MONTREAL — Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe says he has no regrets about the prominent role he played in the huge Aug. 6 rally in Montreal that had a strong anti-Israel tone and attracted Hezbollah sympathizers.
In an interview with The CJN, Duceppe rejected criticism that he either showed poor judgment because it could have been foreseen how the event would unfold, or that he deliberately took part in the rally for political gain, knowing that Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon had little support among Quebecers.
The latest to criticize Duceppe is Israeli Ambassador Alan Baker, who told the media in a teleconference on Aug. 15 that he was “shocked and disappointed” by Duceppe’s participation in what he considers “a blatantly anti-Israel march… by a highly incited crowd.”
He released a letter to Duceppe dated Aug. 8 in which he writes: “I find it inconceivable that the leader of a respected, major Canadian political party lends support and associates his name, and that of his party, to a demonstration that glorifies a terror organization that has been outlawed in Canada and that shamelessly seeks the elimination of the state of Israel, a liberal democratic country, sharing the values held by Canada, and ranking among Canada’s close friends.”
Baker accuses Duceppe of causing “irreparable damage” in appearing to “proffer encouragement” to Hezbollah, that sends “a very sad and foreboding message” to Israel and communities, “both Jewish and Christian,” in Canada and the world who support the struggle against terrorism.
Meanwhile, the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC) sent Duceppe a more conciliatory letter expressing appreciation for his denunciation of Hezbollah’s terrorism and call for its disarmament, while expressing serious concern about the rally and the “toxic” atmosphere in Quebec since.
Duceppe said the Bloc does not support Hezbollah and it is inaccurate to characterize the rally or its organizers as pro-Hezbollah. He regrets that some “radicals” were in the rally, but said he does not believe he can be held responsible for these individuals’ actions.
He said his and his party’s position, since the beginning of the conflict, has been that Israel had the right to fight back against Hezbollah, but its retaliation exceeded the “criteria of proportionality” set out in international law, and there should be an immediate ceasefire by both sides.
He believes Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and should be disarmed, according to United National resolutions, which he said he was booed for saying at the rally.
He said that marching in the rally allowed him to express his regret over the toll suffered by Lebanese and Israeli civilians.
Duceppe said he would not describe the rally as “anti-Israel” either, because “criticizing a decision or a policy of the Israeli government of Israel does not mean we are anti-Israel, just like we can criticize the Canadian government without being anti-Canadian.” He also noted that there were Jews in the rally.
Duceppe was a speaker at the press conference announcing the rally, and the Bloc Québécois is listed among the 60 organizations endorsing the event and a statement issued placing most of the blame for the conflict on Israel, as are the Parti Québécois, the Liberal Party of Canada and Quebec Solidaire, a left-wing sovereigntist party launched in February that has no elected members.
PQ leader Andre Boisclair and Montreal-area Liberal MP Denis Coderre also marched with Boisclair in the rally. (The CJN requested an interview with Coderre last week, but he had not responded by deadline.)
The rally, Duceppe said, was a democratic exercise, something denied to people in countries like Syria and Iran.“Because there were some radicals is not to say there should have been no demonstration.”
The Hezbollah flags, photos of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and other identifiable images were a very small part of the event, he said, adding that he wished they hadn’t been there. A small contingent of anti-Zionist Neturei Karta haredim was also there.
“We tried to stop [the Hezbollah supporters] but it is tough to control 15,000 people… I don’t know how many times we asked them to get out, but they kept coming back. Next time around, I hope we have more people in charge of security.”
Although Baker’s letter was dated Aug. 8, Duceppe said he received it the morning of Aug. 17, noting that the date was two days after the ambassador had given it to the media. Duceppe said he found it inappropriate that it was in English only and said that he did not plan to respond formally.
Duceppe said that the letter he received from the CIC, which was dated Aug. 16 and written in French – was “quite different in tone and in fact. It recognized that we have denounced terrorism.”
Signed by CIC president Marc Gold, the letter also expressed the CIC’s “profound anxiety” over the rally, especially the pro-Hezbollah presence, and the “clearly anti-Israel” statement released in advance of it.
Gold claimed that the event “created a toxic environment” in Quebec and damaged public discourse.
Gold noted that the statement contains no mention of “the fact that Israel was reacting to an attack and only exercising its most fundamental right to defend itself. Moreover, it contained no explicit denunciation of Hezbollah.”
Gold also wrote that, judging from the placards at the rally, it was “more anti-Israel than pro-peace.” With the appearance of several Hezbollah flags at a much smaller demonstration last week outside the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, where former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell was speaking at a Jewish National Fund event, Gold writes that these incidents are no longer isolated.
As the leader of an important political movement in Quebec and Canada, Duceppe has a “duty to denounce Islamic extremists, here and in the world,” Gold wrote.
“We believe you must also reaffirm that differences of opinion in Quebec have to be settled in a respectful, democratic and peaceful way. The excesses of the Aug. 7 [sic] demonstration, and certain messages that were conveyed there, have created a toxic environment in Quebec, that is harming the tone and the quality of democratic debate in our society,” he added.
“We equally believe that the sovereigntist movement must distance itself from any attempt to exploit for purposes that are contrary to Quebec values of freedom, equality, democracy, secularism and the respect for the rights of women and minorities.”