Mimicking Donald Trump’s “fine people” on both sides statement after white supremacists rampaged in Charlottesville in 2017, Justin Trudeau bemoaned “a rise in intolerance” in Canada and elsewhere. “We see the organizations of extremist groups on the far right and far left that are pushing white supremacy, intolerance, radicalization, promoting hatred, fear and mistrust.”
While the comment received limited attention in the dominant media, Trudeau was widely criticized on Twitter. Canadian Anti-Hate Network wrote, “the far-left want equal rights for all. The far-right want to redefine citizenship and discriminate against, exile, or murder people who don’t meet their identity-based purity tests.” Offering some historical context to Trudeau’s two ‘sideism’, Jay Watts noted: “While Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King was fawning over Hitler, Canadian Communists were fighting fascism in Spain.”
What prompted a Liberal PM to equate the internationalist and eco-socialist left with the right? The answer is obvious. Trudeau was defending a violent, colonial outpost in the Middle East that practises what Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, many South African officials, and millions of Palestinians have labeled “apartheid.”
Trudeau’s comment came in a speech to the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism. Attended by numerous Israel lobby figures, the Malmö forum promotes the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) anti-Palestinian definition of antisemitism. As part of his remarks, Trudeau confirmed that Canada’s temporary special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and fighting antisemitism would become a permanent position. Primarily designed to deflect criticism from Israeli apartheid, the position was created last year for one of Canada’s chief apartheid apologists, Irwin Cotler. Speaking from his apartment in Jerusalem, Cotler was the keynote speaker at an online rally in support of Israeli violence in May in which the moderator boasted that Montrealers’ were fighting in the Israeli military.
While directly lumping together the far left and far right is extreme, Trudeau has repeatedly smeared the left when speaking about Israel or on Jewish issues. When he apologized for Canada rejecting Jewish World War II refugees in November 2018, Trudeau equated the international justice seeking boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement with hate crimes and declared “Jewish students still feel unwelcome and uncomfortable on some of our college and university campuses because of BDS-related intimidation.” In November 2019 Trudeau sided with far-right Jewish Defence League (JDL) thugs who attacked peaceful pro-Palestinian activists protesting a presentation by Israeli military reservists at York University. Pro-Israel activists knocked a pro-Palestinian supporter unconscious, attacked York Amnesty International members supporting the Palestinian cause and hurled racial taunts. In May Trudeau again aligned with Canada’s most influential and best organized fascistic group after JDL members instigated a conflict at a large pro-Palestinian demonstration.
Those criticizing Trudeau’s recent comments mostly ignored the Israel angle even though the Malmö Forum promotes an IHRA definition designed to defend apartheid, Cotler is “special envoy” to protect Israel from criticism and the PM has a habit of smearing the left when addressing Israel and Jewish related issues. For its part, Canada’s leading Israel lobby organization, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, created an Instagram graphic applauding Trudeau for lumping the far left and far right together.
Israel, Holocaust forums, allegations of antisemitism and attacking the left increasingly go hand-in-hand. In a remarkable inversion of the historical record, the Nazi Holocaust is employed as a stick by the right-wing establishment to beat internationalists and eco-socialists. (In The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, Norman Finkelstein, whose grandparents perished in Nazi death camps, details a dynamic that has greatly expanded since the book was published two decades ago.)
Considering the horrors, sensitivities and cultural weight associated with the Nazi Holocaust, it is exceedingly difficult to respond to these attacks. In part that explains why the ‘antisemitism’ campaign against British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn was effective.
There are some parallels with redbaiting. At different points in the last 150 years labeling individuals and groups “anarchist” then “communist” succeeded in demonizing and dividing the left. ‘Respectable’ leftists ran away from those labels.
Divide and conquer has long been a tactic used by the ruling classes. Progressives require a strategy to respond. Pretending it’s not happening won’t work. We need an open debate about how best to counter this antisemitism-baiting. It will require confronting Israeli nationalists and their supporters who use the term as a weapon to weaken Palestinian solidarity. It will require an understanding of how to effectively respond to name calling. It will require real solidarity with Palestinians and within the broader left. We must learn to trust our friends and allies instead of constantly seeking to exclude based on name calling, unfounded accusations and easily manipulated sensitivities.
The first step is talking about the problem.