On Rana Zaman: Some somebodies have some explaining to do

Let’s start with the provincial NDP and its leader, Gary Burrill. And move on to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, and to the Atlantic Jewish Council.

Rana Zaman speaks at this year’s Women’s March in Halifax. Foundry Photography (Courtesy, The Action Network).

For Rana Zaman, it had been another long and not untypical day of good-doing. But as she wrote proudly on her Facebook page on Dec. 20 at 4:12 pm:

“I’m happy to say, turkey dinner with all the fixings was bought and dropped off for 7 families to enjoy. Still pending is delivery of toys and gifts for the moms and children of the families. I want to thank everyone who participated and offer a prayer for everyone who generously donated to bring happiness to families in need!”

Not untypical?

Zaman is involved with 13 not-for-profit volunteer organizations.

She is the president and a founding member of the Caring Human Association (CHA), “which serves vulnerable people in our community by providing freshly home-cooked meals to organizations like Shelter NS, Out of the Cold, and Hope Cottage,” as well as collecting items for care packages for organizations like Bryony House and Adsum House.

In 2016, she served as co-ordinator of a United for One Association event, which became “the largest fundraiser for Syrian refugees in Nova Scotia’s history, raising over $200,000 in pledges in one night.”

She is also a founding member of the Pakistani Association of Nova Scotia, which promotes her native Pakistani culture and “works with diverse groups” to host an international festival each year.

That connection to her birthplace is important to understand in understanding her. Zaman knows more than she should about what it’s like to be a vulnerable child in a conflict zone. During the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, she was six years old and remembers her mother waking her in the middle of the night and “shoving me under a staircase” while bombs rained down on Karachi. She didn’t understand what was so urgent until one morning, after a night of bombing, she emerged to see a collapsed building nearby. “The only part still standing was the staircase.” Her mother had done what she did to save her life at risk to their own.

Her own immigration story is not untypical. Her father had arrived in Halifax first and worked two jobs in order to able to bring Rana’s mother, Rana and two siblings to Canada and reunite the family in 1971. Rana’s immigrant experience wasn’t untypical either. She was “brown, broad and four-eyed,” and she was bullied at school. “Being brown by itself was enough to be bullied,” she admits.

But she overcame. And she gave back — and back, “dedicating myself to improve our community, and preserving our province, our country, and the people I’ve come to love and think of as my own.”

But she didn’t fully become a social activist, she says now, until the lead-up to the 2015 federal election when she watched the Harper government enact xenophobic new laws, attack Muslim women for wearing veils at citizenship ceremonies and tout the idea of a “barbaric cultural practices hotline… to stand up for our values.”

That, she says now, was “enough to jolt me out of my complacency and force me to get involved.”

All of this should help explain why the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission presented Rana Zaman with its 2019 “Individual Award” on Dec. 10 for her many and various good works advancing human rights in Nova Scotia.

In fact, she was still basking in the warm glow of that recognition 10 days later — “I was on Cloud 9” — as she wrapped up her day of turkey-dinner delivering. Because she “wasn’t in the habit of reading the newspaper,” she didn’t yet understand the extent of the life-altering tsunami about to wash over her.

That’s when a friend alerted her to a letter to the editor in the Chronicle Herald under the title “Rights Award Wrongheaded:”

We were surprised to see the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission award Rana Zaman for addressing systemic poverty, sexism, racism, bullying and other human rights issues.

Rana should be commended for her work in the stated areas but not with recognition by an organization that protects against all forms of racism. Anti-Semitism is racism. Comparing Israel to Nazi Germany was deemed to be racist by the NDP when it dropped Zaman as a federal candidate in Cole Harbour for making that comparison. Her initial reaction to being dropped drew the following response: “Activism has its price, I’m willing to pay.” Later, she apologized and stated that she “would not compare Israeli actions to Nazi Germany in the future.”

The federal government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism to include “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

Yet, in a tweet by Zaman on Dec. 8, 2019, Zaman states, “not every Jewish person agrees with the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and many realize it’s a way to muzzle criticism of Apartheid Israel and supporters of Palestine.”

Draw your own conclusion as to whether Zaman has changed her anti-Semitic views. Let’s award those who consistently defend against racism and who refrain from promoting their preferred racist ideologies.

— Rabbi Yakov Kerzner, Beth Israel Synagogue, Halifax|
— Rabbi Gary Karlin, Shaar Shalom Congregation, Halifax

Before we leave that letter, a few points worth noting:

  • The rabbis are correct that Ottawa did adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism but they neglect to mention the definition itself continues to be controversial. The BC Civil Liberties Association, for example, worries it “will serve to severely chill political expressions of criticism of Israel as well as support for Palestinian rights.” That’s because seven of the 11 examples it includes of so-called “anti-Semitic” behaviour “involve not hatred of Jews but criticism of Israel.” That last criticism comes from Independent Jewish Voices, a progressive Jewish group that opposes the definition. So it’s hard to argue with Zaman’s tweet that “not every Jewish person agrees” with the definition.
  • It’s also worth noting that when Canada’s parliament considered a motion in 2017 condemning Islamophobia and all forms of racism and religious discrimination, it was the CEO of B’nai Brith, a Jewish organization, who raised free speech alarms. “We must ensure that no one can hide behind the idea that any criticism of Islam represents Islamophobia, or a vague definition to this effect.” Replace Islam with Israel and Islamophobia with anti-Semitism… and you can see between the lines of what he was actually saying.
  • So yes indeed, “draw your own conclusion” as to whether Rana Zaman’s tweet reflects her “anti-Semitic views” — or simply her right to criticize Israel.

Soon after Zaman had read the rabbis’ letter, someone sent her a copy of a “Community Update” the Atlantic Jewish Council was circulating in the local Jewish community expressing its “deep” disappointment about her award:

“We are deeply concerned that Ms. Zaman was honoured in this way even though she failed to adequately apologize for her vitriolic and divisive statements, ones she continues to make on Twitter to this day… We strongly believe it is inappropriate for Ms. Zaman to be celebrated with such a prestigious award. It makes a mockery of the Commission and the human rights it advocates for. This award should be reserved for individuals who consistently defend against racism in all its forms, and not presented to someone who regularly promotes hateful anti-Semitic ideologies.

We have registered our concerns directly and unambiguously with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission and will do so again when we meet with them in the coming days.

We will keep you apprised on the issue.

Warm regards,
Naomi Rosenfeld

Naomi Rosenfeld

Naomi Rosenfeld? The executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council? Complaining Rana Zaman had “failed to adequately apologize?” Wait a minute. Let’s rewind.

Back in June, when the furor over Zaman’s tweets first threatened to derail her NDP nomination, Zaman reached out to Rosenfeld to try to better understand what she had done that was so wrong, then sent her a 350-word draft apology in which she acknowledged “my tweets comparing Israeli actions to those of Nazi Germany were inappropriate, hurtful and sadly may be perceived as anti-Semitic,” adding she was “horrified that my tweets may be perceived this way!”

She asked Rosenfeld to let her know if her apology was acceptable. Rosenfeld never responded.

We’ll come back to that.

But then…

There was another email waiting for Zaman from Jane Mills, an assistant to the province’s human rights commissioner, Christine Hanson.

Ms. Hanson asked me to reach out to see if she could arrange a call with you tomorrow morning.  She is available at 9:00 am or between 10:30 am to 11:30 am.  Would one of those times work for you?  I look forward to hearing from you.

Their conversation lasted an hour. But it started and ended in the same place. The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission had decided to rescind her award. Full stop. “I was devastated, shocked and confused,” Zaman told me. “It seemed they did not bother to go through any form of fair process, didn’t give me the opportunity to address the AJC concerns nor meet with them or the commissioners before they voted to rescind.”

She’d assumed they would at least wait until after the holidays to make the decision public. Instead, that day, the commission issued a release:

The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission has formally rescinded the Human Rights Award presented to Rana Zaman of Halifax on Dec. 10.

Nova Scotia Human Rights Awards are presented annually by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, in collaboration with Partners for Human Rights, to acknowledge the good work of Nova Scotians helping to advance human rights by creating stronger, more inclusive communities. The selection committee of volunteers that reviewed the nomination packages, made decisions based upon the information that was submitted demonstrating Ms. Zaman’s outstanding volunteer work at the grassroots level. The committee was unaware of public statements made by Ms. Zaman that were directly contrary to the principles of the award. (My emphasis)

That last sentence is demonstrably false. We’ll come back to that too.

And, so far as the human rights commission seemed to be concerned, that was that. Over. Done.

Not quite.

Some somebodies in this province still have some explaining to do.


Let’s start with the Nova Scotia NDP.

Canada’s supposedly progressive national New Democratic Party has long had a skittish, risk-averse response to anyone who criticizes the state of Israel.

In late June 2019, less than two months after Zaman was nominated to be the party’s candidate in this fall’s federal election, someone — we can probably guess the someones — alerted the NDP to a number of Zaman’s social media posts, most of which focused on Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.

As I wrote in an earlier column about the controversy:

Frustrated by seeing what she described as “unarmed Palestinian protesters” being shot during the Great March of Return in the spring of 2018 — Amnesty International, in fact, reported “over 150 Palestinians have been killed in the demonstrations [and] at least 10,000 others have been injured, including 1,849 children, 424 women, 115 paramedics and 115 journalists — Zaman angrily accused Israel of “committing genocide against Palestinians because Israel is not willing to share! Tell me what are Palestinians supposed to do,” she asked? “Just die… oh wait! They are!! Where’s your heart.”

In other tweets, Zaman called Israel an “apartheid state,” which is certainly a defensible argument based on the facts, but then veered beyond the defensible with a comparison of Israel’s actions to those of Nazi Germany: “I wonder if #Israel borrowed this from the #Nazis after they saw how successful they were? At the speed Israel is killing I wonder if they’re aiming higher than six million #Palestinians? #Gaza is the new #Auschwitz and #Israeli the gatekeepers!”

After the NDP informed her about its concerns about those various now-year-old tweets, Zaman — who says she did not fully appreciate how they would be perceived in the Jewish community — reached out to friends in the local progressive Jewish community to learn more about what she did not understand and what she should do next.

At the suggestion of Melissa Bruno, the National Director of the NDP, Zaman also contacted Naomi Rosenfeld of the Atlantic Jewish Council. They talked on the phone. Rosenfeld told her about her own family’s experiences in the Holocaust and directed her to two links about the official Jewish community’s official views of anti-Semitism.

After that, Zaman deleted her tweets and drafted her apology:

Amid the controversy over my twitter comments I have reached out to leaders and friends in the Jewish community from different groups to ask for their input and advice.

Thanks to their kindness, patience and willingness to educate me on the importance of using words like “Nazis” and the horrific imagery that the word “Auschwitz” conjures up for so many. Thanks to all of them for their honesty about being critical and unhappy about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and their own desires for peace.

As a result of all of them taking the time to explain to me the depth and impact of my words, I now appreciate that my tweets comparing Israeli actions to those of Nazi Germany were inappropriate, hurtful and sadly may be perceived as anti-Semitic. I respect, empathize and care for all people regardless of colour, religion and ethnicity and have tried my best to support anyone in need and therefore horrified that my tweets may be perceived this way! My intention was to raise awareness, engage others in a conversation and dialogue that would be productive. Instead I have inadvertently caused pain using such language and I humbly apologize for that. My emotions at the sight of so many innocent Palestinians being shot, maimed or killed overwhelmed me. I have learned an important lesson, the need to be mindful and not to use this analogy in the future!

It is an unfortunate fact of current political discourse that the words we use to describe injustice are often perceived as worse than the injustice itself. For me activism is a self-learning process and as a result riddled with pitfalls. No one else can be held accountable nor should be expected to for the words or actions of another.  I’m learning each day and it’s clear to me that social activists must also be extremely careful in their choice of words. Words do hurt!

She then asked Rosenfeld — and the friends in the Jewish community she’d originally contacted — if her apology was satisfactory or if changes needed to be made.

Up against a deadline from the federal party, she emailed the NDP’s Bruno on June 19 at 9:05 pm:

Hello Melissa, sorry for the delay, both of the parties are/were in meetings and I’ve received approval from one side as saying [the apology is] perfect. I’m waiting to hear back from the other. Below is the statement to give you an idea of what was approved. Hopefully it will be approved from the other side as well.

Naomi Rosenfeld, who would later claim Zaman “failed to adequately apologize” never responded to her draft apology.

Meanwhile, the NDP national office clearly had already made up its mind. “Unfortunately,” Bruno emailed back at 11:40 pm — less than three hours after Zaman had sent them her draft apology — “the Party cannot move forward with you as the NDP candidate in Dartmouth Cole Harbour.  This decision is effective immediately.”

What is especially intriguing about all of this is that Rana Zaman was also a member of the Nova Scotia NDP’s provincial council at the time.

Which means the provincial party has some explaining of its own to do. If party officials agree the national party was right to reject her candidacy on the grounds of her alleged “anti-Semitism,” then they should have turfed her from the council and the party at the time. But if, on the other hand, they believe Rana Zaman has a legitimate right to voice her opinions of Israeli policies and actions — which are shared by many progressive Canadians inside and outside the party — then they have an obligation to defend her against the bullying and harassment of the national party, the human rights commission and the Atlantic Jewish Council.

The silence of the party and its leader, Gary Burrill, is simple moral cowardice.

As for the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission? Can it really claim with a straight face it didn’t know about Zaman, the NDP and the summer Twitter controversy before it made its award to Zaman?

The answer is no.

Zaman was nominated for the award by prominent local civil rights activist and author El Jones. As part of the nomination process, she wrote:”Rana’s work is with diverse communities and connects communities separated by race, religion, gender, etc. For example, in her work with Jews and Arabs for a Just Peace and work with interfaith councils and within Mosques, she works with diverse religious communities. Her letter of support from Larry and Judy Haiven, members of the Jewish community, indicates the interfaith support her work has. While her human rights work on behalf of the Palestinian community was a source of controversy in the recent election, it is important to stress that advocating for human rights is frequently a complex, difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable process. It is important to separate advocacy against states from advocacy against the people in that state, a point made by Judy Haiven in supporting this work.” (My emphasis again.)On Dec. 11, in the immediate aftermath of Zaman’s award presentation — which is to say before the Atlantic Jewish Council decided to tell the human rights commission what to do — the commission’s executive director, Christine Hanson, defended the award. She told the website allnovascotia.com that activists like Zaman inevitably tend to be controversial “because they push the boundaries and they’re often very outspoken and courageous. We look at a full picture, but mainly we’re focused on people who are doing that work in community, doing that advocacy work.” For the commission to later suggest it had been “unaware of public statements made by Ms. Zaman” beggars belief. The more likely scenario is that it knew all about what she’d said — and made the award because of her larger contributions to human rights — but changed its mind on a dime after it was bullied by one of its award partners, the Atlantic Jewish Council.

And then we come to the AJC and its “advocacy agent,” the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. Is it possible that, in its efforts “to increase multi-lateral Canada and Israel diplomatic relations based on shared values and interests,” the AJC and the CIJA conflate legitimate criticism of the current Israeli government’s draconian actions and policies toward its Palestinian citizens and neighbours with anti-Semitism, thereby cheapening the importance of combatting actual anti-Semitism, which is a real and growing scourge in our society.

Some explaining to do indeed.

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner December 30, 2019.

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