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

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 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. 



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Burrows (Paul Burrows)
Winnipeg, Manitoba
Member since June 2010


I am an activist born and based in Winnipeg. I have an 8 year old son. I helped start the Winnipeg A-Zone, Mondragon Bookstore & Coffee House Collective, the Winnipeg local of the Canada Palestine Support Network, and the Rudolf Rocker Cultural Centre. I first got involved with activism in the anti-Apartheid and Salvadoran solidarity movements of the 1980s. In 2002, I was privileged to be able to participate in the "Olive Harvest" campaign of the ISM in the Occupied West Bank. I am currently doing a Ph.D in History at the U of Saskatchewan. My M.A. thesis was entitled: "As She Shall Deem Just: Treaty 1 and the Ethnic Cleansing of the St. Peter's Reserve, 1871-1934." Some day, I hope to put out a book related to all this: settler ideology, and the dispossession and forced relocation of the people of Peguis, in violation of Treaty 1 (not to mention a "crime against humanity").

1794 words


Required Reading!

great post, you hit the nail on the head as far as I'm concerned.

Libby Davies under attack

An excellent analysis -- bravo! I remember well what happened to Svend Robinson -- how he was demoted by Alex McDonough for his defence of Palestinians. Come on, NDP, is Bob Rae still your spokesperson on the Middle East?! What's happening to Libby is indicative of the treatment of pretty well every critic of the Israeli state, these days. Which is why we need to defend her. On the silencing campaign, have a look at the last issue of Studies in Political Economy.

Peace Activists

I don't contest the video footage, or the fact that the humanitarian activists briefly fought back with sticks, rocks, or deck chairs against the IDF.  Whoever said peace activists had to be pacifists?  What the IDF edited footage does NOT show is the actual sequence of events.  Scores of eyewitnesses have stated that the Israeli commandos were firing before they even boarded.  Have you likewise viewed the footage released by U.S. filmmaker Iara Lee from the Mavi Marmara?  It creates quite a different impression about the so-called "ambush" of the Israel commandos.  But to a certain degree, the sequence is irrelevant.  The Israeli navy had no right to be there in the first place.  They had no right to board the vessels.  By your comments, and the hysteria in the Israeli media about a "lynching", you'd think it was the peace activists who had boarded the Israeli navy's ships, rappelling down from helicopters in the middle of the night, and not the other way around!  I am sorry, "Vancouver Anonymous" but the footage you provided does not convey what you think it does.  It's also a complete non-sequitur".

Cynthia McKinney

When I lived in Georgia, Cynthia McKinney was attacked by the Israeli lobby for her support of the Palestinian people. The campaign against her was a relentless one, and one the eventually cost her, her seat in Congress.

But McKinney NEVER retracted her position, not for the Democrats nor for her critics and to this day she continues to support the Palestinian cause unapologetically.

It's a shame that Davies lacks the backbone to defend her position and that her so called peers have become nothing more than apologists for the NDP.

Thank you Paul for bringing some sense into this, well, nonsense.

It boggles the mind.

 I think it's ironic that Ms Davies would be defending a society that would have her thrown in jail or murdered for being homosexual.



On the video

Personally, I winced a bit when she went with 1948, mostly because it really looked like she didn't remember her history. Perhaps, like Dobbin says, she knew too much. She was clearly watching her words and hedging, which makes it difficult to know what she was thinking. In any case, NDP history on this is fairly bleak. I think Jack Layton and co. ought to get their eye on the ball and focus on the occupation, the blockade, the raid, and all those things that really matter. Sigh


Just wanted to say that you have summed up very well the disgust people have about the NDP and it's so called alternative view.

Learn some history.

 Please look up the San Remo Agreement in 1920 in which the world recognized the right of world Jewry to return and recreate their ancestral homeland.

It has been the unrelenting violence of the disciples of Amin Al Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem from that time that has fueled this conflict and continues to.


Save the hasbara

Judaism is a religion, anyone can CONVERT to it. A two thousand year old myth did not intitle Zionists to ethnically cleanse a territory of its indigenous people through acts of brutal violence by Zionist terrorist groups (Lehy, Hagganah, Stern Gang, Irgun, etc..) in 1948. Zionists have about as much right to Palestinian land, as a Brazilian Roman Catholic has to Italy. Its a religion, get that? RELIGION. And if you want to bring up agreements how about UN Resolution 194 passed in 1948 granting Palestinians right of return to all the land they were chassed out of by violence?? Israel cant have it both ways. If you want the Palestinians to recognise the UN resolution granting the partition of their land, than Israel should recognise the UN resolution granting Palestinians right of return. Either we follow all UN resolutions or we follow none. Its not a cafeteria where Zionists get to pick and choose what resolutions theyd like to follow. Libby D. was 100% correct and she should not be made to apologise for anything. She has more moral courage to say the truth than any of those other pointless clowns we have in Ottawa.

San Remo

Despite the fact that your "suggestion" to "learn some history" has no bearing on the original topic, I will offer a brief reply.  The San Remo Agreement of 1920 has nothing to do with "the world" recognizing anything.  It was a meeting of post-World War I Allied command (Britain, France, Italy, and Japan).  Even if we accept the ludicrous notion that the elites of these four countries "represent" the wills of their own populations (a preposterous notion in itself), how do four imperial powers constitute "the world"?

Sure, the San Remo Agreement incorporated into it the spirit of the Balfour Declaration, promising a "national home for the Jewish people".  So what?  What's your point?  Even if you think these four imperial powers had any legal or moral authority to carve up the lands of the former Ottoman Empire and hand them out to whoever they wanted (an absurdity in any just world), the very same declaration also stated that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine".  Referring to the majority Palestinian community who constituted around 88% of the population at that time as the "non-Jewish communities" is itself an absurdity, but indicative of European colonial indifference to indigenous rights and claims.

At any rate, your reference to this "agreement" does not convey what you think it does.  That's like saying King Charles II "gave" the Hudson's Bay Company "Rupert's Land" (pretty much most of central and northern Canada) in 1670 -- therefore the rights of the indigenous peoples were void and irrelevant by British fiat or the "divine rights of kings."  Utter rubbish.  

As to your second sentence, it's pretty obvious why the Palestinian majority resorted to violence and "uprisings" during the so-called British Mandate through the 1948 war.  People don't generally just give up their homeland to colonizers and foreign invaders without a fight (even foreign invaders "authorized" in some respects by highly un-democratic bodies like the League of Nations or the Security Council of the United Nations).  But Palestinians were hardly the only ones to resort to violence.  A Zionist terrorist group (the Irgun) bombed the King David Hotel in 1946, because it housed the British mandatory offices in Palestine.  They killed 91 people, mostly civilian staff.


Israel did not exist in 1947, it did in 1948.

Great Post! Excellent comparison with Turtle Island. The NDP are truly an epic dissappointment on this issue. One expects no moral integrity from the Liberals and Tories, but in a third party position, the NDP could have had some sort of backbone to win the respect of Canadians at least. I wish Libby had the nerve to confront them on the spot and say that Israel did not exist in 1947, and it did exist in 1948. British occupuied Palestine existed in 1947, and the borders changed again, and again, and again. There's nothing natural about the nation-state - Palestinian and Jewish people have lived together in the territory that we can call anything we want for thousands of years - the problem is political zionism and the imposition of the nation-state.

get your facts right.

before you trash a party's alleged view on something, you might want to correctly name who the leader of the party is. Alexa McDonough has not been the leader of the party for several years, and is no longer the MP.


it weakens your argument immensely when you dont know your facts..


they are right, thank you very much.

This is lovely advice, thanks.  Another admirable thing to do is read what people write more closely before clicking "send" on your reply.  In my original post it is quite clear that I was referring to events that took place in 2002 in the paragraph where McDonough is mentioned.  She stepped down as party leader after those events.  My "facts" were, at least on this score, correct.