01.25.2014 07:34 PM

In Sunday’s Sun: when you call someone one of the worst things you can call them

Of all the serious accusations that can be made, calling someone an anti-Semite is among the most serious.

What is it? The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington – where I have taken ashen-faced school kids on tours, to see the horror that real anti-Semitism causes – is a good place to seek a definition. The museum simply defines anti-Semitism as “prejudice against or hatred of Jews.”

Hatred of Jews, the museum notes, preceded the coining of the term anti-Semitism in the modern era. Jews had of course been the target of pogroms, violence and discrimination long before anyone came up with a name for it. Generally, however, “anti-Semitism” is defined as hatred of Jews – Merriam-Webster, Oxford and Britannica all say so.

Calling someone an anti-Semite, without justification, is defamatory – and it could get you hauled into court. In 2008, a former federal Liberal candidate Lesley Hughes sued Conservative cabinet minister Peter Kent, B’nai Brith and the Canadian Jewish Congress for suggesting that she had published anti-Semitic articles. Four years later, the case settled, and the defendants issued a statement that “accepted and affirmed that Hughes is not an anti-Semite.” An earlier 2001 New Brunswick Court of Appeal case found similarly: calling someone an anti-Semite is defamatory “on the face of it.”

Brian Shiller is a Toronto lawyer currently litigating a case in which “anti-Semite” is important. “Calling someone anti-Semitic is defamatory,” says Shiller (who, full disclosure, has also been my lawyer in libel cases). “It’s very serious.”

No less than Nobel laureate, and one of the greatest men of our time, Elie Wiesel, agrees: “We must be very careful because to level an accusation of anti-Semitism is the most serious accusation.”

Which leads us to the simply extraordinary speech Prime Minister Stephen Harper made in Jerusalem this past week. The speech was extraordinary because Harper, a Gentile, literally took it upon himself to re-define anti-Semitism.

We can speculate as to why he did so. Harper was hoping to curry favour with his Likud Party host, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Or, he was seeking to broaden the political support he enjoys in the Jewish community back home. Or, he honestly believes that any criticism of Israel at all – any – is anti-Semitic. Is it?

Sun Media’s David Akin, and others, certainly interpreted Harper’s speech to the Israeli Knesset as I do. Akin’s story was headlined: “The Harper doctrine: you’re all anti-Semites.”

Reading the speech, the headline is fair. Said Harper: “intellectualized arguments against Israeli policies” are the “new anti-Semitism.” Those are quotes.

That definition goes much, much further than the Holocaust Memorial Museum, dictionaries, and even Elie Wiesel himself. “You cannot apply it to everyone” who periodically criticizes policies of the Israeli government, Wiesel warns. It is “a terrible word.”

Indeed it is. The question Harper must now ask himself, then, is whether Nelson Mandela was an anti-Semite – he not-infrequently criticized Israeli government policy as it relates to Palestine. What of successive Popes? The Vatican has held the longstanding view that the Israeli government’s policies with respect to Jerusalem and the territories are wrong-headed.

How about American Jews? A recent Pew survey found that 48 per cent of them were critical, or highly critical, of Israeli government peace policies. Does Harper regard half of America’s seven million Jews as anti-Semitic, too?

And so on, and so on. You can see where this is going: extending the definition of anti-Semitism may assist Stephen Harper politically, but it doesn’t really help those who are the actual targets of anti-Semitism. In a democracy – and Israel is one – occasional fair-minded criticism goes with the territory. It is the territory, in fact.

“An anti-Semite used to be a person who disliked Jews,” someone once said. “Now it is a person who Jews dislike.”

Words worth pondering, Prime Minister, as you return to Canada today.


  1. dave says:

    Methinks the 3rd last paragraph is an important point. We can expand the definition of a term so that its meaning becomes so watered down as to be useless. Sometimes I think that people who are expanding the definition of anti Semitism are using the term for political ends that have little to do with the prejudice.

  2. Robin says:

    According to Harper’s ideological soul mate, Rob Anders, Nelson Mandela was a Communist and a terrorist, so adding anti-Semite isn’t a stretch for these intellectual giants… bullying is easier of one can divide people into categories, label them, then develop epithets with which to condemn them. Wedge politics made easier with the HarperAnders SlicerDicer!

    • Kelly says:

      I ordered one of those Harper Anders Slicer Dicers off of the TV and had to send it back. It was junk. The Slap Chop is far, far better.

  3. Arnold Murphy says:

    I guess Harper thinks this man’s views irrelevant and anti-Semitic as well? http://en.wikipedia.org/…/Albert_Einstein’s_political…

  4. reformatory says:

    someone please help me understand this picture a little better!!! Is the Jewish vote that significant and that important for Harper to take his stance. Does the Jewish lobby control Canadian affairs that much? He’s obviously trying the cement the marriage between tories and Jews for decades to come. What else gives here?

    It surely can’t be democracy, values and BLA BLA BLA

  5. Paul Brennan says:

    Dan’s got it right..if cementing votes is goal this doesnt help him …

  6. Sean says:

    The most prolific contribution Stephen Harper has made to Canadian public discourse is the notion that opposing a ruling party = hatred towards an entire country.

    Some people might call that er…. Facsism.

  7. James Keelaghan says:

    The thing that mystifies me most about all this is how any Jewish people could take Harper at face value. They ought know better. His support for Israel is based on his religion and the hope that Israel will hasten the Apocalypse. Supporting the ultra right, goading them to war hastens the rapture and results in a Jew free world ruled by white christian folks for 1000 years. I grew up with these people in Alberta. 30 years ago they were the anti-semites, the JIm Keegstra’s, the evangelical preachers who spewed Jew hating from their pulpits. Then they decided that they needed to be friends with Israel, believing Israel to be a pawn in their apocalyptic game.
    Hearing Harper talk about anti-semites is like listening to the closeted gay guy bashing gays. You just know that it’s covering something up.

  8. Ronald O'Dowd says:


    This is a tough call. No one can speak on behalf of another. Here’s my take (for whatever it’s worth) on the matter. If you start from the premise that Israel is a unique nation-state with an inherent political as well as religious component, then you may begin to see where this school of thought is going. Is Israel a political manifestation of God’s will on earth? Many believe that it is and perhaps serves as his instrument. I don’t subscribe to that view but seen in that context, Israel can do no wrong, politically speaking. It seems a stretch from there to equate opposition with a new anti-semitism but that may be the logic behind the argument.

  9. smelter rat says:

    A home run, Warren.

  10. Jnap says:

    Harper’s new definition of antisemitism makes no sense at all to me, because I was taught as a child at home that constructive criticism was basically beneficial to the recipient. my Dad used to quote an old Scots or Irish proverb ….”We dont pick eyes from a rotten potato!”. Translation is that only a person (potato) who is good is worth the trouble of trying to improve by removing flaws. of course my childish feelings were always hurt by criticism, buy an adult matures enough to use criticism wisely.
    This column by WK is excellent in my view.

  11. Sera says:

    @reformatory: phrases like “the Jewish vote” and “marriage between tories and Jews” suggest that Jews speak with a single voice and share the same opinion about Israel and Harper.

    We don’t.

    Personally I am dismayed and sickened (albeit not surprised) by the Harper-Netanyahu love-in/photo-op. Most Jews I know are as well. There certainly is a pro-Israel-at-all-costs faction of the Jewish community that is vocal and prominent, but it does not speak for us all.

    My Jewish vote and my Jewish donations to a political candidate are going to Anyone But Harper.

    @Warren Kinsella: you nailed it. Thank you.

    • reformatory says:

      Then how do you explain the overwhelming majority of the Jewish vote going to Harper….. I have several Jewish friends who don’t even ask questions and simply vote conservative. When I ask them why, they tell me cause he looks after us and Israel. He gets the big things right and he’s in our corner.

      You may not be following the pack… but I would bet the majority are and Harper has benefited politically by his stance.

      Then there are the likes of Conrad Black, who just recently wrote an article in the national post calling Harper one of Canada’s greatest and his speech on Israel a masterpiece? Many agree with that view as well. I’m not saying there are not those who disagree, I’m just saying if you add up all the ones that do agree…. Harper has scored points with and has benefited as a result.

  12. Steve T says:

    Completely agree with this article. For too long, those who want to deflect criticism have turned to name-calling, when they are stuck for something logical or meaningful to say.

    If you want an example a bit closer to home, look at certain aboriginal community leaders (I will use the term “chief”, even though I know it isn’t 100% accurate in all cases). When these chiefs are caught with their hand in the cookie jar, or mis-managing their community’s finances, inevitably the response is that the government is being racist (or paternalistic, or some other similar name-calling), rather than addressing the facts of the matter.

    Even closer to home for me, as a Winnipegger, was (the Winnipeg Jet’s) Evander Kane’s cry of racism when he was criticized for failing to pay restaurant bills, fighting in a bar, and posing for a picture in Vegas with fistfulls of cash during the NHL lockout. So, you have no defense for your petulant childish behaviour, so you allege racism to change the channel of the conversation.

    Until this stops, society will continue to diminish the meaning of terms like “anti-Semite” and “racism”, which is a disservice to those who truly experience it.

  13. m5slib says:

    I know you tried to stay away from it, but regardless of Oxford’s definition of anti-Semitic, here’s their definition of semite:

    “a member of any of the peoples who speak or spoke a Semitic language, including in particular the Jews and Arabs.”

    Obviously, there’s an issue of logic. It doesn’t detract from your argument about people being anti-Jewish, but words matter. In fact, the way in which this term has been narrowed shows exactly how political discourse this issues has been defined, but I digress.

    Good article.

  14. Sezme says:

    What is missing is that Harper hasn’t made this declaration in isolation. He is just the first world leader (besides Bi Bi) to parrot the incessant lobbying by Likud-backed groups that equates criticism of Israeli government policies with racism.

    Hats off to influential people like Warren for not succumbing to this chill on fair criticism. And backs turned for the likes of Harper for being so simple-minded.

  15. ottlib says:

    Mr. Harper’s view are not new. I remember being accused of being anti-Semitic during my university days in the 80s for the temerity of being critical Israeli government policy during the First Intifada.

  16. Walter Ego says:

    Maybe someone of prominence who has been critical of Israel’s actions and policies (Robert Fisk comes to mind) should sue Harper for defamation. It appears they would have a very strong case.

  17. Kaplan says:

    Before signing the Oslo Accord, Yitzhak Rabin said something along the lines of, “You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies.” He, like so many Israelis, understood there’s nothing to be gained by building walls and instigating military operations against their neighbors.

    He was assasinated for signing the Oslo Accord, which arguably was all about working alongside the realities inherent in Israel’s, to use Harper’s Manichean terminology, neighboring “sea of darkness.”

    Rabin was assassinated for it, too. And not by a resident of the “sea of darkness,” either.

    Truly makes you wonder who Harper is trying to speak to, or whose sentiments he’s trying to stir up.

    • Kaplan says:

      And, interestingly, Rabin was very much a hawk earlier in his career. Sheds some light on how he came to accept the necessity of accommodation.

  18. james shearer says:

    If anything the words and actions of Harper may breed antisemetic feelings in people…is that what he wants ??

  19. SherryBellamy says:

    Well done.

  20. Curt says:

    And where do the mortars that crash into Isreal come from? … The land of enlightenment?

  21. PeggyW says:

    Harper is so narcissistic that he has no qualms about twisting a word like anti-Semite to serve his own political agenda. Everything is filtered through his own personal political prism, and the end game is all about Steve, not the greater good. It is the same as Mark Adler seeing the Wailing Wall as a mere prop for his re-election, only on a grander and more dangerous scale.

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