What are the primary Israel lobby groups in Canada afraid of?
When their favoured colonial outpost in the Middle East is maligned the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, B’nai B’rith and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC) are usually quick to attack. In recent months they’ve put out statements labeling a modest NDP resolution a “toxic obsession with Israel”, a University of Toronto graduate students’ motion “institutional anti-Semitism” and a small restaurant’s Instagram posts and “I Love Gaza” sign “antisemitic statements” and “antisemitic tropes”.
But when a Member of Parliament sponsors a House of Commons petition suggesting the Israel lobby is breaking Canadian law by promoting recruitment into a military that “has repeatedly contravened the Fourth Geneva Convention, and illegally attacked Syria and Lebanon” they respond with … silence. No press releases, no tweets, nothing. Nor did they bother to offer a comment when the Canadian Jewish News wrote about NDP MP Matthew Green’s parliamentary petition calling for an investigation into illegal recruitment for the Israeli military.
An MP sponsoring a parliamentary petition suggesting Israel lobby criminality is certainly more significant than the University of Toronto graduate student union passing a resolution or a sandwich shop putting a pro-Palestinian message in their window. So why aren’t they bemoaning Green’s “bias”, “obsession”, “defiance of IHRA definition of anti-Semitism”, etc.?
It’s not fear of confronting Green. When he tweeted about Israel demolishing a COVID testing centre in the Palestinian city of Hebron in the summer CIJA and B’nai B’rith attacked Green.
The lack of reaction isn’t about who sponsored the petition but rather the subject. The Israel lobby doesn’t want to draw attention to an issue that divides their conservative base.
The parliamentary petition is part of a multi-faceted campaign that began in the fall with a formal complaint and open letter signed by Noam Chomsky, Roger Waters, author Yann Martel, poet El Jones and more than 150 others. The letter called on the federal government to apply charges under the Foreign Enlistment Act against those recruiting Canadians for the Israeli military.
For over six months CIJA, B’nai B’rith and FSWC have ignored suggestions their crew is engaged in criminal activity despite the campaign generating nearly two dozen stories, a response from the justice minister and multiple action alerts, including a parliamentary petition that has garnered nearly three times the signatures required to be read in Parliament in its first week.
How to explain their lack of reaction?
Discomfort with the legal question partly explains their silence. Drawing on information accessible through a simple Google search, the Israeli consulate, United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto and Federation Combined Jewish Appeal Montréal have all violated the Foreign Enlistment Act over the past year and a half. Additionally, Hebrew Academy, TanenbaumCHAT and other Toronto and Montréal schools have enticed youngsters into the Israeli military in possible contravention of the law. A proper police investigation would likely uncover far more evidence regarding violations of the Foreign Enlistment Act.
Nonetheless, it’s exceedingly unlikely anyone will be prosecuted, let alone convicted, for these violations of Canadian law. There is little political will to do so in relation to Israel and no one has ever been convicted under the legislation. So, the discomfort is not about anyone fearing spending time in jail but rather the bad press that comes from potentially breaking the law.
Tied to this is the political logic underpinning the Foreign Enlistment Act. While the 1937 act was written to stop leftist Canadians from fighting against Franco’s fascists in Spain, the Foreign Enlistment Act is the successor to an 1870 British act that applied in Canada. That legislation was the outgrowth of rising nationalism in Europe (which later stoked Zionism). It’s common for governments to seek to deter their citizens from joining other countries’ militaries.
On top of the Foreign Enlistment Act, the Canadian government restricts registered charities from supporting other countries militaries. Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) guidelines note, “increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of Canada’s armed forces is charitable, but supporting the armed forces of another country is not.”
Promoting a foreign army rests uneasily with right-wing nationalist thinking, which is generally sympathetic to an anti-Palestinian outlook. In a 2014 interview about Canadians fighting in Israel, Syria and elsewhere, prominent military historian Jack Granatstein, said “in my view no one who is a Canadian should be able to enlist in some other country’s military and keep his Canadian citizenship.” That would put a stop to recruitment for the IDF!
The lack of response to Green and the recruitment campaign is also influenced by other considerations such as the fact the parliamentary petition was submitted by a Rabbi (David Mivasair) and has yet to penetrate the most important media. (The campaign has generated significant coverage in left, pro-Palestinian, Jewish and mainstream Québec outlets, but none in major English Canadian media.)
More than other Palestine-related demands, the anti-recruitment campaign puts the anti-Palestinian lobby on the backfoot. Part of its power is in its Canadian centric demand, which offers a broader lesson for pro-Palestinian campaigners.
Though little discussed, the most important support Canada has offered Israel in recent decades is tax deductible charitable donations. Since the federal government introduced deductions for charities in 1967 billions of dollars in subsidized donations have gone to Israel. In 1991 the Ottawa Citizen estimated that Canadian Jews sent more than $100 million a year to Israel and possibly as much as $200 million (with inflation this number would have doubled). Assuming $100 million has been sent to Israel yearly since 1967 and with approximately 30% of the $5.4 billion total subsidized by the taxpayer that’s around $1.7 billion in Canadian public support.
But there’s little discussion of the public funds that have gone to Israel through charitable donations in recent years. With the exception of the campaign to revoke the charitable status of the Jewish National Fund of Canada, which won a partial victory recently, there’s been almost no activism targeting Canadian charitable support for Israel. This despite some of these donations violating Canadian charity law. Funds supporting West Bank settlements, explicitly racist institutions and the Israeli military probably contravene CRA regulations. Without any direct pressure from the Palestine solidarity movement, Beth Oloth Charitable Organization lost its charitable status two years ago for “increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the Israeli armed forces” and funding projects in the occupied West Bank. A registered charity since 1980, the Toronto-based organization had $61 million in 2017 revenue.
While not against current CRA regulations, there’s a strong argument to be made against Canadian taxpayers subsidizing donations to hospitals, universities, etc. in “Israel proper”. Is it right for all Canadians to pay a share of some individuals’ donations to a country with a GDP equal to Canada’s? How many Canadian charities funnel money to Sweden or Japan? Is the Israeli government subsidizing Canadian orchestras, museums, guide dog centres, nature conservatory, universities, hospitals, etc?
(Canadian Friends of the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, Canadian Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Canadian Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Canadian Association For Labour Israel and Canadian Friends of the Israel Museum are among the many registered charities that raised over a quarter billion dollars for Israel-focused projects in 2018.)
Irrespective of CRA regulations, activists who promote the aims of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement should push to outlaw donations to Israel until that country complies with international law. As they’ve done with other countries, federal government sanctions on Israel should seek to cut off the flow of money from Canada (in compliance with international law).
Drawing attention to subsidized charitable donations, like IDF recruitment, puts the Israel lobby in an uncomfortable position. It is rooted in Canadian law and the Canadian centric nature of the demand undercuts their tired talking points, particularly the idea Israel is being ‘singled out’ unfairly. In fact, these issues demonstrate how the Israel lobby “singles Israel out” sometimes in contravention of Canadian law and often on the taxpayers’ dime.
If you are a citizen or permanent resident of Canada please sign the parliamentary petition calling for an investigation into illegal Israeli military recruitment.
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