Canadian MP Cotler: Calling Israel an Apartheid State Can Be Legitimate Free Speech

Canadian parliamentarian and staunch supporter of Israel Irwin Cotler told Haaretz last week that criticism of Israel as an apartheid state, while distastful, could be within the bounds of legitimate discourse.

Cotler, who was in Israel for the Presidential Conference, spoke to Haaretz about where to draw the line between acceptable critiques of Israel's policy and anti-Semitism, which he has spent much of his career fighting.

Irwin Cotler
Emil Salman

"You can criticize an Israeli policy or action as having been not only a violation of human rights and humanitarian law but also, you could even say it was a war crime," the former Canadian justice minister said. "It may be, as I say, distasteful to see that, or witness that, but I don't regard that as being anti-Semitic content. I think that that's part of what is called rigorous criticism and discourse."

Cotler, who is currently an MP from Montreal, said that idea extends to classification of Israel as an apartheid state, a sentiment he does not agree with, but sees as a part of the debate.

"Where you say that Israel is an apartheid state, even then - that to me is, it's distasteful, but it's still within the boundaries of argument," Cotler said. "It's where you say, because it's an apartheid state, it has to be dismantled - then you crossed the line into a racist argument, or an anti-Jewish argument. You're not just criticizing, you're not only criticizing Israeli policy or practice; you're not only saying it has apartheid policies; you're saying it's a criminal apartheid state that must be dismantled. Then in my view, you've crossed the line."

To watch more footage from the interview with MP Cotler, click here.

Cotler's statements to Anglo File represent a slight departure for the politician, who has argued vociferously against calling Israel an aparthied state and called for campaign to deligitimize the delegitimization.

In 2009, Cotler, who is Jewish, co-founded the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism, a group of Jewish and non-Jewish lawmakers from dozens of countries devoted to fighting anti-Jewish racism. The organization held its inaugural meeting in England in 2009, with Canadian MPs making up the largest delegation, and the group held its second conference in Ottawa this past November, with 140 parliamentarians in attendance. The Canadian parliament followed the conference with its own inquiry into Canadian anti-Semitism.

Since the start of the 21st century, the world has been "witnessing a new and escalating, globalizing, virulent, and even lethal anti-Semitism," Cotler said, one which substitutes hate for the Jewish person with hate for the Jewish state. "We had moved from the discrimination against Jews as individuals, to the discrimination against Jews as a people, to Israel as the targeted collective 'Jew among the nations."

But he said not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

"I think we've got to set up certain boundaries of where it does cross the line, because I'm one of those who believes strongly, not only in free speech, but also in rigorous debate, and discussion, and dialectic, and the like," he said. "If you say too easily that everything is anti-Semitic, then nothing is anti-Semitic, and we no longer can make distinctions."

Cotler also says anti-Zionism is not always racist. "I think it's too simplistic to say that anti-Zionism, per se, is anti-Semitic," he said. "It may cross the line into being anti-Semitic where it ends up by saying, 'Israel has no right to exist', or 'the Jewish people have no right to self determination', or, that the Jewish people are not even a people."

Cotler said efforts by activists in other countries to lay criminal charges against Israeli politicians and high-ranking military officials can be a legal tool, so long as it is not pursued against Israelis alone. "That's fine, that was the principal that Israel invoked for why it prosecuted Adolf Eichmann," he said.

"But where people single out only Israeli nationals and apply only to them the principal of universal jurisdiction ... and you're not initiating any such processes against anybody else in a world in which many war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide are being committed - then you have to question whether this is not the singling out of Israeli nationals for selective and discriminatory treatment."

Cotler said that if activists also target others than just Israelis on the same charges, it can lend their moves credibility.

"Some of the same people may also want to try [former U.S. Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger and [former British Prime Minister] Tony Blair [for war crimes], okay? And then you can say, 'Okay, I don't like what they're doing, but they want to try them all,'" he said.