Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee
Israel is not alone

By BOB RAE

Excerpted from an address by Bob Rae, former premier of Ontario, upon receiving the 2004 Scopus Award from Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University – its highest honour – in Toronto on Oct. 24.

We live in, I think, in times that could be described as somewhat strange. I find it, personally, incredibly troubling when a Canadian Muslim leader who is a teacher in a Canadian university [Dr. Mohammad Elmasry], an Ontario university, can condone the use of suicide bombers and say that all Israeli men and women over the age of 18 are appropriate targets wherever in the world they may happen to be. That was just this last week, on our own television program. This is an absolutely grotesque advocacy of hatred.

If there is good news, and there is some always, in what has taken place, is that what he has said has not gone unnoticed and unchallenged, even within the Muslim community itself. When a Canadian university – universities are supposed to be places in which ideas are discussed and presented, in which opposing views are allowed to be heard, supposed to be bastions of free speech, and of free expression – [does not allow] the former prime minister of Israel to speak on its campus, it means a minority is allowed to dictate who will speak and when. When that happens, something is very wrong in our country.

When bullies are allowed to trump free speech and civil dialogue, it’s a very bad sign. And yet the outcry against that decision is also heartening, because it means that there is a deep sense that these are comments and decisions that do not at all reflect the views and feelings of the vast majority.

The idea of a modern, democratic Jewish state in the Middle East grew out of the growing self-awareness of the Jews of 19th-century Europe. Of course, its origins lie much deeper: in the historic presence of the Jewish people in the land of Israel, before their repression and dispersal 2,000 years ago. When the Zionist pioneers came to Ottoman Palestine in the 1880s and 1890s, needless to say, their arrival was not welcomed. Indeed, at every turning point after the Balfour Declaration, at the first suggestion of partition in the late 1930s, again in the 1940s, there’s consistently been fierce resistance to the very idea of a Jewish presence, let alone a Jewish state in the Middle East. And yet as we reflect on that resistance, and on its terrible consequences for the world today, it is also important for us to remember that Israel’s existence and Canada’s commitment to human rights, to pluralism, to the fight against racial hatred, are also foundations of our common belief.

I want to say that Israel is not alone. And the Jewish community is not alone.

The voices of extremism are just that – an angry fringe that gets louder but is not more effective or more resonant for all of its noise… But when it comes to these fundamental questions, I believe very strongly that the vast majority of Canadians come together in the fight against intolerance and in common cause for human rights in Canada and around the world.

The first requirement for the resolution of any conflict… is a fundamental step in human behaviour. And that is the recognition that other people are also legitimate. It’s always easier to negotiate in front of a mirror, but when you actually have to confront the “other” and recognize that they, too, have a personality, they, too, have a culture, they, too, have an existence, recognizing that and coming to terms with that is the first step to the resolution of conflict. It’s not the denial of conflict – it’s the recognition and then its resolution. President [Anwar] Sadat had the courage to do that. Looking back in time, the historic courage that he showed, I think, was truly remarkable. Prime Minister Rabin had the same courage when he recognized the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority. The tragedy of our time is that both men paid the price with their own lives.

And now we live in a time when we see an escalation of fundamentalist rhetoric that spews out the hatred that the “other” is illegitimate and must be rejected in a horrifying reprise of hatred that echoes the anti-Semitism of the 19th and 20th centuries… It’s important that we remind our fellow Canadians that the occupation that is referred to and reviled by Hamas and Al Qaeda is not, as it appears to be to some naive observers, what happened after the war in 1967. It is the very existence of Israel – any Israel – whose legitimacy is denied by the voices of extremism or given such currency in the world today.

The Israel that I know and that I love respects the rule of law, understands the need for pluralism, and seeks to live in peace with its neighbours, within borders that are secure and that are internationally recognized. Yitzak Rabin’s courage will have to find its successors in our own time.

No visitor to Israel can be unaware of the debates and the divisions that make it such a democratic and such a vibrant place. I shall always remember asking my Jerusalem cab driver on my first visit to the Knesset, a quarter of a century ago, how many members of the Knesset there were. His simple answer: “About three million.” And all the mics are live. It’s quite an extraordinary place to visit, if you haven’t been there before.

It is in the context of the conflicting passions that mark the debate in Israeli society, as they must do in any democratic society, that I want to draw attention to the role of reason, facts, evidence, research, in the search for better public policy. That is what great universities are supposed to do. That is what Hebrew University does. It has been a centre of world scholarship since its foundation in 1925. Its beginning was a cause for celebration – its continued success is a cause entirely worthy of our support…

I also accepted this award for another reason, and that is my profound belief that universities matter. They are centres of excellence and innovation. They provide great opportunity in open societies. They also challenge orthodoxy. By insisting on the integrity of intellectual life, they play an irreplaceable role in our society as they do in Israeli society…

In a way, we’re celebrating two wonderful countries – our own, because it’s given us the means and the ability to support the causes in which we believe, and of course, to Israel, to which we owe so much.