A new poll commissioned by the advocacy group Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) and conducted by EKOS Research shows that “similar to apartheid” is the most popular description of Israel among Canadians.

Excluding those who said “don’t know,” just 11 per cent of respondents said they believe the country is a “vibrant democracy.” Meanwhile, 38 per cent said Israel maintains a system “similar to apartheid,” a crime under international law.

Twenty per cent of those who responded to the prompt said Israel has “restricted minority rights,” bringing the total number of those who question Israel’s self-proclaimed status as a “democracy” to 58 per cent.

“This is the first look into what Canadians think on the subject,” CJPME vice president Michael Bueckert told The Maple. “It is the number one choice of Canadians to see Israel in terms of apartheid.”

“Those who see Israel either as a state of apartheid or as having restricted minority rights are greater than Canadians who see Israel as a democracy, whether it's a flawed democracy or a vibrant democracy.”

Bueckert speculated that those who said Israel restricts minority rights may recognize some of the basic features of Israel’s system of apartheid, but may be reluctant to use the term due to its stigmatization by pro-Israel groups. 

An International Crime

Under the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the crime of apartheid is defined as “inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

The term “apartheid” originates from the racist system of segregation imposed by South Africa’s white supremacist government until 1994, but under the statute the term is applicable to any country that engages in similar acts. In the context of Israel, the term refers to how the Israeli state treats Palestinians.

Younger respondents to the CJPME poll were more likely to view Israel as maintaining a system “similar to apartheid” than older respondents, with 48 per cent aged between 18 and 34 holding that view.

The differences were even starker when broken down by party affiliation. Sixty-four per cent of NDP supporters who responded to the prompt said Israel is “similar” to an apartheid state, compared to just 12 per cent of Conservative supporters who said the same. One-third of Liberal Party supporters said Israel is "similar" to an apartheid state, the same number as those who said it is a “flawed democracy.”

When compared with a University of Maryland poll conducted earlier this year, the CJPME poll indicates that a larger number of Canadians view Israel as maintaining a system similar to apartheid than Americans.

A much larger portion of American respondents to the U.S. poll said "don't know," but among those who gave an answer, 31 per cent said Israel maintains a system similar to apartheid.

CJPME, which regards Israel as an apartheid state, phrased its survey question identically to the American poll to allow for a direct comparison.

“We thought that in order to evaluate our question alongside the American results, we might as well use exactly the same language, even if it might not be the way that we would have phrased it,” Bueckert explained.

He added that it’s difficult to know the cause of the discrepancy between the American and Canadian polling numbers. However, he speculated that it might be partly due to Canada’s relatively pluralistic political system, which makes it easier for multiple parties with differing perspectives to enter Parliament and amplify those viewpoints than in the American two-party system.

Strained Relations?

In his official statement for Israel’s “Independence Day” on April 26, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hailed Israel and Canada’s “strong bilateral friendship rooted in deep ties between our people and shared commitment to democratic values.” Israel’s Independence Day comes at around the same time as the Nakba, which translates to “the catastrophe,” marking Israel’s ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians from Palestinian land in 1948.

For decades, Palestinians have charged that Israel maintains a system of apartheid that strips them of their basic rights and maintains the supremacy of the Jewish population over Palestinians.

This was confirmed by three landmark reports published between 2021 and 2022 by Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem and Amnesty International, which all found that Israel practices the crime of apartheid.

According to Amnesty International’s report, published in February 2022, Israel maintains a system of apartheid in all areas under its control by treating Palestinians “as an inferior racial group”; engaging in unlawful killings and acts of violence; enforcing massive land seizures and home demolitions; passing discriminatory zoning and planning policies; blocking Palestinians from leasing 80 per cent of Israel’s state lands and forcing them to live in small enclaves; legal regimes that ensure the denial of nationality and status; constructing illegal settlements; targeting Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem; implementing draconian restrictions of movement through military checkpoints and roadblocks; enforcing socio-economic marginalization; and instituting a discriminatory permit system.

Amnesty stated: “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians across all areas is pursuant to the same objective: to privilege Jewish Israelis in distribution of land and resources, and to minimize the Palestinian presence and access to land.”

However, the Trudeau government dismissed the Amnesty report’s findings. Based on documents it obtained through an Access to Information request, CJPME alleged last fall that this dismissal was not based on any specific evidence or criticism of the Amnesty report, but rather reflected geopolitical concerns.

International critics say Israel’s status as an apartheid state disqualifies its claim of having the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. The brutality of Israeli apartheid, critics add, has intensified under Israel’s current far-right government, but maintains the same basic tenets of previous governments that were characterized as “moderate” by some of Israel’s international allies.

Despite receiving a warm initial welcome from the Trudeau government, Israel’s current far-right government has undertaken sweeping judicial reforms that have strained some of its international partnerships and stoked mass protests within Israel.

Back in April, Trudeau urged the Israeli government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, to start “shifting in its approach.” His comments were prompted by both the judicial reforms and a brutal assault launched by Israeli forces on the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, during the month of Ramadan.

Bueckert noted that CJPME’s survey asked specifically about the character of Israel itself rather than the current far-right government and its aggressive actions.

He explained that while anecdotal evidence suggests more people are willing to criticize Israel because of the actions taken by the current government, the survey’s findings are made all the more noteworthy by the fact that dominant media coverage of the judicial reforms have framed the measures as endangering Israeli “democracy.”

“It all assumes that Israel is a democracy in the first place,” said Bueckert, who emphasized the fact that most people who responded to the survey gave answers indicating that they think Israel is not a democracy.

Despite the Trudeau government’s apparent misgivings about some of the actions taken by the current Israeli government, Canada continues to sell arms to Israel to the tune of $21 million per year.

Based on the polling data, CJPME is re-emphasizing its calls on the federal government to condemn Israel for committing the crime of apartheid, re-evaluate agreements and activities with Israel to ensure that these are not contributing to maintaining its system of apartheid, and stop blocking initiatives by Palestinians to seek justice on the international stage.

“At some point, there has to be some kind of recognition that Canadian politicians are completely out of step with a huge segment of the Canadian public,” said Bueckert, adding that the major parties should recognize that the polling data shows the Canadian public is receptive to having honest conversations about Israel.

“Those who are maybe sympathetic [to advocacy for Palestinians] are maybe afraid to say anything about it,” he added. “I think this poll should give them something to stand on.”

Alex Cosh is the news editor of The Maple.

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