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Tensions over Israeli-Palestinian conflict persist within NDP ahead of convention

OTTAWA — Tensions over anti-Semitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persist within the NDP ahead of next week's policy convention, threatening to divide New Democrats and overshadow domestic policy concerns that serve as points of cohesion.

OTTAWA — Tensions over anti-Semitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persist within the NDP ahead of next week's policy convention, threatening to divide New Democrats and overshadow domestic policy concerns that serve as points of cohesion.

The party has released its list of potential resolutions that could make it to the virtual floor should they survive a vote ahead of the event, which runs online April 9-11.

The list includes a half-dozen that articulate solidarity with Palestinian causes or call for sanctions and stronger condemnation of Israel.

More than 40 NDP riding associations have endorsed a particularly contentious resolution that opposes a working definition of anti-Semitism set out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), arguing it is used to chill criticism of Israeli policy.

An advocacy group called the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute is applauding the move for resisting what it dubs an "effort by anti-Palestinian lobby groups" to pressure party leadership into suppressing debate around the plight of Palestinians.

In response to the would-be resolutions, party members from 17 ridings — including some of those whose electoral district associations are against the IHRA definition — signed a letter sent to NDP riding presidents and obtained by The Canadian Press.

"The NDP policy convention, where at least 99 per cent of attendees will not be Jewish, is neither the time nor the place to debate a resolution that condemns the definition of this pervasive hatred for the Jewish people," the March 26 letter states.

"Debating this resolution at our upcoming convention would put the NDP — Canada’s party of social justice — in the position of violating our fundamental principles of the work of social justice."

Groups that back the working definition of anti-Semitism say it crystallizes understandings of hateful rhetoric that includes demonization of the Jewish state.

Several New Democrats have condemned the definition — adopted by the federal Liberal government in 2019 as part of its anti-racism strategy — while others including NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh say it can serve as a useful but non-binding educational tool.

Delegates registered for the convention will take part in a ranked vote next Tuesday to determine which of the 400-plus proposals make it to the virtual floor for debate and potential adoption as party policy.

The point of contention is not the IHRA's 39-word definition itself, which describes anti-Semitism as expressions of hatred toward Jews, but rather the way some groups have applied it and the appended list of examples that contextualize it.

The statement's lead author, Kenneth Stern, has disavowed its deployment, writing in a Guardian opinion piece that "right-wing Jewish groups" had moved to "weaponize" a definition created initially to assist European data collectors.

Former NDP MPs Svend Robinson and Libby Davies, who remain party members, have slammed the definition on those grounds. It was cited in a Jan. 3 Twitter post by Gila Martow, a Progressive Conservative member of provincial parliament in Ontario, to level accusations against NDP MP Charlie Angus, who spoke out on the issue of Palestinian access to vaccines.

Resistance to the working definition comes from "activists" and "fringe groups," said Richard Marceau, general counsel for the Toronto-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). 

"I believe that there is a small and active and vocal group of NDP-ers that have a suspicious obsession with the state of Israel. And their obsession borders on the unhealthy," he said in an interview Wednesday.

The focus of the convention should revolve around more immediate issues facing Canadians at home, such as health care and the vaccine rollout, Marceau said.

B'nai Brith Canada has called on Singh to ensure resolutions against the definition are rejected, saying it serves as a "bedrock" in the global effort to confront anti-Semitism.

More than 600 Canadian academics have signed an open letter opposing the definition. Prominent Canadian activists, including Michele Landsberg and Avi Lewis, have also come out against the IHRA approach.

The definition, with illustrative examples that include Holocaust denial and stereotypes about Jews, states that "denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination" — for example by suggesting that the state is a "racist endeavour" — amounts to anti-Semitism. Critics say the phrase implicitly excludes Palestinians and their right to self-determination.

Asked about the issue and the riding association resolution earlier this month, the NDP responded with a statement from the party's national director, Anne McGrath.

"Our conventions are guided by a democratic process that allows members to openly and freely discuss and vote on a variety of issues," McGrath said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the NDP has released a list of resolutions up for debate at its policy convention next week.