In 2016, Mark Goldberg and Laith Marouf got into an argument on Twitter. Goldberg, a telecommunications consultant and blogger, and Marouf, an independent media consultant and producer, had differing views on a matter before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), an organization they both had an interest in.
This argument led Goldberg to start following Marouf’s presence online, logging more than a hundred of his tweets over the next few years. It wasn’t a mere difference of opinion about CRTC intricacies, however, that motivated Goldberg — it was something else entirely.
Goldberg has said that he is “proud to be a Zionist,” has a daughter that “made Aliyah” and was formerly active in “Zionist organizations.” Marouf, meanwhile, is a Palestinian-Syrian man born in Jordan, who has been involved in anti-Zionist and pro-Palestine activism for decades.
Goldberg believed that much of Marouf’s online commentary about these issues was antisemitic, and attempted to get him into trouble for it. He claims he got Marouf banned from Twitter in 2019, but his real victory came last month.
In 2021, the federal government granted the Community Media Advocacy Centre (CMAC) more than $133,000 as part of Canadian Heritage’s Anti-Racism Action Program. Marouf is a senior consultant at CMAC. This funding came to Goldberg’s attention in April of this year thanks to a CMAC press release about a series of events it was launching as a result of this grant, which contained quotes from both Marouf and Ahmed Hussen, the minister of housing and diversity and inclusion.
At this point, Goldberg claims he started trying to get the attention of media figures and politicians, arguing that Marouf shouldn’t be the recipient of government funding due to his statements. In August, right-wing media figures began boosting Goldberg’s efforts, and by the middle of the month a personal feud had turned into a national scandal that has since been covered in every major Canadian news media publication.
Reporters and politicians started publicly asking Hussen why the government provided money to CMAC, and demanding that they stop doing so. On August 22, they got their wish, as the government announced it cut funding to CMAC due to “antisemitic comments” from Marouf. CMAC has since announced that it’s suspending its activities.
As a general principle, I agree with the idea that the government shouldn’t fund racism, and if it is, should stop doing so. But the issue isn’t so simple in this case, and its consequences likely will extend far beyond Marouf, posing a threat to pro-Palestine groups throughout Canada.
Many, though not all, of Marouf’s tweets that have surfaced throughout this scandal were sent in the context of a member of an oppressed group speaking out against the oppression they and their people face. I don’t feel entitled to police such thoughts (whether from Black people about white people, Indigenous people about settlers, or Palestinians about Israelis), but I acknowledge that people can be genuinely disturbed by them, regardless of the context. That’s been the case with some of Marouf’s tweets.
Yet the scandal hasn’t focused solely on these specific tweets, with many of those decrying Marouf instead smuggling his criticisms of Israel as a state, or even simple declarations of facts, into their condemnations of him as an antisemite. (Marouf has denied this allegation through his lawyer, who told the Canadian Press that he doesn’t hold “any animus toward the Jewish faith as a collective group.”) Here are some examples of this coming from powerful and prominent organizations, as it’s crucial to understanding what’s going on, and what may come next.
On August 24, B’nai Brith put out a press release calling for the government to get back any of the money it had already given CMAC, arguing that the group’s events themselves, not just Marouf on his personal social media accounts, were antisemitic.
The press release notes: “At a meeting this week, B’nai Brith asked Irwin Cotler, Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, to advise the Government regarding the conclusions of [an independent review into CMAC]. Mr. Cotler agreed. ‘In our call with Special Envoy Cotler, we told him the situation is far worse than simply Marouf’s social media tweets,’ said Marvin Rotrand, National Director of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights. ‘The seminars paid for with public money contain overt antisemitism. The tapes of the CMAC seminars so far have escaped public scrutiny. They are an eye-opener.’”
Their proof for these claims? An event held by CMAC on May 14 with Marouf as a speaker, which they write “commences with a hateful diatribe by Marouf in which he falsely claims Israel assassinated journalist Shirheen (sic) Abu Akleh, denounces what he calls the ‘Zionist occupation’ while claiming that the Zionist militias committed genocide in 1948.”
None of these claims are controversial. The fact that the Israeli army killed Abu Akleh is the consensus, and has been proven by in-depth research from several news outlets, organizations and governments. Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands objectively exists, is motivated by Zionism and is widely condemned as being illegal under international law. And the fact that Israel was created with ethnic cleansing is indisputable, while the claim that it has engaged in genocide is hardly marginal. Yet according to B’nai Brith, these claims are not just wrong or even bad, but supposedly worse than the tweets from Marouf that kickstarted this scandal.
Similar allegations were made by Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) in an August 23 press release, where they argue that the recording of the CMAC event shows Marouf “falsely claiming ‘colonialism and racism’ govern media and Israel is a ‘Zionist apartheid regime’ whose ‘Zionist militias’ had ‘waged a campaign of genocide.’”
Sure, these groups could be ramping up their rhetoric a bit with the goal of having any money given to CMAC clawed back, but this isn’t the only or even primary motivator for doing so. Instead, it’s to not only lump standard criticisms of Israel into what they deem to be antisemitism, but to actually label these criticisms the worst type of antisemitism.
Thus far, we know that CMAC has lost its funding, that it or Marouf likely won’t get any again, and that there’s a chance the government will try to claw back the money it already provided to them. But the consequences of this scandal won’t end with CMAC. Instead, media, politicians and the Zionist organizations I mentioned alike have all pushed for reviews of Canadian Heritage’s funding process for the Anti-Racism Action Program.
As a general principle, I agree that if a government funded a racist group, it would make sense to conduct a review to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. But, as mentioned earlier, that’s not what’s going to happen here. We’re not going to get some sort of fair and balanced review of existing funding that genuinely tackles racism.
So, what will we get?
We can assume this review will be focused on searching for allegedly antisemitic groups or individuals to the detriment or complete exclusion of other forms of racism. That’s the case for a couple reasons.
First, the bulk of the accusations against Marouf have been focused on alleged antisemitism, and the loudest voices right now cheering on the review are ones that prioritize combatting it over anything else. Anti-racist groups haven’t been pushing for this review or even speaking on it, and it seems unlikely they’ll have any sway in shaping how it develops.
Second, Canada has worked hard in recent years to give the impression that fighting antisemitism is a priority. For example, the federal government committed more than $5.6 million in the 2022 budget over five years to the office of the Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism. In addition, in 2021 the federal government held a National Summit on Antisemitism, where they made several promises for further action and also provided more than $500,000 in additional funding to groups they say “address antisemitism and hate.”
But the federal government conceives of antisemitism in a very specific and destructive way. As I mentioned, groups like B’nai Brith and FSWC have been attempting to portray standard criticisms of Israel from Marouf as antisemitism. Yet this is hardly unique to this case, and is instead the inevitable result of using the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which they all do. They’ve also been successful at getting many other groups within Canada to do the same, including the federal government. To make matters worse, Cotler — a Zionist who has been accused of anti-Palestinian racism, had his events protested for his “constant justification of Israeli violence against Palestinians,” and has had personal ties with Israeli government figures — is Canada’s special envoy on antisemitism, and is a major proponent of IHRA’s definition of it.
And now, these forces are explicitly trying to get this definition to be used when assessing if a group that has received funding is antisemitic or not. For example, in their August 24 press release, B’nai Brith argues that this review must involve a “contract-vetting process [that includes] applying the [IHRA] definition of antisemitism.”
So, what will this mean in practice?
We know that Zionist organizations lump anti-Zionism in with antisemitism as a principle, and not as an accident. We know that they’ve done that in this case, claiming Marouf’s lecture comments about Israel are antisemitic, and actually worse than the tweets that initially went viral. We know that these groups are pushing for a review of all funding to root out organizations they believe to be antisemitic according to this definition of it. We know that the government cares about fighting this sort of alleged antisemitism, and has funded someone who will make sure it happens. And we know that all sorts of individuals, non-profits, charities and other organizations have been harmed by these baseless claims in the past.
As a result, we can safely assume that this review, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself has promised will be conducted, will end up solely or disproportionately taking money and funding from groups that engage in anti-Zionism (or even just criticism of Israel) but are smeared as antisemites. This could happen to groups already rewarded the funding or prevent others from being given it in the future. And it may encourage those in either situation to engage in self-censorship due to the fear of being targeted, therefore watering down the work they do.
There’s a lot at stake here, and it would be an error to let this scandal pass without any critical input. Marouf won’t be the only, or even main, target of this campaign for very long. Not because the pro-Palestine movement is secretly filled with antisemites, but rather because many parties have a vested interest in portraying it as such, and are using this moment to put as much pressure on the government as they can to act accordingly.