David Matas


In our August 1 issue we ran a story by Myron Love about an upcoming symposium. There were several errors in that story, beginning with the title of the symposium. Its correct title is “Israel, Palestine & International Law Symposium”, not “Israel, International Law & Peace”.

Also, Myron wrote that the symposium is scheduled to take place Sunday, September 9. In fact the symposium will begin Friday evening, Sept. 7 and continue for two more days, including Saturday, Sept. 8, and Sunday, Sept. 9. (According to one of the organizers of the event, it will be over prior to Erev Rosh Hashanah, which begins Sunday evening.)
Now, as Myron is prone to do, his report on the symposium was written in fairly angry terms in which he noted that five of the six panelists who are slated to appear are all “anti-Israel.” The one exception will be well-known lawyer David Matas, who can be expected to offer an articulate defense of Israel’s position.

After reading Myron’s article though, one of our readers, Mel Lazareck, was quite upset at the notion that such a symposium would even take place. Mel also questioned the wisdom of David Matas’s even agreeing to participate on a panel that would be stacked with critics of Israel. In an email sent to various community representatives, also to David himself, Mel suggested that “ the fact that there is only one speaker who will try and defend Israel’s position…is a waste of time and only serves to try and legitimize the other anti Israel speakers.”
In response, David Matas sent the following email to Mel, which was also cc’d to everyone to whom Mel had sent his original email (including me):

I did check with B’nai Brith before accepting this invitation. It was left up to me. My own view is that it is better to present the contrary argument to a hostile audience than leave the counter-argument in the venue unanswered. The substantive points you make in the e-mail about inordinate focus on Israel I could and would make at the event.
While the organizers may unfairly characterize an essentially one sided event as balanced because of my presentation, the alternative would have been to allow them to say that they invited an opposing voice but no was willing to stand up for the other side. Open disagreement seemed to me to be the better option.
I think it is fair to characterize the event as antisemitic. However, antisemitism takes a wide variety of forms. Some, like Holocaust denial or blood libel, are so obvious that we can legitimately ask for boycotts and the events to be shut down.
Even for anti-Zionism, I think it is legitimate to ask universities or any other institutional environment not to host them. However, if we take the position that anti-Zionist events can not be hosted even in public venues, I fear we would not get much traction or even understanding.
While I have no illusion about convincing antisemites, there is enough bafflegab and misrepresentation anti-Zionists throw out that some people may be legitimately confused and misled. I would hope that not every person who has shown some support for the anti-Zionist agenda is a lost cause.
The issue, from my perspective, is not so much freedom of speech as making headway on the issue. The problem is more global than local. In some parts of Europe, anti-Zionism in some circles has become conventional wisdom. We can not wait for that to happen before confronting anti-Zionism directly. We are much better placed to do it here now when it is still marginal. To prevent anti-Zionism from becoming as widespread and prevalent here as it is elsewhere, we should confront it directly wherever and whenever we can.
David Matas

Now, David Matas is as eloquent a spokesperson as we are likely to find anywhere in defense of Israel’s legal position – and I, for one, am very glad that he has agreed to participate on a panel that will be discussing legal issues surrounding Israel and the Palestinians.
But, here’s something that Mel Lazareck and others, like him, who are worried about David Matas’s participation on the upcoming panel lending it a credibility that it might not otherwise receive: According to one of the organizers of the upcoming symposium, David Kattenberg, several individuals who are planning on attending the event are very unhappy that David Matas was invited to participate.
I heard that from David Kattenburg when I attended Shalom Square on Thursday, August 9, and saw protesters standing across from the Asper Campus. By now the appearance of protesters during Folklorama at the Asper Campus has become an annual event. Since I know some of the protesters, I’ve always made it a habit to go over and talk with them. As much as I disagree with them on certain points I certainly wouldn’t want to deny them the right to make those points – and from time they’ve voiced their criticisms of Israel within this paper.
I was asked about Myron’s piece about the symposium  - and why I ran something that was so one-sided. (There’s more than a bit of irony there: The leaflets that the protesters were handing out to anyone willing to take them were as one-sided in their denunciation of Israel as Myron’s piece was in his criticism of the very make-up of the panel.)
Still, I agreed that, since there had been some factual errors in Myron’s piece, I would attempt to correct those –which I did at the beginning of this column.
I also received a follow-up email from David Kattenburg, in which he wondered whether I would be willing to interview him or other organizers of the symposium. He wrote, in reference to Myron’s piece and to the conversation we had about David Matas participating on the panel:
Dear Jewish Post & News:

In response to Myron Love's deeply biased and inaccurate piece about our upcoming symposium -- correctly entitled Israel, Palestine & International Law -- a few comments:

Mr. Love quotes or paraphrases David Matas as saying (not all of the ideas attributed to Mr. Matas have been placed between quotes) that our symposium will largely consist of "anti-Zionist propaganda" and "wall-to-wall Israel-bashing"; that our panelists are "anti-Israel," and that symposium organizers are "injecting a little balance" by inviting Mr. Matas.

In truth, neither symposium organizers nor panelists are "anti-Israel" -- whatever this odd phrase may mean. What we are is pro-rule of law. International sanctions and trade embargoes have been imposed on North Korea, Iran, Syria, Russia, Cuba and Venezuela for their alleged crimes against the international order. The governments of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, to name just a few, have been violently deposed for their transgressions. In contrast, Israel is allowed to violate the most canonical legal conventions with absolute impunity. Yes, Israel is definitely being singled out! As an antidote, our symposium will present contemporary, broadly accepted analyses of international law as it pertains to Israel's permanent occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, together with views on the Israeli apartheid question. Many independent observers, including distinguished Israelis, believe Israel does practice apartheid.

With all due respect to David Matas, his views on matters of international law, vis-a-vis Israel and its permanent occupation, are highly marginal. I know the thesis he holds: the Blum-Shamgar "Missing Reversioner" argument, a curious theory that will no doubt come up in our symposium. It's been scornfully dismissed by everyone except the Israeli government and its agents. In contrast, it's hard to imagine a more widely accepted set of ideas than those to be presented by our panelists (all of which Mr. Matas presumably denies): that Israel is an occupying power, as defined by the 4th Geneva Convention (including in Gaza); that its settlement enterprise constitutes a 'grave breach' of the Convention -- i.e. a "war crime." Multiple UN Security Council resolutions have reiterated this. So has the UN's highest judicial body, the International Court of Justice (2004 Wall decision). So has the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Convention's custodian and chief interpreter. So has the government of Canada!

So, we are delighted to have David Matas present his unique perspective on these matters, but it really is a lonely one. It's the Government of Israel's perspective. I say this, again, with all due respect to David Matas, a widely respected human rights advocate here in Winnipeg and across Canada. His views on the human rights situation facing Palestinians under occupation, and on matters of international law in this regard, however, are outside the mainstream -- way outside. Your readers should know this. Perhaps some of them will come to our symposium! They should register in advance.

Regards ...
David Kattenburg
This is a tough one. The people organizing this symposium are not kooks. Some might like to characterize them as anti-Semitic, but I don’t consider anti-Zionism to be synonymous with anti-Semitism.  But, let’s be honest about this: I doubt that any of the mainstream media will be covering this event. Ironically, it’s been this paper that’s provided coverage of most of the events centering around criticizing Israel, including events held this year at the University of Winnipeg and Canadian Mennonite University.
One can also expect the same people who attended those events will be at the symposium. They’re not likely to change their views on Israel, as David Matas noted in his email to Mel Lazareck, but at least having someone like David Matas there will serve as a useful counter to what is inevitably going to be yet another round of Israel-bashing.
While I don’t have a problem with people criticizing Israel, what I’ve said to many of those critics – if I’m given the chance, is that it’s all one-sided. Where is the criticism of Palestinian authorities for their violations of law? (And here, I’m speaking of the Palestinian Authority. To suggest that Hamas even pretends to adhere to any kind of legal norms would be absurd.)
I’ve heard from several pro-Israel individuals that they’re planning to attend, but anyone who’s thinking of going should be aware there’s a cost involved ($90 if you register by Aug. 17, $120 after that). For more information go to www.israelpalestinelawsymposium.ca.