TORONTO — A sold-out evening headlined by controversial Jewish anti-Israel activist Max Blumenthal went ahead as scheduled on Wednesday evening in Toronto, despite drawing heavy condemnation from Canada’s organized Jewish community.
He spoke to upwards of 500 guests at an event titled “Embattled Truths: Reporting on Gaza with Max Blumenthal.” It was organized by PEN Canada — a charity which advocates for free expression and other basic rights for writers — and hosted at the Toronto Reference Library in honor of Freedom to Read Week in Canada.
The talk, which featured a question and answer period, was marred by constant heckling and jeering from more than a dozen protestors who attended, most of whom from the far-right Jewish Defense League of Canada.
Blumenthal addressed the controversy surrounding his appearance, saying that pro-Israel groups attempt to make an example of him.
“One of the reasons that I’m considered maybe a little bit dangerous by the pro-Israel lobby, why there’s been such a campaign against this event and other events, is because I am a white, upper-middle class Jewish guy from Washington, DC from an influential family, and the last thing that they would like to see is someone like me being successful in presenting my views and for other upper-middle class nice Jewish boys and girls to follow in my footsteps,” said Blumenthal, the son of longtime Hillary Clinton advisor and family friend Sidney Blumenthal. As shown in a recent batch of released private emails, Clinton had received several of Max’s anti-Zionist articles by way of his father Sidney.
“What certain groups — which are very partisan right-wing groups affiliated with the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative Party here — decided to do is to declare me an anti-Semite, that I actually hate Jews,” Blumenthal continued. “However I decide to observe Judaism is irrelevant, because in their view, you can disagree all you want with Moses, but you can’t disagree with King Bibi.”
Brendan de Caires, a spokesperson for PEN Canada, said the group invited Blumenthal to speak about his recent book “The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza,” which details his perspective on the 2014 summertime conflict between Israel and Hamas.
“The conversation that we were hoping to have is about the complexity of telling a story from a highly politicized battleground or conflict zone, and how do you take into account the political fashions at play,” said de Caires.
De Caires said Blumenthal’s book fell into category of war reportage, which is why PEN Canada invited him. The event was presented in partnership with Another Story Bookshop and Independent Jewish Voices, and also featured Toronto Star foreign affairs reporter Olivia Ward.
‘What we’re seeing is an organized campaign by the pro-Israel lobby, which represents the greatest threat to free speech in the West’
The protestors, who were eventually asked to leave by a contingent of nearly 10 police officers, held up signs showing a Palestinian holding a knife and wearing a keffiyeh as a full face covering, which read, “This is not a victim.” Some, but not all, individuals who shouted criticisms of Blumenthal’s views also expressed anti-Muslim sentiments.
The event took place just two days after Canada’s Parliament voted overwhelmingly to condemn the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel by a 229-51 margin in bipartisan fashion. Blumenthal criticized the move and compared it to similar anti-BDS measures in the United Kingdom, France and the United States.
“We’re seeing it in the US presidential campaign where Hillary Clinton has pledged to shut down BDS in fealty to her donors,” said Blumenthal. “What we’re seeing is an organized campaign by the pro-Israel lobby, which represents the greatest threat to free speech in the West. It’s time to stand up to it.”
Blumenthal declined an interview with The Times of Israel.
Heavy backlash preceded event
The decision to invite Blumenthal drew the ire of Israel advocacy groups in Canada, such as the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. It also sparked reactions that questioned his previous reporting methods on Israel and Gaza.
On Wednesday prior to the event, Toronto city councilor James Pasternak issued a statement calling on the Toronto Reference Library to cancel Blumenthal’s appearance.
‘While freedom of expression is a crucial Canadian value, targeting a group through demonization has no place in a City of Toronto building’
“While freedom of expression is a crucial Canadian value, targeting a group through demonization has no place in a City of Toronto building,” he stated. “Mr. Blumenthal has been widely criticized for his hateful comments and even had his worked praised by white supremacists. Speakers like this do not reflect our values of respect and tolerance.”
Berl Nadler, co-chair of CIJA Toronto, called PEN Canada’s selection of Blumenthal “irresponsible.”
“He doesn’t think the State of Israel should exist as a Jewish state and he’s on the record saying that. [‘The 51 Day War’] has been roundly criticized as hyperbolic and demonizing Israelis in every imaginable way,” said Nadler. “We think it’s not a good choice for anybody who actually wants to really understand what happened in the Gaza war.”
Nadler said CIJA wrote a letter to PEN Canada on February 11 detailing their concerns, suggesting they balance the talk with someone more neutral on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to speak alongside Blumenthal.
“We felt PEN was subverting their own principled positions and their very good reputation for defending writers under threat around the world,” Nadler said. “We even said ‘look, we don’t mind if the person is critical of what Israel did or some of what Israel did, but at least it has to be balanced and it has to be someone with expertise.’”
But Blumenthal exemplifies an “extremely seasoned foreign correspondent” able to answer tough questions about the intricacies of reporting from a battlefield, according to de Caires.
Despite a “mildly hysterical reaction in some quarters” including plenty of angry phone calls to PEN Canada, de Caires said the organization didn’t see a need to balance the discussion of the war in Gaza, noting it was not “in the business of picking sides.”
‘This is not meant to be a partisan conversation’
“This is not meant to be a partisan conversation. We certainly wouldn’t have it if it were,” said de Caires. Blumenthal “certainly has a very strong and definable point of view on this conflict, but certainly from our perspective from the way the event was conceived, it is about war reportage. It’s not a discussion on the rights or wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”
De Caires called PEN Canada “resolutely apolitical” and that “providing people don’t hold a position that advocates violence or hatred against an identifiable group, they are eligible for interest by PEN.”
Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of Canada’s Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, disputed whether Blumenthal fit that description
“Max Blumenthal represents the radical left’s extremist belief that Israel is the embodiment of all evil and has no right to exist,” Benlolo said in a statement, which claimed Blumenthal’s book “is popular on major antisemitic, neo-Nazi and conspiracy theory websites… where his work is used to promote anti-Jewish hate.”
“I’m not sure what PEN is trying to achieve by giving Blumenthal a podium from which to spew his hatred, but if its goal is to contribute to increasing antisemitism in Canada, then I guess it will succeed.”
In CIJA’s letter to PEN Canada, it referred to a review of Blumenthal’s 2013 book “Goliath” in left-wing US magazine The Nation by Eric Alterman, which labeled the work “the ‘I hate Israel’ handbook.”
Alterman, himself often a critic of Israel, wrote “Blumenthal proves a profoundly unreliable narrator” and that his “selectivity often gets in the way of his truth-telling.”
“Alas, his case against the Jewish state is so carelessly constructed, it will likely alienate anyone but the most fanatical anti-Zionist extremists, and hence do nothing to advance the interests of the occupation’s victims,” the review stated.
Nadler said Blumenthal’s reputation makes his most recent book lack credibility as an objective example of war correspondence.
“This is a libel of Israel,” he said. “I’m a genuine believer in freedom of speech. I even believe in Max Blumenthal’s right to speak. But I think it is intellectually dishonest on the part of PEN Canada to say that a person with those views can enlighten anyone about the Arab-Israeli conflict or even about the Gaza campaign.”