A vigorous debate is underway in York Region (the site of Crescent’s Canada office), on the question of racism, or more precisely how to address the issue of racism in the school curriculum. The controversy began in April and has now pitted some dedicated Muslims against the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and Jewish members of the region’s race-relations committee. Bader Abu Zahra, a Muslim member of the committee, who is originally from Palestine, distributed a review of The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, by Norman Finkelstein, at a teachers’ conference convened to discuss the need to include “Holocaust and Anti-racist education in History, English and Social Science courses” in public-school curricula.
Abu Zahra’s position was (and remains) that placing special emphasis on the Holocaust excludes other genocides and marginalizes others’ suffering. He proposed that the suffering of other peoples — Ukrainians, Chinese, African-Americans, Native Peoples etc — also be included in the school curriculum. This makes sense in particular because of the composition of the Canadian population, a third of whom are non-white. In cities like Toronto, nearly 50 percent of the population is non-white, and this proportion is increasing.
Abu Zahra’s distribution of the book-review upset the Jewish chairman of the race relations committee, one Alan Shefman, so much that Shefman wrote to Abu Zahra to demand his resignation. Abu Zahra, of course, refused. Shefman then tabled a motion calling for Abu Zahra’s dismissal from the race-relations committee. A clear majority of the 20-member committee rejected the motion. Abu Zahra’s case was defended vigorously and argued cogently by Ahmed Motiar, another Muslim on the committee. He was able to convince the majority of members that Abu Zahra had done nothing wrong and that in a multicultural society like Canada diverse points of view should be welcomed. He further stated that it was unacceptable that one man, Shefman, should act as accuser, judge and jury; he (Shefman) had overstepped his authority by demanding Abu Zahra’s resignation in the first place.
In dismissing Shefman’s demand for his resignation, Abu Zahra wrote: “The belief there is a hierarchy of human suffering is in itself profoundly racist and deeply offensive.” He went on to say: “The notion that the suffering of Jewish people should be featured in the school curriculum over that of others is without intrinsic merit from either an educational or human-rights perspective.”
This sent the Jewish lobby into a frenzy; they denounced any challenge to their opinions as “racism” and even described Finkelstein’s book as “overt racism.” To understand the true import of this allegation, one needs to bear in mind that Finkelstein is himself Jewish; his parents are survivors of the holocaust and many of his relatives perished in it. What he has done, however, is to challenge the exploitation of Jewish suffering by turning it into a commercial enterprise. This is what has touched the raw nerve of the self-appointed guardians of the world’s conscience.
Shefman, however, did not accept his defeat gracefully and drop the issue; instead he dragged the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) into the affair. Bernie Farber, CJC’s executive director, threatened to take the York Region board of education to the human-rights commission if Abu Zahra was not immediately dismissed. At first Bill Crothers, the board chairman, stood his ground and refused to accede to the CJC’s demand, saying: “We respectfully disagree with the CJC on the appropriateness of overturning a decision of a committee that has been duly constituted by the board, particularly when the committee was constituted to deal with these very issues.”
He also stated that board trustees had worked hard to ensure the 20-member race relations committee was representative of all York Region’s diverse communities by ethnicity, language, culture and religion as well as geographically.
But later Crothers buckled under Jewish pressure and denounced the book-review as “anti-Semitic”. He said that if the review had been brought to the board’s attention before its distribution at the teachers’ conference, it would not have been allowed. It is true that the board was unaware of Abu Zahra’s action, but it is cowardly of the board chairman to cave in to CJC’s blackmail. It is inconceivable that the human rights commission would agree with the CJC’s position, for there is absolutely nothing wrong with the position taken by the Muslims; they just want an inclusive, not exclusive, curriculum. But there was another reason for CJC’s anger which became apparent from Bernie Farber’s letter to the board: “People are concerned about what happened at the conference, but they are more concerned with the lack of respect shown to Alan Shefman and the Congress in terms of our expertise in identifying anti-Semitism.”
It takes chutzpah to make such outlandish claims. Farber and Shefman have appointed themselves sole interpretors of what constitutes anti-Semitism, and demand instant submission to their demands. Why should people respect Shefman and the Jewish Congress when they are so dismissive of others’ concerns, especially in a multicultural society like Canada? No group has a monopoly over suffering or the right to demand that only their own history be taught to the exclusion of others’.
This matter may not be over. Muslims will have to make a stand for a worthy principle. We must not allow the Jewish lobby to dictate to the rest of us what we can or cannot think and teach our children. It may also be an opportunity to bring home to the rest of the general public t the extent to which their officials are constantly manipulated by a tiny minority by coercion and blackmail. It is time for us to stand up and declare that enough is enough.