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Liberals convene antisemitism summit amid concerns over new MP's views on Israel

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government announced Friday that it will convene an emergency summit on antisemitism, even as it faced criticism for welcoming into the Liberal fold an MP who has denounced Israel as an apartheid state.

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government announced Friday that it will convene an emergency summit on antisemitism, even as it faced criticism for welcoming into the Liberal fold an MP who has denounced Israel as an apartheid state.

The summit is to be led by former Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, currently Canada's special envoy on antisemitism.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has been calling for an emergency summit, citing a "troubling rise of anti-Jewish bigotry" in Canada following the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Jews in Canada and around the globe are being targeted for their identity and for expressing solidarity with their fellow Jews in Israel who were under attack from Hamas, a listed terrorist organization," the centre's president, Shimon Koffler Fogel, said in a statement Friday welcoming the summit.

"We have witnessed antisemitism targeting Jewish owned businesses, in schools, in workplaces, in unions, and on our streets. Moreover, we have seen an unprecedented spike in antisemitic vitriol expressed online."

Conservatives — and even some Liberals — believe that Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin has contributed to that vitriol.

Atwin defected Thursday from the Green party to join the Liberals, who faced questions Friday about why she's been welcomed into the governing party's ranks.

Atwin last month criticized Green Leader Annamie Paul's call for de-escalation of the recent deadly hostilities between Israel and Palestinians and a return to dialogue between the two sides.

On Twitter, Atwin argued that there are "no two sides to this conflict, only human rights abuses" by Israel.

"I stand with Palestine and condemn the unthinkable airstrikes in Gaza. End Apartheid!" she tweeted.

Canada committed $25 million in aid to Palestinian civilians following the recent conflict, which left at least 230 Palestinians dead — including 65 children — and killed 12 Israelis.

Atwin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

On Thursday, she said the rift in the Green party over the Mideast conflict had played a role in her decision to leave.

"It has been really difficult to focus on the work that needs to be done on behalf of my constituents,'' she said.

Former Liberal MP Michael Levitt, now president of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, took to Twitter on Friday to say he's "disappointed and concerned" that Atwin has joined the Liberals, "given her inflammatory, one-sided and divisive rhetoric during the recent conflict between Israel and the terror group Hamas."

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather also expressed concerns.

"I clearly disagree with her comments on Israel and I was pleased to see that the Minister of Global Affairs made clear in question period that this is absolutely contrary to the position of our Government," Housefather said in an email.

Earlier Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau essentially disavowed Atwin's stance.

"I will simply say that the position of the Liberal government is extremely clear on the question of the apartheid label. We reject it, categorically," Garneau told the House of Commons.

"It is not part of our approach with respect to Israel or the Jewish community. We, of course, are completely against any antisemitism that would be displayed by any Canadian citizen."

Garneau was responding to questions from Conservative MP Peter Kent, who argued that MPs should try to calm, "not inflame inter-communal discord and discrimination."

"Why then have the Liberals welcomed a floor-crossing MP, disciplined by her own former party for inflammatory, misguided and intermperate remarks against Israel?"

In a statement, Conservative MPs Marty Morantz and Pierre Paul-Hus  suggested Atwin will be right at home in the Liberal party, which they accused of harbouring a number of "anti-Israel" MPs.

“If you aren’t concerned about addressing hate and aren’t in favour of Israel’s right to exist then you have three parties to choose from," Morantz said.

"If you are, there is only one choice, Erin O’Toole and the Conservative Party of Canada. Canada’s Conservatives will always stand with the people of Israel, and the democratically elected Israeli government that we are proud to call our friend and ally.” 

Dominic LeBlanc, the intergovernmental affairs minister and a New Brunswick MP, said on Thursday the Liberal party welcomes divergent opinions, even when it comes to Israel.

"In the Liberal caucus, there is enormous room for differences of opinion,'' he said. "Our caucus discussions will be that much richer.''

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also issued a brief statement Thursday noting Atwin's "tireless and effective advocacy on priorities like climate action, mental health, reconciliation, and making life more affordable for families.''

All parties, meanwhile, gave unanimous consent Friday to an NDP motion calling on the government to host an emergency summit on Islamophobia in response to Sunday's deadly attack against a Muslim family in London, Ont.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole tweeted his support for the motion, drawing some critical responses noting that he and his party voted against a Liberal motion in 2017 condemning Islamophobia.

A spokesperson for Diversity and Inclusion Minister Bardish Chagger confirmed that both the antisemitism and Islamophobia summits will be held this summer.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 11, 2021.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press