Rabbi Reuben J. Poupko vs. David Solway on the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs

A heated exchange on the advocacy arm of the organized Canadian Jewish community.

Editor's note: In our Dec. 5, 2011 issue, we publish David Solway's article, "These Shoes Were Made for Walking," which criticized Canada's "Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs" for surrendering to the Islamist agenda. Rabbi Reuben J. Poupko, of the Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation in Montreal, Quebec, takes issue with Solway's arguments in the letter below. Solway's response to Rabbi Poupka follows.

In Defense of the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs
By Rabbi Reuben J. Poupko

I was shocked to read David Solway’s misleading criticism of the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the advocacy arm of the organized Canadian Jewish community (“These Shoes Were Made for Walking”, Frontpage Magazine, Dec. 5, 2011).

The dearth of David Solway’s insight into Jewish advocacy in Canada is best displayed by his ad hominem attacks against the Center’s Vice-President in Quebec, Luciano Del Negro. Indeed, Solway’s slanderous accusations are based on the ravings of a convicted terrorist killer, Rhéal Mathieu, published on the notoriously anti-Semitic website Vigile.

I have known Luciano Del Negro for many years and can personally attest to his unwavering commitment to the defense of Israel. In fact, his passion and courage were demonstrated as we dodged Hezbollah’s katyusha rockets together in northern Israel during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006.

Ironically, David Solway’s accusation that the Center and its predecessor organizations indulge in “sha shtill” advocacy are all the more ridiculous when you consider that the Parti Québécois felt compelled to dissociate itself from the hateful website after our advocacy staff had publicly denounced the virulent anti-Semitism promoted by Vigile.

It is equally ironic that David Solway would attempt to trash our community’s advocacy organization with one of its most resounding successes. A year ago, Mr. Del Negro and his public affairs director David Ouellette brought widespread media attention to the anti-Israel boycott of Montreal shoe store Le Marcheur, which had preceded the picketing of Naot by a couple of months.

As a result, a wave of public indignation at the BDS campaign and support for the embattled businesses ensued, leading to an unprecedented and massive rejection of the demonization of Israel. Paradoxically, at the very moment when Quebec declared war on the anti-Israel movement, David Solway wrote on this website that “Montreal join[ed] the war on Israel”.

Yves Archambault and Ginette Auger, owners of Le Marcheur, were recently honored by the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research (CIJR) at its conference on the delegitimation of Israel, co-sponsored by the Center, and featuring Daniel Pipes as keynote speaker. On that occasion, Mr. Archambault expressed his gratitude to the Quebec-Israel Committee (QIC, a predecessor organization of the Center led by Mr. Del Negro) for its support in mobilizing grassroots “buycott” activities which helped the targeted businesses stand firm against the boycotters.

In fact, this anti-Israel campaign became such a cause célèbre that both the Parliament of Quebec and the Montreal City Council condemned the boycott campaign and reiterated their firm support for the Quebec-Israel Cooperation Agreement. In the aftermath of the intense media criticism and political and public denunciations, the ranks of the boycotters dwindled to a mere handful. The figurehead of the anti-Israel movement, radical leftwing politician Amir Khadir, would later concede defeat and publicly blame QIC as the “great saboteur” of the BDS movement in Quebec. As well, pollsters would note a sharp drop in Khadir’s popularity (11% to 5%) which they attributed directly to his reckless anti-Israel agitation.

Meanwhile, the few remaining boycotters stopped picketing Le Marcheur and shifted their full attention to the Jewish-owned Naot boutique. QIC continued to mobilize grassroots support for Naot and provide support to Daniel Laprès. However, it soon became clear that the boycott had become the butt of jokes in Quebec and passers-by either mocked or ignored the picketers, their numbers rarely exceeding more than 5 people. It was then that QIC and most of its non-Jewish allies (who had been there since day 1) formed the consensus opinion that the boycott campaign had failed miserably and that their continued presence had become irrelevant.

Successful advocacy is measured by the achievement of clearly defined goals. In this case, not only was this specific boycott action defeated and discredited, but a new consensus was achieved in Quebec rendering the BDS campaign as a whole absolutely toxic.

Naturally, the Centre does not pretend to have a monopoly on best advocacy practices and will continue to welcome constructive criticism. Also, the Center cherishes its cooperation with other pro-Israel organizations such as CIJR and my own congregation, where I recently hosted, with the assistance of the Center’s David Ouellette, two pre-eminent Canadian critics of Islamism, David Harris and Salim Mansur.

It is extremely disappointing that someone as concerned about the demonization of Israel and the Jewish people as David Solway would resort to outrageously unfounded accusations to tarnish the reputation of an organization that proudly and effectively defends the interests of Canadian Jews everyday.

Rabbi Reuben J. Poupko serves at the Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation in Montreal, Quebec.

David Solway responds:

Rabbi Poupko’s attack on my FrontPage article, These Shoes Were Made for Walking, is welcome because it provides me with the opportunity to rebut the many errors, discrepancies and apparent falsehoods that serve to diminish his assumption of authority. I will bullet a number of these below. Readers, of course, can arrive at their own conclusions as to whose account is the more reliable, the Rabbi’s or this writer’s. They may also wish to peruse the article to which the Rabbi takes such vehement exception, but which his rejoinder has materially failed to address.

* According to Daniel Laprès, coordinator of Les Amis Québécois d’Israël (Quebec Friends of Israel), and to numerous other witnesses, Rabbi Poupko was never seen on St. Denis Street confronting the anti-Jewish picketers, members of a group styling itself as Palestinian and Jewish Unity (PAJU). Whether conspicuous by his absence in front of both Le Marcheur and Naot shoe stores, or so discreet as to be unobservable, he is not in the best position to dismiss the threat posed by the boycotters.

* It is worth noting that Luciano Del Negro, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), never filed suit against Rhéal Mathieu or the Tribune libre de Vigile for defamation. One wonders why. The fact that the Vigile is toxically anti-Israel does not in itself alter the details adduced by Del Negro’s old friend. This would require an evidentiary refutation showing that Mathieu was lying.

* It seems likely that the proprietor of Le Marcheur Yves Archambault’s acknowledgment of the Comité Québec-Israël  (CQI), the CIJA’s predecessor, was an act of pro forma politesse.  It was remarked by many of those on the scene that Del Negro arrived at the event honoring M. Archambault and his partner Ginette Auger only just before M. Archambault’s discourse and left immediately afterward, conduct that many consider smacks of opportunism.

* Note, too, the learned Rabbi does not mention the fact that M. Archambault underlined the beneficial role of precisely those organizations, such as Amis Québécois d’Israël and Amitiés Québec-Israël, which Poupko and his associates tend to downplay. It is reasonably obvious that such voluntary groups are frowned upon by the officially recognized institutions, since the former seem to be both more dedicated and more effective than the latter. Additionally, as I wrote in These Shoes Were Made for Walking, “the resistance put forward by outfits like CIJA against the activities of truly committed advocacy groups is standard practice among many of the official representatives of the Jewish community. It is the result of a turf war for power, prestige, exclusive rights, jealously hoarded prerogatives and emoluments.”

* Québec Solidaire MNA (Member of the National Assembly) Amir Khadir, who was instrumental in fueling the boycott, remains extremely popular in his riding, a fact that does not consort with CIJA public affairs director David Ouellette’s assurance that Khadir no longer constitutes a problem. Khadir’s extreme left and anti-Israel party’s influence appears to be growing steadily, leading many observers to fear that the party might gain more seats in the next election.

* It must be admitted that the CQI contributed financially to the anti-boycott demonstration, but, according to my sources, the sum in question was relatively negligible compared to what the counter-demonstrators spent out of their own pockets. The modest amount donated by the CQI would appear to serve the interests of its leaders far more than the cause which they ostensibly support.

* The claim that the boycott of Naot has little or no impact is manifestly spurious. To argue, as Poupko does, that the protestors are now “the butt of jokes” and therefore not to be taken seriously is, I’m afraid, arrant nonsense. The consequence of their activities is no joking matter, as my recent interview with Naot personnel made abundantly clear. On Saturday, December 17 of this year, the demonstrators prevented the manager of Naot from setting up a display stand in front of the establishment. They have also obstructed Naot business during the annual St. Denis Street “vente-trottoir” (sidewalk sale). Moreover, the proprietor of a small jewellery shop beside Naot deplored the harm the PAJU demonstrators were doing to her own business. It bears remembering that the Israeli Consulate in Montreal was obliged to move owing to a persistent PAJU campaign that disrupted adjacent offices and tenants. If even the Consulate was unable to renew its lease, what could a small firm like Naot do faced with an eviction notice?

* After having misleadingly taken credit for deterring PAJU from boycotting Le Marcheur, the CIJA abandoned Naot the moment that PAJU decided to concentrate its activities against a clearly Jewish and Israeli commercial concern, which Le Marcheur was not. It’s an easy thing for the Rabbi’s friends to stand up for a native French Quebecker like M. Archambault who was being molested by a pack of radicals and who enjoyed the sympathy of a large part of his community. It’s far riskier to defend a Jewish-owned store that sells an Israeli brand, given the fact that the store is located in what is considered as the most anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian district in the province, one which elects an Israelophobe like Amir Khadir to the National Assembly.

* As Poupko remarks, the Montreal City Council did indeed condemn the boycott campaign; however, the boycotters were plainly unimpressed. They are still picketing and may yet succeed in their efforts to bankrupt the store. Poupko also states that the Parliament of Quebec denounced the campaign, but fails to mention that the resolution was blocked from debate by Khadir.

* Poupko’s math is risibly pre-kindergarten. He asserts that the demonstrators have dwindled to no more than five people, “the few remaining boycotters.” This is false accounting. On the aforementioned Saturday, the PAJU gang occupied sixty feet of public space and hoisted three gigantic banners. Further, Poupko’s claim that the “QIC continued to mobilize grassroots support” for Naot is entirely dubious; the contrary seems more likely the case, as a letter by one of the anti-protestors, Nicole Allio, to the Canadian Jewish News attests. As a participant in the anti-boycott manifestations, she has no doubt that CIJA is pursuing a “laissez-faire policy when thugs are promoting the economic boycott of Israeli goods.” She continues in the unabridged text of her letter: “In London, the most important Ahava store was forced to close due to the continuous harassment of ‘anti-Israel-apartheid’ demonstrators. Does Del Negro hope to see Naot closing its doors soon—so that the anti-Semitic harassment of storekeepers will go away and CIJA can claim victory?” Le Journal de Québec columnist Eric Duhaime has also drawn a parallel between the forced closure of Ahava and the threat that weighs upon Naot. It isn’t rocket science to predict that should Naot go under, the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel campaign will gather momentum and other such vulnerable establishments will be targeted. Indeed, PAJU has also been picketing Montreal’s Indigo bookstore which is Jewish-owned and stocks Israeli-authored books, and which has sponsored the Heseg Foundation for Lone Soldiers. PAJU’s self-declared mandate is to advance “justice and sustainable peace in the Middle East” by accusing Israel of apartheid practices, a boilerplate canard. But its real agenda is to launch an anti-Zionist crusade and in the process to create a local domino effect: the Israeli Consulate, Indigo, Naot...Regrettably, it appears that our canonical organizations and community leaders are not paying attention.

To conclude. Rabbi Poupko professes to be “shocked,” shocked, at my “slanderous accusations” against Luciano Del Negro. He also finds it “extremely disappointing” that I would “resort to outrageous accusations to tarnish the reputation of an organization [the CIJA] that proudly and effectively defends the interests of Canadian Jews everyday [sic].” For my part, I am neither shocked nor disappointed, being way past that. I am merely reconfirmed in my rueful expectation of seeing the strategy of “cowardly” appeasement—to quote Jerusalem Post columnist Isi Leibler’s denunciation of CIJA—adopted by many of the official organs that presumably represent the Jewish community.

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