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January 3, 2020 1:24 pm

Canadian NDP Party Leader Seeks ‘Very Strong’ Relationship With Jewish Community, Says BDS ‘Not Path to Peace’

avatar by Shiri Moshe

Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. Photo: NDP.

Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP), recently spoke to members of the country’s Jewish community on the rise in antisemitism and the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, which he said is “not the path to peace” and will not be his party’s “path forward.”

The left-leaning NDP lost its position as Canada’s second opposition party in the 2019 federal elections, earning nearly 16 percent of the vote and dropping to 24 seats from the 44 seats it won in 2015. It is now the fourth-largest faction in parliament, behind the Bloc Québécois, Conservative, and ruling Liberal parties.

In a round-table conversation hosted last month by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which has since been published as a podcast, Singh said he wanted “to have a very strong relationship with the Jewish community, it’s something very important to me.”

“Hate is not something that’s isolated, once it’s allowed to take hold, it grows and spreads like a fire and that’s why I think we’ve got a collective responsibility … to stop it together,” Singh said after acknowledging a rise in reported hate crimes.

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Data released by Canada’s national statistics office in July showed that the Jewish community “remains the most frequently targeted group when it comes to hate crime, with an incident taking place roughly every 24 hours in Canada,” CIJA has said. In Toronto specifically, members of the Jewish community faced 50 reported hate crimes in 2018, according to the city’s police service. The second most targeted group was Muslims, with 18 incidents, followed by black and LGBT+ individuals with 16 and 13 incidents respectively.

Singh was asked about his position on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which was adopted by the Canadian government as part of a new anti-racism strategy in June. The NDP at the time raised concerns that the definition “could be a threat for people who legitimately denounce grave human rights abuses by the government of Israel against Palestinians.”

The IHRA — whose 31 member countries include Canada — describes antisemitism, in part, as advancing “the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy” and “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”

Singh said he does accept the IHRA definition “as a guiding educational lens that could prevent antisemitism that’s often hidden and cloaked. It provides a way to analyze and assess in some ways biases that people don’t think are … antisemitic but are, so I think there’s a lot of educational value to it.”

“The only concern is,” he continued, “if it was legally-binding, that it might limit the ability to criticize government policies and decisions, separate from what I don’t think is appropriate to criticize — the right to exist, for example, of Israel.”

“But the government policies or decision of a government — of any government — should be open to criticism,” he said.

The IHRA definition states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

Singh also touched on his trip to Israel with CIJA, saying he found “the nation building and the history and the story phenomenal,” and recalled seeing “the foundations of human rights, respects for LGBTQ communities, respects for the rights of women.”

“I am from a community that has also faced genocide,” said Singh, who is a Sikh, “and I understand very deeply the idea of not having a place where you feel safe. The idea of having that safety and security is something that I support, so you’ll always find me as someone that believes very firmly in the right to exist and the right to defend that existence.”

Addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he acknowledged that it “hurts everyone involved,” but expressed hope that peaceful coexistence “can be achieved,” including in part by “acknowledging responsibility on all sides.”

“I’ll try my best to always be an advocate for a measured and principled and balanced approach to finding solutions to peace,” Singh said.

Later in the discussion, the NDP leader was asked by a party member and self-described progressive Zionist how the party, which does not officially support BDS, can nonetheless lend a campaign that is “antisemitic in effect if not in its stated intent … any shelter, any cover, any legitimacy,” including by failing to publish clear statements on the issue.

The social democratic party has previously raised concerns within the Jewish community over its stances on BDS, which it rejected at its national convention in 2018. The boycott movement says it seeks to redefine Israel “as a pariah state” until it abides by international law and Palestinian demands. Critics, including major Jewish groups in the US and worldwide, say it rejects the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and advances antisemitic tropes.

While an NDP candidate in Nova Scotia was dropped in June over tweets alleging that “Gaza is the new Auschwitz,” the party nonetheless rejected calls to disqualify a candidate who was recorded affixing BDS stickers to Israeli products in a store, according to the civil rights group B’nai Brith Canada.

In his response, Singh underscored that the NDP’s official position “is that we do not support BDS.”

“As leader, it is not something that I advance and I promote and support, in the sense that it is not the path to peace,” he added. “I also support the notion that it has, instead of helping peace, it has perhaps the opposite effect in creating more tensions, more division, and particularly as it plays out in student campuses … it has shown to create tensions and an unsafe climate.”

Yet Singh said that he does believe “in defending the right of thought and speech, so people can believe and think and express themselves however they want,” including in respect to BDS.

“I don’t support it, it’s not the path of the New Democratic Party, but I haven’t taken that next step to say that it should be banned as a thought, though I am very sensitive to and appreciate the problems that it raises.”

“It creates a bit of a moral conundrum of where to draw the line of limiting thought,” he said, “but I can reiterate the party’s commitment and my commitment that it is not our path forward and it will not be.”

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