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Why I occupied Cotler's office

Montreal Gazette Tuesday, April 23, 2002

Last Thursday, I and six other people occupied Liberal MP Irwin Cotler's constituency office in order to address and raise awareness of the brutality of the Israeli occupation and Canada's complicity in it.

Since then, the pro-Israeli media have been hard at work attempting to draw attention away from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Joseph Gabay, a high-ranking official in the Canadian Jewish Congress, typified the occupation of Cotler's office as "another sort of terrorism."

In the post-Sept. 11 lexicon, "terrorism" has become part of an over-simplified, emotionally reactive vocabulary. The terrorists are the "bad people" while the rest of us who are committed to stamping out terrorism are the "good people." Unfortunately, the world is not so simple: if our peaceful act of occupying a boardroom is "another sort of terrorism," how would Gabay characterize the violent Israeli occupation of towns and villages that have left a twisted carnage of bodies and buildings? Perhaps, Gabay should expand his vocabulary to include the term "state terrorism."

Our occupation was meant to address this state terrorism. Cotler, in his article that responded to our occupation (The Gazette, April 20), quotes Edmund Burke: "The surest way to ensure that evil will triumph in the world is for enough good people to do nothing." As a grandson of four Holocaust survivors, I take this comment to heart. The blue tattoos on my late grandmother's forearm are a concrete reminder of the slogan "never again," and yet Israeli tanks and bulldozers make their way through the West Bank destroying olive fields, toppling houses and buildings atop of inhabitants, destroying everything of value to the people who live within the barbed wire of these Israeli-made ghettos.

I was taught by my grandparents that "never again" should not be applied only to the Jews but to all of humanity. I was taught that the terrible lessons they learned in the Holocaust were lessons that needed to be passed from country to country, so that, indeed, the entire world could speak out and prevent future massacres.

The Jewish community should not forget the 1930s, a dark time in Canadian history, when then prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King made his now famous remark, "none is too many," in reference to European Jewish immigration to Canada. In Germany, Hitler's plans were clearly started, and yet the international community remained silent and unsympathetic to the plight of Jews. Thus, the tragic massacres ensued.

Cotler, in his Comment piece, said that our actions "effectively assault the very values that underlie this free and democratic society." I am saddened that more citizens did not engage in civil disobedience to "assault" the pervasive Canadian governmental silence that existed during the first years of Hitler's reign. I am sad that the pro-Israeli pundits, who work for the Canadian Jewish Congress and the B'nai Brith, characterize our peaceful actions follow in the tradition of Gandhi and others, as "forms of terrorism" and yet sit by as Israeli troops conduct "round-ups" of Palestinian males and continue their program of destroying Palestinian towns, villages and culture.

As a citizen who has a profound desire to see justice and peace, I have noted that governments are often not at the forefront in the struggle against tyranny. In the past, this Canadian government has sat idle as the Timorese faced annihilation at the hands of the Suharto regime in Indonesia. There, the economic benefits of trade proved to be more important than human rights. This time around, I hope that the simple rhetoric of the Canadian Jewish Congress and Irwin Cotler do not cause us to lose sight of the "state terrorism" that Israel is now engaged in against a civilian Palestinian population. Further, I call upon other citizens to rise up against the silence of their governments, so that "never again" can really mean "never again."

- Zev Tiefenbach is co-ordinator of a soup kitchen.