It was Robert Fisk, the celebrated British journalist, who recently wrote, "our gutlessness, our refusal to tell the truth, our fear of being slandered as "anti-Semites" --- the most loathsome of libels against any journalist - means that we are aiding and abetting terrible deeds in the Middle East." As noted, this label has the enviable power to silence and force conformity. And unfortunately this phenomenon is prevalant in other sectors as well. Bader Abu-Zahra, a member of a race relations advisory committee in a town just north of Toronto, learned this the hard way.
What is happening to Abu-Zahra, of course, is in keeping with the practice of silencing anyone who dares to compare the Nazi Holocaust to any other genocide.
Abu-Zahra's may be forced to resign from the York race relations committee, thanks to a Jewish advocacy group that has threatened to file a human rights complaint against the York Region District School Board if he is not forced out. His crime is that he dared to challenge the inclusion of the Holocaust in school curriculum, to the exclusion of the suffering of other people, and he distributed a review of The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (New York: Verso, 2000) by professor Norman Finkelstein to those attending a meeting to discuss this issue.
Shefman, who is Jewish and served as a former director of education for the Ontario Human Rights Commission, wrote a scathing letter calling the review "a 'sophisticated' from of anti-Semitism". The letter addressed to Abu-Zahra dated April 23, 2001, asked for his immediate resignation. Shefman served as the accuser, judge and jury without any authority from the committee or the school board. Shefman did not return a call from this writer.
Not surprisingly, Shefman could not explain in his letter what was anti-Semitic in the book review. Having read the review published in Impact International (August 2000) by M. H. Faruqui, I fail to understand how it could be characterized as anti-Semitic. Nowhere does the reviewer negate or diminish the Holocaust and he certainly does not incite hatred or violence against Jews. In fact, the review merely summarized the book which argues that the Holocaust is being exploited by major Jewish organizations and the Jewish elite to extort political power and financial gain, silence critics of Israeli human rights violations and serve as an ideological tool to advance the Zionist agenda.
Abu-Zahra responded to Shefman's letter by pointing out that focusing on the Holocaust would marginalize the suffering of other people. "What will we tell scores of other York Region communities that have a narrative of genocide that is part of their history and is no less significant a part of human history," asked the volunteer committee member. "What about all the other genocides that are, each in their own right, unique and equally endowed with educational value?"
"In trying to silence me," wrote Abu-Zahra, "you have only confirmed Prof. Finkelstein's point that politically powerful interests have exploited the suffering of Jews during the Second World War and that the spectre of anti-Semitism to silence opinions with which they disagree. Next, will you accuse Professor Finkelstein, the devoted son of Holocaust survivors, of being anti-Semitic?"
A committee vote on a motion to ask the school board to remove Abu Zahra from the committee was defeated 12 to 9 on May 10th. The issue should have died then and there, but Alan Shefman, the chair of the committee, and the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), are asking the board to overturn the decision of the committee.
And unfortunately, the board appears to be caving in to the pressure from the CJC. "The board deplores the distribution of anti-Semitic material at the conference," stated a board motion. The Chair of the school board, Bill Crothers, also issued a statement on the issue. "The Board disassociates itself from the distribution of anti- Semitic materials in any form, to any group operating under the Board's auspices, at any time, under any circumstances."
Crothers was unable to comment but had the board's public affairs officer, Ross Virgo, return my call. When asked exactly what in the review was anti-Semitic, Virgo said that the "board is not prepared to debate whether the material was anti-Semitic or not."
Some are criticizing Abu-Zahra for his poor judgement in handing out the review. In all fairness, it should be noted that he handed out the review to teachers and members of a race relations committee, during a conference to discus the possibility of adding Holocaust studies to the curriculum to the exclusion of other genocides. It is definitely a proper forum to discuss such issues and those who received copies are clearly qualified to scrutinize and evaluate the opinions expressed for themselves. It is elementary that freedom of expression should not to be limited to those views and opinions that are approved by all or by a handful of elite. As noted by professor and media critic Noam Chomsky, "It is precisely in the case of views that are almost universally despised and condemned that this right must be most vigorously defended."
Sure there are limits to freedom of expression and there should be when it comes to incitement of hatred, promotion of violence, slander and defamation of individuals or a community or expression which results in public disturbance detrimental to the greater good of society. However, academic debate must not be muzzled.
What is happening to Abu-Zahra, of course, is in keeping with the practice of silencing anyone who dares to compare the Nazi Holocaust to any other genocide. "This idea that the Holocaust is exploited by Jews is in my view vile," said Ed Morgan, chair of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
The tactics employed by Shefman and the CJC have been tried and tested over time. Matin Yaqzan, a former professor at the University of New Brunswick, best summed up the tactics used: "It is my impression that some Jewish organizations are in the business of character assassination through the media. They do it in an organized fashion, and 'legally'. Their work is like that of a legal Mafia. They poison the public mind through newscasts, news releases and public statements by their own representatives," wrote Professor Yaqzan in a letter to a local newspaper. "After creating the hysteria, they use the public outcry as a justification for condemning the individual."
The board must take a stand, for now the issue is clearly being hijacked by members of the Jewish community ,who wish to exploit their political muscle to silence its critics.
Faisal Kutty is Toronto-based lawyer and writer. He is also a columnist for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.