November 19, 2010
How to make a point
At the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism conference in Ottawa last week, Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff once again proved what can happen when a politician doesn’t have a gifted speechwriter.
Instead of coming out with a strong, concise statement against antisemitism, Ignatieff’s speech wandered, at times seeming to equivocate, and included a jab at Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s take on Canada’s recent loss of a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Meanwhile, Harper’s speech stayed on message, and powerfully so.
Of course, it didn’t take long for vociferous critics of Israel to attack Harper’s unwavering support of Israel and Jews in general. It took a while longer for anyone even to notice that Ignatieff had spoken. In Israel, for example, the Jerusalem Post ran a Jewish Telegraphic Agency story on Harper’s speech and made no mention of Ignatieff’s, while the Ha’aretz article on the topic ended with a sentence summing up Ignatieff’s comments as being “critical of Harper’s position on Israel, calling for Canada to become an honest broker in the global community.”
Closer to home, most of the coverage of the speeches focused on that of the prime minister, with some references or weblinks to Ignatieff’s, though at least one Canadian pundit took the time to dissect Ignatieff’s meanderings. At the end of the day, however, regardless of your political affiliations or level of support for Israel, looking at these two speeches side by side, you have to admit: one leader made his party’s stance crystal clear, while the other failed to do so.
Harper was straightforward in everything he said. Ignatieff, on the other hand, started strong then became muddled. He spoke about how “we are united today in the fervent hope and the determined belief that we want to make antisemitism nothing other than a terrible memory rather than a part of our lived present.
“We’re here in Ottawa to identify a new phenomenon – the new antisemitism. One of the things that I never thought I would live to see as a person of proud Russian heritage, is to see the disgraced and vile czarist forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, circulating in the 21st century, on the Internet.... I never thought that I would live to see a world in which you could go into a UPS depot or a FedEx depot in Yemen and send a package loaded with explosives to blow up a synagogue in Chicago.
“This is the reality that we have to stand together against. This is what we have to fight. And we have to say, whatever our origin, whatever our politics, whatever our past, whatever our religions, whatever our faith – antisemitism is not just a threat to the Jews, it’s a threat to every single one of us and to all humanity.”
But he also said, “I think that we have to be very clear that being balanced with respect to the Middle East does not mean being neutral. We are not neutral between terrorists and a democratic state. Balance means that there are two peoples and that the land has to be shared – out of fairness for both, and out of a need for security for both.”
The first part seems to indicate that he supports Israel, a democratic state, and not Gaza, which is under a terrorist regime. But Hamas was democratically elected, so what does Ignatieff mean then?
He also stated, “The Middle East conflict both fuels and is fuelled by this vicious, modern antisemitism. Too many people use the conflict in the Middle East as an excuse to fuel their hatreds. There is no justification. There is no excuse for this hatred. But it seems to me mere prudence to say that eliminating antisemitism does require a commitment to peace.”
A committment to peace on whose part? Does the Israel-Palestinian conflict have to be resolved before Jews around the world can live without discrimination?
Ignatieff also took great pains to mention the persecution of his family in Communist Russia, a vandalized mosque and a mosque that had been firebombed, as well as a firebombed church. While Canadians should strive to combat all types of racism, the apparent attempt to balance every statement against antisemitism with one against the persecution of other groups seemed contrived.
There is nothing more debilitating for a politician or a political party than to be unclear of their message, as Ignatieff and the Liberals prove time and time again. While the varied impact of the two speeches could indicate that is impossible for people to “hear” grey in the political arena, or appreciate nuance, it more likely means that the Liberal party itself remains in disarray and, for better or worse, until they get their house in order, they will not be offering the Conservatives a real challenge any time soon.