News Releases/Open letters
June 25, 2009 – Letter of support for Queers Against Israeli Apartheid
May 7, 2009 – Letter of support for Al Jazeera English
June 02 – Canwest wins Golden Gag Award
Open letter Dec 11, 2010
Letter to The Right Honourable Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario, re: Jenny Peto’s MA thesis
By Michael Keefer, author of Anti-Semitism: Real and Imagined
Dear Mr. McGuinty,
I am writing to you as a senior member of the teaching profession in Ontario’s college and university sector. I began my teaching career at Centennial College in Toronto nearly forty years ago, resigned from my position there in order to pursue doctoral research in England, and returned to Ontario in 1980—where I was taken on by the English Department of the University of Ottawa in time to have the pleasure of being one of your professors there in 1980-81.
I have taught at the University of Guelph since 1990—and have done external work as well, including service for one year as Chair of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s research grants adjudication committee in Literature, and for two years as President of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English.
Please forgive this recitation of ‘street-creds’—but since I’m addressing you on a very serious matter, I would like to hope that this letter may receive your personal attention.
I am prompted to write by an extraordinary episode that occurred in the Ontario Legislature on December 7th. Two MPPs, Mr. Steve Clark and Mr. Peter Shurman, rose in the Legislature with questions addressed to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, the Honourable Eric Hoskins. Both MPPs denounced, in the most strenuous terms, a Master of Arts thesis recently accepted by the University of Toronto. Mr. Clark called it “shockingly anti-Semitic” and “disgusting,” and asked, “What are you doing as Minister of Citizenship to stop the rising tide of anti-Semitism?” Mr. Shurman called the thesis a “hateful and poorly researched paper,” and invited the Minister to “speak up on behalf of Jewish groups who have been so deeply hurt by this piece of garbage and condemn it not as an academic paper but for the hate that it actually is.”
Responding to his questioners with expressions of appreciation, Mr. Hoskins said, “I join them in condemning this attack on Ontario’s Jewish community.” His responses also included a double reference to the pride he felt “earlier this year when the Legislature came together to condemn anti-Semitism on our campuses….”
I would like to draw several issues to your attention.
1. Mr. Shurman is reported in the newspapers as acknowledging that he had not himself read the MA thesis that he denounced in such inflammatory terms. Mr. Hoskins appears not to have read it either—and the wording of his first response would suggest that he believed Mr. Clark also derived his opinions about it at second hand: “I too, was greatly disturbed and in fact disgusted when I read the immediate reports as well.”
In contrast to your colleagues in the Legislature, I have read Ms. Jenny Peto’s MA thesis, The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education. I believe that the language used by the two MPPs and by the Minister to characterize this thesis is very seriously misleading. It is in my opinion a well-researched study with a clearly-defined ethical focus; it makes thoughtful and interesting use of critical race theory to construct a persuasive interpretive framework, and it arrives through close critical analysis at conclusions that could lead into further productive work at the doctoral level.
2. The central argument of Ms. Peto’s thesis—alluded to by Mr. Clark and Mr. Shurman—is that two particular Holocaust education projects, the “March of the Living” and the “March of Remembrance and Hope,” are making instrumental and political use of the appalling history of Jewish martyrdom and suffering in the Shoah, and thereby perpetuating claims to victimhood that, in Ms. Peto’s words, “are no longer based in a reality of oppression,” but rather produce effects that benefit “the organized Jewish community and the Israeli nation-state.”
Harsh though Ms. Peto’s language might seem to some readers, this is in fact an issue that is being vigorously discussed within Israel—perhaps most movingly and brilliantly by the film-maker Yoav Shamir, in his documentary Defamation. In that film’s climactic sequences, Shamir accompanies a group of Israeli teenagers who are being taken to Poland by one of the Holocaust education programs that Ms. Peto’s thesis discusses. There is a sequence in which these adolescents, having toured the site of the death camp at Auschwitz, are overwhelmed by the horror of the place and the appalling scale of the atrocities inflicted there; they huddle together in little groups, weeping. This scene is unforgettable. But scarcely less so is the new hardness that some of the young people then immediately express in relation to the sufferings of the Palestinians living in the territories illegally occupied by their country since 1967.
Shamir’s documentary leaves viewers with a clear sense that this hardness toward the Palestinians is an intended effect of the state-organized program whose workings he has shown us. (I would urge you and your colleagues, Mr. Premier, to watch this film: it is available online at HYPERLINK “http://www.defamation-thefilm.com/html/home_english.html” http://www.defamation-thefilm.com/html/home_english.html. Mr. Clark, Mr. Shurman, and Mr. Hoskins may find it instructive that the argument they object to so vehemently in Ms. Peto’s work is unambiguously supported by Yoav Shamir’s documentary footage.)
3. Arguments similar to those of Ms. Peto’s MA thesis have recently been made by a distinguished Israeli politician, Avraham Burg, in his book The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise from its Ashes. For a brief account of this book’s relevance to current political debates in Canada, see Gerald Caplan, “A Mideast reading list for Tories willing to learn,” The Globe and Mail (27 August 2010). Noting that Burg, the son of a prominent Israeli cabinet minister, has himself been “a leader of the Labour Party, speaker of the Knesset, and chairman of the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Executive,” Caplan writes that “From the heart of Israel itself, Mr. Burg has the courage to accuse his fellow Israelis of deliberately exploiting the Holocaust as an excuse to treat Palestinians deplorably.”
4. In their remarks in the Legislature on December 7th, the two opposition MPPs and your cabinet colleague agreed that Ms. Peto’s MA thesis is an expression of antisemitic hatred, and an attack on the Jewish community. I would argue that it is crucial for members of the Legislature to recognize that the issue of antisemitism has become heavily politicized in Canada—and that claims made on this subject have with increasing frequency been motivated by a desire to silence legitimate criticism of the actions and policies of the state of Israel by branding them as antisemitism and as hate speech.
Claims motivated in this manner have often taken the form of assertions that Canadian civility and decency are menaced by a “new antisemitism,” in which the traditional antisemitic loathing of Jews and Judaism has mutated into hatred of “the collective Jew” and now takes the form of attempts to demonize and delegitimize the state of Israel.
However, many distinguished contemporary scholars of Judaism and antisemitism have rejected attempts to expand the category of antisemitism by conflating it with criticisms of Israeli state policy and actions. These scholars include the late Raul Hilberg, whose magisterial three-volume work The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) is acknowledged as the seminal study of the Shoah; University of Oxford philosopher Brian Klug, whose writings on antisemitism include “The Collective Jew: Israel and the New Antisemitism,” Patterns of Prejudice (June 2003), and “The Myth of the New Antisemitism,” The Nation (February 2004); Yakov M. Rabkin, Professor of History at the Université de Montréal, whose book Au nom de la Torah: une histoire de l’opposition juive au sionisme (2004) was shortlisted for a Governor-General’s Award; and Marc H. Ellis, Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, a theologian whose nearly two dozen books include The End of Jewish History: Auschwitz, the Holocaust and Palestine (2005).
Their principal reason for rejecting the conflation of antisemitism with criticism of Israeli policies is that its obvious purpose is to deflect attention away from Israel’s systematic violations of international law, including the Geneva Conventions, in its treatment since 1967 of the people of the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
A secondary reason is that this conflation actually detracts from the struggle against real antisemitism. As Professor Yanis Varoufakis of the University of Athens has written, “[W]hen a worthy cause, like that of ‘zero-tolerance to antisemites’, is appropriated by a regressive campaign whose purpose is, in effect, to terminate any critical engagement with the subjugation, repression and expropriation of another people, the Palestinians, then the worthy cause suffers. Antisemites rejoice when criticism of Israel’s Wall in Palestine is equated with antisemitism. For they are suddenly included in the wider community of fair minded people for whom the collective humiliation, mass harassment and disconnection of a whole people from their own backyards, not to mention the rest of the world, constitutes a hideous state of affairs in need of urgent redress.”
5. I have myself published on these subjects. I am the editor and part-author of Antisemitism Real and Imagined: Responses to the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (2010), a book described by Gerald Caplan, in the same Globe and Mail article in which he introduced Avraham Burg to Canadian readers, as “indispensable” and “important.” I would note that two matters raised in the Legislature, the first by the comments of Mr. Clark, and the second by Mr. Hoskins’s responses, are dealt with at some length in my book.
6. Mr. Clark asked Mr. Hoskins: “What are you doing as Minister of Citizenship to stop the rising tide of anti-Semitism?” But is there actually, as B’nai Brith Canada has repeatedly asserted, an alarming resurgence of antisemitism in Canada? Recognizing this as an important question, I devoted a long chapter to it in Antisemitism Real and Imagined (“Data and Deception: Quantitative Evidence of Antisemitism,” pp. 165-205). My conclusion, after detailed comparative analysis of the available statistical evidence, was that although Canadian Jews continue to be disproportionately victimized in hate crimes, antisemitic attitudes have declined steadily in recent decades, and Statistics Canada and Toronto Police Service data show declines in antisemitic hate crimes. It would therefore have been appropriate for Mr. Hoskins to reply by expressing a due determination to act firmly against antisemitism and all other forms of racism—and then to have added that according to the best available evidence, there is no “rising tide” of antisemitism in Canada.
7. The second of these two matters was evoked by Mr. Hoskins’s double reference to the pride he felt “earlier this year when the Legislature came together to condemn anti-Semitism on our campuses….” He was alluding to the vote taken in the Legislature on February 25th, 2010, in the presence of just thirty MPPs, to condemn Israeli Apartheid Week as “odious.”
It would have been more appropriate for Mr. Hoskins to feel shame over that vote, which revealed a remarkable level of ignorance among members of the Legislature.
The term “apartheid” was applied with clinical accuracy by Marwan Bishara in 2001 to describe what Israel had done in the Occupied Palestinian Territories from the early 1990s onward, “physically and demographically divid[ing] up the West Bank and Gaza into islands of poverty, or bantustans, while maintaining economic domination and direct control over Palestinian land and natural resources” (Palestine/Israel: Peace or Apartheid , p. 4). The term was re-used by former US President Jimmy Carter in 2006 (Palestine Peace Not Apartheid)—a usage validated in 2007 by Israel Prize laureate and former Israeli Minister of Education Shulamit Aloni (“Yes, There is Apartheid in Israel,” CounterPunch [8 January 2007]). And in January 2010, Henry Seigman, the former Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress and current President of the US/Middle East Project of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that Israel’s “relentless” construction of new settlements “seems finally to have succeeded in locking in the irreversibility of its colonial project. As a result of that ‘achievement’ […] Israel has crossed the threshold from ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ to the only apartheid regime in the western world” (“Imposing Middle East Peace,” The Nation [7 January 2010]).
More conclusively, in May 2009 the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa published a report produced by a team of South African and international jurists and entitled Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid?: A Reassessment of Israel’s Practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories Under International Law ( HYPERLINK “http://www.hrsc.ac.za/Document-3227.phtml” http://www.hrsc.ac.za/Document-3227.phtml ). This report came to the conclusion that Israel’s rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is “a colonial system that implements a system of apartheid.”
Mr. Hoskins is proud to have condemned as unacceptable and hateful any application of the term “apartheid” to the structures of land theft, cantonment, and racialized subjugation, separation, and oppression of a subject-population that characterize Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. But South African legal scholars have had direct and bitter experience in their own country of the realities of apartheid. Are we to believe that members of the Ontario Legislature know better than they do what apartheid is?
I would propose, in concluding, that the issue at hand is not one of whether we should provide Holocaust education to our children. I have strong feelings on this subject: I have traveled widely in Poland, and during those travels have walked on what I regard as sacred ground—in the vacant spaces that are all that remain of synagogues in Lodz and Lublin, in the surviving Old Synagogue in Kazimierz, in the gas-chamber at Majdanek, and in the hillside monument of shattered gravestones that is Kazimierz Dolny’s only memorial to the fifty percent of the town’s population who were murdered in the Shoah. What is at issue is not the question of whether our children should know this history, so they can dedicate themselves to ensuring that horrors of this kind can never be repeated: all of us, surely, believe this should be the case.
What is at issue, rather, is our right to subject the various representations of and responses to that history to lucid criticism and analysis—and to speak out openly when it appears that they are being used, not to bring young people into a determination to stand up against injustice, but instead to desensitize them to present-day actualities of dispossession, oppression, and suffering.
Ms. Jenny Peto has exercised that right in an MA thesis that in my opinion deals courageously with difficult and painful materials. I honour her for it.
I hope, Mr. Premier, that you and your fellow leaders in the Ontario Legislature—the Speaker of the House, the members of your cabinet, and the leaders of the two opposition parties, Ms. Horwath and Mr. Hudak—may be able to provide the appropriate leadership to bring other MPPs to an understanding of the principles of university autonomy and academic freedom, and the underlying principle that the intellectual work of universities must not be constrained by political interference.
I hope you may be able as well to inculcate a fuller recognition among members of the Legislature of the meaning of parliamentary decorum. Behaviour reminiscent of the denunciatory antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s does not enhance the dignity of our Legislature—and there is reason to believe that the statements made by Mr. Clark, Mr. Shurman, and Mr. Hoskins amount to an abuse of parliamentary privilege. It would appear that none of the three MPPs had direct knowledge of Ms. Peto’s MA thesis, and Mr. Shurman’s remark, reported by the National Post on December 9th, is particularly shocking in its casualness: “He hasn’t read the paper, but nonetheless owes it to his largely Jewish constituents to defend Israel on their behalf, he said.”
All three MPPs made statements which, if spoken outside the Legislature, without the protection of parliamentary privilege, would be recognized under Canadian law as libelous. I believe there are good grounds for rejecting these statements as irresponsible, ill-informed, and untrue. I would recommend, then, that the Legislature exercise its own collective parliamentary privileges—which include the power to discipline its members—by requiring Mr. Clark, Mr. Shurman, and Mr. Hoskins to withdraw and apologize for their remarks.
Yours sincerely and respectfully,
Professor, School of English and Theatre Studies
University of Guelph.
SFSC letter Dec 1, 2010
Letter to Mr. Bijan Ahmadian, UBC AMS President and AMS Councilors, re: Social Justice Centre and the Canadian Boat to Gaza
I am writing on behalf of the Seriously Free Speech Committee. We have recently become aware of the attacks and defamatory comments made by students associated with the Hillel Centre, and the Hillel Centre itself, about the Social Justice Centre and the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights Committee regarding their donation to the Canadian Boat to Gaza as part of the next freedom flotilla.
The Seriously Free Speech Committee was formed 2 ½ years ago to defend three individuals who published a parody of the Vancouver Sun and its uncritical support for Israel’s illegal siege of Gaza. We have since been forced to recognize that individuals who support justice in the Middle East or who engage in critical debate on Israel/Palestine are subject to the most horrendous personal slanders and organizational attacks. We have therefor expanded our mandate to support and defend those individuals and organizations.
What the AMS is experiencing has happened on many campuses across Canada and the US. In some cases it has cost principled academics their teaching positions and students their academic year. The attacks slander the individuals but in no instance do they actually deal with the actual living circumstances of Israel’s siege. Every opponent is labelled “antisemitic”, “a self-hating Jew” or “delegitimizer of Israel”. The intention of these slanders is to force critics to defend themselves rather than to force the supporters of Israel to answer legitimate questions about Israel’s actual actions. The Hillel Centre letter and other actions consist of so many mendacious comments and fabrications that it would take an extended letter to fully deal with them.
Briefly the siege of Gaza is illegal, the freedom flotilla boats are acting within international law and a war against a small country under siege and without weapons is not a war but a massacre. Justice Goldstone has written a balanced report on the Gaza massacre which has earned him the vindictive slander of ”evil, evil man” by Israeli supporters.
On George Galloway, Justice Mosely of the Canadian Federal Court in a September decision completely vindicated George Galloway and allowed him to enter Canada. Part of his decision is relevant to your decision:”To suggest, however, that contributions to Hamas for such purposes [food, medical care] makes the donor a party to any terrorist crimes committed by the organization goes beyond the parliamentary intent and the legislative language. The purpose to which the funds are donated must be to enhance the ability of the organization to facilitate or carry out a terrorist activity. Absent such a purpose, the mere assertion that material support was provided to such an organization is not sufficient. To hold otherwise could ensnare innocent Canadians who make donations to organizations they believe, in good faith, to be engaged in humanitarian works.” Clearly the Canadian Boat to Gaza is carrying humanitarian relief for besieged Gazans, and not to Hamas, and cannot be tarred with the accusation of providing aid to the elected government of Gaza, Hamas.
Finally reference has been made to the Ottawa Protocol emerging from the Ottawa Conference of the Inter-parliamentary Coalition Combating Antisemitism. There is a significant literature criticizing this conference and its predecessors (including the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism) for attempting to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. There is demonstrable evidence that traditional antisemitism, hostility to Jews as Jews, is a marginal phenomenon in Canada and on Canadian campuses. What is increasing is criticism of Israel’s actions. However, these conferences choose to examine antisemitism instead of the more prevailing racism directed against First Nations, Muslims, blacks and many others.
Speaking of transparency, no one knows who attended the conference and how the $450,000 government grant was spent. We do know the participants were not representing their governments, were volunteers and many of them were part of a small group of academics and parliamentarians who go from one conference and workshop to the next trying to make criticism of Israel or support for the besieged Gazans illegal.
In summary, the attacks on SJC and SPHR are part of broad campaign to undermine those opposed to Israel’s actions. If the AMS wants to more fully understand the issues raised by the supporters of Israel, it could organize an forum to allow all sides to be heard. The SFSC would be happy to participate or support such a venture.
Co-Chair, Seriously Free Speech Committee
News release Nov 10, 2010
Coalition to push governments, universities to adopt definition of anti-Semitism that outlaws criticism of Israel
Free speech advocates warn that Canadians face severe restrictions on freedom of expression if the definition of anti-Semitism recommended in Ottawa this week is adopted.
The definition of anti-Semitism advocated by the self-styled Inter-Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (ICCA) would outlaw legitimate political opinion as a means to silence criticism of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.
According to the Seriously Free Speech Committee, if governments and other bodies adopt the proposed definition contained in the Ottawa Protocol, the following statements would be condemned or criminalized:
• I consider Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in 2009 that resulted in the killing of 1,400 Palestinians, many of them children, to be a crime against humanity.
• Israel’s apartheid policies make it an appropriate target for an international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions
“Whether or not Canadians agree with these examples, surely they agree that these are political opinions that should be protected under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said Brian Campbell, co-chair of the committee formed to encourage free and open debate about the contentious issues in the Middle East.
The committee is particularly concerned that the ICCA plans to target universities to silence students who have organized increasingly popular Israel Apartheid Weeks and supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against the State of Israel, similar to the international campaign waged against South Africa.
“Israel’s supporters are using charges of a new anti-Semitism to intimidate people who describe Israel as an apartheid state or who encourage others to boycott Israeli products, “said Campbell. “The ICCA and its Canadian off-shoot, the CPCCA, are essentially lobbyists for Israel. “
According to the committee, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s pledge to the ICCA conference that Canada would defend Israel no matter what the cost and no matter what Israel has done is a chilling sign that the government will impose the new definition of anti-Semitism contained in the Ottawa Protocol.
Campbell challenged the ICCA’s claim that there has been a dramatic increase in antisemitism that warrants restricting Canadians right to free speech. “Their alarming statistics rely on reported incidents, not incidents that were investigated and determined to be discriminatory or hateful.” B’nai Brith’s annual surveys of anti-Semitism have been widely criticized for their poor methodology and exaggerated claims.
According to Joanne Naiman, retired Ryerson University professor and SFSC member, there is no evidence of an increase in anti-Semitism in Canada. In fact, statistics show that anti-Semitism is at an all-time low and Jewish leaders agree that Jews in Canada do well and feel safe.” She concluded that the ICCA and its Canadian counterpart have been trying to inflate and reframe the statistics to justify a crackdown on critics of Israel.
“It is actually the Ottawa Protocol, in true Orwellian fashion, that is trying to blur the lines between true anti-Semitism and criticism of the Israeli state,” she said. “The protocol says it is anti-Semitic to hold Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel when, in fact, it is the Israeli government that repeatedly tries to conflate the State of Israel with Jewish people. For example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently referred to himself as ‘leader of the Jewish people.’”
“We must all be vigilant against real anti-Semitism — discrimination against Jews simply because they are Jews — but we must not allow people to use charges of antisemitism to limit free speech and to stifle criticisms of violations of the human rights of the Palestinian people,” she said.
Letter to Toronto Mayor: April 22, 2010
SFSC objects to threats against Pride Toronto funding because of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid
April 22, 2010
Mr. David Miller, Mayor City of Toronto
Dear Mr. Mayor:
We are writing to express the strong objections of the Seriously Free Speech Committee to comments made by Mike Williams, GM, Economic Development and Culture and Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, City Manager of Diversity Management and Community Engagement regarding funding for Toronto Pride as quoted in the April 19, 2009 Toronto Star.
Their comments are directed at controlling the political free expression of organizations in the Toronto Gay Pride parade, particularly the organization Queers Against Israel Apartheid (QuAIA). QuAIA is an organizational name that encapsulates both its members political analysis and their groups position on the social organization of Israeli society.
Mr. Williams is cited as saying that the participation of QuAIA in the Gay Pride parade violated the City of Toronto’s anti-discrimination policy. The policy, however, “prohibits discrimination and harassment and protects the right to be free of hate activity” based on a number of categories including “ethnic origin,….political affiliation [and], race”. Having an organizational name or slogan and literature which states a political position does not constitute discrimination. Using the term apartheid is not related to ethnic identity, race or political affiliation but to the political actions of the State of Israel and its governing ideology, Zionism. Opposition to the policy of a state is not hate speech.
To deny QuAIA’s participation in the Toronto Pride parade on the basis of its political expression would be against Sec. 2 (b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Ms. Ramkhalawansingh stated that racism creates a “poisoned environment” .. “where not everyone feels welcome”. Again, criticism against state policy does not constitute racial harassment based on race, colour or ancestry as defined by the Ontario Human Rightrs Code. It is political comment and opposition to a political ideology – in this instance, Zionism, and its practices in Israel. Zionism as a political ideology is supported by many Jews, but not all Jews and perhaps not even the majority. It is supported by some Christians but not all Christians.
Your staff are incorrect in asserting that describing Israel as apartheid is a form of racial harassment. Political criticism might make people feel uncomfortable but freedom of speech trumps feelings of comfort. Basing funding decisions or laws on someone’s subjective feeling will lead to a point where there is no freedom for public debate. The apartheid criticism of Israel is not directed against individuals but against the State of Israel. Some organizations or individuals might not appreciate criticism against a government they support or its governing ideology. They might even try to have such speech suppressed through financial pressure or outlawed but such criticism is not racist harassment.
The City of Toronto is embarking on a very dangerous approach to working with community groups by seeking to suppress political free speech as a condition of funding. It must publicly reverse the threats against Pride Toronto.
The Seriously Free Speech Committee was formed in February, 2008 to defend individuals who were being sued by Canwest for producing a parody of The Vancouver Sun and its one-sided coverage of the Israel occupation of Palestine.
Co-chair, Seriously Free Speech Committee
cc: Toronto City Councilors
SFSC supports Queers Against Israeli Apartheid
June 25, 2009
P.O. Box 371, Station F, Toronto, Ontario M4Y 2L8
To members of the Pride Toronto Parade Committee
I am writing on behalf of the Seriously Free Speech Committee (SFSC) to congratulate you on your steadfast response to attacks from a range of media and pro-Zionist organizations attempting force the exclusion of this year’s parade grand marshal, El-Farouk Khaki, for speaking at a recent public event organized by Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. Your statement that Pride Toronto “has no intention of banning any participants from the Dyke March and the Parade because of their political agenda” is a courageous response to B’nai Brith and other organizations that seek to silence criticism of Israel for its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.
The attack against Pride Toronto follows attempts to censor readings of Seven Jewish Children, the art of Queer Jewish artist Reena Katz and attempts by several universities to shut down Israeli Apartheid Week. Each time these attempts at censorship are beaten-back, Israeli and Zionist propaganda suffers a setback, making it more difficult for Zionist organizations to claim that criticizing Israel is anti-semitic.
The Seriously Free Speech Committee is committed to supporting those who are attacked for opposing the continuing illegal occupation of Palestinian territories and demanding a full and truthful debate on Israeli’s colonial, apartheid State. SFSC began as a defense committee for three individuals who were being sued by Canwest for producing a parody of the Vancouver Sun, satirizing the pro-Israeli position of this newspaper and all Canwest newspapers. It has now been two years since the parody was published and the case is still before the Courts. You can find find details of the court case and campaign at http://www.seriouslyfreespeech.ca. SFSC extended its mandate to defending those who are attacked for their support for Palestinian self-determination. Defending those who speak-out is an integral part of defending Palestinians.
The Seriously Free Speech Committee stands in solidarity with your refusal to exclude Queers Against Israeli Apartheid from the Pride Toronto Parade.
SFSC denounces Minister’s interference in York academic conference
Hon. Gary Goodyear
Minister of State for Science and Technology
117 Confederation Building, House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6
re: Conference at York University entitled, “Israel/Palestine: mapping models of statehood and prospects for peace”
Dear Honourable Minister:
The Seriously Free Speech Committee is writing to denounce your overt political interference in the arms-length peer-reviewed granting process of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
In your public statement of June 5, 2009, you claim that your government “is committed to the principle of academic independence and the independent, arms-length, peer review process.” But your actions and the rest of your June 5 statement directly contradict this claim.
A principal role of academic freedom at universities in democratic societies is to allow a full, open debate of controversial issues. For a minister to attempt to derail an academic conference on behalf of a special interest group — especially one that has recently given the Prime Minister a public service award — compromises the integrity and public purpose of universities.
Your suggestion that the conference is “no longer an academic research-focussed event” reveals that you are trying to limit academic freedom and shut down debate on the vitally import issue of peace in Israel/Palestine on which the government has consistently taken the Israeli side.
It’s a dangerous precedent for a minister to intervene personally with an independent granting council president to suggest the review of funding for an academic conference in response to pressure from special interest groups. Political pressure groups have openly admitted to lobbying the government to deny funding to this conference and are claiming victory now that you have intervened.
We view your action as part of a pattern of increasing efforts to limit freedom of speech around Palestinian rights on Canadian universities over the last two years that is inimical to the values of an open democratic society. Although your call for a second peer review of the conference did not succeed, we call on you to uphold the principles of academic freedom in the future and to apologise for your unjustifiable interference in this case.
The Seriously Free Speech Committee was formed in February 2008 to support public education and the legal defense of the individuals accused of producing a parody of The Vancouver Sun that satirised Canwest’s pro-Israel bias. It has since expanded its mandate to include public education on a broader range of attempts to suppress full discussion of the situation in the Middle East. As can be seen from a list of our honourary members on this web page, we have broad support for our campaigns.
Brian Campbell and Anne Roberts
Seriously Free Speech Committee
cc: Carmen Charette
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
350 Albert Street
P.O. Box 1610
Ottawa , ON K1P 6G4
Letter to CRTC: May 7, 2009
SFSC supports Al Jazeera English cable license
Canadian Radio and Television Commission
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0N2
Re. Al Jazeera broadcast application
On behalf of the Seriously Free Speech Committee, we are writing to urge the CRTC to permit Al Jazeera English (AJE) to begin broadcasting in Canada without expensive, unnecessary and discriminatory conditions.
The Seriously Free Speech Committee was formed in response to a grievous attack on free speech by CanWest Media when it launched legal action against people who produced a parody that satirized The Vancouver Sun’s biased coverage of Israel and Palestine. Committed to free and open expression of debate on these contentious issues, our committee is concerned about the extent of CanWest’s control over media in Canada and its abuse of this power to restrict the free flow of information and free debate.
It seems incredible that AJE’s application is not a matter of a routine approval when Al Jeezera already broadcasts in more than 100 countries and AJE is allowed in some cable and satellite services in the US as well as items produced by Al Jeezera broadcast on Public Broadcasting Service in the US.
Many SFSC members regularly view AJE through the internet and visit Al Jeezera’s website to seek out information not readily available through Canadian news sources. It is exciting to be able to find a network that allows people outside the dominant countries of North America and Europe to give their own version of events. It is refreshing to find a news network that remains committed to what has become an old-fashioned idea about journalism in North America: speaking truth to power.
At a time when Canadian newspapers and broadcasters are reducing coverage of foreign news, shutting down foreign bureaus and eliminating news reporting staff, it is even more critical that Canadians can easily access international coverage of key events. Simply put, the CRTC should approve Al Jeezera English because in this globalized age, people want and need news from around the globe. In the long run, competition by AJE might even serve to improve the job Canadian networks do covering international news.
It is unfortunate that Al Jeezera has been tarred by the fear and war-mongering of the United States government, thus depriving many people of an important alternative source of news and information. We are convinced that once people have an opportunity to watch AJE on their television sets, they will reject the accusations that the network is racist and propagandistic.
Al Jeezera cannot be accused of being anti-Jewish. It is standard news practice to present reports of things said and done that are objectionable but that are newsworthy and relevant to the general public. That does not mean that Al Jeezera agrees with or promotes those positions. As proof, note that even Israel makes Al Jeezera available on its TV network. YES TV describes Al Jeezera as more balanced and fair than the BBC. From the news coverage that we have seen on Al Jazeera’s website, we conclude that the network is not nearly as radical and offensive as daily offerings on the FOX network.
We urge the CRTC to approve AJE’s application as soon as possible and trust that the cable and satellite providers will make available this important alternative news source to all Canadians across the country. It is vitally important that Canadians have a broad menu of choices when seeking news and information and Al Jazeera is a significant option to provide what no other network in the world can provide.
Anne Roberts and Brian Campbell
Co-chairs of Seriously Free Speech Committee
Debt deadline approaches –Canwest slashes muffins, splurges on lawsuits
Note to editors: This is not an April Fool’s joke
VANCOUVER – Facing bankruptcy protection if it misses a debt repayment deadline on April 7, 2009 and having missed a $38 million interest payment to bondholders on March 15, Canwest Global Communications Corp. (TSX:CGS) is aggressively cutting back on food at meetings while forking over six-figure legal fees for a vanity lawsuit that targets political satirists.
Lawyers familiar with Canwest’s civil suit against the creators of a parody of the Vancouver Sun (that satirised its pro-Israel bias) estimate the company has already spent $80,000-$100,000 on legal fees. During the 16-month pre-trial phase of the case Canwest’s lawyers filed four divergent versions of its statement of claim. They recently applied for a trial in BC Supreme Court on April 20, 2009 that could easily double the company’s total disbursements.
In a pre-trial hearing for the case Canwest’s lead lawyer, David Church, QC, admitted that the company has no documentation of any financial loss suffered from the parody. Nevertheless, Canwest’s litigation juggernaut is proceeding full speed ahead against the pesky parodists in a legal manoeuvre that Michael Bate, the former editor of Frank magazine, described as “going after a fly with a hammer.”
Meanwhile, Canwest’s muffin cost-cutting zeal knows no bounds. They have instituted a company-wide “immediate freeze on all food at meetings… this includes previously funded or subsidised coffee/snacks/drinks,” according to an internal memo by Canwest Publishing President and CEO, Dennis Skulsky obtained by columnist Bill Tieleman (http://billtieleman.blogspot.com/2009/01/canwest-publishing-internal-memo.html). The memo also encouraged staff to take unpaid vacations perhaps because Canwest’s slashing of 560 jobs last fall was not putting enough pressure on the company’s remaining workforce.
Skulsky concludes his memo with heartfelt thanks, “your involvement, support and hard work to maximize our cost savings initiatives are sincerely appreciated.” Canwest employees are no doubt teary-eyed with gratitude that their efforts to pinch pennies are being wisely spent to pound satirical critics. Some whiners and slackers might say “keep the muffins and drop the suit” but, as the company’s approach to the current financial crisis shows, bosses know best.
For more information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Creator of parody appeals ruling that trademarks trump free speech
Gordon Murray, who is being sued by media giant Canwest for publishing a Vancouver Sun parody, is appealing a preliminary court ruling that the freedom of expression provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms do not provide any defence for Copyright or Trademark infringement.
If this initial decision stands, it would be a serious blow to the fundamental right of free speech in Canada. As Canwest’s flagship National Post rightly said in a May 2008 editorial: “the principles of free expression have to be guarded stringently in a liberal democracy.”
The notice of appeal, filed Friday in BC Supreme Court, argues that the procedural ruling relied on a single case that has been superceded by a later Supreme Court decision. The appeal also quotes a recent ruling concerning a spoof website created by a union during a labour dispute: “a reasonable balance must be struck between the legitimate protection of a party’s intellectual property and a citizen’s or union’s right of expression.”
Murray and Carel Moiseiwitsch, both long-time supporters of the rights of Palestinians, are being sued by Canwest for producing a four-page parody of The Sun that satirized the paper’s biased reporting in favour of Israel. The Asper family, the majority shareholders of Canwest, are outspoken supporters of Israel. Mordecai Briemberg was initially named as a defendant but Canwest dropped legal action against him last month.
The case has generated international support calling on Canwest to drop this classic SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) intended to intimidate and silence political opponents, said Anne Roberts, co-chair of the Seriously Free Speech Committee, created to fight back against the legal action.
On November 28, the BC Federation of Labour’s annual convention unanimously passed a resolution to support the defendants against Canwest’s suit. The defendants have already received support from a long roster of individuals and organizations, including Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, MP Libby Davies, BC Civil Liberties Association, BC Teachers Association, Pen Canada, and the Canadian Library Association.
“The grassroots support for this case is amazing,” Murray said. “Our collective action is the best defence against corporate and government attacks on civil rights.”
The full ruling and the appeal can be downloaded from here.
For more information, contact:
Anne Roberts, Co-chair, SFSC
Canwest drops suit over parody against Mordecai Briemberg
Legal retreat by media conglomerate hailed as victory for free speech campaign
Vancouver — A campaign to defend free speech pushed media giant Canwest to drop its legal suit against Mordecai Briemberg over a parody of The Vancouver Sun.
“This is proof that people can stand up to bullies who misuse and abuse the courts to attack their political opponents,” said Anne Roberts, a co-chair of the Seriously Free Speech Committee that was formed to defend Briemberg, a retired academic and this year’s winner of the YMCA International Peace Award.
Briemberg called it was “a significant victory,” but only a first step. The campaign will continue until Canwest also abandons legal action against Gordon Murray and Carel Moiseiwitsch, who produced the parody in June 2007 that satirized Canwest’s well-known anti-Palestinian and pro-Israel bias. Canwest’s founder, Izzy Asper, described the media conglomerate in 2003 as “the strongest supporter of Israel in Canada.”
The committee organized an international effort, including a petition, letters, a YouTube video, leafleting of public events sponsored by Canwest, and public forums, and garnered support from Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, MP Libby Davies, labour leader Jim Sinclair, author Joy Kogawa and UBC planning professor Bill Rees.
“Canwest’s attempt to silence and intimidate the public expression of views antithetical to those of the Asper family backfired,” Briemberg said. “Our campaign has been endorsed by civil liberties groups, library associations, teacher organizations, and trade unions. Instead of silencing our voices, it has amplified them.”
The political activists’ ordeal of being dragged through the courts for the past 10 months highlights the need for BC to re-enact anti-SLAPP legislation that discourages suits in which plantiffs have no intention of winning but pursue in order to burden individuals with legal costs until they abandon their criticism or opposition. An anti-SLAPP law was passed by the NDP government in April 2001 but repealed in August shortly after the Liberals gained power.
At least 24 states in the United States have adopted anti-SLAPP legislation and Quebec introduced an anti-SLAPP bill in June.
For more information email email@example.com
Activists confirm Briemberg not involved
The Seriously Free Speech Committee (SFSC), formed to defend Mordecai
Briemberg against a SLAPP suit filed by Canwest, issued a statement today in
response to the announcement by two activists that they were the sole
creators of a parody of the Vancouver Sun published in June 2007. (See
The SFSC applauded their courage in taking responsibility, confirming that,
as Briemberg has said, he had nothing to do with publishing the parody.
At the same time, the SFSC believes that Carel Moiseiwitsch and Gordon
Murray have a right to satirize the Sun’s blatant pro-Israel bias in its
news coverage and will support them against this legal attack by Canwest,
the media giant that owns the Sun, the National Post, Global TV network, the
Vancouver Courier plus 10 other metropolitan papers across Canada.
Canwest’s suit against Briemberg, Moiseiwitsch and Murray is an attack on
free speech and an act of political intimidation against people who support
the rights of Palestinians and oppose the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.
The SFSC is calling on Canwest to drop this suit in recognition of the
importance to a healthy democracy to have media that allows and encourages a
full and open discussion of such contentious issues as Israel and Palestine.
For more information, contact:
Brian Campbell, Co-chair, SFSC
Anne Roberts, Co-chair, SFSC
Moiseiwitsch and Murray’s statement can be read here.
July 17, 2008
Seriously Free Speech Committee Statement
The Seriously Free Speech Committee (SFSC) was formed in early March, 2008
in response to a December, 2007 Writ of Summons issued by Canwest against
Mordecai Briemberg. In the writ, Mordecai was accused of helping to
conceive, produce and distribute a parody of The Vancouver Sun in June,
2007. Canwest has admitted in writing it had no documents to substantiate
its accusations. Mordecai did nothing more than pick up a few copies of the
parody at a Vancouver Public Library meeting and hand them out at a bus
The Committee has two main purposes: 1) to act as a defence committee for
Mordecai Briemberg and 2) to defend the right to produce political parody.
The SFSC first learned on June 9, 2008 from Gordon Murray, a member of the
SFSC, that he produced the parody and intended to take full responsibility.
We recognize his courage for taking responsibility. Mordecai Briemberg and
the SFSC understands the toll that such an admission takes in both personal
stress and finances.
Today’s statement by Carel Moiseiwitsch and Gordon Murray that they were
solely responsible for the conception and production of the parody confirms
what Mordecai Briemberg and the SFSC has said from the beginning. Canwest
did nothing to find out the truth but made false accusations against
Mordecai Briemberg, also naming three John Doe’s and three Jane Doe’s. The
suit is an attack on the right of free speech and a political vendetta. The
SFSC is calling on Canwest to drop this suit against Mordecai Briemberg.
The SFSC believes that Carel Moiseiwitsch and Gordon Murray have a right to
satirize The Vancouver Sun. The satire was not a fake newspaper seeking to
steal market share, sell a product or gain commercial advantage. Rather, it
was legitimate political commentary based on a long standing tradition of
satire reaching back to Jonathon Swift. The suit is motivated by Canwest’s
support for Israel and its antagonism to these activists’ long-standing
opposition to Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
The Seriously Free Speech Committee will continue to support Mordecai
Briemberg until all the accusations and court proceeding are dropped and
will support Carel and Gordon against this legal attack by Canwest. This is
not about trademark violation but is an act of political intimidation.
The issue is very clear. Do people have the right to produce satire? Many
organizations and individuals such as the British Columbia Civil Liberties
Association, the Canadian Library Association, the British Columbian
Teachers Federation, CEP Local 200 (the union representing journalists) and
Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, support the right
to create satire and oppose Canwest’s political intimidation.
June 2, 2008 – This year’s Golden Gag Award will be presented to Canwest, Canada’s largest media empire, at noon on Friday (June 6) at the Granville Square, 200 Granville St., the home of the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers.
Sponsored by the Seriously Free Speech Committee, the award recognizes individuals or companies who have excelled in limiting free speech, intimidating opposing points of view, and the skilled use of SLAPP suits to attempt to silence critics.
Committee spokesperson Jef Keighley said what clinched the award for Canwest was the way it went overboard in filing a suit against retired academic Mordecai Briemberg for producing a parody of the Vancouver Sun.
“Not only did Canwest use all legal means to crack down on humourous criticism of the company’s pro-Israel positions, they filed a suit against a person who had nothing to do with producing it,” he said. “The company’s audacity and aggressiveness simply took our breath away.”
The Golden Gag Award is to be presented at a ceremony featuring former journalist and historian Marc Edge, author of the book Asper Nation; Mordecai Briemberg, this year’s winner of the YMCA’s international Power of Peace Award; and well-known US social activist, singer and songwriter David Rovics.
Committee organizers plan to present the award to Patricia Graham, editor-in-chief of the Vancouver Sun, on behalf of the owners of Canwest, a media conglomerate that owns The National Post, 10 metropolitan newspapers, 30 community papers, 80 magazines, speciality cable channels and the Global Television Network as well as newspapers and radio stations in other countries.
Other nominees for the prize included Barrick Gold Corp., which is suing a small Quebec publisher over a book that alleges the company played a role in the expropriation of land belonging to Tanzanian miners more than a decade ago, and the municipality of Powell River, which is suing several citizens for criticizing town development plans.
April 28 — Mordecai Briemberg, retired Douglas College ESL teacher and well-known campaigner for the rights of Palestinians and an end to war and racism, won the YMCA’s Power of Peace Award on the weekend.
The YMCA of Greater Vancouver picked Briemberg for the International Peacemaker award from a field of nine nominees to honour people working to change the world.
Nominated by Stopwar.ca, Vancouver’s largest anti-war coalition, Briemberg, 69, traces his life-long effort for peace back to the 1950s when as a Rhodes scholar he studied in England and was inspired by Bertrand Russell, then in his 90s, engaging in civil disobedience against nuclear weapons.
While teaching sociology at Simon Fraser University in the 1960s, Briemberg helped establish the Committee to Aid War Objectors to provide support for American war resisters seeking refuge in Canada. His anti-nuclear weapon campaigns continued in Vancouver with End the Arms Race and the efforts to free jailed Israeli nuclear program whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu.
To Briemberg, work to support Palestinian in accordance with international law, human rights laws, and United Nations resolutions on the conflict, is simply consistent with the moral values and idealism imparted to him by his Jewish parents while growing up in Edmonton.
Briemberg went on to help found the Canada-Palestine Network (CanPalNet) and served on the board of the Near East Cultural and Educational Foundation whose projects include providing mental health services for Palestinian children traumatized by violence.
Briemberg’s commitment to education extends beyond the classroom. Briemberg helped found a newspaper called the Western Voice and is now a host of Co-op Radio’s Redeye program.
The YMCA’s peace awards began 20 years ago to recognize individuals who are “proof that each of us has the power to create a more peaceful world and that every individual effort can make a difference.” Since 1987, more than 900 individuals and groups across the country have received YMCA peace medallions for work locally, with youth and internationally.
Briemberg is currently being sued by Canwest Global, owners of The Vancouver Sun and The Province, for producing a parody of The Sun and its pro-Israel editorial policies. Though Briemberg had nothing to do with the production of the parody, Canwest cited his pro-Palestinian work as the reason he is being sued. The Seriously Free Speech Committee has been formed in support and to help raise funds for his defence.
For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Canwest, Canada’s largest media company, is pursuing a politically-motivated lawsuit against Vancouver activists to silence criticism of its bias in reporting on the Middle East. This is a classic David vs. Goliath story – a multi-billion dollar corporation bullying and trying to intimidate individual activists with a potentially ruinous lawsuit.
Why isn’t Canada’s mainstream media covering this story?
This is what we know:
- The curious case of Q, a national arts programme on CBC radio. Q had a 15+ minute segment on the NY Times spoof on Nov. 18, 2008. Despite being contacted on Nov. 14 about the possibility of discussing both the Vancouver Sun and NY Times parody editions, the Canadian parody was not included in the segment. When Andy Bichlbaum, one of the creators of the NY Times spoof, brought up the Vancouver Sun parody and Canwest’s lawsuit on the air, Q host Jian Ghomeshi completely ignored the comment and proceeded with the interview as if he had not heard it. The punch line is that Ghomeshi is also a columnist for the National Post. Listen to a podcast of the interview on Q (4 minutes in)
- Despite interest by individual reporters and producers at CBC, the story has never been covered by any CBC program, local or national, TV or radio, arts or news, radio or television, English or French.
- In November 2008, activists in Fredericton New Brunswick wrote a letter to The Daily Gleaner criticising the N.B. Human Rights Commission for awarding a human rights award to the Asper Foundation citing various actions by Canwest, including the Vancouver Sun parody lawsuit. The Gleaner, an Irving newspaper, printed the letter but edited out all references to the lawsuit.
- The National Post and other Canwest outlets had extensive coverage of the November 12, 2008 New York Times parody edition. Canwest’s media properties, including the National Post, the Vancouver Province, Vancouver Courier, and Global TV, have never covered the Vancouver Sun parody lawsuit with the following exception…
- The Vancouver Sun published a detailed account of Canwest’s accusations on Dec. 8, 2007 – the day after the writ was served. But the paper has never made any attempt to balance coverage of the case by interviewing the defendants or covering public forums or events sponsored by the defence committee. (A Sun reporter did call Mordecai Briemberg for a comment just minutes after he had been served with the writ but before he had an opportunity to consult with a lawyer and prepare a coherent response to the charges.)
- In October 2008, first The Globe and Mail and then 24 Hours were offered an exclusive scoop on the story of Mordecai Briemberg being dropped from the lawsuit, but neither were willing to report on this significant development in the case.
- in September 2008, editors at a community newspaper in Metro Vancouver and a web news site rejected story proposals because they’d previously received legal threats from Canwest over a commentary piece.
- When reporters at a Canwest community newspaper pitched the idea of a story on the SFSC campaign, the editor said that because it was a legal issue involving their owner, no news or commentary would be allowed.
- A well-known freelance columnist who proposed a story on the case was told by a major metropolitan newspaper that, “We don’t criticize other media.”
- A 24 Hours editor indicated an interest in running a column about the case by a well-known freelancer but later rejected the idea.
- At Shaw Cable, managers refused to air the edited video of a public forum about the case held in May unless certain comments by Mordecai Briemberg were excised and other editorial comments inserted. The video was made by Pedro Moro, whose video are regularly posted on Shaw TV. Because the managers insisted that he not identify Shaw as the source of the editorial comments, Moro refused to comply and instead filed a complaint with the CRTC. The video has not been shown.
- An independent Vancouver monthly magazine commissioned a piece on the case and the freelancer conducted an interview with one of the defendants but the freelancer applied for work at Canwest so the story was never submitted.
If you read, watch or listen to these media, call or email to let them know that you expect them to cover the news – all the news – without fear or favour:
The Vancouver Sun, The Province, Vancouver Courier, 24 Hours, Metro, Ming Pao, Sing Tao, World Journal, South Asian Post, Asian Pacific Post, The Link, Indo-Canadian Voice, CBC Radio, CBC Television, CKNW News, News 1130, Channel M News, Global TV, BC CTV, CityTV, Fairchild TV, National Post, Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Winnipeg Free Press.