ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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'They have capitulated to a small but loud group of people'

Jewish Canadian politician fired, gets death threat after snark about pre-Zionist Palestine

Progressive British Columbia minister Selina Robinson forced to step down after anti-Israel activists demand her ouster for calling pre-state Israel a ‘crappy piece of land’

Selina Robinson speaks about the challenges facing women in politics, September 7, 2022. (YouTube screenshot/ used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Selina Robinson speaks about the challenges facing women in politics, September 7, 2022. (YouTube screenshot/ used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

TORONTO —  A Jewish politician in the Canadian province of British Columbia has lost her job and received a death threat after saying that pre-state Israel was “a crappy piece of land with nothing on it” during an online panel discussion. Police are also investigating an act of antisemitic vandalism at her constituency office.

The incident reflects how fallout from the Israel-Hamas war, now in its fifth month, continues to spread far beyond the region as tensions soar between Jews and Muslims on Canada’s west coast.

Selina Robinson, the province’s minister of postsecondary education, was dismissed on February 5 by British Columbia Premier David Eby after he initially stood by her in the face of fierce protests.

Meanwhile, many Canadian Jews are decrying how Robinson has been targeted by anti-Israel activists and other politicians, including from her own New Democratic Party (NDP).

Nico Slobinsky, the vice president for the Pacific region at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), voiced his dismay on social media.

“Saddened and concerned to hear that MLA [Member of the Legislative Assembly] Selina Robinson has received a death threat,” Slobinsky wrote. “Grateful to the RCMP [police] for investigating. I can’t help but wonder if people are feeling emboldened after the events of the last few days.”

Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) Pacific region vice president Nico Slobinsky. (Courtesy)

Robinson, 60, represented the suburban Vancouver district of Coquitlam-Maillardville in the British Columbia legislature. Since first being elected in 2013, she has served in several ministerial positions including finance minister, and played a vital role in getting the province to adopt mandatory Holocaust education in its school system. Before entering provincial politics, Robinson headed the Jewish Family Service Agency in Vancouver and was a family therapist and a city councilwoman.

Two weeks ago, while participating in a webinar hosted by B’nai Brith Canada, Robinson lamented the lack of knowledge among young people about the history of Jews, citing both the Holocaust and the founding of Israel.

“We have a whole generation of 18- to 34-year-olds that have no idea about the Holocaust, they don’t even think it happened,” she said. “They don’t understand that Israel was offered to the Jews who were displaced. So they have no connection to how it started. They don’t understand that it was a crappy piece of land with nothing on it. There were several hundred thousand people, but other than that it didn’t produce an economy; it couldn’t grow things, it didn’t have anything on it.”

Some took umbrage at what they considered inflammatory remarks, igniting a firestorm of harsh criticism and demands for Eby to fire Robinson. They accused her of racism, colonialism, Islamophobia and insulting Palestinians. Initially, she insisted her “crappy land” reference was about the lack of natural resources in what is present-day Israel. Still, anti-Israel activists fueled a media frenzy as they clamored for her dismissal from the cabinet.

Eighteen Muslim leaders signed a letter, published online, saying NDP politicians would no longer be welcome in their communities as long as Robinson retained her job. The religious leaders had joined the National Council of Canadian Muslims, Palestinian Canadian Academics and Artists Network, Faculty for Palestine, Independent Jewish Voices Canada, the Jewish Faculty Network, Indigenous leaders and a federal member of Parliament (MP) in calling for Robinson’s removal from cabinet.

Selina Robinson speaks about pre-state Israel during a B’nai B’rith Canada online panel discussion on January 30, 2024. (Screenshot)

Among those actively promoting petitions with the same demand were a prominent Jewish couple, author and social activist Naomi Klein and her husband, filmmaker and former Al Jazeera TV host Avi Lewis, both long known as fierce critics of Israel.

Political factors also came into play. According to Rob Shaw, writing in Business in Vancouver, several activists in the anti-Robinson pile-on are long-time critics of the NDP who were “just using her predicament to settle old political scores.”

Green Party MLA Adam Olsen criticized Robinson’s comments, connecting them to the politically charged Indigenous situation in Canada. In a blog post, he said Robinson’s “crappy land” comment “isn’t just hurtful, it’s a reflection of a racist ideology that fueled colonialism in BC for centuries.”

Several NDP figures from across Canada also took aim at Robinson, including Ontario MP Matthew Green.

Green was a featured speaker at a November rally organized by Toronto4Palestine, a group that publicly distributed candy on October 7 in celebration of the Hamas-led massacre that killed 1,200 people in southern Israel, most of them civilians, and saw 253 more abducted to the Gaza Strip. Green did not suffer any apparent consequences for making that appearance.

On February 5, the campaign against Robinson took to the streets as a group of about 50 protesters chanted, “Selina, Selina, you can’t hide, you committed genocide,” outside a hotel in Surrey, 20 miles southeast of Vancouver, where the British Columbia NDP caucus was meeting.

British Columbia Premier David Eby, center, lights a menorah at a Hanukkah reception at the University of British Columbia Hillel, December 18, 2023. At left is Selina Robinson. (Courtesy of CIJA)

Robinson subsequently issued a lengthy apology following up on a brief statement of contrition on X (formerly Twitter) a few days earlier.

“My recent comments have caused pain and distress within the Palestinian community, the Muslim community and beyond,” she stated. “I am very sorry. I bear full responsibility. My words were inappropriate, wrong, and I now understand how they have contributed to Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism.”

She added: “I know my comments have additionally caused pain, including among Indigenous communities, for perpetuating harmful narratives of colonialism. The experiences of First Nations people are not mine to manipulate. That was wrong and I’m deeply sorry.”

Hours later — and three days after he had criticized Robinson’s comments but said she could remain in the cabinet — Eby yielded to those demanding her departure. He announced she had resigned, only admitting later in the week that he’d had a hand in it.

“My concerns that have led to Selina stepping down as minister relate to how her comments increased division in our province and the work she needs to do to bring people back together,” Eby told a Vancouver news conference where Robinson was noticeably absent. “The perspective I have here is that Selina has a remarkable track record as a politician representing her community, representing the Jewish community, and that she screwed up. That screw-up was not a small one. And she caused a lot of hurt.”

Later that day, after also offering to take anti-Islamophobia training, Robinson announced she wouldn’t seek reelection when British Columbia goes to the polls this year. Since then, she’s stayed out of the public eye, also refusing to speak to the media.

Some observers suggested Eby’s concern over his party’s prospects in the upcoming election led to a cold calculation on Robinson’s future in his cabinet. Satisfying the province’s Muslim community, which is nearly four times larger than its Jewish counterpart, offered the potential of more votes on election day for the leftist NDP, which is the most pro-Palestinian of Canada’s main political parties.

Even before Robinson made her controversial comments about Israel, some pro-Palestinian and NDP activists already had her in their crosshairs over unproven allegations she had used her role as minister to press a British Columbia college to fire an instructor for calling the October 7 Hamas atrocities “amazing” and “brilliant.”

Adding insult to injury for Robinson, in the aftermath of her dismissal, vandals attacked her constituency office, defacing it with hateful graffiti saying “Zionism is Nazism,” “Free Palestine” and “We don’t accept your apology.” A day later, Eby confirmed that police were also investigating a death threat against her.

With Canadian Jews already on edge due to a surge in antisemitism since October 7, the Robinson affair added to their concerns and frustration.

CIJA’s Slobinsky said Eby’s actions sent a “chilling message that Jewish leaders are held to a different standard than non-Jewish ones.”

A few days before Robinson made her ill-fated remarks, Eby made an embarrassing faux pas that offended the Jewish community. On January 27, on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, he issued a statement conflating the Holocaust with Islamophobia, asking the province to stand together “against the deeply troubling rise of Islamophobia” and saying, “We stand with the Muslim community throughout Canada on this sorrowful day of remembrance.”

He later apologized, blaming a staff member for mistakenly posting a text intended for a different context on another date.

In a letter to Eby protesting his decision concerning Robinson, the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver asked why she wasn’t granted the same opportunity for forgiveness for her supposed mistake as Eby was for his, or other members from his NDP party when they made antisemitic comments in the past.

“We believe you have capitulated to a small but loud group of people,” the rabbis wrote. “This is dangerous for our community and the strength of our province’s democracy. You bowed to pressure from the very same groups that have been at the centre of an unprecedented rise in antisemitism and hate directed at the Jewish community since the brutal, inhuman attacks of October 7. It feels like you have given in to bullies for political expediency.”

CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, Ezra Shanken. (Courtesy of JFGV)

Other Jewish groups also spoke out in anger.

“Facing an unprecedented increase in hate, the Jewish community in [British Columbia] is hurting,” said Ezra Shanken, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. “The level of online vitriol aimed at Selina Robinson leading up to her resignation — which mirrors the reality faced by much of the Jewish community since the October 7 Hamas terrorist attacks — shows worrying trends in our public discourse.”

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