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Women's History MonthIn 2016 the Green Party approved a resolution supporting BDS

Canada’s 1st Black Jewish female party leader took on anti-Semitism — and won

Making history on two fronts, the newly-elected Green Party head Annamie Paul shows Jews there’s nothing to be afraid of on the far left while vowing to expel hidden anti-Semites

  • Canadian Green Party head Annamie Paul wants to reach out to other branches around the globe. (Rebecca Wood)
    Canadian Green Party head Annamie Paul wants to reach out to other branches around the globe. (Rebecca Wood)
  • Annamie Paul in downtown Toronto in 2020. (Courtesy)
    Annamie Paul in downtown Toronto in 2020. (Courtesy)
  • Annamie Paul celebrates her victory at the Green Party of Canada convention, October 3, 2020. (Brittany Gawley)
    Annamie Paul celebrates her victory at the Green Party of Canada convention, October 3, 2020. (Brittany Gawley)
  • Annamie Paul campaigns for the Green Party in Canada's federal elections, October 2019. (Rebecca Wood)
    Annamie Paul campaigns for the Green Party in Canada's federal elections, October 2019. (Rebecca Wood)
  • Annamie Paul with husband Mark Freeman, right, and sons Jonas Freeman (center left) and Malachai Freeman (left) in 2020. (Courtesy)
    Annamie Paul with husband Mark Freeman, right, and sons Jonas Freeman (center left) and Malachai Freeman (left) in 2020. (Courtesy)

TORONTO — As the new head of Canada’s Green Party, Annamie Paul is determined to improve her party’s standing. Given what she endured as a Jewish Black woman in last fall’s leadership race, she knows her identity won’t make the road ahead easier.

Even in Canada’s celebrated multicultural society, known for its tolerance and embrace of diversity, racism is real for someone like Paul. As a member of two minorities, she’s often experienced it firsthand.

Paul made history last October becoming Canada’s first Black and first Jewish woman elected leader of a federal party — which currently holds only three seats out of 338 in the country’s parliament and operates with limited resources. But the victory wasn’t painless: Running against seven other candidates, Paul was repeatedly the target of anti-Semites, both in and outside the party.

“Anti-Semitism was a constant presence in the campaign after it became known I was Jewish,” Paul tells The Times of Israel in a recent Zoom interview. “It was nothing I ever hid and when I was asked about my background, I of course mentioned I’m Jewish. It’s an important part of who I am.”

The abuse she suffered made an impact on her.

“The anti-Semitism was not easy, and it still isn’t,” says Paul, 48, speaking from her home in midtown Toronto. “You never really get used to it. You’re aware it’s out there but you’re never fully prepared for it.”

Annamie Paul celebrates her victory at the Green Party of Canada convention, October 3, 2020. (Brittany Gawley)

Likewise, she had little preparation for how to lead a political party during a pandemic.

“These are really strange times,” says Paul, a former human rights lawyer. “I’m doing everything out of a room in my home in Toronto. We’re learning a lot about being creative in connecting with people virtually. The biggest challenge has been how to introduce myself to Canadians when I can’t travel across the country. When you’re a new leader, your biggest job is to start a conversation with people about you, your vision for the party, which we’ve been doing but to a much lesser degree than normal.”

In recent months, as part of her efforts to raise her profile and the relevance of the Green Party, Paul has been speaking out on diverse issues beyond environmental advocacy. These include supporting housing affordability, the rights of Indigenous fishermen and denouncing China’s persecution of its Uighur minority.

Screenshot of Canadian Green Party head Annamie Paul speaking to The Times of Israel in a Zoom interview from her home in Toronto, February 2021. (Times of Israel)

Established in 1983, the Green Party’s six main principles are ecological wisdom, nonviolence, social justice, sustainability, participatory democracy and respect for diversity. The party went nearly 30 years before electing its first member of Parliament. In the 2019 election, it expanded its caucus to three. That same year, Paul joined the Green Party, in part because she felt it reflected her Jewish beliefs.

“The party’s core values are centered around a respect for human life and all life on this planet,” says Paul. “In our six main principles, there’s a recognition of the inter-connectedness of things and our responsibility to each other.”

“When I was looking for a party to join, that was important to me,” she says. “It was consistent with the humanistic values of Judaism, the respect for life, the idea that a gesture made in aid of one person can have ripple effects beyond that one gesture and one person. Those Jewish values resonate with me and I see them reflected in our party.”

Canadian Green Party leader Annamie Paul wears an ‘Every Child Matters’ t-shirt in Toronto, in 2020. (Rebecca Wood)

For all its noble principles, the party has been dogged by manifestations of anti-Semitism in recent years, along with fiercely anti-Israel voices. In 2016, the party approved a resolution supporting the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which some governments have called anti-Semitic. Two years earlier, party president Paul Estrin, who is Jewish, resigned after being vilified for having a written a blog post criticizing Hamas rocket fire on Israeli civilians.

During the leadership race, Paul felt awful that her children, who are 16 and 20, were exposed to anti-Semitic attacks.

“Definitely what made it more difficult for me was what they had to experience,” says Paul, who is bringing up her two sons Jewish with her Jewish husband. “They spent eight years of their childhood in Jewish day schools. They’ve grown up in a very supportive environment for their Jewish identity. So seeing them experience for the first time what it’s like to be attacked or hated because of your Jewish identity was particularly painful for me. It didn’t change their pride in being Jewish but it was hard to see them understand that there are people who are going to actively dislike them just because of their identity.”

Annamie Paul with husband Mark Freeman, right, and sons Jonas Freeman (center left) and Malachai Freeman (left) in 2020. (Courtesy)

Today, Paul, who converted to Judaism in 2000, is still aghast at what she experienced.

“It became pretty ugly,” says Paul, who’s also suffered her share of anti-Black racism. “It started out as innuendo, with veiled suggestions and attacks against me as a Zionist. And then because neither we nor others responded to it, people became more emboldened and more explicit. I was accused of the usual tropes, including being in the pocket of foreign agents, being embedded in a political party to further the goals of those foreign agents, and the usual things related to money.”

She admits to being initially taken by surprise.

“I certainly didn’t expect this,” says Paul. “I didn’t realize that there was still so much acceptable space in Canada to say those kinds of things. Those comments were made in public forums, on Facebook and Twitter, not in the dark corners of the web. It surprised me there are still many people who feel comfortable saying these things using their own names, not using aliases or avatars.”

I was accused of the usual tropes, including being in the pocket of foreign agents, being embedded in a political party to further the goals of those foreign agents, and the usual things related to money

Paul wasn’t the only one caught off guard.

“I think it was a surprise to the community,” she says. “After a few articles came out about this, the Canadian media started following my campaign more closely. Many people didn’t realize that anti-Semitic views could be so publicly shared without any serious repercussion and without fear.”

Canadian Green Party leader Annamie Paul campaigns during the party’s leadership race in Toronto, in 2020. (Rebecca Wood)

Despite what happened, she doesn’t feel anti-Semitism is endemic to the party.

“I’m a lawyer and policy analyst and I believe in data, but I haven’t seen any that would support the conclusion that anti-Semitism is pervasive in our party,” says Paul. “It certainly wasn’t an impediment to my victory because it was clear to everyone I was a Jewish candidate. What I can say about the existence of anti-Semitism in our party is it’s not the majority. That being said, every political party has people that hold anti-Semitic views and ours is no different. Those people will never be welcome and when we identify them, they will be expelled.”

Child activist

Born in Toronto, Paul showed an interest in politics and public policy from a young age. When she was 12, she was selected to be a page in Ontario’s provincial legislature as part of a program run by the nonpartisan Canadian Political Science Association.

“I was definitely one of those kids who, for whatever reason, followed politics and public policy,” says Paul. “I could name all the leaders of the parties and that kind of thing. I had a great teacher who mentioned this program and I applied. Contrary to how it’s been characterized by some people, it wasn’t part of a manifest destiny or the first step in a master plan to one day seek public office.”

Annamie Paul, bottom right, as a child with her parents and siblings. (Courtesy)

She later also worked as a page at the Canadian Senate and as an intern for two parties at the Ontario Legislature.

“From those experiences, I came away with the conviction that politics should never be a career,” says Paul. “It should be something you approach as a vocation, something you do for a limited time and then you do other things. I felt I should have a full life outside politics before I ever considered politics at all.”

While studying law at the University of Ottawa, she met her future husband, Mark Freeman. As she pursued her MA in public affairs at Princeton University, she converted to Judaism. Overseeing the process was the director of the campus Hillel, Rabbi Jim Diamond, about whom Paul speaks with great affinity.

Judaism wasn’t entirely new to Paul. Growing up in Toronto, many of her friends were Jewish. She fondly recalls attending their bar and bat mitzvahs and celebrating Jewish holidays with them.

When her mother and grandmother immigrated to Canada from the Caribbean in the 1960s and their professional qualifications as a teacher and nurse weren’t recognized, their first jobs were as live-in domestics for Jewish families in Toronto.

Annamie Paul, right, with her sister Ngozi Paul at the University of Ottawa in 1995. (Courtesy)

All this contributed to Paul’s predisposition to Judaism.

“Certainly all that positive, intensive early Jewish exposure certainly helped,” says Paul. “It laid the groundwork to the commitment I had with my partner to leading a Jewish life which I knew I wanted to fully embrace. I wanted our future family to share the same faith, religion, traditions which my past experience with Jewish friends certainly made much easier.”

Even before Paul formally converted, she and Freeman lived a Jewish life.

“It’s a very personal thing,” she says “but the values and traditions spoke to me. There was just a logic to the rhythm of life that really appealed to me.”

Paul says raising a Jewish household has been one of the greatest joys of her life.

“There are many things I give Judaism credit for,” she explains with a smile. “One is certainly that Jewish people know how to celebrate milestones and throw a party. I love all the holidays and all the celebration going on. If you’re raising a Jewish family, there’s a lot of that.”

Previous Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May, left, with her successor Annamie Paul in Toronto, October 2020. (Mitsuo Hosokawa)

As Paul and her husband, an international human rights lawyer, lived in Europe for many years, they sent their sons to Jewish day schools in Belgium and Spain. During that time, she worked as a political affairs officer at Canada’s mission to the European Union, as an advisor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and executive director of the Barcelona International Policy Action Plan, which advises international NGOs.

“Having them in the day schools helped create a real sense of community for us, wherever we lived, which was really nice,” says Paul, who speaks four languages fluently. “And being a mother and seeing both of your sons bar mitzvahed is wonderful.”

Paul and her husband are mindful of the poignancy of raising a new generation of Jews, given that many of her mother-in-law’s relatives were murdered during the Holocaust at Auschwitz and Sobibor.

Canadian Green Party head Annamie Paul wants to reach out to other branches around the globe. (Rebecca Wood)

No more BDS?

With several cousins on her husband’s side living in Israel, Paul has visited there twice, the last time in 2018. So far, since becoming leader of the Green Party, she hasn’t had contact with environmentalists in Israel.

“I’d love to hear from them,” says Paul. “One of the things I want to do is really ramp up our regular connections with the Green Party movement globally because we’re just one of many green parties that share the same values and have elected representatives. At a time like this, it could and should be quite a powerful network, particularly when we’re looking for comparative examples of what works, whether it’s with the pandemic, climate change or the changing nature of work.”

Annamie Paul campaigns for the Green Party in Canada’s federal elections, October 2019. (Rebecca Wood)

As the head of a national party, Paul is now called on to give her views on a wide range of issues, both domestic and foreign. On many occasions, she’s been asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“My answer is always the same, which some people are satisfied with and some are not,” says Paul. “At least one phase of my life was focused on international affairs, public diplomacy and international law. And so it’s very simple. Every state has rights and obligations under international law. The international community also has an obligation to ensure that states not complying with those rights and obligations do so. I hold Israel to the same standard I would hold any other state concerning violations of international law.”

I hold Israel to the same standard I would hold any other state concerning violations of international law

As an example, she cites Israel’s proposed annexation of the West Bank which she considers a violation of international law, that she called out last year. Had Israel decided to pursue it, she insists it would’ve been the responsibility of Canada, and the international community, to speak out forcefully against it and to seek to return Israel back into compliance with international law.

Annamie Paul, second from left, with supporters of her campaign for Canadian Green Party leader in Toronto, 2020. (Rebecca Wood)

“I don’t consider criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic,” says Paul. “That being said, there’s no question it can be used as a proxy for anti-Semitism. There are those who use the pretext of criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic, and I’ve experienced that personally. Is there a uniform attention and criticism paid to all countries that have a record of violating human rights? Definitely not. There never has been. Is it fair? Definitely not.”

She’s adamant in rejecting anti-Jewish double standards.

“When I feel I’m being asked questions about Israel as a vehicle for someone to express anti-Semitic views, I call them on that and I’ll continue to do that,” says Paul. “It’s really not fair that every Jewish person on the planet feels like they have to account for the actions of the government of a UN member state.”

While knowing not everyone in Canada’s 400,000-strong Jewish community agrees with her, she’s grateful for the community’s response to her.

Canadian Green Party leader Annamie Paul in Toronto, 2020. (Rebecca Wood)

“My relationship with Canada’s Jewish community, both during the leadership race and subsequent to it, has been one of the great joys and the source of much pride for me,” says Paul. “The community has shown it’s proud of me and my accomplishment in being the first Jewish woman to lead a federal party and only the second Jewish person [to do so].”

In recent months, Paul has received numerous invitations from synagogues around the country to speak to their congregations via Zoom.

“People are so curious,” she adds. “They’re interested. They’re so proud, whether they support the Green Party or not, and many of them don’t. But they’re very supportive of me in this role, which means a lot to me.”

Her becoming the Green Party leader has changed how many Jews view it.

“There’s no question the perception of the party as a place that might not have been welcoming to Jews has changed,” she says. “I know the party membership having elected me to this role means a lot to the community, and having someone who’s so proud of being Jewish, who’s completely comfortable talking about it and who celebrates it, is also really meaningful because there still has been a feeling among many Jews that it’s not necessarily something to talk about very much.”

Annamie Paul in downtown Toronto in 2020. (Courtesy)

Paul, who currently doesn’t have a seat in Parliament, is hoping to change that this year by being a candidate in a Toronto district either in a byelection or the next general election.

Like any politician, she aims to increase her party’s fortunes in the next election. At minimum, she seeks to gain official party status in Parliament, for which at least 12 seats are required.

“It would give us a voice we don’t have now,” says Paul. “I’m working toward a green wave where people in Canada say, ‘we want something different, we want something better than before, and we’re trusting you to be part of that.’”

For her, one result matters.

“I’ll be very disappointed if we return to Parliament without having made a significant advance [from the current three seats,”] says Paul. “I’m willing to say that because I don’t want to have any room to sugar coat it afterward. If we return with the same number of seats, I don’t care how anyone else tries to spin it, I’ll be extremely disappointed.”

Canadian Green Party head Annamie Paul, center, with campaign workers in Toronto, 2020. (Courtesy)

Unlike many politicians, Paul devotes little time to her physical appearance, eschewing the use of make-up and hairstyling.

“I’m actually appreciative when I’m asked about it instead of the wild speculation it has attracted,” says Paul, in reference to her extremely short hair which she’s kept that way for the past 20 years.

“People ask if I’m ill or if my look is a political statement. With women, whether we like it or not, how we present ourselves is often filtered through that lens,” she says. “For me, it’s simple. I just don’t have the time. Not having to work on my hair and apply makeup probably saves me 30 minutes a day. It’s very liberating. Can you imagine 30 minutes per day over the course of a year, what you can do with that?”

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