Understanding the NDP’s Palestine policy

From refusing to mention “Palestinians” to being labeled “dangerous to Jews” for supporting their cause Jagmeet Singh has undergone a remarkable turnaround. The shift over the past 18 months has been propelled by internal party organizing, outside leftist criticism, growing Palestine solidarity and cynical party calculations.

On August 26 Singh emailed a small number of NDP supporters a list of 13 demands of the Liberal government on Palestinian rights. It concluded, “we believe Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories is at the centre of the challenges facing the Palestinian and Israeli people.”

The message marked a major step forward in opposing Canada’s contribution to Palestinian dispossession. But it was not posted to social media or the NDP’s website. It was only sent to some individuals the party (presumably) identified as supporting the Palestinian cause.

After receiving significant attention in pro-Palestinian and left circles, including NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson defending it, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) launched a multifaceted campaign against the NDP. “Jagmeet Singh: Your Middle East Policy is Dangerous for Jews”, read the title of a recent CIJA email campaign. In a letter to its supporters the advocacy arm of Canada’s Jewish Federations criticized an “outrageous letter from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh that demonizes everyone who identifies with and feels a connection to the Jewish state.”

CIJA’s odious, over-the-top, attack is a desperate bid to staunch the tide of Palestine solidarity within the NDP.

In the lead-up to the NDP’s April 2021 convention Singh was asked by the CBC’s Chris Hall about a number of widely-supported resolutions regarding “Canada’s relationship to Israel and the Palestinian territory.” Instead of responding to Hall’s question directly, the NDP leader mentioned “antisemitism” four times. Asked again about “resolutions that in a sense condemn Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians,” Singh again failed to mention Palestine or Palestinians. Instead, he talked about “increased hate crimes [against] people of the Jewish faith.”

While Singh’s complete erasure of Palestinians was stunning, his anti-Palestinianism is long-standing. During the 2019 federal election the party leadership blocked a half-dozen candidates from running partly or entirely because of their support for Palestinian rights. A year earlier Singh explicitly rejected a call from 200 prominent individuals, labour leaders and party members — including Roger Waters, Noam Chomsky, Linda McQuaig and Maher Arar — for the NDP to withdraw from the Canada Israel Interparliamentary Group (CIIG). At the 2018 party convention Singh mobilized his family and dozens of members of his community to vote against allowing debate on the modest “Palestine Resolution: renewing the NDP’s commitment to peace and justice”, which was unanimously endorsed by the NDP youth convention, many affiliated groups and two dozen riding associations.

Over the years Singh has been decidedly deferential to CIJA. He stoked a March 2021 CIJA attack against leftist NDP MP Niki Ashton and participated in their 2018 “antisemitism” smear against Dimitri Lascaris, one of Canada’s most effective advocates for Palestinian rights. At a December 2019 event with CIJA Singh said he considered the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) anti-Palestinian working definition of antisemitism a useful “guiding educational lens”. Prior to becoming leader of the party, Singh went on a CIJA-sponsored trip to Israel.

Singh’s anti-Palestinianism is well rooted in the NDP. His predecessor as party leader, Tom Mulcair, once said “I am an ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and in all circumstances”. The party’s most famous former leader, Tommy Douglas, was a member of the Canadian Palestine Committee, a group of prominent non-Jewish Zionists formed in 1943. After a trip to that country in 1975 Douglas said “Israel was like a light set upon a hill – the light of democracy in a night of darkness – and the main criticism of Israel has not been a desire for land. The main enmity against Israel is that she has been an affront to those nations who do not treat their people and their workers as well as Israel has treated hers.” (Douglas’ comment was made after Israel had driven out its indigenous population and repeatedly invaded its neighbours.)

David Lewis was also viciously anti-Palestinian. After Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967, the long-time influential figure in the NDP promoted a “united Jerusalem”. “The division of Jerusalem,” said Lewis, “did not make economic or social sense. As a united city under Israel’s aegis, Jerusalem would be a much more progressive and fruitful capital of the various religions.” Just after stepping down as federal leader of the NDP in 1975 David Lewis was the “speaker of the year” at a B’nai Brith breakfast. In the hilariously titled “NDP’s David Lewis urges care for disadvantaged”, the Canadian Jewish News reported that Lewis “attacked the UN for having admitted the PLO” and said “a Middle East peace would require ‘some recognition of the Palestinians in some way.’ He remarked that the creation of a Palestinian state might be necessary but refused to pinpoint its location. The Israelis must make that decision, he said, without interference from Diaspora Jewry.”

Historically, the NDP leadership has been decidedly anti-Palestinian. But members increasingly view the conflict as an anti-colonial struggle and have been willing to openly criticize party policy. A torrent of criticism followed the party leadership suppressing debate about the 2018 Palestine Resolution. Expelling anti-apartheid candidates from representing the party also elicited significant anger and the call for the NDP to withdraw from the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group embarrassed the leadership. The anger peaked when Singh refused to even say “Palestinians” 18 months ago.

Internal grassroots organizing helped bring the issue to a head. In the lead-up to the NDP’s 2021 convention party activists got an unprecedented number of riding associations and groups to endorse the Palestine Resolution and a resolution critical of the IHRA’s anti-Palestinian definition of antisemitism. A month before the convention CIJA responded to the growing momentum by calling on the party leadership to suppress the IHRA resolution. Their campaign succeeded in scaring Singh into erasing the long-oppressed Palestinians. But his disastrous CBC interview generated a burst of criticism regarding the leadership’s anti-Palestinianism at an opportune moment. Singh’s complete erasure of Palestinians propelled pro-Palestinian forces within the party and constrained the leadership’s ability to suppress discussion of pro-Palestinian resolutions, which they had done at multiple previous conventions.

It was clear that if members were allowed to vote they would endorse the Palestine resolutions. Ultimately 85% of delegates voted for the Palestine Resolution, which called for “ending all trade and economic cooperation with illegal settlements in Israel-Palestine” and “suspending the bilateral trade of all arms and related materials with the State of Israel until Palestinian rights are upheld.” (The IHRA resolution never made it to the debate stage.)

In a significant reversal, the morning after the convention vote Singh defended a resolution that CBC’s chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton described as “your party voted overwhelmingly to slap sanctions on settlements and to ban arms sales to Israel.” The party’s position on Palestinian rights has steadily improved since. Soon after the convention large protests erupted across Canada against a new round of Israeli violence and ethnic cleansing. Amidst the protests Singh repeatedly raised the party’s call for an arms embargo and the NDP’s platform for the fall 2021 election called to “suspend arms sales to Israel until the end of the illegal occupation.”

Increasingly NDP MPs make statements, share articles, sponsor parliamentary petitions, etc. critical of Israeli violence and colonialism. Five NDP MPs have recently signed Independent Jewish Voices Together Against Apartheid pledge.

Appointed the party’s foreign critic in November, Heather McPherson has repeatedly questioned foreign affairs minister Melanie Joly on why the Liberals reject Amnesty International’s finding that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid. Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, B’tselem and the UN Special Rapporteur’s recently finding Israel responsible for apartheid offer useful cover to criticize Israeli policy. Polls also show that Canadians are widely sympathetic to bringing pressure to bear on Israel for its colonization.

Alongside public opinion, internal organizing and outside left criticism, there’s a less sanguine factor shaping the NDP’s improved position — the party’s desire to raise issues popular with its base that differentiate it from the Liberals. The point on Palestine was basically the only progressive element of the NDP’s “A better role in the world” election platform, which ignored the Liberals’ failed coup in Venezuela, broken promise to restart diplomatic relations with Iran, reversal of a coup they supported in Bolivia and failure to set up a proper ombudsperson to rein in Canadian mining companies’ abuses. The 2021 election platform also promoted Washington’s cold war with China and supported purchasing “new military equipment, including ships and fighter jets”.

With the Ukrainian Canadian Congress influential in her ridding, McPherson is particularly hawkish on Russia. The NDP has opposed negotiations to end the war in Ukraine, called to send more weapons and wants Ukraine to join NATO. Considering the NDP’s effective alignment with the Liberals on Russia and many other issues, McPherson has used Palestine to win praise from the more activist, anti-militarist, faction of the party.

Singh is an empty vessel on Palestine. He takes positions entirely based upon political calculations and pressure campaigns.

Probably in response to the anti-Palestinian lobby’s pressure, Singh attended a September 20 CIJA lobbying session on Parliament Hill “to celebrate the historic positive developments in Arab-Israeli friendship since the Abraham Accords by highlighting the growing ties between Israel and Morocco.” (Two years ago the Trump administration recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Rabat beginning diplomatic relations with Israel.) CIJA tweeted a photo of the NDP leader speaking with their vice president under the message, “we had a frank and productive discussion with Jagmeet Singh. We hope it will lead to changes in the NDP ’s Middle Eastern policy.”

Apparently, the conversation didn’t satisfy CIJA. A few days later they sent their supporters a new email campaign labeling the NDP leader’s 13 demands in support of Palestinian rights “dangerous for Jews”. While it has likely scared Singh’s team, CIJA’s over-the-top rhetoric further erodes their credibility among progressives.

In response the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute and Just Peace Advocates called on their supporters to defend the NDP from CIJA’s smears and express support for Singh’s 13 demands on Palestine. But they also called on the NDP to withdraw from the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group.

While the NDP must be defended from CIJA’s attacks, the apartheid lobby group shouldn’t control the agenda for progressives regarding the party’s Palestine policy. We must keep pushing from the left.

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