Fighting propaganda with critical discussion: Canadians are awakening to the tragedy of Palestine

Reading Ha’aretz, one of the largest Israeli daily newspapers, is a fascinating experience. Here in Canada those who criticize Israel are dismissed as anti-semites, terrorists even. Rather than defend international law and UN resolutions, our Conservative government calls the participation of Canadians in the Freedom Flotilla 2, such as the five activists we profiled earlier this month, an unnecessary “provocation”.

Meanwhile, over in Ha’aretz, Netenyahu is called out for his “bullshit”. His bullshit that the new law making it illegal to boycott Israel, or any Israeli company or institution, is not an infringement on freedom of speech. His bullshit that opposition to the occupation of Palestine is synonymous with a desire to destroy Israel. His bullshit that 1967 borders are indefensible, when many former heads of the IDF and Mossad have endorsed 1967 borders as a start point for negotiations.

Most of all, Carlo Strenger calls out Netenyahu for his bullshit “that Israel can be a democratic country with a Jewish character while continuing the occupation. A clear-headed discussion would show that the greatest danger for Israel’s future today lies not in the Arab world, but in the disintegration and radicalization of its political culture.”

Strenger warns that “Totalitarianism, as George Orwell showed poignantly, hinges on clouding the mind by polluting our speech. This is precisely what the majority of the eighteenth Knesset and the Netanyahu government have done: they have crossed the line where bullshitting pushes towards totalitarianism.”

He is far from alone. The pages of Ha’aretz are filled with denunciations of occupation, from  Henning Mankell to Gideon Levy to  Zvi Bar’el, to name three on their front page today.

But if Strenger had written these words in a Canadian paper, as a Canadian atheist rather than an Israeli Jew, I don’t doubt that he would have been swiftly denounced as an anti-semite, or at minimum a wooly headed idealist with no grasp on the “facts”.

But things are changing here, people are awakening to the big lie they have been fed: that Israel is always right, the Palestinians are always wrong and that’s enough talking about it anyway.

The thrust of Strenger’s critique is that “open society”, or liberal democracy, “depends on a culture that values clear speech; coherent, logical argument; and truly critical discussion.” Netenyahu, and certainly his uncritical allies in our own government, have waged war on clear, critical discussion using the weapons of propaganda, or as Strenger would put it, “bullshit”.

No one claims that the Palestinians have never committed a wrong, or are blameless in the current predicament, just as it would be preposterous to say that Israel is always right and has only ever acted in self-defence (although I have heard this said often enough here, it would be laughed off the pages of Ha’aretz or the Israeli street).

When conflicts become so entrenched, when critical discussion and just remedy seem impossible, we have a tendency to retrench, to retreat to absolutisms. “My country right or wrong” was a rallying cry for supporters of the Vietnam war. That this idea abdicates any sort of responsibility to ensure that your country is,  in fact, acting righteously  was obviously lost on its utterers.

This reality is exactly why we need a frank and critical discussion of the situation in occupied Palestine and our responsibility to make it better, not worse. Binyamin Netenyahu and Stephen Harper lead by division. They turn one part of their country against the other and use our fears, our ignorance and our trust against us.

Harper does not want us to educate ourselves on Palestine, he wants us to believe that half our country is composed of terrorist sympathizers, and trust him to beat them over the head with a stick.  Frank, open and critical discussions lead to compromises and resolutions, and that’s the last thing Harper or Netenyahu want. Thankfully, they are finally losing the battle.

What last year’s tragic flotilla to Gaza, and this year’s abortive attempt, accomplished was to open the eyes of Canadians to the injustice, the suffering and the tragedy of the occupation. And further, to how simply it can be remedied.

The Greek government may have shamefully bent to the will of the powerful, keeping all but the tiny French vessel  Dignite-Al Karama from sailing for Gaza, but it hardly matters.

As a wide coalition of Palestinian groups wrote in an inspiring letter denouncing the Greek government‘s offer to send some pittance of aid “The organizers and participants of the Freedom Flotilla recognize that our plight is not about humanitarian aid; it is about our human rights. They carry with them something more important than aid; they carry hope, love, solidarity and respect.”

And their courage in doing so has been noticed around the world. As Wikileaks revealed recently when it published a slew of diplomatic cables from the American embassy in Israel, the blockade of Gaza is about keeping it on the teetering precipice of a humanitarian crisis. It has nothing to do with keeping out arms. This is no conspiracy theory, but the stated position of the Israeli government to their American allies, as published in Ha’aretz.

Canadians have witnessed the courage of their compatriots and have begun to ask why. This asking, this questioning of the official narrative, is the beginning of a frank, open and critical dialogue. A dialogue which befits an open society such as ours, and which has been impeded by propaganda and absolutism for too long. This conversation must begin with the facts, not the lies and half truths used by our leaders to defend the indefensible. It must begin with the inescapable reality that the occupation must end, not next month, next year or next decade, but now. And it must begin with the repudiation of those who would use the label of anti-semite to smear critics of Israel. Not only has the use of this label impugned many good and decent people, it has dealt a great blow to the fight against real anti-semitism.

The losers in this conversation will be Harper and Netenyahu. The winners will be honesty, compassion and universal respect for the human rights of all peoples.



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