Libby Davies' So-called "Mistake," the NDP, and Israel-Palestine

Jun 16, 2010

Libby Davies' So-called "Mistake," the NDP, and Israel-Palestine

 Libby Davies’s So-Called “Mistake,” the NDP, & Israel-Palestine

By Paul Burrows

As many of you may know, there has been an uproar in the House of Commons recently, and a flurry of parliamentarians (Tory, Liberal, and NDP) expressing "outrage" over something related to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

No, Canadian politicians have not suddenly found their "moral bearings" and the integrity and courage to speak out against Israel's recent act of state terrorism and piracy on the "high seas".  No, the uproar is not about Israel’s slaughter of civilians bringing humanitarian aid to the desperate and starving population of Gaza.  All the major political parties were basically silent about that -- beyond the typical Canadian expressions of “concern” for the loss of life, the crocodile tears, and the obligatory references to Israel’s “right to exist” and “right to defend itself.”

And no, the uproar is not even about the deeper issues of settler-colonialism, occupation, apartheid, or ethnic cleansing so integral to the Israel-Palestine conflict.  It’s not about the collective punishment of the people of Gaza itself, the criminal blockade of an entire people, half of whom are children, and 65-70% of whom are in a state of desperate “food insecurity”.  

What, then, is the uproar about?  NDP Member of Parliament Libby Davies (East Vancouver) was recorded on video as suggesting that the Israeli occupation began in 1948.  In the same video, she also expressed support for the notion of a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel.


It is not surprising that politicians from the three major political parties are now issuing public condemnations of Davies’ statements, and vying for the title of “best friend of Israel.”  Emblematic of this campaign is former NDP’er turned Liberal Foreign Affairs Critic Bob Rae’s written denunciation in which he describes Davies’s comments as indicative of “a level of hostility and ignorance that is truly breathtaking.”  Rae went on to state that “the logical implication” of suggesting that Israel’s occupation began in 1948 “is that Israel has no right to exist.”  He concluded by demanding that NDP leader Jack Layton ask for Davies’ resignation and “an apology to all Canadians.”

It is not even surprising that the NDP has (yet again) turned on one of its own over the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Let me, momentarily, remind everyone of the events of 2002.  In the span of one week NDP leader Alexa McDonough went from condemning Israeli “state terrorism,” and hinting at the possibility of sanctions, to apologizing for what she called “a regrettable public perception” that the NDP is anti-Israel.  Instead of denouncing in unequivocal terms Israel’s illegal occupation, and its well-documented use of torture and collective punishment, its deliberate targeting of civilians, journalists, ambulance drivers, and international peace monitors, not to mention the mounting evidence of a wholesale massacre in Jenin, McDonough simply described Israel’s actions in Jenin and elsewhere as “counter-productive.”

In short, what is happening right now to Libby Davies happened eight years ago to Svend Robinson.  More afraid of vacuous and knee-jerk allegations of “bias” and “anti-Semitism” by Canada’s pro-Israel lobby, than it is committed to supporting the right of an oppressed people to resist foreign occupation and military rule, the NDP quickly and shamefully caved in to pressure in 2002 and stripped MP Svend Robinson of his Middle East portfolio.  Robinson had long been ridiculed in the Canadian mainstream press for expressing strong social justice views, and for putting his principles (valid or not) ahead of popularity.  It was no surprise, therefore, that one of the few MP’s with any honesty and integrity about such human rights violations was quickly demoted by his own, ostensibly “social democratic” party.  The avalanche of shunning was lightspeed and continental.  NDP’ers in parliament as well as provincial legislatures joined the chorus of denunciation.  Manitoba’s own Gary Doer, Bill Blaikie, and Judy Wasylycia-Leis took less time to publicly distance themselves from Svend Robinson in 2002 than it took to say “irrelevant careerist hack.”

I am sorry to say that the same thing is occurring right now, for virtually identical reasons.  Jack Layton actually phoned up Israel’s ambassador to Canada to “clarify” that Davies’ comments did not reflect NDP policy.  I'm sorry, but Layton has gone from mediocre to utterly pathetic on this issue.  "It's not NDP policy?"  What isn't?  To acknowledge or even debate historical facts?  If Davies had said that the European occupation of Canada began in 1867 (Confederation), or 1608 (Quebec City), or 1537 (Cartier), or 1492 (Columbus) or even earlier with the Vikings, reasonable people might quibble over the best symbolic date to highlight, but we would have all known what she meant, and we would not be calling for her resignation for implying that Canada has “no right to exist”.  Davies would not have been "wrong" to highlight any one of these dates.  Nor was she “wrong” to highlight 1948 as a symbolic date for Israeli occupation.  She could also, legitimately, have extended her symbolic beginning to Zionist occupation of Palestine all the way back to the 19th century, well before the State of Israel was founded in blood and ethnic cleansing. 

In short, Mr. Layton, these are historical and empirical questions, not policy decisions or Party platforms.  That’s almost as ridiculous as saying “It’s not NDP policy to state that the Earth revolves around the sun.”  As for Davies’ cautious call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – well, Mr. Layton, that ought to be NDP policy, just as support for a similar campaign against Apartheid South Africa ought to have been NDP policy. 

This pathetic tri-partisan indignation over Davies’ comments is one massive red herring.  The whole House of Commons is in an uproar -- not over Israel's slaughter of civilians on the "High Seas," not over one of the longest military occupations in the world, not over one of the few formal apartheid states still in existence -- but over Libby Davies' acknowledgement of an historical fact; over her principled demand that the collective punishment of an entire people end; and over her hope that Canadian policy change in accordance with the growing world-wide, non-violent BDS campaign.  Wow.  I know that the NDP and Liberals recently denied any talk of a Party merger -- but why bother? I can't say I've noticed a hell of a difference over the last decade.  The attack on Davies inside and out of the House of Commons is pathetic pandering at a time when Israeli state terror should be the target -- not a courageous MP speaking out against ongoing Israeli piracy.  Shame on the NDP for, once again, turning on its own to compete for the title of honorary Israeli.

Judy Rebick and Murray Dobbin have both written fine commentaries about the misplaced uproar over Libby Davies' comments, and there is no need to repeat their central points.  (People can read them on  However, Rebick still referred to Davies' statement about 1948 as a "mistake" and Dobbins still called her remarks "careless".  Davies herself has subsequently referred to them as “mistakes”, and issued a series of retractions and qualifications.  But why were her comments mistaken or careless?  Because they were wrong, or because the NDP thinks it cannot win electorally without distancing itself from such views?  Davies should be commended and defended for speaking the truth, for making a legitimate judgment about history (the symbolic start date of Israeli occupation), and for suggesting that Canadian policy change in accordance with the growing world-wide demand for BDS against Israel.  To highlight 1948 is not a call for the destruction of Israel, any more than Aboriginal peoples highlighting 1492 or saying that Turtle Island is largely unceded “Indian territory” is a call for the destruction of any given State of the western hemisphere, let alone a call for Europeans to go back to Europe. 

What we are witnessing here is precisely the “new McCarthyism” that Davies herself refers to in the video in question.  Sadly, it is a McCarthyism waged almost as vehemently by the NDP as it is by the Liberals and Tories.  More concerned about maintaining electoral “respectability” (however self-delusional), than following through on its own rhetoric of social justice, the NDP has once again demonstrated its complete moral bankruptcy.  In waffling back and forth, and trying to offend neither oppressor nor oppressed (and increasingly, mostly, just offending the oppressed), the NDP has once again demonstrated why so many leftists, activists, environmentalists, workers, and ordinary, honest Canadians have either abandoned the party, or vote for it –– while holding back the bile –– as a “lesser of evils.”  Between the NDP’s sorry provincial record as governing power in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia, and its weak to pathetic federal record on matters of human rights and Canadian foreign policy (from Israel-Palestine, to Iraq and Afghanistan, to Haiti), there is increasingly very little to distinguish the NDP from the Liberals. 


Lost in all this nonsense is the fact that Palestinians continue to be slaughtered by Israel, which boasts the world’s fourth strongest military.  The media rightly documents and condemns suicide attacks on Israeli civilians, but often ignores the fact that four times as many Palestinians, mostly civilians, have also been killed since September 2000.  Israel is using its own brand of state terror to maintain an illegal occupation of Palestinian land.  (And it is a legitimate historical question to debate whether this occupation is 43 years old, or 62 years old, or even older.)  Numerous Israeli leaders now fear arrest or indictment for war crimes if they travel to certain countries (a Belgian court attempted to indict Ariel Sharon, for example).  Increasing numbers of labour unions, universities, and churches world wide have joined the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (most recently, Swedish dockworkers imposed a full ban on loading or unloading ships going to or coming from Israel.)  The United Nations has re-affirmed (every year since 1967) the need for Israel to comply with international law and withdraw from the Occupied Territories (by which they mean the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem).  Every major human rights group in the world has been shocked and horrified by Israel’s attacks on Palestinian towns and infrastructure, going back to Jenin in 2002, and extending through to its brutal invasion of Lebanon, and its more recent attack on Gaza (Operation “Cast Lead”) during the winter of 2008-09.  Growing numbers of Jews inside Israel and throughout the global diaspora have begun to say “Not in My Name,” including many Canadians.  Even a growing number of Israeli soldiers have begun to refuse service outside the “Green Line” of 1967 borders, insisting that this occupation only exacerbates terrorist attacks, and has nothing to do with defence of Israel.  Whether or not the NDP wishes to acknowledge such facts, or genuinely seek the truth, is irrelevant.  If the NDP wishes to keep pretending that it is Canada’s party of social justice, fine.  Nobody else is under any illusions.