UPDATED: Baird at the UN: minority rights and the "Jewish state"

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, Foreign Minister John Baird declared Canada’s unbending support for the rights of religious and other minority groups wherever they live.

Baird cited the plights of, among others, the Bahá’í in Iran, Christians in China, Buddhists and Muslims in Burma, gays and lesbians in Uganda. Standing up for minorities abroad who are not accorded full and equal rights—or, worse, are persecuted and oppressed—by the majority groups in their countries is also a preoccupation of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

In light of this principled concern being put at the centre of Canadian foreign policy, it would be interesting to hear Baird or Kenney on the matter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians recognize his country as a “Jewish state” as a precondition to any negotiations toward a peace deal.

Palestinian-Arab citizens make up 20 per cent of Israel’s population. How would declaring Israel a Jewish state affect their status in their own country? And would such a declaration negate the claims of Palestinian refugees and their descendants driven out of what would become Israel in the 1948 war? Nobody is really sure.

These are such vexing questions that Netanyahu’s hard line on the Jewish state matter has been singled out as a major stumbling block to renewing bargaining between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

From Canada’s narrow perspective—given Baird’s avowal of at the UN of minority rights as a centerpiece of the Conservative government’s foreign policy—this issue should be particularly troubling. The foreign minister of course reasserted Canada’s unswerving support for Israel in his speech, but how that stance fits with his parallel emphasis on minority rights isn’t obvious.

Does the Canadian government hold that Netanyahu’s demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state poses no problem for the country’s sizeable non-Jewish, largely Palestinian minority? If that’s the case, it would be helpful to hear Baird, or Kenney, or even Prime Minister Stephen Harper, outline a detailed position on how they assess this key element of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.


Interesting debate in the comments below. I thought I’d address a few points and provide what I think are some interesting links.

On the point that Israel respects human rights far better than its regional neighbours, there should be no argument. However, the Canadian government’s oft-repeated position that Israel deserves support precisely because it is a fully fledged democracy. As such, it surely must be held to a high standard.

A clear indication of the institutional strength behind minority political rights in Israel came in the form of an Israeli Supreme Court decision in 2009 to overturn a decision by the country’s Central Elections Committee to ban the two main Arab political parties, Ra’am-Ta’al and Balad, from running in that year’s national elections.

Still, the fact that the high court had to rule at all on this basic question of democratic rights was unsettling. Fareed Zakaria has written about the underlying problem: “Aside from their military exemption, [Arab Israelis] have the same legal rights and obligations as all other Israeli citizens. But they face discrimination in many aspects of life, including immigration, land ownership, education and employment.”

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch waded in on new laws that seem to discriminate against non-Jewish Israelis. Even more problematic is the question of how Israel would treat Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens in the areas it is likely to retain control of in the West Bank and East Jerusalem under just about any conceivable long-term peace accord—or the continued absence of one.

And here’s an intriguing point: many Palestinians, it has been reported, would prefer to remain citizens of Israel rather than of any new Palestinian state. This is especially true of those in hotly disputed East Jerusalem. That’s a tribute to Israel, of course, but also a massive challenge.









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