Canada’s New Democratic Party Is Finally Backing Palestinian Rights

Canada’s social democratic New Democratic Party has a poor track record on the issue of Palestinian dispossession. As a result of grassroots organizing and a push from the party’s left, leader Jagmeet Singh is finally signaling support for Palestinian rights.

Members and supporters of the Palestinian community marched in Toronto on May 22, 2021. Grassroots pressure has pushed the NDP toward more sympathy for the Palestinian cause. (Nick Lachance / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP), has undergone a remarkable turnaround on the issue of Palestine. Over the past eighteen months, a shift has been propelled by internal party organizing, outside leftist criticism, growing Palestine solidarity, and cynical party calculations. Singh has gone from refusing to mention “Palestinians” to being labeled “dangerous to Jews” for supporting Palestinian rights.

On August 26 Singh emailed a small number of NDP supporters a list of thirteen demands — for Palestinian rights — intended for the ruling Liberal government. The email concluded by stating: “we believe Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories is at the center of the challenges facing the Palestinian and Israeli people.”

The message marked a major step forward in opposing Canada’s contribution to Palestinian dispossession. But it was not posted to social media or the NDP’s website. It was only sent to some individuals the party (presumably) identified as supporting the Palestinian cause.

After receiving significant attention in pro-Palestinian and left circles, including support from NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) launched a multifaceted campaign against the NDP.

“Jagmeet Singh: Your Middle East Policy Is Dangerous for Jews,” read the title of a recent CIJA email campaign. In a letter to its supporters, the advocacy arm of Canada’s Jewish Federations criticized the thirteen demands as an “outrageous letter from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh that demonizes everyone who identifies with and feels a connection to the Jewish state.” CIJA’s odious, over-the-top attack is a desperate bid to staunch the tide of Palestine solidarity within the NDP.

The NDP’s Pro-Israel History

In the lead-up to the NDP’s April 2021 convention, Singh was asked by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Chris Hall about a number of widely supported resolutions regarding “Canada’s relationship to Israel and the Palestinian territory.” Instead of responding to Hall’s question directly, the NDP leader mentioned “antisemitism” four times. Asked again about “resolutions that in a sense condemn Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians,” Singh again failed to mention Palestine or Palestinians. Instead, he talked about “increased hate crimes [against] people of the Jewish faith.”

Singh’s erasure of Palestinians in a discussion about Israel and Palestine was shameful, but not new. Singh has a history of anti-Palestinian politicking. During the 2019 federal election, the party leadership blocked a half-dozen candidates from running partly or entirely because of their support for Palestinian rights. A year earlier Singh explicitly rejected a call from two hundred prominent individuals, labor leaders, and party members — including Roger Waters, Noam Chomsky, Linda McQuaig, and Maher Arar — for the NDP to withdraw from the Canada Israel Interparliamentary Group (CIIG).

At the 2018 party convention Singh mobilized his family and dozens of members of his community to vote against allowing debate on the modest “Palestine Resolution: renewing the NDP’s commitment to peace and justice,” which was unanimously endorsed by the NDP youth convention, many affiliated groups, and two-dozen riding associations.

Over the years Singh has been deferential to CIJA. He did nothing when in March 2021 CIJA attacked leftist NDP MP Niki Ashton for joining a talk with former UK Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Singh also gave blithe cover to CIJA’s 2018 “antisemitism” smear against Dimitri Lascaris, one of Canada’s most effective advocates for Palestinian rights. At a December 2019 event with CIJA, Singh said he considered the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) anti-Palestinian working definition of antisemitism a useful “guiding educational lens.” Prior to becoming leader of the party, Singh went on a CIJA-sponsored trip to Israel.

Singh’s pro-Israel stance is not alien to the NDP’s history. His predecessor as party leader, Tom Mulcair, once said “I am an ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and in all circumstances.” The party’s most famous former leader, Tommy Douglas, was a member of the Canadian Palestine Committee, a group of prominent non-Jewish Zionists formed in 1943. After a trip to Israel in 1975, Douglas said the country

was like a light set upon a hill — the light of democracy in a night of darkness — and the main criticism of Israel has not been a desire for land. The main enmity against Israel is that she has been an affront to those nations who do not treat their people and their workers as well as Israel has treated hers.

Douglas’ comment was made after Israel had driven out its indigenous population and repeatedly invaded its neighbors.

David Lewis, a key architect of the party’s formation in the early 1960s, was also passionately pro-Israel. After Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967, Lewis promoted a “united Jerusalem.” “The division of Jerusalem,” said Lewis, “did not make economic or social sense. As a united city under Israel’s aegis, Jerusalem would be a much more progressive and fruitful capital of the various religions.”

After stepping down as federal leader of the NDP in 1975, Lewis was the “speaker of the year” at a B’nai Brith breakfast. In the ironically titled “NDP’s David Lewis Urges Care for Disadvantaged,” the Canadian Jewish News reported that Lewis “attacked the UN for having admitted the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization].” The article further noted Lewis’s claim that a Middle East peace would require

“some recognition of the Palestinians in some way.” [Lewis] remarked that the creation of a Palestinian state might be necessary but refused to pinpoint its location. The Israelis must make that decision, he said, without interference from Diaspora Jewry.

Grassroots Party Organizing

Historically, the NDP leadership has been an unabashed partisan supporter of Israel. But members increasingly view the conflict as an anti-colonial struggle and have been willing to openly criticize party policy. A torrent of criticism followed the party leadership suppressing debate about the 2018 Palestine Resolution. Removing anti-apartheid candidates from representing the party also elicited significant anger, and the call for the NDP to withdraw from the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group embarrassed the leadership. The anger peaked a year and a half ago, when Singh refused to even say the word “Palestinians” in the Chris Hall CBC interview.

Internal grassroots organizing helped bring the issue to a head. In the lead-up to the NDP’s 2021 convention, party activists got an unprecedented number of riding associations and groups to endorse the Palestine Resolution and a resolution critical of the IHRA’s anti-Palestinian definition of antisemitism. A month before the convention, CIJA responded to the growing momentum by calling on the party leadership to suppress both resolutions.

CIJA’s campaign succeeded in scaring Singh into excising discussion of Palestinians from his public addresses. But his disastrous CBC interview generated a burst of criticism at an opportune moment. Singh’s complete erasure of Palestinians propelled pro-Palestinian forces within the party and constrained the leadership’s ability to suppress discussion of pro-Palestinian resolutions — suppression that had been enacted at multiple previous conventions.

It was clear that if members were allowed to vote they would endorse the Palestine resolutions. Ultimately 85 percent of delegates voted for the Palestine Resolution, which called for “ending all trade and economic cooperation with illegal settlements in Israel-Palestine” and “suspending the bilateral trade of all arms and related materials with the State of Israel until Palestinian rights are upheld.” (The IHRA resolution never made it to the debate stage.)

In a significant reversal, the morning after the convention vote Singh defended a resolution that CBC’s chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton described as support for slapping “sanctions on settlements” and “[banning] arms sales to Israel.” The party’s position on Palestinian rights has steadily improved since. Soon after the convention, large protests erupted across Canada against a new round of Israeli violence and ethnic cleansing. Amidst the protests Singh repeatedly raised the party’s call for an arms embargo, and the NDP’s platform for the fall 2021 election called to “suspend arms sales to Israel until the end of the illegal occupation.”

Political Calculations

Increasingly NDP MPs make statements, share articles, sponsor parliamentary petitions, etc. critical of Israeli violence and colonialism. Five NDP MPs have recently signed the Independent Jewish Voices’ Together Against Apartheid pledge.

Appointed as the party’s foreign affairs critic in November, McPherson has repeatedly questioned foreign affairs minister Mélanie Joly on why the Liberals reject Amnesty International’s finding that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid. Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, B’tselem, and the UN Special Rapporteur’s recent finding that Israel is responsible for apartheid makes public criticism of Israeli policy easier for NDP brass.

Polls show that Canadians are widely sympathetic to bringing pressure to bear on Israel for its actions. Public opinion, internal organizing, and outside left criticism surely accounts for the political calculation behind the NDP’s improved position — the party wants to raise issues popular with its base that differentiate it from the Liberals. The point on Palestine was basically the only progressive element of the NDP’s “A better role in the world” election platform. It otherwise ignored the Liberals’ failed coup in Venezuela, broken promise to restart diplomatic relations with Iran, reversal of a coup they supported in Bolivia, and failure to set up a proper ombudsperson to rein in Canadian mining companies’ abuses. The 2021 election platform also promoted Washington’s cold war with China and supported purchasing “new military equipment, including ships and fighter jets.”

Because the Ukrainian Canadian Congress is influential in her riding, McPherson is particularly hawkish on Russia. The NDP has opposed negotiations to end the war in Ukraine, called for the shipment of more weapons, and wants Ukraine to join NATO. Considering the NDP’s effective alignment with the Liberals on Russia and many other issues, McPherson has used Palestine to win praise from the more activist, anti-militarist faction of the party.

Singh, meanwhile, seems to care very little for Palestinian issues. He appears to take positions entirely based upon political calculations and pressure campaigns. Likely in response to the anti-Palestinian lobby’s pressure, Singh attended a September 20 CIJA lobbying session on Parliament Hill “to celebrate the historic positive developments in Arab-Israeli friendship since the Abraham Accords by highlighting the growing ties between Israel and Morocco.” (Two years ago the Trump administration recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Rabat beginning diplomatic relations with Israel.)

CIJA tweeted a photo of the NDP leader speaking with their vice president under the message, “we had a frank and productive discussion with Jagmeet Singh. We hope it will lead to changes in the NDP ’s Middle Eastern policy.” However, the conversation apparently did not satisfy CIJA. A few days later CIJA sent their supporters the email that labeled the NDP leader’s thirteen demands in support of Palestinian rights “dangerous for Jews.” While it has likely scared Singh’s team, CIJA’s over-the-top rhetoric further erodes their credibility among progressives.

In response to CIJA’s actions, the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute and Just Peace Advocates called on their supporters to defend the NDP from CIJA’s smears and express support for Singh’s thirteen demands on Palestine. But they also called on the NDP to withdraw from the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group. While the NDP must be defended from CIJA’s attacks, the apartheid lobby group shouldn’t control the agenda for progressives regarding the party’s Palestine policy. We must keep pushing from the left.