Saturday, February 06, 2010

Rights and Democracy: David Matas and the Christian connection

David Matas is a recent Harper appointment to the troubled Rights and Democracy Board. In the interests of fairness and transparency, Maclean's columnist Paul Wells reproduces a new communication from Matas, whose previous defence of the agency came to the public via far-right activist Ezra Levant.

One can't fault Matas for attempting to apply varnish to wood in the last stages of dry-rot. It's his job, as a Board member, to defend the current administration, and he does. Shorter Matas: move along, nothing to see here, it's the usual institutional jockeying between a staff and a Board. Policy isn't at issue, everyone's on-side, Israel has nothing to do with it.

The day before [the late President Remy] Beauregard died, the Board passed a motion repudiating the grants. The vote was nine in favour and one abstention. None opposed. Beauregard not only voted in favour of repudiation; he spoke for the motion saying “we could have done our homework better”. All that remained in dispute was the manner in which both sides had acted in resolving this policy disagreement.

Recall that this came after several months of browbeating by pro-Israel hawks on the Board, including its Chair, Aurel Braun. A negative evaluation of Beauregard by the Braun faction, then in a minority, was obtained by Beauregard through a Freedom of Information request and distributed at a Board meeting last June, causing no end of consternation to the folks who had thought they could undermine him in secret.

At the January meeting, Beauregard reached the end of his tether. The grants had been made, the money spent long ago, and what was at issue was administrative: new rules by which the President, already in the process of cleaning up management practices, could make discretionary expenditures.

To quote the Braun faction:

The freeze decision is meant to allow the staff time to complete a redesign of decision-making processes to help the organization avoid such situations in the future.

Reading between the lines, tighter administrative processes were continuing to be implemented, and the President went along. As to the "homework" that should have been better done, we have no idea of the full context of that remark. Perhaps it was a last-ditch effort to be conciliatory.

It was quite a gathering in January. Three grants to human rights groups in the Middle East were "repudiated," an international Board member was shown the door by the Braun Board, and two other Board members resigned on the spot.
The battered President left the meeting, went home and died of a heart attack.

Matas couldn't confine himself to an administrative argument, in any case. Instead, he began a tirade about "anti-Conservative polemicists" who have allegedly "concocted facts."

Haroon Siddiqui, in an opinion piece published in the Toronto Star, January 31, 2010 under the heading “How the Harperites ambushed the rights agency” wrote that the Board “voted 7-6 to repudiate the three grants”. A vote of 7 to 6 for repudiation sustained a story line that recent Tory appointees to the Board were bringing to the Board the Tory’s pro-Israel agenda. So that was the assertion, in spite of the fact that the vote was nine to none with one abstention.

Moreover, Siddiqui when he wrote about the 7-6 vote, knew it not to be true. I had written an analysis of the controversy in Rights and Democracy where I recounted the repudiation vote. In my analysis, I pointed out that the motion had passed handily and that Beauregard had voted in favour of the repudiation motion. I sent my analysis to Siddiqui by e-mail. He responded on January 27 by thanking me and indicating he had already read my analysis on a website.

Yet, four days later he wrote an opinion piece suggesting that the Board/staff dispute over the three grants remained alive and that the change in policy was the result of a Harper “hostile takeover” of the Board. Those imaginary facts fit better into the opinion he wanted to express than the real facts. So the imaginary facts prevailed.

7-6, 9-0. Matas' colleague Aurel Braun, meantime, says the vote was 8-0. Surely there are Minutes to put this matter to rest. In the meantime, Braun and Matas themselves disagree on the facts.

(I have contacted Rights and Democracy to obtain the coordinates of the person responsible for FOI requests so that I can initiate a request for the Minutes of the fateful January 7 meeting. Given the Centre's unwillingness or inability to respond to date, I would welcome any brown-paper envelopes that people might want to send my way.)

There is no reason, in any case, to quarrel with Siddiqui's assessment. To claim that policy isn't involved in the goings-on at Rights and Democracy stretches credulity. The staff has complained bitterly, not only about office administration (and even there, it is rare for an entire shop, maybe minus one or two people, to rise up in protest in this manner about merely administrative matters), but about outright racial profiling. Matas doesn't address this question, nor, whether the policy issue is allegedly settled or not, why the top echelon of management has just been suspended.

In a similar vein, Ish Theilheimer, at the website, wrote that the letter from the staff asking three Board members to resign was directed not to the leadership of the Board, but rather to a trio he characterized as recent political appointees – myself, Michael Van Pelt, and Jacques Gauthier. Yet, Jacques Gauthier was appointed to the Board two years ago.

Michael Van Pelt and I are the new appointees. The January Board meeting was our first. The staff did not ask us to resign. The Theilheimer commentary which criticized the Harper government for using the appointments process to pursue an ultra conservative agenda both quoted and had a link to an article by Maclean’s reporter Paul Wells. That Wells article stated correctly who the three targeted Board members were.

So again here we have an imaginary fact, which the writer knew to be false, being using to buttress an opinion which the real facts could not sustain. The suggestion of a hostile political takeover is more compelling if the staff resignation demand is directed to the new members. The narrative Theilheimer wanted to build is that the staff today still support funding for the three organizations but the Government does not; so the Government appointed people to reverse the funding policy.

This is an amazing display of disingenuousness. Let's deconstruct:

First, the three people named in the staff letter were Braun, Gauthier and Elliot Tepper. It's entirely fair to point that out (and Theilheimer provided the link) but it shouldn't be conflated with the larger narrative: a minority, hawkishly pro-Israel faction had been increasing its numbers on the Board thanks to recent Harper appointments, and the arrival of Matas and Michael Van Pelt gave Aurel Braun the majority he had been looking for. The majority flexed its muscles this January: the scheduled October meeting of the Board had been cancelled by Braun, likely to allow the majority to be created.

Let's not play semantic games about Van Pelt, either. If "evangelist" is not precise, "fundamentalist Christian" would fit more exactly. And then there is Jacques Gauthier, with his PhD thesis effectively supporting the confiscation of East Jerusalem by Israel: thanks to the Braun Board, he's now the interim President of Rights and Democracy.

Agenda? What agenda? asks Matas, with wide-eyed innocence. Nobody told him what to do. Sure, he's a lawyer for B'nai Brith, but he's a Liberal. But he doesn't mention the fact that the extremist pro-Israel stance of B'nai Brith has been adopted, holus-bolus, by the Conservative government. Whether he's holding his nose or not, Matas is completely on-side. His enemy's enemy, the Harper government, is presently his friend.

And of course no official comment from the current Rights and Democracy Board majority would be complete without the obligatory smear:

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Al Haq, Al Mezan and B’Tselem have gained a reputation for their method of operation – develop a theory first, in their case “Israel is to blame” and then twist or invent the facts to fit the theory. The current round of polemicist attacks on the Tories seems inspired by this method of operation. If the facts cannot sustain their theory – a Conservative party hostile takeover of Rights and Democracy to pursue a right wing ideological agenda – then the facts must be changed to fit the theory.

Whatever, David. But there's a backstory developing that may have some bearing on the situation.

Michael D. Behiels, of the Department of History at the University of Ottawa, has claimed that the government, in what looks like a wrecking operation at Rights and Democracy, is simply "pandering to B'nai Brith." He's right, but there's more to it than that. The Centre, in fact, appears to be a casualty of the alliance of B'nai Brith's Israel-can-do-no-wrongers and the fundamentalist Christian Right.

In broad strokes, the nature of that alliance is sketched out here. It goes well beyond Canadian borders, of course. It occupies a twilight space in which Jews who do not toe the line are maniacally denounced as evil traitors, while Christian evangelists seeking the proper unfolding of Biblical prophecy, and who inconveniently believe that Jews will meet their deserved end during the Rapture, are Israel's current BFFs.

Now, B'nai Brith Canada has been having its own factional dispute going on for several years, and this has just culminated in a lawsuit by nine former members of the organization this past January 20.

These nine members were expelled from the organization in 2008. They include past BB national presidents, and 93-year-old Lou Ronson, the longest-living member of B'nai Brith up to that time, who received his expulsion notice while he was mourning the recent death of his wife. They are suing for $990,000 in damages and reinstatement. As reported in the Canadian Jewish News:

The case arises out of a dispute between several longstanding senior members of the organization – who were expelled – and the organization’s leadership over a number of alleged irregularities. The former members contend that B’nai Brith directors have wrested control of the organization from its members, who are organized in lodges, and that B’nai Brith “has used tactics amounting to intimidation” to silence opposition.


The plaintiffs were expelled from B’nai Brith after a disciplinary committee hearing in January 2008 for "conduct unbecoming a member." The plaintiffs ...allege the disciplinary committee hearing was fraught with legal and procedural errors "such that the plaintiffs were thereby denied a fair hearing conducted in accordance with the principles of natural justice."

They say they were never informed who laid the complaint against them or what specific conduct merited expulsion. As well, they say they weren't permitted to cross-examine their accusers, they weren't allowed to present submissions on their own behalf, and that the hearing was adjourned with a request for disclosure of documents still pending.

"The plaintiffs state and the fact is that the directors of the BBC have effectively taken control of the organization from its membership, and in part by way of the taking of such control, failed to provide details of contracts involving themselves and other associated bodies of which they have direction."


The defence acknowledges that "many of the plaintiffs were longstanding members of BBC and BBI. However, the plaintiffs’ tenure and past accomplishments did not insulate them from subsequently engaging in conduct unbecoming a member of these organizations."

What's up? Just a common-or-garden institutional struggle, much like the one at Right and Democracy, as Matas is attempting to portray it?

Well, no. The B'nai Brith fracas, as it turns out, is about policy, too--policy that has a direct bearing upon the politics presently at play at Rights and Democracy.

Stephen Scheinberg is a former senior B'nai Brith official. He and Aurel Braun--small world--were co-authors of a book about the far right, but that was then (1997) and this is now.

Factional fighting within the upper echelons of B'nai Brith broke out in 2007. Part of it had to do with how the organization was being run, and part of it arose from the close ties its President, Frank Dimant, was attempting to build with the Conservative party.

In the Fall of that year, Scheinberg broke with the organization and published an article entitled "Partners for Imperium: B’nai Brith Canada and the Christian Right" (HTML version here).

Scheinberg contends that the struggle within B'nai Brith was not ideological, and he also tries to distance Stephen Harper from the religious fundamentalism addressed in his article, fingering Jason Kenney as the PM's point man in that respect.

But readers may wish to draw their own conclusions from the contents of his piece. Here are some excerpts, with emphases added:

Presiding over B'nai Brith’s declining fortunes since 1978 has been Executive Vice-President Frank Dimant, the son of Holocaust survivors who was born in Munich just after the war. Dimant matured within Montreal's Betar, the extreme right-wing Jewish youth group associated with the Revisionist-Zionist movement of Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin. Revisionism advocated an Israel on both sides of the Jordan (that is, including much of today’s Jordan).

Dimant took his present position thirty years ago, an extremely long tenure in such a position but testifying to his skill at wielding power. He distributes offices and awards, and even helps his loyal followers gain places in B’nai Brith International, organizes meetings with government officials, and also has ties to the Conservative Party, which could help secure a nomination for parliament. At least two of his followers, to my knowledge, have nominations for the next election.

In the 1980s, when I first came to BBC, attracted by its work for human rights, it was a pluralistic organization. Around the League for Human Rights table I found mostly liberals—a few, such as myself, with more activist backgrounds—and a sprinkling of conservatives. Most of the conservatives were part of the other side of BBC political work, the Institute for International Affairs, and since most of that group’s work was Israel advocacy, it was where Dimant’s own Betar views predominated. I think many, like myself, in the League accepted this, believing that the Institute was Frank Dimant’s small corner of B’nai Brith, but unfortunately that corner has become what today’s B’nai Brith is all about.

This 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. Dimant and others tried to assure me that the alliance was only for Israel advocacy. [emphasis added]

I soon learned that was not the case. One day I received a phone call from NDP MP Svend Robinson, inviting me as Chair of the League for Human Rights to come to Ottawa to testify in favour of his bill to include gays and lesbians among those protected from hate speech. I readily agreed, because it had always been BBC policy to support their inclusion, but I was in for a surprise. It was clear that the main group opposed to Robinson’s bill was the Christian right, and that BBC, that is Mr. Dimant, would not support the bill without protection being given to the speech of anti-gay clergy. I, though much embarrassed, had to notify Robinson that I was unable to appear at the hearings as a representative of BBC. It would have been a good time to resign, but perhaps mistakenly, I hung in.

Meanwhile, Dimant received a honourary doctorate from the Canada Christian College, but unlike most recipients of such degrees, he often uses the title "Dr." Joint tours of Israel, exchanges of speakers and of course mutual support of the Conservative Party have furthered the linkage. The anti-gay, anti-feminist, pro-censorship stance of Reverend Charles McVety of the Canada Christian College did not seem to bother Dimant, who heads a League for Human Rights.

[That name! Where have I heard it before? --ed.]

A key person in furthering the alliance was Joseph Ben-Ami, a bearded, pleasant individual and an Orthodox Jew who took on the role of BBC’s government affairs representative in Ottawa. He had worked previously for Stephen Harper and then for Stockwell Day as a policy aide, and played a leading role in Day’s leadership campaign. I believe that Ben-Ami was central to the effort to build this alliance. He would go on to work for two of the numerous front organizations established by Rev. McVety—the Canadian Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute for Canadian Values. McVety seems to believe that his multiple groups will further the belief in the power and influence of the Christian right here in Canada. According to a 2006 article in Walrus, McVety’s Institute was established as “a direct riposte to bill C-38” which legalized same-sex marriage.

In any event, McVety and some of his pastoral colleagues, especially Reverends John Tweedie and Dean Bye, became favoured speakers at BBC events. They helped create the illusion that, at long last, Canadian churches were giving their unconditional support to Israel.

That would seem to connect most of the dots. The writing is on the wall, I think, for Rights and Democracy.

UPDATE: The redoubtable Paul Wells weighs in. Chomp!

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