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.