Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rights and Democracy: Church and State

The troubled International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (ICHRDD), familiarly known as Rights and Democracy, is a microcosm of a cultural and political struggle playing itself out in Canada today: progressive values versus a combination of far-right ideology, extremist theology and Middle East politics.

That's an explosive mix. It's blowing ICHRDD apart as I write this. Readers are probably aware by now that Stephen Harper
's new appointees to the Board have a clear ideological mission: to exempt Israel from human rights scrutiny. To that end, small grants to three respected human rights organizations in the Middle East--Al-Haq, Al-Mezan and B'Tselem--were "repudiated" this past January. They have since been slandered by the Chair of the ICHRDD Board, Aurel Braun, who called B'Tselem (an Israel-based group that has been praised even by the Israeli Attorney-General) "toxic" and "Israeli in name only."

But as we now know, Braun's Gleichschaltung went much further than that. Internally, the now-late president of the organization, Rémy Beauregard, was subjected to gross mistreatment, including gratuitous slander. Employees have been terrorized, to the point that all but one or two of the staff wrote an open letter demanding that three new Board members, Braun, Jacques Gauthier and Elliott Tepper, be removed.

The staff complained of
psychological harassment, intimidation and ethnic profiling--the latter confirmed, it appears, by interim president Jacques Gauthier. A gag order has been placed on all employees, three top managers have been suspended pour encourager les autres, and a horde of what Maclean's commentator Paul Wells calls "freelancers" have been brought in, including a private investigator (Claude Sarrazin), forensic auditors, a new office manager (Charles Auger) and now a new communications director--Peter Stockland.

More on Stockland in a minute.

Braun has not been content to focus on Middle East matters. As Chair of the Board of a supposedly independent agency, he has been unusually protective of the current government. He went so far as to administer a tongue-lashing last year to the late president and to senior manager Razmik Panossian (now suspended). Their sin? They had publicly pointed out that Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, despite his denial, had been informed months in advance of Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai's plans to legalize marital rape. He was apparently mortified that the Minister--with that ever-convenient memory of his--was being contradicted.

But Middle East politics, nevertheless, have been foregrounded at ICHRDD for months.
The new Board appointees include two active members of B'nai Brith (Braun and David Matas). Jacques Gauthier wrote a PhD thesis defending the annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel. The Board also has a couple of Conservative Party trained seals (failed CPC candidate Brad Farquhar and Marco Navarro-Génie, who did his thesis work at the University of Calgary under Tom Flanagan), and a business-oriented Christian think-tanker, Michael Van Pelt.

In this affair, some of the dots connect themselves. The involvement of veteran pro-Israel propagandist
Gerald Steinberg is probably worth its own story. But let's step back and look at the wider picture. The ICHRDD imbroglio, in fact, has much to do with a troubling convergence of church and state in Stephen Harper's Canada.

Canada has no constitutional separation of church and state. The "Establishment Clause" is part of the First Amendment to the US constitution, but far too many Canadians believe we have something similar.

We don't, and it's beginning to show. The Harper government, for example, has just awarded a $3.2 million grant to the evangelical organization Youth for Christ. (As NDP critic Pat Martin quipped, what if the outfit had been called Youth for Allah? He was promptly scolded for his opposition by that moral paragon, Public Safety Minister Victor Toews.)

Our Prime Minister is an evangelical Christian, a member of a denomination that believes Christ's return to earth is imminent. He has called criticism of Israel "anti-Semitic" and suggested that some Members of Parliament were akin to Nazis. Jason Kenney, no slouch in the religion department either, is perhaps even more zealous on the subject of Israel.

Where does this inflexible stance come from?

There is, in fact, a theological explanation for the solidarity now being shown by right-wing pro-Israel Christians. Put simply, Israel must persist because the Bible says it must--until the Second Coming of Christ and the Rapture (watch this clip to get the flavour).

So the anti-Semitism of evangelical Christians and Catholic demagogues in bygone days has been replaced? Hold on. Not so fast.

The Rapture--the bodily taking up of the faithful into heaven when the world ends--will only be available for Jews who convert to Christianity, "perfected Jews" in far-right commentator Ann Coulter's parlance. The rest will be incinerated.

The state of Israel, then, not the Jews, is the focus of so-called "Christian Zionism." If the difference is obscure for some, the evangelicals are quite clear on that point. And so are disillusioned Jews like Stephen Scheinberg, who watched B'nai Brith Canada lurch into the arms of the Christian Right:

[A] state of pluralism in B’nai Brith lasted until about five years ago. (It has now been totally eliminated with the expulsion of eight dissenting members...) At a rump national board meeting, with a bare quorum, Dimant introduced a resolution to forge an alliance with the Christian right in Canada. Knowing something of their American counterparts, I challenged the motion, but was the only one to do so. I turned to well-known Liberal human rights lawyer David Matas of Winnipeg, but he was not similarly alarmed, perhaps because his own unabashedly pro-Israel position was consistent with such an alliance, or perhaps he did not share my fears. [B'nai Brith president Frank]Dimant and others tried to assure me that the alliance was only for Israel advocacy.

I soon learned that was not the case.

(Scheinberg and ICHRDD Chair Aurel Braun--small world--once co-authored a book on the far Right. Those were the days.)

What in fact is emerging in the US and in Canada is a politico-religious alliance of what once upon a time might have been considered strange bedfellows indeed: conservative Jews, ultra-Christians and the extreme Right. The Christians are, to varying degrees, Dominionists, who want the state to govern according to the Law of God. And, in a further shifting of alliances, zealous Catholics like Jason Kenney have taken their places alongside the evangelicals.

Stephen Harper's personal commitment to Dominionist notions is hardly a secret (the linked article is long, but well worth reading). And he has a powerful ally in "Doctor" Charles McVety, a Christian extremist who holds undue and unelected sway over the policies of the Harper government.

All of these elements and alliances have been brought to the fore by the civil war raging in ICHRDD. The Conservative government, a forgetful Minister of Foreign Affairs, B'nai Brith and various enthusiastic pro-Israel Christians are ranged against those who take universal human rights seriously (almost the entire staff of Rights and Democracy, for starters)--those, in other words, who think that even Palestinians have rights worthy of protection.

It should be no surprise, then, that the interim president of ICHRDD has now appointed Peter Stockland as his contracted-out director of communications. Stockland is, not to put too fine a point upon it, a right-wing religious zealot who used to write a column for the
Sun chain a million years ago, and in that capacity (declaration of interest here) tried to smear me as anti-Catholic when I took on a local homophobe who was trying to shut down a university radio station for being too gay-positive.

Stockland is presently the Executive Director of the Centre for Cultural Renewal, and runs a Montreal communications firm. What is the Centre for Cultural Renewal? In their own words:

The Centre for Cultural Renewal is an independent, not-for-profit, charitable organization that helps Canadians and their leaders shape a vision of civil society. To this end, we focus on the important and often complex connections between public policy, culture, moral discourse and religious belief, and produce discussion papers, forums and lectures on key issues affecting Canadian society, public policy and culture.

Our goal is to provide a vision of civil society that addresses the fundamental connections between public policy, culture, moral discourse, and religious conviction. We provide journalists, politicians and the interested public with quality resources, and believe that the quality of contemporary public dialogue is improved with the inclusion of many aspects of the rich and complex vision of the human person viewed in relationship to others, and bearing rights and responsibilities.
[emphases added]

What does that mean in reality? This sort of thing:

In late 2009, the Quebec government published its new policy to combat homophobia. Though far-reaching,the policy has generated little commentary of substance. The Centre for Cultural Renewal, in keeping with its mandate to build understanding between faith and culture, has agreed to post a provocative critique written by Douglas Farrow, professor of Christian Thought at McGill University in Montreal.

After analyzing the policy and the thinking behind it, Professor Farrow warns "no society that adopts such (thinking) can hope to survive for long, for along with the reforming and redemptive effects of religion it has rejected the natural, self-replenishing diversity that is the root of its own vitality, in favour of an artificial, stifling “diversity” that can only degenerate into a culture of compulsion and despair." He further urges citizens inside and outside of Quebec to make public their vigorous dissent from the policy. Whether or not those who read Professor Farrow's document dissent from the policy or from his critique, we welcome all thoughtful, fair-minded responses and will try to publish a representative selection. [emphasis added]

What does the organization stand for? No boundaries between public policy and religion, and genteel homophobia, for starters. Extreme religious ideology, in other words, if cloaked in relatively moderate language. And now the organization's Executive Director has been injected directly into the on-going Rights and Democracy war.

More oil, as Yogi Berra might have said, on troubled flames.
And the fire is not by any means confined to a small office in Montreal.

[H/t Norman Spector via BCL]

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