Some thoughts on the Selina Robinson affair

Selina Robinson left the NDP cabinet February 5, following outrage over her comments about Palestine. Photo: BC Government Flickr

There are several disturbing aspects to the recent furore over Selina Robinson’s comments about Palestine, the subsequent backlash and Premier David Eby’s handling of the matter.

But the situation raises a number of interesting issues and throws light on some key networks of influence. We may even gain some valuable insights into how the Christian community ought to conduct itself.

Swift reactions

The situation blew up quickly. Last Tuesday (January 30), Robinson stated during a panel discussion with other Jewish politicians hosted by B’nai Brith Canada that Palestine had been “a crappy piece of land with nothing on it” before the founding of Israel. Reaction from pro-Palestinian and Muslim groups was swift.

By Friday she had apologized on X for the comments, saying they were “disrespectful,” adding that she had been referring to the land having limited natural resources.” (Her X account is now closed.)

The MLA for Coquitlam-Maillardville issued a more detailed apology Monday morning (February 5) in a release sent to media outlets. Stating that she understood she had broken the trust of many people; she said she was committed to “taking part in anti-Islamophobia training to more deeply understand the concerns that have been expressed to me.”

But that was not enough for many critics. By that afternoon, Premier David Eby had ‘accepted her resignation’ from cabinet, where she had been Minister of Post-Secondary Education. Eby said Robinson’s departure was decided on jointly, but that has been questioned.

A February 7 opinion piece in The Vancouver Sun by veteran Victoria-watcher Vaughn Palmer was introduced with these words: “David Eby abandoned Robinson after one weekend because the NDP couldn’t afford the political hit in Surrey, a community whose votes and financial contributions it needs in an election year.”

Groups demanding that Robinson be removed from the BC NDP caucus left what Premier Eby described as “hateful messages” on her constituency office overnight February 5 – 6, with signs reading “We do not accept your apology” and more.

Still not enough. For example, writing for The Maple (“a reader funded publication that puts the working class first”) February 6, Alex Cosh laid out the many reasons for which Robinson deserved to be cashiered. He began, “The NDP is a safe space for anti-Palestinian racists. . . . If the NDP cared about anti-Palestinian racism, Robinson would have been kicked out of the government, caucus and party months ago.”

Muslim response

The BC Muslim Association responded quickly to Robinson’s initial comments, releasing a statement to David Eby February 3. They said they were “deeply concerned” by her comments, but were, overall, fairly moderate, asking Robinson to “retract her statements and take the opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue with members of the Muslim community.”

The statement asked her to reflect on the consequences of her words by (among other things) “publicly recognizing that she has engaged in a pattern of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism.”

That statement unnecessarily broadened the discussion. Robinson’s comments were neither Islamophobic nor racist. Both of those things are issues in Canada, but they will not be countered by exaggerating the threat.

Apart from the BCMA statement, representatives from more than a dozen BC mosques and Islamic associations had already ratcheted up the tension by sending a letter to Premier David Eby February 2, demanding Robinson be removed from her role. They also banned NDP MLAs and candidates from their mosques and sacred spaces.

CBC News reported:

The letter from Muslim groups, dated Friday, says neither Robinson’s apology nor Eby’s response address the serious harm done to members of the community and argues Robinson has shown “blatant bigotry” that’s tarnished the reputation of the province and the NDP.

“Ultimately, what it comes down to is, does the B.C. NDP condone these attitudes toward any equity-deserving group, let alone Palestinian Arab and Muslim communities that are already at greater risk of harm?” the letter says.

Signatory Haroon Khan, director of the Al-Jamia Masjid mosque in Vancouver, says the NDP’s decision not to call for an end to Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza makes Robinson’s apology and Eby’s assurances “empty words.”

“The vast majority of the will of Canadians is that we are against this war, we are against this genocide, and we all want peace. But systematically, we’re being denied, [and] our governments are not falling in line with the will of the people,” Khan told CBC News on Sunday.

“And unless and until they do, don’t come to our sacred places, to our mosques, for a photo op.”

The media gave considerable play to both the BCMA statement and to that of the more militant, and smaller, groups.

Jewish response

Not surprisingly, there have been responses from the Jewish community. A February 6 CBC News report stated:

Robinson’s exit from the NDP cabinet has caused deep concerns from some members of B.C.’s Jewish community who said they had lost an advocate who admitted her mistake and was willing to make amends. . . .

Nico Slobinsky, Pacific vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said Robinson’s removal undermined the Jewish community’s confidence in B.C.’s government and signalled that Jewish leaders were held to different standards than others.

Slobinsky said in a statement the Jewish community had lost a strong voice at a time of increasing acts of antisemitism and anti-Israel protests.

The Rabbinical Association of Vancouver sent a letter to the Premier February 6, expressing disappointment with his conduct regarding Robinson. They wrote:

We believe that you have capitulated to a small but loud group of people. This is dangerous for our community and the strength of our province’s democracy.

They reminded Eby that just last month, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, he posted messages stating, “we stand with the Muslim community throughout Canada on this sorrowful day of remembrance.” Though the rabbis were “deeply offended,” they accepted his apology and explanation that it had been a mistake by a staff member.

They added:

MLA Robinson did not receive the same empathy or consideration. You bowed to pressure from the very same groups that have been at the centre of an unprecedented rise in antisemitism and hate directed at the Jewish community since the brutal and inhuman attacks of October 7.

We have greatly appreciated your leadership and support through this difficult time. Now it feels like you have given in to bullies for political expediency. We will remember this day the next time you ask for our trust and support.

Writing for National Post, Rahim Mohamed made similar points in his column, ‘Selina Robinson’s ouster shows NDP has no place for Jews who don’t submit.’ He said:

So again, while Robinson’s comments may have been inelegantly worded, they were not in any way beyond the pale, or even out of the ordinary for the NDP.

Of course, Robinson’s true offense was being a Jew who publicly supports Israel. What else explains the contrast between the swift and vengeful response to her clumsy ad-libbed remarks and the party’s collective shoulder-shrugging, just days earlier, after an inappropriate message of solidarity with the province’s “Muslim community” was sent from the premier’s official X account on Holocaust Remembrance Day. As of Tuesday, no NDP staffers have been fired or publicly reprimanded for the hugely disrespectful post.

In his lily-livered handling of the situation, Eby has shown that, not only will he allow himself to be pushed around by the angry mob, he also has no qualms with abandoning a high ranking Jewish cabinet minister at the first sign of danger — even as antisemitic hate crimes mushroom under his watch.

Robinson’s apology

There seems to be general agreement that Robinson was not wise, even unduly provocative, with her initial comments. In particular, she carelessly adopted a widely held colonial assumption that has been played out all over the world – that the local inhabitants of various occupied lands were either not there, or were of minimal significance, or were incompetent to control their own destiny.

Green MLA Adam Olsen condemned Robinson’s words on his blog, comparing them to language used by settlers who colonized the land of Indigenous people in Canada:

The phrase “with nothing on it” may seem like a throw away, however, it is fully loaded with meaning.  As Bob Joseph, author of 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Actwrites, “if the lands were not occupied by Christians they were vacant and therefore could be defined as “discovered” and sovereignty, dominion, title and jurisdiction claimed. If the land was defined as empty it was free for the taking.”

Joseph continues, “Euro-Americans often considered lands that were actually owned, occupied and being actively utilized by indigenous people to be “vacant” and available for Discovery claims if they were not being “properly used” according to European and American law and culture.”

Harsha Walia (the radical former Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, with whom I agree on very little) posted on X: “To frame this as religious issue or as one exclusively around Islamophobia is to fundamentally misunderstand that her comments were representative of a colonial mindset that leads to colonial violence.” Laith S, Palestinian Canadian

It is an unfortunate exit for the veteran provincial politician. Robinson has had a distinguished career and held the very senior role of finance minister under John Horgan; she was even seen as likely to replace him as Premier.

Some things to consider

  1. Religion and politics do mix. Islamophobia, antisemitism, Israel, Palestine. Sometimes the issues seem far away, but we see how close to home they can be. Our ‘secular’ society is not free of religious influences – and never will be.
  2. Both the BC Muslim Association and the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver, and other less formal groups related to the two communities, have engaged with and clearly want to continue to influence the political process.
  3. It is encouraging to see that both the BCMA and the rabbis have attempted a peacemaking tone. They both profess to be willing to engage with those who disagree.
  4. It would have been good to see the media pay more attention to the BCMA and the rabbis, and less to various radical groups, such as the imams who closed their mosques to NDP politicians.
  5. It would also be a positive sign to see some recognition of the world situation from local Muslim leaders. There is Islamophobia in Canada, some of it serious, but it pales beside the kind of ‘Christianophobia’ experienced in Muslim nations around the world. All concerned should check out the World Watch List, which annually points to the 50 nations where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. Well over half are Muslim nations and several others have large Muslim minorities.
  6. There has been talk over the past few years of developing a network within the Christian community that can engage with  various levels of government on critical issues. It could be very useful, at least on some issues. Muslims and Jews, far smaller in numbers, have such representation. Is it possible? We’re a diverse group; who could speak for the church?. Is it desirable? Politics is a messy business.
  7. As for Selina Robinson’s apology, I’d say good for her. She was unduly partisan (not surprising, maybe, given the setting of her comments) and did repeat a colonial nostrum. But she apologized, twice, and promised to work on her outlook. Not sure she needed to agree to Islamophobia training.
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6 comments for “Some thoughts on the Selina Robinson affair

  1. Very deep appreciation for your piece on the dismissal of Selina Robinson from cabinet by David Eby, as carried in the present Church for Vancouver. I agonize with you. My sense is that your take is fair and journalistically representative of diverse opinions.

    Several additional responses:

    • For the present moment at least, the tragedy unfolding in Israel/Palestine is the prism through which local events are being parsed; especially so, for Jewish and Arab Canadians, Likely meaning that any ‘objective’ analysis is not part of the tool box presently available.

    • The dismissal of Minister Robinson points, I think, to the accumulating complexity of government actions in a multicultural society; especially so when the views of significant stakeholders are irreconcilable. The attendant danger is that loud voices in the echo chamber have inordinate influence on government decision-making.

    • And further, an intriguing study of William E. Phipps, Muhammad and Jesus: A Comparison of the Prophets and Their Teachings, shows the antipathy between Jews and Muslims owns an extenuated history. Phipps copiously cites Ibn Ishaq, the notable Muhammad biographer and the Qur’an; which characterizations of Islam and the Prophet I think all honest searchers must own.

    • No less problematic is how to read the Bible. Whose hermeneutics prevails? “See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the LORD swore he would give to your fathers – to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them.” (Deuteronomy 1:8) An enduring or a conditional divine promise?

    • And I wonder, if all of this bruhaha does not boil down to one expedient. Why, historically, and presently, are Jews so hated? As Tevye so plaintively mourns in Fiddler on the Roof, “God I know we are the chosen people. But why are we always chosen for trouble?”

    Firing a minister may offer temporary political relief for Premier Eby. But surely will exacerbate the existential complexities he and all Canadian politicians cannot avoid.

  2. You have followed this ‘affair’ closely. So have I. Two particular points here.

    In your closing catalogue of how “religion and politics mix,” why does Zionism stay off the list?

    Slightly fuller context. Why would ‘thoughts’ about this recent situation omit report of and comment on how Selina Robinson twiXed on January 25 that she as Minister had directly intervened with the president of Langara College? The very next day a controversial anti-Zionist academic met with termination of appointment.

    • Hi Joseph. Legitimate points, thanks for commenting.

      I could have added Zionism, but then I probably would have added Islamism as well.

      There was much more I wanted to add to the article, but it was already too long. I thought about the Langara College situation, but decided not to include it.

      I believe the fired woman had described the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel as “amazing, brilliant.” A far cry from describing Palestine as having been “a crappy piece of land with nothing on it,” I would have thought.

      But Christians do have a very wide range of views on these issues. I do wish we had some kind of body that could speak judiciously for us locally on key issues (as local Muslims and Jews do), but I have no illusions that such an initiative would be easy to sustain.

  3. Thanks for your insightful and full analysis, Flyn. Selina Robinson has been and continues to be an intelligent and productive member of the current BC government. My disappointment in David Ely could not be more intense. His bowing to this unreasonable and misguided pressure should not be tolerated.

    As a nation, we cannot let loud minorities rule our political discourse. There are serious questions here about where we go as a multi-cultural country. What are our expectations about the adoption of Canadian values by the diverse communities that choose to gather here? Governments are becoming the victims of noisy agitators. Instead of agitation and confrontation we need, as you wisely point out, dialogue and the rule of law and reason.

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