debate is what organizations like B’nai B’rith fear the most because the more people thst know about Israel and the Occupied Territories, the more they support the Palestinian cause.
The prospect of the NDP electing a leader taking explicitly pro-Palestinian positions obviously concerns B’nai B’rith. But, their bigger worry should be the growing number of progressives who consider Israel lobby attacks a mark in favour of a politician.