Clayton Ruby: weighing him in the balance

I remember Clayton Ruby. The well-known Toronto lawyer and civil libertarian died earlier this month, at age 80.  So far, most of the obituaries have praised him and portrayed him as a left-wing icon.  But it is the left that he smeared for its support for Palestinians’ human rights.

I had two experiences with Ruby — 25 years apart.

Two friends and I led the first student sit-in at a Canadian high school.  This was in Toronto in the spring of 1969.  The sit-in started because the principal refused to allow us to have a Marxist study group.  This was the era of the start of mass protests against the American army’s  destruction of Viet Nam and popular student and worker strikes around the world.

Sit-in began in the foyer of Forest Hill Collegiate, Toronto. I am fifth from left. (credit: Dave Norris, Toronto Star: Toronto Public Library Archives)

My friends and I met Clayton Ruby at his home and office in Toronto’s Annex area.  He  had a reputation for giving legal advice to hippies who fell afoul of the cops in the hippies’ fight against gentrification in Yorkville.  We had been expelled from school for our protest;  Ruby listened, but I can’t remember him helping us directly. The struggle would be won, not with legal intervention, but by determination and public shaming of the educational establishment.

After all, it was day three of a five day walk-out at a prestigious public high school, Forest Hill Collegiate. Though dozens of students protested with us, most of the 500 students who walked out took the opportunity to sit on the school’s front steps, smoke and hang around with friends.

Eventually we won – we were reinstated.  And we could have our club.  We had some help – we were on the front page of the Toronto Star day after day, and former Forest Hill graduates organized a demonstration in support of us.

Flash forward 25 years –to Saskatoon where I once lived.  Ruby and I met again. 

The Martensville child sex abuse scandal was all over the news.  Ron and Linda Sterling, who ran a home-daycare centre, were charged with 32 sexual crimes against 11 children .  Eventually, after a sensational trial, they were acquitted by a jury.  But a 17-year old girl was charged with sexual abuse of two 11-year-old boys who attended the daycare after school.  I was in that courtroom when both boys testified. The boys insisted that the teenage girl had held a gun to their heads and forced them to have sexual intercourse with her.  They testified that their abuser was blonde and beautiful, like a “movie star”, with a fabulous body. 

Typical headline– this one from Maclean’s: hundreds of charges were laid against what was believed to be participants in a child sex ring led by police officers and the Sterlings. All were found not guilty; the sex abuse ring did not exist.

At lunch during the court recess, I met the 17-year-old accused.  I saw scars on her neck and asked if she had any other scars.  In the restaurant washroom, she showed me surgery scars all over her body; she had undergone many operations as a child and her body was by no means “beautiful.”  In fact, her body was quite the opposite. The girl and I raced back to the courthouse to report this evidence to her legal aid lawyer (now a Saskatchewan judge). After all, what the two boys said about her body was patently false; they never saw her body.  The lawyer let the matter slide; the girl was convicted and sentenced to two years in a young offenders’ centre. 

A few of us raised the money and the determination necessary to bring Clayton Ruby to Saskatoon to mount an appeal.   A look at a full-length photo of the girl’s body, added considerably to the overturning of the teen’s conviction by the Court of Appeal.  I helped to produce the evidence, but it was Clayton Ruby who saw its value and used it to obtain justice.

Seven years later – a disappointing blow

But seven years later, in 2002, my high opinion of Ruby was dealt a very disappointing blow.

Clayton Ruby, and two friends: trade union leader Jeff Rose, and Toronto physician Philip Berger jointly authored a scathing opinion piece in The Globe and Mail. It was an open and nasty attack on the Canadian left.  The three men, all Jewish and successful bastions of the left, condemned the left for antisemitism.  They complained that the left was biased against Israel – notably for “equating Israel with apartheid South Africa”. 

Israel is a settler-colonial state…90% of Arab-Israelis live in segregated Arab communities. The Arab education system receives 88% less funding per pupil than does the Jewish education system.

Today the accusation of Israel being an apartheid state is often repeated by many world leaders –including former US President Jimmy Carter, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former UN secretary Ban Ki-moon, and prominent Israeli author David Grossman to name a few.   Respected human rights organizations including, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’tselem, 13 Israel-based human rights organizations,  and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, have condemned Israel for being an apartheid state.

Below: From left- Dr Philip Berger (credit Canadian Medical Hall of Fame); Jeff Rose, in 1983 he was elected president of CUPE– seen with outgoing president Grace Hartman (Jim Wilkes, Toronto Star); Clayton Ruby (The Globe and Mail).

Israel is also a settler-colonial state.  It is well-known that the Palestinians inside Israel who make up 20% of Israel’s population face discrimination in employment, university and teaching careers, and where they live.  90% of Arab-Israelis live in segregated Arab communities. The Arab education system receives 88% less funding per pupil than does the Jewish education system. Since most Arabs are not permitted to join the Israeli army—which is essential for social acceptance in Israel.  Without access to a decent military service record, an Arab-Israeli’s post-secondary education, career and income will be  severely limited. 

And that’s just about the Palestinians who live in Israel proper.  For those who live in the Occupied Territories including the West Bank and Gaza, the situation is far worse.  Under Israel’s illegal military occupation, more than 700,000 Jewish Israeli settlers have been encouraged to live in illegal settlements and outposts on Palestinian land.  This is so in east Jerusalem where Palestinians in Sheik Jarrah are frequently kicked out of their homes of 50 plus years, only to watch their homes be destroyed or Jewish settlers claim those homes .  Palestinians end up living in tents.  To service the settler communities, Israel has created settler only-roads and highways.  There are buses for Jews and buses for Palestinians.   Palestinians are controlled through ID cards and differentially coloured car license plates.

Left: two girls walk by the ruins of a house destroyed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, May 2021 (credit: UNRWA); Palestinian refugee women fetch potable water in clay pots on a Gaza beach, 1953. In 2019 Palestinian refugee women walk on the same beach in Gaza City hauling potable water. (credit: UNRWA/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

There are more than 590 military checkpoints in the West Bank to ensure that virtually no Palestinians can easily enter Israel whether for medical appointments or for work.  So many Palestinians in the territories live in abject poverty. 

Back to Ruby

In Canada’s national pro-business newspaper, Ruby et al wagged their finger at the left for their support of  Palestinian human rights.  Ruby and his co-authors made the shameful mistake of equating criticism of Israel with antisemitism, “We reject as anti-Semitic the shameful double standard applied to the only Jewish State.” While they tepidly agreed Israel should be held accountable for its conduct, it should be “no more accountable than other nations, including Palestine.”  Since when have colonized people been held responsible for their colonizers’ outrageous aggressions?  Clearly, Israel, which former PM Netanyahu cites as the 8th most powerful country in the world  carries out a range of brutal, and murderous attacks on the Palestinian people who have no helicopter gunships, no armed drones, no tanks and no army.

BDS a nonviolent response to Israeli apartheid

Ruby and his co-authors took aim at the call for economic sanctions and boycotts against Israel.  Somehow – boycotting South African oranges and wine was acceptable in the struggle against apartheid there.  But when it came to Israel – the call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions was absolutely not allowed.  But why is that?  BDS is the best non-violent means to curb Israeli aggression against Palestinians.  However, in the minds of the three authors, Israel did not and does not merit being sanctioned or held to account.

Finally, in the article, Ruby and friends insisted that the Canadian Jewish community wholeheartedly supported Israel. What the authors could not envision was that in the past decades, thousands of Jews across Canada refused to be tarred with Israel’s brush. It was a wide brush of the establishment Jewish community in Canada which routinely undermined and dismissed Palestinian human rights — and the activists who supported them — in the interests of total support for Israel.  Being Jewish does not mean unqualified support for Israel. More and more Jews are joining Independent Jewish Voices Canada, a grassroots organization based in Jewish tradition that opposes all forms of racism and advocates for a just peace in Israel/Palestine. 

…by the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s Israel’s standing in the world began to plummet, because of its violent illegal occupation of Palestine, the endless wars against Palestinians, the child arrests for stone-throwing, and the jailing and killings of tens of thousands of young Palestinians. 

And speaking about racism: perhaps the most appalling part of the op-ed by Ruby, Rose and Berger was that they gave racism against Palestinians by Israelis and their supporters such short shrift.  Clearly, this wrankled Canadians on the left.  In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s Israel was the darling of many on the left. Many young Jews admired Israel and went there to work on kibbutz or to study.  Trade unionists championed Israel’s Histadrut trade union. Social Democrats admired Israel’s string of Labour governments. Even Communists were friends of Israel.

But by the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s Israel’s standing in the world began to plummet, because of its violent illegal occupation of Palestine, the endless wars against Palestinians, the child arrests for stone-throwing, and the jailing and killings of tens of thousands of young Palestinians.  To be abandoned by the left and erstwhile civil libertarians was a huge blow for Israel’s international reputation. They and their supporters in the Diaspora needed something equally disastrous with which to attack the left. With its reputation in free-fall, Israel produced a new narrative: the left was antisemitic

Imagine what a coup it was to have Clayton Ruby, Jeff Rose and Philip Berger, all Jews and civil libertarians denounce antisemitism on the left. Former Canadian Jewish Congress CEO Bernie Farber has proudly claimed responsibility for organizing their intervention.

Israel and its supporters are constantly trying to prove the worst antisemitism comes from the left.  But that beggars credibility.  The cornerstone issue for the left is anti-racism; the left sees its responsibility as one to protect the rights of embattled minorities including the Palestinians.  The left will not support Israel’s settler-colonialist regime, or the racism inherent in Israel’s politics and laws.  And as establishment Jewish communities continue to defend everything Israel does and says – the left will become more outspoken and critical of them.

Ruby’s blindspot was Israel

None of this is to take away from Clayton Ruby’s dedication to the law and to his clients. Or take away from his 50 plus year legal career.  What I’m trying to show is that though he was a civil libertarian, his blindspot was Israel.  And that is a huge blindspot for a Jew and an icon of human rights.  Israel’s (and the establishment Jewish community’s) malicious treatment of those who dare to support Palestinian human rights, especially haranguing the left for its support of BDS,  attests to the fact that younger secular Jews refuse to identify with Israel, most have no interest in settling there, and they are turning away from the racism espoused by leaders in their own community.  

The Jewish community in Canada is far from monolithic.  Left-wing Jews — myself included — are working hard to fight all forms of racism.  We want to build the fight against racism and  antisemitism — but it cannot be that Jews only fight for Jews.  It must be that Jews unite with others to fight racism and antisemitism. 

By the way: Activist and author Yves Engler wrote an excellent article Should Clayton Ruby be considered a left hero? which inspired me to write this.

Featured Image: Badil Resource Centre for Palestinian Refugees and Residency Rights Map. To learn more about Badil, see their site here

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