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Importing hatred

Tensions in the Middle East are boiling over in Canada

Montreal Gazette Saturday, April 20, 2002

On Thursday, a group occupied my Montreal constituency office after entering on the pretext that they were constituents looking for assistance. It turned out they wanted to protest against Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East. Although this was not the initially declared purpose of the visit, my staff agreed to engage them in discussion; however, they rejected any discussion, announced they wished to occupy the office and told my staff to "leave for your own security."

My staff - consisting of a Québecoise, Irish-Canadian and Iranian-Canadian - a representative expression of a francophone and multicultural Quebec, insisted on remaining, saying it was not for them to leave but for those who were occupying the office to do so.

The occupiers refused to leave and barricaded themselves in the boardroom. The police were called, and after the occupants rejected the police requests to leave, they were subsequently removed and charged with trespass.

It is ironic that when we are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including the celebration of freedom of speech and the values of a free and democratic society like Canada, people choose not to exercise their right to speak and give expression to their grievance but choose to enter under false pretenses, occupy an MP's office, intimidate employees and effectively assault the very values that underlie this free and democratic society.

It is even doubly ironic, that at the time they were occupying my office, I was delivering a statement on the Middle East in the House of Commons, which was characterized by my colleagues in and out of the House as being as balanced, fair and sensitive as possible. The statement acknowledged the pain and suffering on both sides and called for an end to all acts of incitement, terror and violence, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian cities and towns, humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians and the end vision of an independent, democratic Palestinian state living in peace alongside, and in recognition of, the right of Israel to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries.

But even if my statement had been less than fair, this would not have countenanced the illegality committed. Those who occupied my office did not appear to care about my statements, or to peacefully discuss and protest against Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East, which in yet another irony has been characterized by many Jews as being too critical of Israel. Rather, this incident in my constituency office raises larger issues that go beyond even the very serious matter of protesting a grievance by occupying an MP's office and intimidating its employees. The larger issue here is the concern raised by, and the danger of, the importation of hatred from the Mideast conflict into Canada. And so after Sept. 11 many of us spoke out against the singling out of any visible minority - particularly Muslims - for differential and discriminatory treatment.

Many of my colleagues and I are increasingly witnessing, and receiving reports about, a growing number of anti-Semitic acts and innuendo, including the more benign, but nonetheless, disturbing and hurtful, anti-Semitic innuendo among the "chattering classes" and the more dangerous anti-Semitic assaults on Jews and Jewish institutions, including the firebombing of a Saskatoon synagogue, the vandalizing of Jewish institutions across the country, the physical assaults on identifiable Jews and the attack on on a distinguished Jewish cardiologist, who was a bystander to a Toronto demonstration that included epithets of "Death to the Jews."

Most disturbing however, is the silence that has accompanied these anti-Semitic manifestations and outbursts, which have Canadian Jews feeling as if they are back in the eerie atmospherics of the 1930s. The fact that even worse anti-Semitic manifestations and assaults have exploded in Europe and elsewhere does not provide much comfort. It only accentuates the concern and the anguish.

As Edmund Burke put it, "the surest way to ensure that evil will triumph in the world, is for enough good people to do nothing." It is time for the good people of Canada to speak up and make it clear racism and hate have no place in our society.

- Irwin Cotler is Liberal member of Parliament for Mount Royal. He is on leave as professor of human-rights law at McGill University.