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David Matas
photo by Rhonda Prepes

Mazel Tov to David Matas on Receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award for Lifetime Achievement from University of Manitoba- At the Event He Speaks about IAW

by Rhonda Spivak, June 20, 2014



Winnipeg international human rights lawyer and well known Jewish community leader David Matas received a distinguished alumni award for lifetime Achievement from the University of Manitoba (U of M) at a gala on the evening of May 1, 2014.



Matas co-authored the report A Bloody Harvest with fellow U of M alumnus David Kilgour accusing global superpower China of harvesting organs from a persecuted segment of its population. As a result, Matas has had his life threatened, has seen  his work labeled “extremist”,  and has been banned from presenting their findings in Russia. He and Kilgour received  the 2009 Human Rights Award from the International Society for Human Rights’ and Matas was nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.



Matas has spoken publicly of the influence of the Holocaust in shaping his life’s mission and human rights work. In 1943, the year he was born, about 4.5 million Jews were murdered, and from the “age of eight,” Matas knew he wanted to do something to speak out against the atrocities of the Holocaust and ensure they were not repeated.


Speaking about his persistence in battling human rights violations, Matas said at the U of M gala event,  “I never drop a human rights cause until it’s resolved,” adding that “I’ll be at it until the problem disappears—or I disappear.” 



Matas also said that he is currently working on an autobiography, with the working title Why Did You Do That? As he explained, “The book seeks to justify my human rights activism. Writing the manuscript has made me introspective, attempting to justify my behavior to myself.”



He then noted with a smile "Justifying why I won this award is someone else's problem....The award is, to be sure, a boost to my self-esteem.  Those who know me well would be quick to say, though, that it is a boost I hardly need."


Matas, who for more than 30 years has practiced law in support of immigrants, refugees and others whose rights have been denied added, "Winning awards has a down side, increased expectations."



Matas, who is senior legal counsel for B’nai Brith Canada, said that after having received the Order of Canada, “it didn’t become any easier. To the contrary, afterwards, my court opponents continued as before – disagreeing with everything I had said and adding that my arguments weren’t worthy of the Order of Canada. I hate to think what lies in store for me in court now that I’ve won the distinguished alumni award,” he joked. 

Matas also used the occasion to speak about Israel Apartheid Week, saying “I draw your attention to one particular position of mine: that the University of Manitoba should not be hosting Israel Apartheid Week.


“The decision this year to allow Israel Apartheid Week to go forward was particularly troubling in light of the fact that the University Student Union had stripped the sponsoring group of its student status and funding.”


"Next year, as in past years, Matas said, he will be telling the university, “Don’t give this week a university forum.”



Matas concluded his remarks in accepting the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Univeristy of Manitoba by saying:

"Human rights advocacy I realize is often not one dimensional, opposing rights against wrongs, but rather rights and against rights and determining where the balance lies.  Universities are communities of intense specialization.  Yet, we all have in common human rights.  The debate about where the human rights balance lies is one in which we must all take part. I thank the University of Manitoba Alumni Association through this award for giving me the incentive and reinforcement to engage in this debate in the years to come." 



Matas outlined more of his rationale in support of a ban of Israel Apartheid Week in a speech he gave a few days later to the Canadian Association for the Prevention of Discrimination and Harassment in Higher Education. The following is an excerpt from that speech: 



 "I assume that universities today would have no trouble banning weeks opposing the Jewish world control conspiracy or combatting the killing of Christian children so that their blood could be used for the baking of matzoh, unleavened bread eaten during the Jewish holiday of Passover.  Some racist stereotypes have become so familiar that anyone familiar with racism would be familiar with these attacks.


"Though the slur that Israel is an apartheid state is a continuation in modern form of these antisemitic myths, those who do not follow the evolution antisemitism may well not be aware of this permutation.  On the contrary, the very suggestion of being against apartheid sounds as if the advocates are promoting equality rather than racism.


"The genesis of the slur that Israel is an apartheid state is anti-Zionism, the destruction of the State of Israel as a Jewish state, and the denial to the Jewish people, alone amongst the peoples of the world, of the right to self-determination.  Anti-Zionism proceeds by armed attack, by also by vilification.  The Jewish state is demonized for the purpose of delegitimization.  This demonization has more or less nothing to do with the facts or the law.  It is driven not by reality but by the goal, the end of the State of Israel. The Jewish people are in turn demonized world-wide as actual or presumed supporters of this supposedly demon state.

"This demonization consists of phoney charges of violation of pretty much every international human rights standard known to humanity.  The charge of apartheid takes pride of place in this litany of fabricated charges because of the universal condemnation of apartheid in South Africa and the international coalition that was built to combat it.


"To say that the charge of apartheid has nothing to do with the reality in Israel is not to say that there is no room for improvement in respect for equality principles in Israel.  Israel, like any other country, like Canada, could do better.  But there is absolutely nothing about respect for equality in Israel which justifies international concern.  


"Moreover, improvement in respect for equality principles in Israel is the last thing Israel anti-apartheid activists want.  The Israel anti-apartheid crowd do not want a better Jewish state.  They want no Jewish state.

"Some of you may already know everything I have just said.  But I suspect that there are at least some here who are not sure whether there is merit to the anti-apartheid charge, who do not know what to make of the whole issue.  


"Identifying a physical crime is not so difficult.  One assault is much like another.  Identifying incitement to war, hatred or discrimination is a more sophisticated exercise.  Understanding incitement to war, hatred or discrimination requires an understanding of the context in which the speech is uttered.  Incitement often involves veiled or coded references. Understanding is a work of decoding.  Yet, sophistication and decoding are surely not beyond our universities."


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.