An Inappropriate Response

Matthew Gindin
6 min readFeb 9, 2024


Thoughts On Selina Robinson and the Rabbinic Assembly of Vancouver

Selina Robinson

As we all know, this last week brought a minor scandal when Selina Robinson, then Minister of Higher Education for the Province of BC, made some inaccurate and offensive comments about Palestine. The comment, as quoted by CBC were:

Speaking as part of a panel of Jewish public officials on Tuesday, Robinson answered a question in part by saying there is an “entire generation” of young adults who do not know about the Holocaust or understand that the region on which the state of Israel was created decades ago was previously “a crappy piece of land with nothing on it.”

“There were several hundred thousand people but, other than that, it didn’t produce an economy. It couldn’t grow things. It didn’t have anything on it,” she said during a public Zoom call hosted by B’nai Brith, an independent Jewish human rights organization.

These comments are, first of all, inaccurate. They are an example of the terra nullius discourse used by European settlers all over the world- in Africa, in Palestine, and, painfully close to home, here in Canada, to justify land theft, ethnic cleansing and disempowerment of other peoples on the grounds that they or there civilizations were savage, dysfunctional, or outright non-existent. These words were immediately recognizable to Indigenous people here in Canada as well as to Palestinians and their allies.

In fact, contrary to endlessly repeated and false propaganda to the contrary, pre-state Palestine had hundreds of thousands of people with roots in the land going back centuries, with their own dialects, religious traditions, and identity, and also with their own mosques, schools, seaports, libraries and scholars. If you have never studied this reality, I urge you to read the historical works of Rashid Khalidi and Nur-eldeen Masalha. It might have struck a 19th century European as backward and savage by comparison to London or Berlin, but I thought we had generally moved on from such racist, intercultural put-downs– one reason why Robinson’s comments shocked and offended so many.

There are two other major reasons her comments were far from a mere “mistake” as they have been characterized.

First of all, the intent of her comments, in context, seems to have been to argue that people blame the Zionist movement for destroying Palestinian culture and taking their land only because they don’t fully understand how “crappy” and unproductive what was there was, and how therefore insignificant the Zionist take over of Palestine was– and how maybe even beneficial it actually was, in the scheme of things. This is a morally pernicious argument as well as an inaccurate one, and in many people’s mind echoes the arguments of colonial powers throughout history. Rome claimed that it benefited us when they colonized Israel; the Rabbis disagreed. Britain claimed it had benefited India; the Indians themselves thought otherwise.

Robinson’s comments, though, are not merely a “politically incorrect” statement about something that happened in the past. At a time when the International Court of Justice has found the charge that Israel is committing genocide credible, along with many international human rights organizations and genocide experts, and other voices point to solid evidence that Israel is currently engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Gaza and the West Bank, Robinson’s comments are less like someone commenting on ancient history insensitively and more like someone arguing that North America is a crappy, uncivilized place which can only be improved by colonization at the very time that Europeans are killing Indigenous peoples and taking their land.

Robinson apologized for her comments and called her remarks “disrespectful.” She said she was referring to the fact that the land has limited natural resources, but “I understand that this flippant comment has caused pain and that it diminishes the connection Palestinians also have to the land.”

The RAV’s own letter, however, is utterly without any comments acknowledging the nature of Robinson’s speech or its effects.

I dwell on this only to explain part of the reason I was so upset by what I consider the real scandal of this week– the letter the RAV wrote about the issue.

I thought this letter was deeply problematic, and not because I think firing Robinson was necessarily the best response. Truthfully I don’t feel conversant enough with the facts of her record or position to have an opinion on that. Removing her from her position while keeping her in the caucus seemed a reasonable compromise to me, but if she has truthfully come to understand her error and plans to seek education about it, maybe another route would also be just. I don’t know, but that question is not why I was shamed and horrified by the RAV’s letter. Let me explain why I reacted that way after you read the letter itself:

The characterization of Robinson’s comments in the letter as making “a mistake, as everyone does” is minimizing and dismissive. The hurt that members of not only the Palestinian, Arab and Muslims communities feel, as well as allies of Palestinians, is also shared by Indigenous peoples who recognized the type of language being used by a sitting member of the Canadian government, and starting off in this way, without even a recognition of why her remarks were justifiably hurtful, sounds profoundly disrespectful and is bound to do damage to relations between us Jews and our neighbors.

The letter then continues by trying again to minimize the critics of her speech by mischaracterizing them as “tiny, but loud” or in other words, insignificant but annoying. When we consider the massive global protests for Palestinians that have rocked the world over the last few months, this comment comes off as out of touch with reality and again, disrespectful.

Amazingly the letter then ends by characterizing the critics of Robinson’s comments as sources of antisemitism and hate, painting all those who have been protesting the atrocious levels of violence directed towards Palestinians with a black brush. As someone who has organized and dialogued with dozens of Palestinians and allies of Palestinians in the last few months and found all of them to be deeply respectful of Jews and Judaism (when it is not being used against them) I found these remarks both inaccurate and deeply inoffensive.

Aysha Jameel, a Palestinian organizer in B.C. whose grandparents were forced to leave their home in Palestine after the formation of Israel in 1948, talked to the Tyee about Robinson’s comments.

“It is heartbreaking for me as a Palestinian that some folks can’t see this as ethnic cleansing and genocide, but it’s also rich and rewarding when we’re taking action together with our anti-Zionist Jewish comrades who see this for what it is.”

Jameel’s grandparents were among some 750,000 Palestinians forced from their land when the state of Israel formed.

“My grandfather and his brother ran a photography business and had a full and vibrant community and life in Palestine up until May 1948,” Jameel told the Tyee, which reports that, like so many hundreds of thousads of refugees, they were never allowed to return.

Should we be unsurprised that nowhere in the letter are the feelings of Palestinians or Arabs of Muslims here in BC about Robinson’s comments addressed or acknowledged? Should we be surprised that the letter discusses concern for antisemitism while saying nothing about the fact that people are so sensitive about the erasure of Palestinians right now because the lives and bodies of Palestinians, including perhaps 12,000 children in the last three months, are literally being erased in Gaza and the West Bank at this very moment?

I was surprised.

I expected better from the RAV. This letter was antithetical to the values of intercultural and interfaith empathy and respect that I think are essential in Canadian society, as well as the values of the careful pursuit of justice, self-critical awareness, and compassion essential to traditional Jewish culture.