Canada’s Social Democrats: Anti-Palestinian History

Ontario NDP leader from 1970 to 1978, Stephen Lewis was stridently anti-Palestinian. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

By Yves Engler

The NDP leadership’s naked suppression of debate on the “Palestine Resolution” is rooted in a long pro-Israeli nationalism history.

At last month’s convention the party machine blocked any debate of the Palestine Resolution, which mostly restated official Canadian policy, except that it called for “banning settlement products from Canadian markets, and using other forms of diplomatic and economic pressure to end the occupation.” As I detailed previously, the Palestine Resolution was confusingly renamed, deprioritized and then blocked from being debated on the convention floor. The suppression of a resolution unanimously endorsed by the NDP youth convention, many outside groups and over 25 riding associations was the latest in a long line of leadership anti-Palestinian actions.

However, the first leader of Canada’s original social democratic party actually took a sensible humanist position, criticizing the colonialist/nationalist movement’s impact on the indigenous population. In 1938 CCF (the NDP’s predecessor) leader J. S. Woodsworth said, “it was easy for Canadians, Americans and the British to agree to a Jewish colony, as long as it was somewhere else. Why ‘pick on the Arabs’ other than for ‘strategic’ and ‘imperialistic’ consideration.”

After Woodsworth’s 1940 death the party’s stance shifted and by the end of World War II the CCF officially supported Zionism. Future CCF leader and premier of Saskatchewan Tommy Douglas and long-time federal MP Stanley Knowles were members of the Canadian Palestine Committee, a group of prominent non-Jewish Zionists formed in 1943 (future external minister Paul Martin Sr. and Alberta premier Ernest C. Manning were also members). In 1944 the Canadian Palestine Committee wrote Prime Minister Mackenzie King that it “looks forward to the day when Palestine shall ultimately become a Jewish commonwealth, and member of the British Commonwealth of Nations under the British Crown.”

Not long after 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their homeland. In 1947/48 CCF officials said the refugees should not be allowed to return. CCF MP Alistair Stewart said that taking in anything more than a small proportion of the refugees might destroy Israel and would be “asking more than any modern state would be prepared to accede to.”

Despite general misgivings towards arms sales, the CCF backed Canada selling 24 F-86 Sabre jets to Israel in the lead-up to its 1956 invasion of Egypt. The party justified Israel’s invasion alongside declining Middle East colonial powers Britain and France. Party leader M.J. Coldwell said, “Israel had ample provocation for her action in marching into Sinai… Egypt’s insistence that Israel be made to obey United Nations resolutions [while it had] hampered Israel’s shipping without lawful excuse. Egypt’s insistence that Israel be made to obey United Nations resolution sounds no less than cynical coming as it does from a government which for years ignored and flouted the Security Council and United Nations when they ordered free passage for Israel’s ships through Suez.”

The NDP also took up Israel’s justification for invading its neighbors in 1967. They criticized Egypt’s blockade of Israeli shipping while ignoring that country’s strategic objectives, which the CIA concluded were the: “Destruction of the center of power of the radical Arab Socialist movement, i.e. the Nasser regime.” (2) “Destruction of the arms of the radical Arabs.” (3) “Destruction of both Syria and Jordan as modern states.”

Despite Ottawa’s strong pro-Israel alignment, NDP leader Tommy Douglas criticized Prime Minister Lester Pearson for not backing Israel more forthrightly in the 1967 war. Describing the NDP convention shortly after the Six-Day War Toronto Star reporter John Goddard wrote, “the delegates were solidly behind Israel. I remember David Lewis leading the discussion at the Royal York Hotel, the look of steely resolve on his face, and the sense of relief in the room over the defeat of the Arab armies.”

After Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967 the party came out in favor of a “united Jerusalem”. “The division of Jerusalem,” said David Lewis, a significant figure in the party for four decades, “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.”

As Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai, Lewis made “impassioned warnings that Israel was in danger.” During his time as federal leader from 1971 to 1975 Lewis spoke to at least one Israel Bonds fundraiser, which raised money for that state.

Just after stepping down as federal leader Lewis was the “speaker of the year” at a B’nai B’rith 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.”

After a trip to that country Tommy 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’ 1975 comment was made after Israel had driven out its indigenous population and repeatedly invaded its neighbours.)

The NDP labelled the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which was created in 1964, a danger and vociferously opposed the UN granting it observer status in 1974. Federal party leader Ed Broadbent called the PLO “terrorists and murderers whose aim is the destruction of the state of Israel.” (Apparently, multiple players within the NDP-aligned Broadbent Institute voted against allowing the full convention to debate the Palestine Resolution at an early morning session prior to the main plenary.) In the late 1970s the NDP called on the federal government to intervene to block Canadian companies from adhering to Arab countries’ boycott of Israel, which was designed to pressure that country to return land captured in the 1967 war.

Ontario NDP leader from 1970 to 1978, Stephen Lewis was stridently anti-Palestinian. He demanded the federal government cancel a major UN conference scheduled to be held in Toronto in 1975 because the PLO was granted observer status at the UN the previous year and their representatives might attend. In a 1977 speech to pro-Israel fundraiser United Jewish Appeal, which the Canadian Jewish News titled “Lewis praises [Conservative premier Bill] Davis for Stand on Israel”, Stephen Lewis denounced the UN’s “wantonly anti-social attitude to Israel.” He told the pro-Israel audience that “the anti-Semitism that lurks underneath the surface is diabolical. The only thing to rely on is Jew helping Jew.” (Stephen Lewis’ sister, Janet Solberg, was maybe the loudest anti-Palestinian at the NDP’s recent convention. Former president of the Ontario NDP and federal council member, Solberg was a long time backroom organizer for her brother and works at the Stephen Lewis Foundation.)

In the 1989 book The Domestic Battleground: Canada and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Irving Abella and John Sigler write, “historically, the New Democratic Party (NDP) has been the most supportive of the Israeli cause, largely because of its close relationship to Israel’s Labour party, and to the Histadrut, the Israeli trade union movement.”

Excluding non-Jewish workers for much of its history, the Histadrut was a key part of the Zionist movement. Former Prime Minister Golda Meir remarked: “Then [1928] I was put on the Histadrut Executive Committee at a time when this big labor union wasn’t just a trade union organization. It was a great colonizing agency.” For its part, Israel’s Labor party (and predecessor Mapai) was largely responsible for the 1947/48 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, 1956 invasion of Egypt and post 1967 settlement construction in the West Bank.

Relations with Israel’s Labor party continue. Labor Knesset Member Michal Biran was photographed with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh at the recent convention. In the lead-up to that event Biran wrote: “Western progressives must not buy into the simplistic notion that peace is Israel’s gift to bestow upon the Palestinians… Palestinians must make peace with Israel as much as the converse. Here again, recognition [of a Palestinian state] achieves nothing: it will not cause Hamas to halt its missile attacks; it will not encourage the PA to cease payments to terrorists to incentivise murders of Israeli civilians; it will not convince Mahmoud Abbas to cease his antisemitic screeds and Holocaust revisionism. Unilateral recognition offers a free diplomatic gift whilst demanding no Palestinian concessions essential to peace.”

When proponents of the Palestine Resolution tried to reprioritize their resolution so the convention could debate it, Singh mobilized his family and community to block it. Two dozen Sikh delegates, including members of Singh’s family, voted as a block against allowing the full convention to debate the Palestine Resolution, which failed 200 to 189. A Facebook meme by Aminah Mahmood captured the sentiment: “When they USE Brown people to vote down the Palestine Resolution.” (Later in the evening I asked Jagmeet Singh’s brother if he voted against the Palestine Resolution, but he refused to answer.)

The suppression of the Palestine Resolution should stir internationalist minded party members to finally confront the NDP’s anti-Palestinian legacy. A first step in breaking from this odious history could be ending all ties with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Israeli Labor Party, Canada–Israel Parliamentary Group and other Israel lobby organizations/forums. If the party believes in justice this is the least it should do.

–  Yves Engler is the author of Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid and a number of other books. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit his website: yvesengler.com.

1 Comment

  1. The NDP are no more “social democrats” than any other centrist party – i.e. any other Canadian party. They have pretty much capitulated to neoliberal economic policies and follow neoconservative geopolitical goals.
    Excellent work, Yves, on keeping this to the forefront.

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