Rana Zaman offers a TED Talk (Facebook)

Canada’s New Democrats made a mistake. Not with their nomination last week of Emma Norton, a 28-year-old climate change activist and Ecology Action Centre staffer who decided to seek elective office this spring because she felt betrayed by Justin Trudeau’s “market-based, incrementalist” approach to climate change. I’m certain she will be a fine candidate in Dartmouth-Cole-Harbour and represent the party well.

But let’s rewind.

On May 1, 2019, the NDP members in that riding actually nominated someone else. It chose Rana Zaman, whom the party at the time described as “a dedicated social activist,” a Pakistani immigrant who came to Canada in the 1970s, a former delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, a volunteer with more than a dozen community organizations, a wife and mother of three who has lived in Dartmouth for more than 35 years. She was chosen to run against incumbent Liberal MP Darren Fisher in October’s federal election. Norton finished second for the nomination.

That was then. Between then and the end of June, however, someone dredged up a number of Zaman’s impassioned social media posts, which focused on Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.

The NDP almost instantly dumped her as a candidate, calling the language in her tweets “unacceptable. We expect our candidates to engage on important issues respectfully.”

What had she said that was so awful?

Frustrated by seeing what she described as “unarmed Palestinian protesters” being shot during the Great March of Return in the spring of 2018 — Amnesty International, in fact, reported “over 150 Palestinians have been killed in the demonstrations [and] at least 10,000 others have been injured, including 1,849 children, 424 women, 115 paramedics and 115 journalists — Zaman angrily accused Israel of “committing genocide against Palestinians because Israel is not willing to share! Tell me what are Palestinians supposed to do,” she asked? “Just die… oh wait! They are!! Where’s your heart?”

Genocide? Among other things, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide says it means “deliberately inflicting on [a] group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

Notes the progressive US-based Center for Constitutional Rights:

“prominent scholars of the international law crime of genocide and human rights authorities take the position that Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people could constitute a form of genocide. Those policies range from the 1948 mass killing and displacement of Palestinians to a half-century of military occupation and, correspondingly, the discriminatory legal regime governing Palestinians, repeated military assaults on Gaza, and official Israeli statements expressly favoring the elimination of Palestinians.”

Or consider this catalogue of Israeli actions from a 2014 investigation by VICE:

“Israel is a state that openly discriminates on the basis of identity, denying Palestinian refugees the ability to visit their old villages in what is now Israel while granting citizenship to anyone with a Jewish mother who wants it. Israel is a state where the deputy speaker of parliament openly calls for replacing the indigenous population of Gaza with Jewish settlers, and where a leading newspaper just published [a later deleted] article titled “When Genocide Is Permissible.” It’s the sort of place where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feels comfortable calling the 20 percent of the population that isn’t Jewish—the indigenous people who weren’t pushed out—a “demographic threat” to apartheid, their continued reproduction posing a serious challenge to continued ethnic supremacy west of the Jordan River. So why are people afraid to use that word: ‘genocide’?”

To be clear, this is not the mainstream view of what the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians constitutes, but it is far from radical and it is not — or should not be — to use the NDP’s words, “disrespectful” to raise it.

In another tweet, Zaman described Israel as an “apartheid state.”

Merriam Webster defines apartheid as “racial segregation: a former policy of segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-European groups in the Republic of South Africa.” See above for how someone might be able to extrapolate the contemporary Israel-Palestinian reality from that.

In 2017, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia even published a report — authored by Richard Falk, a former U.N. human rights investigator for the Palestinian territories, and Virginia Tilley, professor of political science at Southern Illinois University — which concluded on the “basis of scholarly inquiry and overwhelming evidence that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid… Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.”

Again, not a universal view, but far from one that is unique to Zaman. Or one that shouldn’t be discussed among reasonable people. It is, in fact, a view espoused by many progressives, including Israelis and some Jews outside Israel.

Another of Zaman’s tweets was more problematic: “I wonder if #Israel borrowed this from the #Nazis after they saw how successful they were? At the speed Israel is killing I wonder if they’re aiming higher than six million #Palestinians? #Gaza is the new #Auschwitz and #Israeli the gatekeepers!”

Comparing anyone — but especially Israelis — to the Nazis is beyond the pale, even in anger.

Even before she was unceremoniously dumped by the NDP, Zaman says she contacted “leaders and friends in the Jewish community,” and apologized. “I now appreciate that my tweets comparing Israeli actions to those of Nazi Germany were inappropriate, hurtful and sadly may be viewed as anti-Semitic… My emotions at the sight of so many innocent Palestinians being shot, maimed or killed during the March of Return overwhelmed me. I have learned an important lesson, the need to be mindful and not to use this analogy in the future.”

Her apology didn’t help. Zaman was dismissed as an NDP candidate.

Were Zaman’s tweets anti-Semitic? Is she?

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance would argue it — and therefore she — is. It says simply “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” is anti-Semitic. Around the time of the NDP’s decision to turf Zaman, the Canadian government adopted that IHRA definition as federal policy.

B’nai Brith Canada was quick to “commend the NDP for acting responsibly in terminating Rana Zaman’s candidacy, and urge it and all other Canadian political parties to take similar action against any other nominees who breach the internationally accepted definition of anti-Semitism.”

But here’s the thing. As Independent Jewish Voices noted, seven of the 11 examples of anti-Semitic actions cited by the IHRC “involve not hatred of Jews but criticism of Israel.” According to that group, even the document’s author, an American legal scholar, has since disavowed it.

And yet it is now cited as justification for silencing Zaman.

So who is Rana Zaman beyond those tweets?

For starters, she is a Muslim woman who complained, less than two weeks after she’d been nominated, that she herself had been the victim of anti-Muslim attacks on social media. One of her campaign workers, she told Halifax Today, “has received emails that were so horrifying that she was in tears and she didn’t want to tell me about it. She just told me bits and blurbs, and I think she toned it down even then.”

B’nai Brith did not issue a statement of support. From what I read, the NDP was silent. Business as usual.

At the time, Zaman herself called for discussion. “Dialogue is what’s needed, understanding. I don’t jump on people or feel personally offended when they’re saying things because I realize it must be coming from something.”

That, of course, was not the position the NDP took when it learned of her tweets.

But it is — interestingly — the way Zaman herself responded to an earlier case involving Islamophobia before she was a candidate for political office.

According to a 2016 story in Canadian Press, Zaman had complained to police after seeing a Halifax police officer make horrific Islamophobic comments on social media, accusing “Mussies,” as he referred to them, of trying to recruit child sexual abuse victims. When Zaman reposted the officer’s tweet on social media, she blacked out the officer’s name and photo because she didn’t want to start a “witch hunt… My heart does not want to have this person fired or degraded in any way, but seeks the opportunity to speak with him and perhaps others of the police force who may share similar sentiments.”

She got her wish. The Halifax police department’s equity and diversity officer organized a meeting between the two during which Zaman says she discovered the officer had been dealing with what the story described as “personal issues and a ‘personal loss’ at the time.”

Without excusing his behaviour — for which he’d offered a written apology — Zaman noted that the officer’s comment “is coming out of pure anger, and there’s something behind it, there’s pain and anger behind that comment.”

It was the beginning of an ongoing discussion. Zaman organized meet-and-greet sessions for Halifax police officers to allow them to ask questions and get to know members of the Muslim community. She even invited the officer who’d made the original Islamophobic comments to a meal during Ramadan.

It is interesting to consider the good Rana Zaman might have done as the NDP’s candidate for parliament, the even more she might have accomplished as an MP.

But, as Zaman herself allowed in the aftermath of her ouster, “it is an unfortunate fact of current political discourse that the words we use to describe injustice are often perceived as worse than the injustice itself.”

It is unfortunate.

Correction: In an earlier version of the column, I wrongly described the sequence of events surrounding Zaman’s apology. It is corrected in this version.

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was quoted as saying there must be room for legitimate criticism of Israel, to his credit. So it seems that the Nazi reference was the issue – it was offensive, as noted in Stephen’s article. There must also be room for people to make mistakes and learn from them as Rana did and as she worked to enable others to. Such an enlightened approach should be supported by the NDP. They could have supported Rana, based on her broader track record. It’s more difficult to do that in the modern political environment where one quote can be used as a whip against opponents, from all sides of the political spectrum. But a principled approach would be to vigourously defend a person under these circumstances.

    Having said that, Emma is an excellent candidate as was Rana.

  2. I am appreciative of the publication of this story about the lady being rejected by NDP; this article should be made available at the national level, that people can see that side of the Israel/Palestine conflict. I am a supporter of the Jewish people & their desire/right to have a safe & secure home; I am also a supporter of the Palestine people & their right to occupy lands they have lived on for generations. It is criminal & immoral that Israel continues to expand territory onto Palestine land, criminal to kill innocent people. Politics, big money & influence should not triumph over doing the right thing, by everyone.

  3. What’s so galling about the Federal NDP is its apparent zero tolerance about excited comments by candidates when Israel is slaughtering Palestinians in Gaza, and the party’s unlimited tolerance of any horror that Israel penetrates against Palestinians.

  4. I have long been disturbed by any criticism of the Israeli government being considered anti-Semitic. The Palestinians are a Semitic people. Does that not make the Israeli government’s treatment of them anti-Semitic?
    Our Minister of Foreign Affairs has declared that Canada stands “ironclad” with Israel and the Prime Minister has railed against BDS claiming it makes Jewish students uncomfortable. Has any political party criticized those opinions?

    1. Couldn’t have said better myself.

      I have no reason to dislike individuals simply for being Jewish, but I believe I have every right to criticize the policies of The Government of Israel as I would for any other government, including ours.

      Israel has made a concerted effort to purchase influence over the US Congress, Senate, White House and State governors by the strategic placement of campaign donations through their AIPAC umbrella organizations. Israel was routinely receiving $3b in US “economic aid” when I was in school almost 50 years ago plus intelligence, diplomatic and military aid (including some of the latest US military hardware not available to all would-be purchasers) which continues to this day. In return Israel became America’s regional agent during The Cold War and remains that way now.

      Today few nations dare speak ill of Israel for fear of incurring the public and backroom wrath of Washington, and being slagged as “Antisemitic” by Israel itself. Canadian political parties are likely also beneficiaries of Jewish support that may well come with expectations. The Harper Conservatives were embarrassingly obsequious in their fawning over Israel, and still are – Scheer is promising to move the Canadian embassy to Jerusalem if he wins. Before Harper, Canada had been widely considered an honest broker in the Middle East. Trudeau has done little if anything to recover that enviable reputation. (Well he still wants a Canadian seat on the UN Security Council, right?)

      All political parties are particularly vulnerable to racism charges during elections. A candidate who says something which could be ingeniously distorted to sound Antisemitic renders them a huge PR target for rival parties. Zaman is not the first candidate the Federal NDP have dumped due to their having expressed adverse opinions about policies of the Government of Israel. In 2015 Tom Mulcair rapidly dropped Morgan Wheeldon as the NDP candidate for Kings-Hants after careful Facebook trolling by the Conservatives enabled them to weaponize comments Wheeldon made suggesting that in his view Israel intended to “ethnically cleanse the region”. Arguably that was a controversial choice of words (which he claimed were written several years before and taken out of the broader context of his post), but not without some merit at that time and all the more so today. No matter, Mulcair dropped him like a hot potato.

      In 2015 an NDP fighting for it’s first shot at government could not afford to take unnecessary risks like Wheeldon.

      In 2019 an NDP fighting to retain Official Party status cannot afford to take unnecessary risks like Zaman.

      The lesson is clear. In our democracy, never dare to criticize Israel.

      Watch your back Stephen…

      1. That Wheeldon decision was the right one. I ran into a Twitter account of his that was the most hateful vitriolic anti Islamic stuff you could dig up on the net.

        1. I’ve only heard of his alleged Antisemitic comments some years before the election, and that they were the reason Mulcair dropped him.

          This is the first I’ve heard of any anti-Islamic ones.

          1. You had to read through all his past comments and see who was following him/who he was following to link the burner account to him but there didn’t seem to be much doubt at the time. Hard to prove now but pretty disturbing at the time.

  5. The NDP has long disassociated itself from any potential candidate who criticizes Israeli policies which subjugate Palestinians. When is the NDP going to stand up to the major apartheid state — Israel. As a Jew in NS & an NDP member I reject what the party did to Rana. Let’s not confuse it with the notion that the new nominee is good or better or also deserving. Why not face the fact that what the Ndp did to Rana was wrong and must be righted.

  6. I have such respect for Rana. I met her — at my door! — during the last provincial election when I was running in Fairview, and again at campaign school and a few other events. I have consistently found her to be positive, passionate and engaged. She’s honestly what we need more of in our legislature and parliament. Thrilled to see an EAC rep running too… wish we could have both.