Two major Jewish groups gently ripped into the Canadian branch of the international organization PEN — which campaigns on behalf of writers persecuted or imprisoned for expressing themselves freely – for inviting a highly controversial author to headline an event it is co-sponsoring, theCanadian Jewish News reported on Sunday.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center asked PEN why it is headlining the event, to be held on Feb. 24 at the Toronto Reference Library, with self-described “anti-Zionist” Max Blumenthal, whose fringe positions on Israel have earned him the label of antisemite.
Blumenthal, author of The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza and Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, was invited by PEN Canada, in conjunction with Independent Jewish Voices and Another Story Bookshop (as part of “Freedom to Read Week”) to be the star attraction at the event, titled “Embattled Truths: Reporting on Gaza.” His co-panelist will be Toronto Star foreign affairs reporter Olivia Ward.
“We thought this is an odd choice,” CIJA spokesperson Martin Sampson told the CJN. “Why would they do that? Why would they put their reputation at risk by associating with Blumenthal? I think his extreme positions disqualify him for being a rational, reasonable contributor in the discourse about Israel.”
Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center CEO Avi Benlolo told the CJN: “Max Blumenthal represents the radical left’s extremist belief that Israel is the embodiment of all evil and has no right to exist. His most recent book – [which has been] dubbed the ‘I Hate Israel Handbook’ – supports the mainstreaming of growing antisemitic attitudes by conflating Israel with Nazi Germany. While shunned by conventional media outlets, the book is popular on major antisemitic, neo-Nazi and conspiracy theory websites such as Stormfront and David Duke’s Rense, where his work is used to promote anti-Jewish hate. I’m not sure what PEN is trying to achieve by giving Blumenthal a podium from which to spew his hatred, but if its goal is to contribute to increasing antisemitism in Canada, then I guess they will succeed.”
According to the CJN, PEN spokesperson Brendan de Caires responded by saying that the group’s mandate is to “raise difficult subjects… We are a free speech organization. We embrace an open exchange of ideas.” And “the whole premise of our discussion is that this [Gaza] is a hot topic.”
De Caires added, “We have no stake in the content of what Mr. Blumenthal says. [But] we support his right to say it.”
According to CJN, Toronto Public Library stakeholder relations manager Ana-Maria Critchley said that, in spite of the controversy, the event will be going ahead as planned. “Blumenthal has been invited very clearly not because of his personal views, but to speak on his experience as a journalist,” she said.
Max Blumenthal’s name came to the fore recently, when the latest batch of emails released from the server of Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton revealed correspondence with her former adviser, Sidney Blumenthal, the author’s father. In these exchanges, Blumenthal senior sent Clinton links to a number of anti-Israel articles written by his son.