On eve of leadership choice, Canada’s Greens confront anti-Semitism in their ranks

Human rights lawyer Annamie Paul heads into the final hours of the race to succeed Elizabeth May as leader of the Green Party of Canada as the candidate to beat.

According to figures provided by the party itself, Paul, as of Aug. 31, leads all eight remaining candidates on two key fundraising metrics. She has raised the most money — $186,326 — and has the most contributors — 1,622.

The winner of the race will be announced Saturday night.

In a field remarkable for the diversity of both the personal stories of the candidates as well as the policies they are proposing, Paul has tried to position herself in the middle, as a kind of Green populist who wants to move the party more into the mainstream of Canadian politics.

At one point in the party’s history, it might have been enough for Green politicians to be satisfied if they forced the issues they care about — climate change (obviously) but also democratic reform — on to the mainstream political agenda.

No more. Greens, having tasted what’s it like to hold the balance of power in legislatures in B.C. and New Brunswick, are now keen to win more seats.

“We believe that we can win seats with integrity, with good public policy, with evidence-based public policy and that’s what it’s about for me,” Paul said in an interview earlier this week.

But as popular as Paul has been with many Green supporters, there have been other Green party members and supporters who have attacked her — for being Jewish.

“Most of the attacks, most of the online hate that I’ve received has really been targeted at my Jewish identity,” Paul said. “And so as a Jewish person and as a Black woman, that kind of prejudice isn’t surprising.

“But I will say that the level of vitriol, the persistence of the attacks and the fact that it often goes unchecked, that there’s a lot of silence around it, and that people feel quite comfortable expressing these opinions in very public forums … even for someone who has experienced this as a lived experience.

“It still takes you aback — you never really quite get used to it.”

Paul’s pitch to Green voters is built on many things.

She is not seeking to play identity politics. Indeed, the only concession she’ll make to her personal background is that she is a woman and that, if she is elected, she will, like May before her, be the only female leader of a federal party. (She’d also be the first Black person to lead a federal party and just the second-ever Jewish leader, after David Lewis of the NDP in 1971.)

But it has been impossible for her to ignore the abuse she’s received for being Jewish.

“I have been subjected to what can only be described as an unrelenting onslaught of comments and commentary and trolling online,” she said.

In online fora and elsewhere, Green party members have, for example, called on reporters to follow her into a synagogue to see how she and other Jews talk about her candidacy. This is a common anti-Semitic trope grounded in the idea that Jews here in Canada and around the world are engaging in some kind of conspiracy or plot.

Then there are those who suggest she has a higher loyalty to the state of Israel, another common anti-Semitic trope. And, sadly, there are the personal slurs — slurs which often mix in as much anti-Jewish hate as they do anti-Black hate.

If she wins, she will use the power of her office as leader to push the Green Party to do more to examine and resolve these ugly threads among its members.

“There is no question that the Green Party has work to do in addressing racism, anti-Semitism, systemic discrimination in all its forms,” said Paul.

It is not the first time the Green Party has had to confront issues of anti-Semitism within its ranks. In 2014, former party president Paul Estrin, also Jewish, quit in disgust after he was attacked by Green Party members for writing an online article condemning the actions of the terrorist group Hamas.

“One of the things I really loved about the Green Party was that there was so much of that sharing of opinions and thoughts on so many projects on the environmental aspects of things. I think it’s absolutely appropriate,” Estrin, who is no longer a member of the party, said in a telephone interview this week from Quebec City.

“But when it comes to racism, when it comes to hate —  the Green Party, unfortunately, in my experience, I felt they fall short.”

And then, in 2018, Dimitri Lascaris, a Montreal lawyer who, at the time, had been designated as the party’s justice critic, accused two Jewish Liberal MPs — Anthony Housefather and Michael Levitt — of being more loyal to Israel than to their prime minister.

Lascaris’ attack was roundly condemned as anti-Semitic by all party leaders — Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer, and Jagmeet Singh — while Elizabeth May, then leader of the Greens, called his attack unacceptable. She fired him as the party’s justice critic.

Lascaris, though, was hardly humbled. Indeed, he may well be the next leader of the Green Party at the end of the weekend. He is second to Paul when it comes to fundraising — with $112,069 — and second in terms of number of contributors at 958.

Paul and Lascaris were, as of Aug. 31, the only two leadership candidates to raise more than $100,000.

In 2018,  Lascaris wrote a 1,500-word essay defending his accusations against Housefather and Levitt and he refused to apologize. Indeed, he and his supporters said that he had been ‘smeared’ by the reaction of other party leaders.

In an interview this week, he said his critics ignored the context of his 2018 criticism. “I think one has to really get a good handle on what anti-Semitism is and understand that legitimate criticism of the state of Israel is in no way, shape or form anti-Semitic,” Lascaris said.

Lascaris may even win the leadership race — despite initial attempts by the party’s candidate vetting committee to block his candidacy. The party’s Leadership Contest Authority cited “public statements on a number of issues” — without naming those issues — when it first decided he could not run.

In addition to his Twitter attack on Housefather and Levitt, Lascaris and his supporters have posted videos where he is seen or heard to be  interrupting Transport Minister Marc Garneau at a press conference in Montreal , interrupting former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler at Concordia University, and, in 2019, heckling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a campaign event accusing him of supporting “apartheid Israel.”

Lascaris’ supporters applaud these actions but mainstream Jewish advocacy groups are concerned about his candidacy in particular and about anti-Semitic elements within the Green Party.

“So we know there’s anti-Semitism on the far right,” said Richard Marceau, a former MP who is now a vice-president at the Ottawa-based Centre for Jewish and Israel Affairs (CJIA).

“There’s also anti-Semitism on the far left and a number of the radical far-left activists are trying to take control of the Green Party, hijack the Green Party and and basically push through their their parochial and I would say dangerous agenda on the Green Party. And it’s worrisome for the Jewish community of Canada.”

Lascaris, for his part, points to a group called Independent Jewish Voices Canada, who have supported his candidacy. That group, though, is a relatively small organization that was set up in opposition to more mainstream groups such as the CJIA, Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, B’nai Brith Canada and others.

The endorsement of Independent Jewish Voices Canada did not sway May.

“My view and the party’s views are solid on this: to the extent that anyone who is running for the leadership of the Green Party of Canada and who has expressed anti-Semitic views, they shouldn’t have been allowed to run,” May said in an interview this week.

As a former leader — and a relatively popular one at that— May was asked by the party to refrain from endorsing any candidate but she did ask party supporters to financially support Paul’s candidacy as part of a campaign “to help fundraise for candidates who will improve the party’s track record for inclusiveness and diversity.”

And supporters of Lascaris have complained that May did not abide by a resolution — moved by Lascaris himself — that was adopted by grassroots party members in support of the controversial campaign to “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction” Israeli-owned businesses and assets.

In 2016, Liberals and Conservatives — but not New Democrats or the Bloc Quebecois — voted to condemn BDS movements because they are associated with the “demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel.”

Paul said that she did not think it was appropriate for Lascaris to be a candidate for the party’s leadership.

“Not so much because of what was said, but because of the continuous lack of understanding or recognition of the impact,” she said. “There are people that simply need to be educated. They don’t realize the impact of their words. They might not realize the historical implications of that kind of comment.

“But once … it’s been explained to you, once you’ve been told what the hurt is, if you continue to persist in being unwilling to apologize or to recognize it, then that’s something else altogether.”

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