Defending Palestinian Rights Is Not Antisemitism: The Bogus Attack on Joel Harden 

Ontario New Democratic Party MPP Joel Harden has become the latest target of ongoing efforts to silence critics of Israel by smearing them with accusations of antisemitism. Antisemitism needs to be opposed wherever and whenever it occurs. However, Harden’s comments – and his long-time work in solidarity with Palestinian rights and in opposition to the colonial and violent Israeli occupation – have nothing to do with antisemitism. They are in line with the consensus among mainstream international, Israeli, and Palestinian human rights organizations on Israel’s apartheid policies, illegal occupation and annexation of Palestinian land, and frequent attacks on neighbouring countries.

This attack on a noted advocate for Palestinian human rights comes in the wake of several similar recent efforts to use false, and even absurd, charges of antisemitism to marginalize and undermine socialist and radical elements within and around social democratic political parties like the NDP. The undermining of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party with cynical and nasty smears of antisemitism is a particularly mendacious case (with consequent purges of many on the Labour Party left reminiscent of the worst of Cold War politics). Corbyn and Harden share impeccable records as anti-racist activists in their home countries and internationally.

This also comes in the context of heated debates occurring across Canada, and indeed around the world, in opposition to the expanded IHRA definition of antisemitism being backed by pro-Israel groups (and opposed by civil rights activists, academic associations, the growing Palestinian solidarity movement, and liberals and progressives within Jewish communities). Moreover, that this attempt to isolate and suppress criticism of Israel is occurring alongside a massive electoral shift to the radical anti-Palestinian far right in Israel is hardly coincidental.

The Socialist Project joins with human rights activists, socialists, and anti-imperialists in Canada and Ontario in supporting Joel Harden against these misleading charges, and stand with the growing solidarity movement for the liberation of Palestine and against the politics of apartheid practiced by the Israeli state. We are publishing a statement by Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) and a call by Rabbi David Mivasair for the Ontario NDP to reject these shameful attacks on Joel.

Joel Harden Deserves Our Support

Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) stands with Ontario MPP for Ottawa-Centre Joel Harden, who recently came under fire from pro-Israel lobby groups and the Jewish Federation of Ottawa for comments made regarding his advocacy for Palestine in a 2021 interview.

Harden was attacked for two quotes from his interview regarding Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians:

  • “And I have asked many questions of Jewish neighbours here, you know, how long should we put up with this?”
  • “If I were to name… the single greatest threat, the single greatest origin of violence in the Middle East, it is unquestionably the state of Israel and the way in which they feel absolutely no shame in defying international law, doing whatever they want.”

The second quote is patently not antisemitic. Is Israel “the greatest source of violence in the Middle East” or merely “one of the greatest sources of violence in the Middle East”? That is legitimately debatable. However, the allegation that it is an antisemitic statement should be firmly rejected.

Asking Questions

The first quote also is not antisemitic, although it can be better understood in context (which the pro-Israel groups attacking Harden right now have conveniently left out). The quote in context reads as follows:

“As a left politician – if you’re a politician that doesn’t believe in the status quo and wants to change things – it’s your obligation to have those courageous conversations that start with listening… where someone’s at, then asking questions. And I have asked many questions of Jewish neighbours here, you know, how long should we put up with this?”

Harden was talking about the need to have respectful, honest dialogue, including among people who profoundly disagree. Suggestions to the contrary that this quote implied him randomly haranguing Jews about their opinions on Israel are simply unfounded.

Joel Harden has a clear record on fighting antisemitism throughout his political career. He is also proudly a strong defender of Palestinian human rights. These two facts are not mutually exclusive, yet the same pro-Israel groups attacking Harden right now would like to lead people to believe that advocating publicly for Palestine constitutes antisemitism. This is why they’re pushing so hard for institutions and governments to adopt the divisive IHRA antisemitism definition, which equates antisemitism with criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinian cause.

Joel Harden apologized for his statements. That is his prerogative. As our recent research has shown, many Canadians who advocate for Palestine risk losing their jobs, or face harassment and intimidation. IJV Canada is concerned by the chilling effect on people like Harden who are strong allies of the Palestinian people. We call on the Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP) to recognize and fight real antisemitism wherever it occurs, and also to reject efforts to have Harden removed from caucus. The ONDP should stand with IJV and progressive Jews across Ontario in supporting Harden in the face of this harassment campaign. •

Jewish Ontario NDP Members’ Letter to the Members of the NDP Caucus of the Ontario Provincial Parliament

We are Jewish Ontarians. Each of us has been active in the Ontario New Democratic Party for years. For many years, every one of us has also been actively engaged with antisemitism and with Israel and Palestine. These are our issues. They are about our communities, our people, our lives. We hope you will value what we have come to know.

The charges against Joel Harden are a total fraud. This controversy is not what they say it is. Joel is not antisemitic – not in the slightest, not in any way.

And, this is not about antisemitism – none of it at all. This is about the powerful Israel lobby in Canada attempting to force its discipline on public figures who challenge and do not comply with its political program.

We’ve all been there time and time again. Every one of us has experienced this. Do not play along. If you do, you cannot win.

When bullies see their intended victim react with fear, they will pound them into the ground. They know they can control them. They will never stop. When bullies see someone stand up to them firmly with determination, they go elsewhere.

Do not give these charges any credibility. It is a mistake to apologize or to give any appearance that anyone in the ONDP believes these bizarre allegations have any merit whatsoever. Look at what they’re saying. That Joel harasses his Jewish neighbours is absurd. He doesn’t. Don’t play into that. Firmly reject it. It must not be treated as if there is a shred of substance to it.

The other charge is that Joel saying that Israel is the ‘greatest source of violence in the Middle East’ is antisemitic. Saying that is not antisemitic. Is Israel “the greatest source of violence in the Middle East” or merely “one of the greatest sources of violence in the Middle East”? That is legitimately debatable. What’s NOT debatable is that is not an antisemitic statement. That allegation should be thoroughly, firmly rejected. There is nothing for the ONDP to apologize for.

The main organizations of the Israel lobby in Canada have full time staff paid to literally go through hours and hours of recordings and reams of written material to find something – anything – which they can use to bring down their opposition. It is simple opposition research. All political organizations do it. Those with more resources do it more. They found a 20-second clip from over a year ago which they have successfully used to cause a controversy about Joel. Joel was targeted because he has had the courage and the clarity to publicly stand for human rights for humans who are Palestinian. The ONDP needs to stand firm against rewarding this obvious political maneuver. By standing firm and rejecting the absurd, spurious charges against Joel, the ONDP will gain respect from its base. By debasing itself and submitting to the bullying, it will show itself to be weak and unprincipled and will lose support from those of us who look to the ONDP for leadership in Ontario.

The ONDP needs to understand the real issues of antisemitism and clearly distinguish that from intentionally false, contrived claims which are used politically to silence and maintain discipline over critics of Israel.

We know this well. We experience it ourselves. We implore you to stand strong with us. Resist the unprincipled pressure you are being subjected to. Nothing good will come out of submitting. You can look to the British Labour Party to see what happens if you do. Much good will come from standing firmly and clearly. You can look to Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante for a model of someone who turned back similar attacks by simply not submitting.

Thank you all for your leadership in our province in so many ways. We appreciate that this is a difficult issue. It can appear to be highly complicated. It is likely to recur and is worth understanding well. Any of us are available to talk with any of you at nearly any time. •


David Mivasair (Rabbi); Rima Berns-McGown (Former ONDP MPP); Paul Weinberg (Writer); Sue Goldstein (Artist and activist); Wolfe Ehrlichman; and many others.