Canwest Global's attempts to equate support for the Palestinian People with "anti-semitism" opposed in Ontario and Quebec

A respected activist in the field of human rights, anti-racism and peace from the Niagara region of Ontario has filed a lawsuit under the Slander and Libel Act against the St. Catharines Standard after the newspaper labeled her a "anti-Semite and Holocaust denier." The newspaper was at the time, on April 20, 2002, owned by Izzy Asper's Canwest Global. It has since been sold off, but the lawsuit is against Canwest Global.

The lawsuit was initiated by Susan Howard-Azzeh on May 14, and is being backed by a broad network of well-wishers and supporters, including trade unions and human rights and solidarity groups, who are campaigning to raise over $50,000 needed for legal expenses.

The libel charge stems from the Standard's coverage of an End the Occupation march and rally in St. Catharines. The rally on April 19, 2002 was held in memory of Nidah Azzeh after the Israeli military bulldozed her home in the Azzeh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem, in the Israeli occupied territories of Palestine, while Nidah, her mother and sister were still inside. Nidah, who had just turned 13, ran out of the front door to get to safety. As she appeared in the doorway, an Israeli soldier shot her in the head. Adult and child speakers at the demonstration called for an end to the illegal occupation and an end to the killing of both Palestinians and Israelis who are dying as a result of the occupation. Most of the placards at the demonstration read "End the Occupation" and "We Want Peace, Stop Killing Our Children" while one read "Sharon and Hitler Are the Same!"

The next day, the top headline in the St. Catharines Standard proclaimed, "Protest March Was The Worst Anti-Semitism" and labeled marchers as "holocaust deniers." The Standard followed with an editorial attacking the credibility of Ms. Howard-Azzeh. The Standard then published more than a week of predominantly negative letters to the editor directed at Ms. Howard-Azzeh.

The article and editorial caused great damage to Ms. Howard-Azzeh's reputation and health; She received hate mail, hate phone calls, computer viruses and social isolation. A member of the mayor's committee on community and race relations, she was passed over for an executive position at a local multicultural centre which she had been previously promised.

In a statement published in May 2002, Ms. Howard-Azzeh stated, "I and the marchers are not anti-Semites, holocaust deniers or anti-Jewish. I sympathize with the suffering of the Jewish people, especially during the holocaust, affirm the sanctity of all human life, and condemn the killing of both Palestinians and Israelis in the current Palestinian/Israeli crisis. Labeling anyone who disagrees with the policies and actions of Ariel Sharon and the Israeli government as anti-Semites and holocaust deniers is the worst form of censorship. It is very powerful and silences many people. It won't silence me. I will always speak the truth and stand up for justice."

In addition to fighting for a variety of human rights causes, Ms. Howard-Azzeh lead the shut-down of the white supremacist neo-Nazi group, Heritage Front Niagara, and mobilized the community following the desecration of St. Catharines' only Jewish cemetery. She was executive director of the Community Dialogue on Racism, a non-partisan community coalition formed in 1994 and nominated for a national race relations award for its work amongst youth.

A win in this libel case will be a step in refuting the disinformation that opposition to the Zionist state of Israel or support for the just struggle of the Palestinian people to end the occupation of their homeland is equal to anti-Semitism.

Raja Khouri, president of the Canadian Arab Federation, told shunpiking that the next legal proceeding in this case is October 22 when the case proceeds to discovery. Ms. Howard-Azzeh is suing for $1 million dollars. A successful financial settlement will be allocated for legal costs, damages, and to three funds one to projects aimed at ending the occupation, second to a freedom of the press without slander organization, and thirdly to finance other Arab/Muslim civil liberties court cases. For further information or to assist with legal costs being raised by the CAF's Legal Defence Fund, contact Mr. Khouri at president@caf.ca or (416) 493-8635 or Mr. Burhan Azzeh at niag_pal@yahoo.ca.

In related news, outgoing Concordia Student Union (CSU) as well as Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) and the Canadian Muslim Forum (CMF) filed a complaint in June with the regulatory Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and also to the industry's Canadian Broadcast Standards Council and requested an inquiry into the Global TV program "Confrontation at Concordia", calling this venomous program anti-Arab and anti- Islam propaganda among other things.

Citing specific examples of improper journalistic conduct, plaintiffs Samer Elatrash, Laith Marouf, and former CSU VP Communications Aaron Maté, allege the documentary favoured Hillel supporters. An outspoken Jewish member of the student union, Maté stated in an interview with The Link student newspaper at Concordia. "They're essentially calling us anti-Semitic, with the very serious, implicit message that anyone who stands up for human rights, they're going to try to silence," he said. (1)

The program aired on May 9, 2003 on Global TV and then was shown repeatedly over the summer, as well as on the Prime network. It portrays a mass student demonstration at Concordia University on September 9, 2002 against the visit of former Isreali Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the dawn of a new Holocaust and depicts the campus as "the vipers' nest of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli hatred.''

Netanyahu's speaking tour was co-sponsored by the Asper Foundation. The Asper Foundation also finances the Menachen Begin Foundation in Israel which honours the former commander of the Irgunterrorist group that blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, killing 96 people. He was Israeli Prime Minister in the '70s and '80s. He once described a massacre as "a splendid act of conquest". None of this is mentioned in the Canwest film.

According to a statement issued in June by The Karameh Campaign in Montreal, "The narrator and latter group of interviewees drew parallels between 1939 Germany and present-day Concordia, implying that Palestinian human rights activism on campus is just another campaign of incitement and hatred against Jews that could lead to another holocaust.

"In order to support and perpetuate this conclusion which insults the memory of the holocaust and belittles the depth of that tragedy to support a blatantly Zionist political agenda, Global used malicious editing techniques, unidentified camera operators who failed to procure the appropriate release forms, outright lies, and allowed the narrator to paraphrase Samer (Elatrash) falsely and inaccurately throughout the entire documentary."

The Karameh (meaning "dignity" in Arabic) Campaign was launched to respond to the ongoing attempt to criminalize Palestinian solidarity organization at Concordia University and other campuses and communities throughout Montreal and around the world.

Media critic Antonia Zerbisias noted in her column in the Toronto Star , "any fair-minded observer would expect (film-maker Martin) Himel to back up his allegations with facts or evidence. Yet the film provides little of either.

"For example, student leader Samer Elatrash, a Canadian of Palestinian parentage, is described as wanting 'the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state' and seeing 'Israel wiped out.'

"Harsh words when what he really espouses is 'a secular state that's built on the simple premise of respect for human rights, respect for cultural rights, respect for religious rights, that don't trespass on anybody else's human, cultural and religious rights'.''

Notes

  1. "Global TV under fire: Concordia conflict documentary heavily biased, students argue", Elise Hugus, June 10, 2003 http://thelink.concordia.ca/news/03/06/10/027212.shtml

  2. (2) "Global documentary seems unfair", June 29, 2003 http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=thestar/Layout/Article_Type1&c=Article&cid= 1056796947741&call_pageid=970599109774