By CJPME – Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East
Canadian Parliamentarian and Former Minister of Justice, Irwin Cotler, released a petition on December 9, 2008, entitled “The Danger of a Genocidal and Nuclear Iran: A Responsibility to Prevent Petition.” The 79-page document calls “upon the State Parties to the Genocide Convention, the United Nations Secretary-General and the international community to fulfill their obligation to prevent genocide and to hold Iran to account for its genocidal incitement.”
Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) has undertaken a study of Mr Cotler’s petition which has received the endorsement of several scholars and jurists, notably Louise Arbour, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
“The Danger of a Genocidal and Nuclear Iran: A Responsibility to Prevent Petition” is a one-sided campaign to demonize and ostracize Iran. The petition and Mr. Cotler’s self-appointed diplomatic offensive will undermine efforts at dialog in the Middle East, and will only serve to radicalize and polarize people’s sentiments. The Petition’s oversimplification of complex geopolitical problems muddies the issues and will discourage reasoned debate. In light of its poor referencing, its utilization of questionable sources, its reliance on non-literal translations, its manipulation of statements and its factual distortions, this petition is neither serious nor balanced.
It is neither CJPME’s goal nor its desire to write a defence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s oftentimes inflammatory and inappropriate rhetoric. But CJPME, in keeping with its objective of facilitating an informed and accurate debate regarding the problems of the region, and its conviction to hold all parties of the Middle East to the same standard, wishes to expose the misrepresentations which make Mr Cotler’s text a simple exercise in fear mongering.
The disingenuous partiality of the petition in approaching complex geopolitical problems reflects on the author’s lack of academic rigour and – regrettably – honesty. CJPME calls on the petition’s signatories to review the information presented in this document, and strongly urges them to reconsider their signature. By lending their names to the petition, they give credibility to the sophomoric arguments of the “Petition” to the detriment of their own hard-earned reputation.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Issue: Questionable Sourcing
- 3 Issue: Use of suspect translations
- 3.1 Questionable sourcing of translations
- 3.2 Concealing the context for a translated statement
- 3.3 Falsely identifying Israel as the focus in translations
- 3.4 Retaining translations known to be inaccurate
- 4 Issue: Misrepresenting the context of Middle East rhetoric
- 4.1 Ignoring the context of the Israeli aggression in the Middle East
- 4.2 Ignoring the historical realities
- 4.3 Ignoring the military realities
- 4.4 Ignoring the geographic realities
- 5 Issue: Other elements of shoddy scholarship
- 5.1 Unsupported assertions to build the genocide case
- 5.2 Unsupported logical leaps
- 5.3 Single-minded demonization of Iran
- 6 A Canadian approach to Iran and the Middle East
There are three important areas of shoddy scholarship in Mr. Cotler’s petition. First, the petition references and supports its arguments with many unconventional and questionable sources. Secondly, the petition takes a very flippant and non-rigorous approach to the translation of statements used to support its arguments. This is very surprising given the gravity of the petition’s accusation of genocidal intent. Thirdly, the petition repeatedly misrepresents the context for the Middle East rhetoric that it cites. Each of these areas at issue is explored in depth below (with examples), followed by a final section touching on some serious additional issues with the petition.
2 Issue: Questionable Sourcing
Mr Cotler’s petition is 79 pages long (including appendices), and contains 70 different references to support its argumentation. Typically, in a work expected to command the attention of legal and academic scholars around the world, great care would be used in sourcing one’s arguments. Primary sources would be used almost exclusively; and only publications and authors of the highest calibre – preferably academic – would be used as sources. Finally, a rigorous work would prefer impartial or disinterested sources as much as possible.
This is not the case with Mr Cotler’s petition. Many of the references used to build Mr Cotler’s case fall into one of three categories:
- Supporting references which are non-primary sources
- Supporting references taken from highly partial sources
- Supporting references taken from sources of questionable scholarship.
Primary sources are sources which have not been interpreted by another person. Primary sources are typically the account of an eyewitness or original “recorder” of an event, e.g. transcripts, letters, interviews, news footage, etc. While primary sources are not always available, rigorous research and analysis should favour primary sources, or the information closest to a primary source. Thus, for example, while Mr Cotler may not have the complete transcript of a speech which is central to his argumentation, one would nevertheless expect that Mr Cotler would seek the closest thing to it, e.g. the best contemporary news article on the speech, presumably written by someone who was present, and spoke the language. At a minimum, one would expect Mr Cotler to only use sources which could be traced to a primary source. This is not the case.
2.1.1 Examples: Choosing non-primary sources over primary sources
On page 15, Mr Cotler uses an article entitled “Hamas calls for Genocide” authored by David G. Littman in FrontPage Magazine, a far-right publication. Mr Cotler uses a quote attributed to an Iranian leader in the article, which is itself referenced in Littman’s piece as being quoted by Patrick Devenny (another contributor to FrontPage Magazine), who is in turn quoting the Daily Telegraph, January 1, 2000 (no mention of or reference to the exact article). Cotler does not give any information on how the primary source (the Daily Telegraph article) can be located. Cotler is essentially quoting someone, quoting someone else, who is quoting an unspecified article published in 2000.
In some cases, Mr Cotler does not indicate the primary source of his references even when these are official documents by organizations such as the UN, relying instead on obscure, partisan sources. This makes it extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible, to verify either the source, its context, or the related translation which Mr Cotler is leveraging. On page 14, Mr Cotler references a UN document which he has accessed through the little-known Prevent Genocide International’s rudimentary website. If Mr Cotler wishes to cite a UN document he should reference the document from its original source, the UN.
On page 16, Mr Cotler references two articles from the French paper Le Monde but uses two obscure websites as his sources for them. On the same page, he references a speech made at the UN but does not use an official UN site as a source.
2.1.2 Example: Sourcing from non-traceable sources
As discussed in section 2.1.1, Mr Cotler often makes use of secondary sources without providing any information on the primary source. Sometime the primary source is traceable with information found on the secondary source which Cotler provides. But when such information is not available it becomes impossible to authenticate the content and context of the original source, and one has to wonder whether Mr Cotler has even verified the original. On page 16, for example, Mr Cotler quotes a discussion with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad apparently published in the respected French daily Le Monde, and reproduced on a news website called Voltairenet.org. There is no way of finding the original piece since no title, author, date, page or web-link is provided.
When sourcing information, objective research prefers sources which are impartial to the topic under study. While impartial sources are not always available, at a minimum, one would expect the serious researcher to consult multiple – ideally contrasting – opinions on the topic to elicit a comprehensive perspective. Mr Cotler does not take this approach in his petition. Instead, he gives almost exclusive voice to publications and analyses known to have a very strong interest in the topic of study.
Furthermore, Mr Cotler’s petition frequently sources texts advanced by advocacy organizations. While many advocacy groups perform reputable and important research on topics central to their mandate, every advocacy group (and its material) is unique, as determined by its mission and constituency.
Thus, in the context of Mr Cotler’s petition, the material produced by an advocacy group seeking to improve global understanding of Iran would be viewed much differently than an advocacy organization seeking to promote the interests of Israel. Similarly, material produced by an Iranian advocacy group scandalized by the comments of its leaders would be viewed much differently than a group advocating on behalf of Israel.
Also, Mr Cotler tends to quote advocacy groups which have a strong agenda of either: 1) placing Iran and Islamists in the worst possible light, or 2) positioning Israel as a threatened or victimized state. This does not give an impartial tone to Mr Cotler’s research work, nor does it help his reader or signatory formulate an objective viewpoint.
2.2.1 Example: Sourcing from strident proponents of Israel
Mr Cotler repeatedly uses the Anti Defamation League (ADL), an interest group publicly known for equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, as a source for translations of statements made in Farsi. The primary source of the statements cannot be found in this manner since the League only provides vague information on when the statements were made, and does not provide any references to the original statement. No verification of their translation can be made in this way. He references the Anti Defamation League six times.
Other ardent proponents of Israel which Mr Cotler uses as sources include the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors Arab and Persian media for anything perceived as anti-Israel, FrontPage Magazine, a far-right magazine, and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, committed to winning the “war of ideas” for Israel.
2.2.2 Example: Sourcing from highly partial sources
Twenty times, Mr Cotler uses the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) as a source for translations. The co-founder and president of MEMRI is an Israeli named Yigal Carmon who spent 22 years in Israeli military intelligence. The organization finds inflammatory or hateful statements made in the Muslim world, translates them and then disseminates them widely – quite often misrepresenting the context for the material translated. As one American-Islamic pundit described it, “MEMRI’s intent is to find the worst possible quotes from the Muslim world and disseminate them as widely as possible.” It does not do the same for similarly insidious statements made by Israeli politicians in Hebrew. At one time MEMRI described itself as supporting liberal democracy, civil society, and the free market, and emphasized “the continuing relevance of Zionism to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel,” though the words about Zionism have now been deleted from its website.
2.2.3 Example: Sourcing from far-right groups
In the FrontPage Magazine piece referenced on page 15, Mr Cotler uses an article entitled “Hamas calls for Genocide” authored by David G. Littman. Mr Cotler uses the same reference twice in his petition (pages 15 & 35). The magazine is the online publication of the David Horowitz Freedom Center (formerly the Center for the Study of Popular Culture) which was founded in 1988 “to establish a conservative presence in Hollywood.” It has published articles condemning the Democratic Party, the environmental movement, affirmative action, reparations for slavery, anti-war groups and the United Nations.
2.2.4 Example: Sourcing from Israel-based advocacy groups
The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), a source used three times by Mr Cotler, “seeks to present Israel’s case and to highlight the challenges of Islamic extremism and global anti-Semitism.” The JCPA says “We understand that the survival of the Jewish people and the State of Israel are dependent on winning the war of ideas. The JCPA is committed to this struggle.”
2.2.5 Example: Sourcing from opinion pieces and editorials
Mr Cotler apparently sees nothing questionable about lifting a translated statement from an opinion piece written by a staunch supporter of Israel in an Israeli newspaper without providing a reference to the original. For example, on page 17 of his petition Mr Cotler provides a translation which is “black and filthy microbe,” from the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli newspaper. The source is in fact an opinion piece written by Joshua Teitelbaum, a Visiting Senior Fellow at – conincidentally – the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, that argues that the accuracy of the translations is not important because the meaning is still there. He does not explain how he can be sure of the meaning if the translations are not accurate — i.e. not literal translations.
3 Issue: Use of suspect translations
Given that Mr Cotler’s petition seeks to present an interpretation of the words and intents of the Iranian leadership spoken in Farsi, translations of comments and speeches play a central role in his argumentation. A credible research work which relies almost entirely on statements made in another language (a language which the author does not speak), would typically employ some of the following:
- Use of a professional translator from Farsi to English, with access to the original Farsi transcripts of the texts being used, and/or
- Inclusion of the original Farsi with every English translation being used, and/or
- An examination of variations in translation (e.g. literal translations vs. approximations) of the texts under study. The author would typically seek out the opinions of professionals and native speakers of Farsi, and then would have presented the most plausible of the translations.
In addition to the standard interpretive practices mentioned above, a credible advocate would take pains to understand and explain any quotes in their exact context, to avoid misrepresenting the intent or focus of such statements, translated or otherwise.
Mr Cotler appears to have disregarded academic rigour and the importance of context. Unfortunately, many of the translations used to support Mr Cotler’s arguments are:
- Known to be of questionable origin,
- Presented out of context, so as to misrepresent the intent of the speaker,
- Falsely identifying Israel itself as the focus of the hostility,
- Already proven to be inaccurate and thus speciously used.
Each of these assertions is explored below, with examples provided.
Mr Cotler has clear preferences when choosing the translations to argue his central hypothesis of a genocidal Iran. He does not mention any difficulties or disagreements among the English translations of statements made by Iranian leaders. This is partly because Mr Cotler obtains most of his translations from highly partisan sources and advocacy groups.
3.1.1 Example: Questionable sourcing of translations
Mr Cotler uses the opinion piece written by Joshua Teitelbaum, Visiting Senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and published in the Jerusalem Post, as a reference six times. Yet Mr Teitelbaum argues that it is not important if the translations are not literal ones because the genocidal intention is somehow still there. “Scholars continue to soft-pedal the Iranian President’s words,” Mr Teitelbaum writes. “Those who seek to excuse Iranian leaders should not remain unchallenged when they use the tools of scholarship as a smokescreen to obfuscate these extreme and deliberate calls for the destruction of Israel.”
If Mr Cotler is to convince the reader that Iranian leaders seek the genocide of ethnic Jews, he has the responsibility of providing their statements in context, and not ignoring context which would lead to a much different interpretation. If the timing, intent, audience or context of a comment is pertinent to interpretation, Mr Cotler should provide it. Lamentably, in many of the cases that CJPME examined, Mr Cotler failed to inform the reader of important context regarding the quotes and translations used.
3.2.1 Example: Ignoring the context of active hostilities
On page 18, Mr Cotler claims that Iranian President Ahmadinejad has called Israelis “cattle,” and alleges that this is evidence of dehumanizing process which precedes genocide. The quote Mr Cotler provides is “g) ‘like cattle, nay, more misguided’”. He does not provide the full quotation which is from a speech given by President Ahmadinejad at the height of Israel’s war on Lebanon, on August 1st, 2006:
Look, they are destroying homes with the people inside. They are burning fields. Neither children nor adults are safe from them. With laser-guided bombs, they attack shelters of defenceless women and children leaving them in a pool of their blood. They have no boundaries, limits, or taboos when it comes to killing human beings. Who are they? Where did they come from? Are they human beings? They are like cattle, nay, more misguided.
Clearly, Mr Ahmadinejad is venting his fury about the war in Lebanon, not constructing a careful argument for genocide.
3.2.2 Example: Ignoring the context of the word “Zionism”
While more discussion on Zionism/Israel is provided below, it is important to note that in Mr Cotler’s discourse, the two are presented as one and the same. Any Iranian criticism of Zionism is automatically subsumed into Mr Cotler’s discussion of Iranian intentions against Israel and/or Jews, and Iranian references to Zionism/Zionist are translated to Israel/Israeli or Judaism/Jew. To the reader unfamiliar with the sensitivities of the Middle East, this goes unnoticed, but one must assume that Mr Cotler, given his familiarity with Middle East rhetoric, is aware that he misleads his reader.
It is also surprising that Mr Cotler would equate any anti-Zionist remarks attributed to Iranian leaders as being anti-Israel or anti-Semitic when Mr Cotler even uses the anti-Zionist website, volatairenet.org, as a source in his petition. The website volatairenet.org which Cotler references on page 16 states that it is opposed to racism, anti-Semitism, apartheid and Zionism.
Mr Cotler gives great importance to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s alleged statement to “wipe Israel off the map.” This alleged statement has been badly mistranslated in the mainstream media (see 3.4 below), but it has also been removed from its context in the petition. Mr Cotler writes that “When President Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map’, he was speaking to thousands of students at a conference entitled the ‘World Without Zionism’,” An astute person might have wondered then why the conference had not been called the “World Without Israel” if this were indeed the message delivered there.
In the rhetoric around the Middle East, it is important to distinguish key terms. Mr Cotler has conveniently ignored key distinctions in his petition’s discourse, distinctions which are nonetheless respected by the individuals he is quoting and translating. Some of the distinctions lost in Mr Cotler’s discussion are the following:
- Distinction between Zionism and Israel. Zionism is anathema to most non-Jews in the Middle East, as it represents a threatening colonial and/or expansionist intent in the region. While many in the Middle East accept the inevitability of Israel as a state, they are still highly intimidated by notions of Zionism, and Israel’s decades-long occupation of lands unallocated to it by the United Nations only serves to justify this fear. Thus, when Mr Cotler quotes an Iranian leader calling for an end to a Zionist regime (i.e. expansionist) and fails to call it out as such, he is being conspicuously misleading to his reader.
- Distinction between Zionist and Jewish/Israeli. Not all Zionists are Jews and not all Jews are Zionists, as evidenced by the plethora of Jewish anti-Zionist organizations (e.g. Independent Jewish Voices in Canada.) Nevertheless, Mr Cotler tends to equate anything said about Zionists to something said against Jews or Israelis. As President Ahmadinejad told the BBC in July, 2008, “creating an objection against the Zionists doesn’t mean that there are objections against the Jewish.” Jews live in Iran and are represented in its parliament.
The important distinctions mentioned above are disregarded in Mr Cotler’s discussion involving translated texts, especially in Mr Cotler’s discussion of translated metaphors.
3.3.1 Example: Falsely positioning metaphors against Zionism/Zionists
On page 17 of his petition Mr Cotler writes that as in Nazi Germany and in Rwanda, Jews and Israelis are being labelled with “biological euphemisms” as a part of the “genocide-fostering process.” Nevertheless, of the nine derogatory “biological euphemisms” which he goes on to list as examples of labels used in Iran to dehumanize “Israelis and Jews” none but one refer directly to either. Others either refer to the state of Israel or the “Zionist regime.” While the rhetoric of Iranian leaders can be excessive, inappropriate and provocative it does not amount to a concerted effort to dehumanize Jews for the purpose of genocide.
The first of nine examples he provides is “a) ‘filthy germ’ and ‘savage beast’” and the source he provides is an article in Ha’aretz, an Israeli newspaper, in which the terms are quoted but not in their context — meaning the full phrases of the statements are not available. The article alleges that: “Ahmadinejad’s remarks were broadcast on Iranian television on Wednesday, in which he called Israel a “filthy germ” and “savage beast” established by Western states in their bid to dominate Middle East nations.”14 However, the Joshua Teitelbaum article in the Jerusalem Post that Mr Cotler cites does provide the derogatory “biological euphemism” within the phrase it was said, which is: “In the Middle East, they [the global powers] have created a black and filthy microbe called the Zionist regime, so they could use it to attack the peoples of the region, and by using this excuse, they want to advance their schemes for the Middle East.”
Mr Cotler writes that it is Israelis and Jews which have been labelled with dehumanizing euphemisms, yet, in its entirety, the statement makes clear that it is the Zionist regime which is being referred to as a “black and filthy microbe.” The statement is clearly a hyperbolic rant against the military operations and occupations of the Israeli government and not a “genocide-fostering process” of dehumanization.
3.3.2 Example: Falsely positioning calls to action against Zionism/Zionists
As we have seen, Mr Cotler often uses quotes by placing them out of context or manipulating the way they are presented. For example on page 33 Cotler writes “President Ahmadinejad has repeated this call for genocide many other times as well.” He then lists examples of these apparent calls for genocide. In none of these examples is Israel even mentioned; there are only references to the ending of the Zionist regime in Israel. When Israeli politicians call for regime change in Gaza no one would conclude they are advocating genocide.
Any statement by Iranian leaders, it seems, regardless of the content or context, demonstrates to Mr Cotler a genocidal intent.
Fortunately, Mr Cotler is not the first scholar to explore the content and intent of Iranian statements regarding Israel and/or Zionism. As a result, Mr Cotler is often reworking or repositioning the research, translations and conclusions of others. In fact, as with any academic pursuit, the dialog on these topics expands and corrects as the body of knowledge is studied and analyzed. Thus, it is quite surprising that Mr Cotler chooses to ignore the collective analysis and conclusions of the academic community that preceded him, especially as it relates to translations. Nevertheless, Mr Cotler ignores academic consensus on certain texts, in order, it seems, to provide a much more inflammatory conclusion than would otherwise be possible to reach.
A segment of a speech made by President Ahmadinejad was mistranslated in much of the Western media as a call to “wipe Israel off the map.” The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) provides the literal translation of the speech in which President Ahmadinejad is quoted as saying that the “Imam [Khomeini] said: ‘This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.’” Given the importance he gives to Mr Ahmadinejad’s statement, and since he uses MEMRI as a source in his paper a total of 20 times, shouldn’t Mr Cotler be familiar with this transcript?
Mr Joshua Teitelbaum, the Visiting Senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, whose article Mr Cotler paraphrases and cites 6 times in his own paper, gives the translation as being: “In an address to the ‘World without Zionism’ Conference held in Teheran on October 26, 2005, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said: ‘Our dear Imam [Khomeini] ordered that this Jerusalem-occupying regime [Israel] must be erased from the page of time. This was a very wise statement.’” The brackets in the quote were added by Mr. Teitelbaum who chooses not to explain how “Jerusalem-occupying regime” equates with Israel, the physical and geographical entity.
It seems odd that Mr Cotler, surely aware of the more accurate and complete translation, would elect to only use a shortened, non-literal version when even Mr Teitelbaum explicitly acknowledges in his article, which Cotler cites six times, that:
Juan Cole of the University of Michigan argues that Ahmadinejad was not calling for the destruction of Israel, saying, “Ahmadinejad did not say he was going to wipe Israel off the map because no such idiom exists in Persian.” The British Guardian’s Jonathan Steele argued that Ahmadinejad was simply remarking that “this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” Steele continues: “He was not making a military threat. He was calling for an end to the occupation of Jerusalem at some point in the future. The ‘page of time’ phrase suggests he did not expect it to happen soon.”
Mr Cotler does not trouble himself with the literal translation, the statement’s context, or even who or what the statement is about.
4 Issue: Misrepresenting the context of Middle East rhetoric
The Middle East has been a volatile part of the world through much of modern history. The comments made by Iranian or other Middle Eastern leaders reflect the realities and concerns that affect the region as a whole. Mr Cotler may wish to present his arguments against Iran in a vacuum, hoping the reader will assume that Iranians were born with animosity against Israel, but this is not the case. Peoples of the region are scandalized by decades of Western colonialism, intervention and double-standards, and the rhetoric of their leaders reflects this. A serious analytical work would incorporate this and other forms of context into its discussion.
Mr Cotler, unfortunately, ignores all such context, be it wars, occupations, or other factors. More specifically, Mr Cotler’s petition ignores contextual realities in four important areas:
- The reality of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and Syrian Territories, as context to comments
made by Iranian leaders.
- Historical realities, i.e. contemporaneous context to comments made by Iranian leaders.
- The military dominance of Israel in the region, and its impact on Iranian and other leaders.
- The geographic realities (i.e. relative proximities and distances) and the influence that such realities must have while interpreting Iranian rhetoric.
Each of these contextual omissions in Mr Cotler’s discourse is explored with examples below.
The single most disruptive event in modern Middle Eastern history was the partition of Palestine by the United Nations in 1947, and the subsequent establishment of Israel in 1948. This created at least 700,000 Palestinian refugees, who are now dispersed throughout the Middle East. In 1967, Israel invaded and occupied the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip. It ignored UN Security Council Resolution 242 obligating it to withdraw from these territories and the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza have been living under this occupation since 1967. Over the years, in order to crush the Palestinian leadership struggling for an end to occupation Israel has attacked Jordan and invaded Lebanon.
On page 43, Mr Cotler writes that “The Iranian genocidal narrative has found expression in the training, arming, financing, recruiting, and instigating of terrorist movements [Hezbollah and Hamas] whose objective is itself genocidal, whose ideology is anti-Semitic, whose instrumentality is trans-national terror, and whose reach is global.”
It is deceptive of Mr Cotler to attempt to portray Hamas and Hezbollah as proxies of Iran bent on genocide and terrorism. He disregards how and why these two groups came into being: both being formed to oppose local Israeli occupations. Israel has also caused the deaths of an overwhelmingly larger number of people than Israelis killed by either Hezbollah or Hamas.1819 Therefore, one cannot accept Cotler’s assertion that both are merely Iranian proxies with genocidal objectives.
4.1.1 Example: The context of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza
Zionism refers to a political movement which is perceived as expansionist and colonial in character by non-Jews in the Middle East, in no small part due to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, its annexation of Jerusalem and its colonization of Palestinian and Syrian lands by armed and fanatical Jewish colonists.
At no point does Mr Cotler ever speak to the Israeli occupation or any of the Israeli actions to which Iranian leaders refer to. According to Cotler, since no historical context enters his analysis, terms such as “occupying Zionist regime” are synonymous with the whole physical Israeli state and not with the clear political implication such a term should truly connote.
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 meant that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled of what is now modern Israel and lost their homes. This refugee problem has still not been resolved. Israel has been occupying Christian and Muslim Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza for over forty-years and no solution (whether in the form of two independent states or one bi-national state) has yet been reached. Israel continues this occupation and its colonization of occupied lands in contravention of International Law and UN resolutions. Human rights organizations, including Israeli ones, have thoroughly documented the violations of international humanitarian law carried out by Israeli Security Forces which include extrajudicial assassinations, torture, house demolitions as punishment, collective punishment and detentions without charge or trial. These are all legitimate concerns for the region. Mr Cotler provides no frame of context in which Arab countries and Iran may have reasons to show an aversion to the Israeli regime occupying Palestinian lands. If he had, it would emasculate his argument that referring to Israel as an “occupying regime” is only a way of delegitimizing it as a preamble to a genocidal nuclear strike.
4.1.2 Example: The context of hostility between Israel and Hezbollah
Hezbollah was created in reaction to Israel’s invasion and occupation of Lebanon. Its primary objective was to end Israel’s military occupation of Lebanon which began in 1982 and only ended in 2000. Issues remain unresolved between Israel and Hezbollah. Lebanon has a territorial claim over the Shebaa Farms which Israel occupies, and Lebanese prisoners remain in Israeli jails. Mr Cotler would have the reader believe that there is no context to the existence of Hezbollah, and that it does not have any legitimate grievances with Israel.
Whether on a yearly, monthly or daily basis, violence regularly flares up in the Middle East, and comments are made in the midst of virtually ongoing conflicts, wars, occupations, and military strikes. If a particularly provocative comment were made by an Iranian leader at a specific historic juncture, the reader should be made aware of this context. Mr Cotler, however, does not inform the reader of this context.
4.2.1 Example: Ignoring the context of all-out war
Mr Cotler likes to quote statements without giving the context in which they were said. In example, on page 27, Cotler quotes Iranian leaders attempting to “demonize” and “dehumanize” Jews. He writes:
Thus, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls Israelis “bloodthirsty barbarians”, he is not only demonizing and dehumanizing them, but he is also characterizing them as threats to humanity as a whole. His comments that Israelis have “no boundaries, limits, or taboos when it comes to killing human beings”, that Israel is “fighting a war against humanity”, [...] need to be understood in this context. (p. 27)
The context which Mr Cotler does not mention, however, is that all of these comments were made during Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, at which time Israel bombed civilian areas, killing more than 1,000 Lebanese. Given the background, these statements seem more like extreme expressions of outrage than signs of Iranian officials making it clear that “their complaint is not simply a political/diplomatic one with the State of Israel. It is an existential one, targeted at the Jews and Israelis personally,” as Cotler concludes. (p. 27)
The Petition takes it as a given that the Israel of 2009 faces a grave existential threat. Israel is positioned as a beleaguered underdog in a hostile region, fighting for its mere survival. While it is more dramatic to position the Petition’s “threat of genocide” arguments in such a context, such an assumption does not reflect reality. In fact, rather than being an underdog fighting desperate defensive wars, Israel is better seen as a militaristic, well-armed, well-trained, and belligerent regional player. Israel’s bellicosity is expressed in a number of ways, and once clarified, makes the Petition’s arguments seem outlandish.
4.3.1 Example: Israel as the region’s only nuclear power
Cotler strives to create the impression that Israel is facing an existential threat from a formidable enemy. At no point does Cotler mention the fact that Israel has a nuclear and chemical arsenal. Describing Iran as being an existential threat to a nuclear Israel which has full US backing is somewhat startling. Furthermore, Iran is fully aware that the use of a nuclear weapon on Israel or any other country would be an act of national suicide. The world’s response, especially of nuclear countries such as France, the United Kingdom and the United States, would probably be swift and devastating.
Nuclear proliferation presents a major threat to Middle East security and stability. Canada is staunchly opposed to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, as elsewhere, and espouses the long-term goal of total nuclear disarmament. Israel is the sixth nation in the world to have acquired nuclear weapons capacity. It remains the only state in the Middle East to have such capabilities. Israel has been pursuing a deliberate policy of ambiguity towards its nuclear arsenal in order to avoid the political costs of being declared a nuclear state. As a non-signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, its nuclear activities are not subject to international inspection. Israel’s nuclear arsenal poses a tremendous threat to regional stability and global security. Cotler should therefore call upon Israel to accede to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) instead of singling out Iran (and making not the slightest mention of Israel’s responsibility for introducing nuclear weapons into the region.)
Israel’s nuclear status hampers efforts to negotiate with neighbouring states for a nuclear-free region. States in the Middle East are much less likely to allow for stricter export and customs controls and intelligence cooperation with key NPT states and institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency if Israel is not held to the same nuclear standards.
4.3.2 Example: Israeli leaders have made provocative threats
Cotler’s line of argument that remarks made by Iranian leaders are proof of genocidal intentions omits similar comments made by Israeli leaders. Israeli politicians and religious leaders have made similarly menacing and inflammatory remarks, ranging from Israel’s deputy defence minister, Matan Vilnai, threatening a Holocaust on Gaza, to Deputy Prime Minister, Shaul Mofaz, threatening to attack Iran. Israel carried out a major military exercise in June, 2008, which “appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” Important figures in Israel openly discuss “nuking” Iran, as did notable Israeli historian Benny Morris in a widely published op-ed. On the other hand, Iran has stated that it has no intention of attacking Israel; though there is no mention of this in Mr Cotler’s paper.
4.3.3 Example: Israel as regional superpower
As mentioned above, Israel is the sole nuclear power of the region and enjoys US backing at the political and diplomatic levels, as well as militarily and financially. Its arsenal of advanced conventional weaponry (often based on US technology) would allow it to respond to any attacks from the region quickly and with devastating results.
4.3.4 Example: Israel as military occupant of non-Israeli lands
Israel has maintained the longest military occupation in modern history. Since 1967 it occupies the West Bank and Gaza as well as parts of Syria and Lebanon. The occupation of the Palestinian territories has been maintained through gross violations of international humanitarian law as described in section 4.1.1.
4.3.5 Example: Israel as the aggressor in the Middle East
With the exception of the 1973 War, Israel’s wars against its neighbours were started by Israel itself. Israel’s conduct during these wars has earned it the condemnation of the international community for its disregard of the principles of proportionality and necessity which govern the use of force. Israel’s disregard for civilians in conflict is exemplified in its deliberate and total destruction of the Syrian city of Quneitra in 1974, its destruction of Lebanon in 1982 and again in 2006, its collective punishment of the population of Gaza, its destruction of Gaza in 2008-2009, and its targeting of UN facilities during its war on Gaza. Veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, sums up the civilian cost of Israel’s wars since 1982 in a January, 2009, article entitled “Why do they hate the West so much, we will ask”:
Have we forgotten the 17,500 dead – almost all civilians, most of them children and women – in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon; the 1,700 Palestinian civilian dead in the Sabra-Chatila massacre; the 1996 Qana massacre of 106 Lebanese civilian refugees, more than half of them children, at a UN base; the massacre of the Marwahin refugees who were ordered from their homes by the Israelis in 2006 then slaughtered by an Israeli helicopter crew; the 1,000 dead of that same 2006 bombardment and Lebanese invasion, almost all of them civilians?
4.3.6 Example: Palestinians face the real existential threat
Palestinians face an existential threat as their culture and heritage is being lost through decades of occupation and the Israeli refusal to recognize their right to an independent state. The following pose an acute existential threat to the Palestinians:
- Millions of refugees in diaspora, forbidden to return to their homes by Israel
- Palestinian territory separated into bantustans, prevented from developing in unison
- Palestinians in Israel being prevented from being taught Arab history
- Attempted banning of Arab political parties in Israel
- Laws to block emigration of spouses of Palestinians
- Palestinians prevented from having their own state
- Permit and residency laws in the Palestinian territories and Jerusalem
When brought into the discussion, the geography of Iran and the Middle East is also an important element in evaluating the seriousness of the Petition’s claims. While it is convenient to suggest parallels between past genocides and that foretold by the Petition, the simple geographic differences and obstacles are staggering. The Petition fails to bring any of these considerations to the attention of the reader.
4.4.1 Example: The lack of necessary proximity between Israel and Iran
Mr Cotler repeatedly draws comparisons to past atrocities, but fails to mention obvious differences such as that Iranians and Jews do not live in a same country where Jews would be a weak minority, such as the Tutsis were in Rwanda or the Jews in Germany and then Europe. In fact Tehran and Tel Aviv are separated by about 1,600 km.
4.4.2 Example: A nuclear attack on Israel would kill millions of Palestinians
If Iran did have genocidal ambitions for the Jews of Israel it would be impossible for it to launch a nuclear attack on Israel without killing millions of Israeli and Palestinian Arabs—those who live inside Israel and those who live in the adjacent occupied territories. Since the speeches by President Ahmadinejad and “anti-Israeli” events Mr Cotler discusses often protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its killing of civilians, it seems it would be somewhat at odds with Iran’s rhetoric to then turn into dust those very same Arabs whose condition Iranian leaders deplore. And this does not mention the parallel danger of fatally damaging and contaminating neighbouring Arab lands and populations.
5 Issue: Other elements of shoddy scholarship
With a Petition which makes such serious allegations as the one submitted by Mr Cotler, one would expect the scholarship and logic to be bulletproof and fully defensible. Unfortunately, the Petition incorporates a number of additional examples and arguments which, when examined more closely and in context, actually take away from the Petition’s arguments.
Mr Cotler, on page 44, of his petition writes: “One of the most notorious terrorist attacks organized by Iran occurred in Buenos Aires, Argentina. On July 18, 1994, Argentina suffered the most devastating terrorist attack in its history when the Jewish-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA) community centre was bombed. 85 persons were murdered and 300 were wounded.” Mr Cotler provides no references for this bold assertion that Iran had somewhat masterminded or carried out this attack.
Instead, he continues by writing that “After a serious and extensive investigation, Argentinean prosecutors concluded that the bombing was masterminded by Iran—that it was conceived, planned, and ordered by the ‘highest echelons in the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran’.” Immodestly, Mr Cotler submits his own writing, an Op-ed which appeared in Canada’s National Post as a source for this information, and a second article from the New York Times. Mr Cotler’s inability to read in a critical manner is perhaps most tellingly revealed by the second source in which it is written that “No one has been convicted of carrying out the attack despite a lengthy investigation marked by accusations of judicial misconduct and a government cover-up [...].” How then has Mr Cotler just assured the reader that “a serious and extensive investigation” had taken place?
In fact, former Argentinean President Néstor Kirchner has called the investigation a “national disgrace,” and the president at the time of the attack, Carlos Saúl Menem, has been accused “of having deliberately undermined the official inquiry into the attack.” In 2004, members of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police were standing trial for having allegedly played a role in the bombing, though they were eventually cleared, and in 2005 the judge in charge of the inquiry, Juan José Galeano, was fired for having “been involved in bribing a key witness during his investigation.” It is difficult not to conclude that Mr Cotler is deliberately being misleading.
In his own piece “Iran: Guilty as Charged,” Mr Cotler writes: “Argentinean Special Prosecutors have found that senior Iranian government officials [...] are responsible for the July, 2004 bombing of the Jewish Cultural Centre in Argentina (AMIA). [...]In 2004, as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, I told a meeting of the Organization of American States’ ministers of justice to make this case a priority.” The fact that Mr Cotler makes no mention of the irregularities of the investigation and that he speaks with such certainty on the matter when he does not even get the date of the bombing right in his own article (July 18, 1994), suggests he is a man with an agenda, and something nearing a vendetta.
In his petition, Mr Cotler attempts to portray the Iranians as bloodthirsty and murderous. He cites alleged Iranian responsibility or complicity in the attack on the AMIA and a 1992 political assassination of “three leading members of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and one of their supporters in Berlin,” (p. 45) as evidence that “By outsourcing its actions to movements that share its intentions, Iran seeks to deflect attention away from the murder it seeks while continuing to advance its genocidal goals. Accordingly, it should not be surprising that Jews and Israelis are among the most frequent – though not by any means the exclusive – targets of this regime.” (p. 43)
Mr Cotler’s logic in this statement is very unclear: how does an alleged indirect Iranian involvement in an act against Kurds support his thesis for a genocidal intent against Jews?
Following Cotler’s line of reasoning, Israel would certainly be guilty of the same “outsourcing” and “genocidal goal” for its responsibility in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon. In this incident, the Israeli Armed Forces surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps outside Beirut and allowed in their Phalangist allies to kill and rape unarmed civilians. Israel’s Defence Minister, Ariel Sharon, was found personally responsible by Israel’s own Kahan Commission. He still went on to become Prime Minister of the country. The UN General Assembly called the massacres “an act of genocide.” Yet even this example does not fully parallel Cotler’s logical leap, as the Phalangists were killing Palestinians and not some unrelated group, e.g. Armenians, or Druze.
Overall, the Petition seems to want to demonize anything Iranian, drifting far and wide from the genocide arguments to find something bad to say about Iran. While one may certainly accuse the current regime in Iran as being highly autocratic, it is quite another thing to accuse it of seeking to perpetrate genocide.
Section E of Mr Cotler’s petition deals with domestic human rights abuses in Iran. The section discusses violations of human rights in Iran looking as far back as the beginning of Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. Puzzlingly absent from his indictment are the human rights violations which took place prior to the revolution, under the rule of the Western-backed Shah of Iran.
There is no question that human rights violations are rampant in Iran. The problem is, once again, the one-sidedness of Mr Cotler’s narrative. For example, he writes that “Iran is also the world ‘leader’ in executing children. Since January 2005, Iran has executed at least 26 juvenile offenders.” He may be right, but it would be interesting to contrast that figure with the staggering 955 Palestinian minors killed by Israel between September 29, 2000, and November 30, 2008 (which does not even take into account the minors killed by Israel outside of Israel and the Occupied Territories). One does not excuse the other. But it is difficult to not arrive at the conclusion that Mr Cotler is guilty of unrelentingly singling out and demonizing one nation.
Human rights violations undoubtedly take place in Iran. They also most definitely take place in Israel. The same violations against women in Iran described by Mr Cotler in his petition take place in Saudi Arabia, an ally of the United States. The United States is itself responsible for abuses at Guantanamo Bay and other secret prisons. Yet Mr Cotler does not explain why human rights abuses in Iran deserve more of the international community’s condemnation than do those of Israel. He most certainly does not clarify how taking action on Iran would benefit the Iranian people as he claims on page 55 of the Petition. Innocent Iraqis most certainly did not fare better when the international community imposed sanctions on the country and isolated it in order to punish its leaders. It is difficult to believe that action against the Iranian regime would not also harm the Iranian people. And this, for what purpose?
6 A Canadian approach to Iran and the Middle East
The position of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) is unequivocal: human rights abuses and the killing of innocents is unacceptable no matter who the culprit is. CJPME believes that international law needs to be respected by all, that all parties in the Middle East should be held to the same standard, and that violence is not a solution. CJPME calls on its Canadian leaders to adopt similar principles when approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the friction between Iran and Israel. Rather than seeking to polarize sentiments, CJPME would expect Mr Cotler, as a self-proclaimed “peace activist”, to be trying to encourage dialogue between peoples. Solving the Middle East’s problems will require world leaders to promote meticulous fairness, and to exhibit unwavering integrity and honesty. Given his petition, CJPME can only conclude that Mr. Cotler will be excluded from this esteemed company.
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- 2. ^ “Canadian Parliamentarian and Former Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler Releases Responsibility to Prevent Petition to Hold Ahmadinejad’s Iran to Account for Its Genocidal Incitement.” http://www.irwincotler.parl.gc.ca/detail.asp?lang=e&type=news&sid=3057 [accessed 1/23/2009]
- 3. ^ “Israel a guide for activists.” The Anti-Defamation League. http://www.adl.org/israel/advocacy/how_to_respond/anti_semitism_criticism.asp?xflag=1 [accessed 2/13/2009]
- 4. ^ Whitaker, Brian. “Selective Memri.” The Guardian. August 12, 2002. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/aug/12/worlddispatch.brianwhitaker [accessed 1/23/2009]
- 5. ^ Ibid.
- 6. ^ Ibid.
- 7. ^ “About us”. David Horowitz Freedom Center. http://www.horowitzfreedomcenter.org/FlexPage.aspx?area=aboutus [accessed 1/23/2009]
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- 9. ^ Ibid.
- 10. ^ Teitelbaum, Joshua. “Analysis: Iran’s talk of destroying Israel must not get lost in translation.” The Jerusalem Post. June 22, 2008. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1213794295236&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FPrinter [accessed 1/23/2009]
- 11. ^ “Transcript.” MEMRI. August 1, 2006. http://www.memritv.org/clip_transcript/en/1216.htm?auth=19b767b6b14939af5cb4a7b5474a8c18 [accessed 12/23/2008]
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- 17. ^ Ibid.
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- 29. ^ Morris, Benny. “Using bombs to stave off war.” New York Times. July 18, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/18/opinion/18morris.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1 [accessed 1/23/2009]
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- 1. ^ Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1998) defines Zionism in English as follows: “Among the Jews, a theory, plan, or movement for colonizing their own race in Palestine, the land of Zion, or, if that is impracticable, elsewhere, either for religious or nationalizing purposes.”
- 2. ^ Mr. Teitelbaum’s paper makes a case very similar to Cotler’s “The Danger of a Genocidal and Nuclear Iran: A Responsibility to Prevent Petition.” In fact, a section of Teitelbaum’s paper quoted by Mr. Cotler is entitiled “Dehumanization as Prelude to Genocide: Israel as an Infection.” Mr. Cotler’s similar section is called “From delegitimization to dehumanization,” in which Cotler writes:
[T]he next genocidal precursor is the dehumanization of Israelis and Jews through the use of epidemiological metaphors reminiscent of Nazi-like dehumanization of the Jews. [...] Thus, just as Jews were labelled as “vermin” by the Nazis and the Tutsi were labelled as “cockroaches” in Rwanda, so too have Israelis and Jews been dehumanized [...]. (p.17)
In his section, Mr. Teitelbaum writes:
A common motif of genocide incitement is the dehumanization of the target population. The Nazi weekly Der Stürmer portrayed Jews as parasites and locusts. In the early 1990s, Hutu propaganda in Rwanda against the Tutsis described them as “cockroaches.” [...] Similarly, President Ahmadinejad has called Israeli Jews “cattle,” “blood thirsty barbarians,” and “criminals.”