Activism and Defamation

By April 19, 2006 No Comments

A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on.

— Terry Pratchett, The Truth

Experience often reveals that truth can be stranger than fiction, which is one reason why so many people lie – it’s easier. In Western militaries, especially the more effective ones, junior leaders are encouraged to never offer excuses or explanations for mistakes; generally because the simple answers are rarely true and the truthful answers can be far too complicated. There is much wisdom in this practice. In courts, unraveling the truth is time-consuming and frustrating, which is perhaps why lawyers sometimes find prevarication and distortion so convenient.

For the unscrupulous, lies and distortion are wonderful tactics. For the agent of an ideology or cause, they are necessary –not least because one might have to ignore some simple truths to embrace a cause in the first place. For those who are confronted by such an activist, trying to repair the damage can be extremely difficult.

Howard Rotberg is a Jewish Canadian, but here is his story about dealing with the aftermath of an encounter with lies in April 2004.

I am a Canadian writer, former lawyer, and former race relations activist, who ironically is the latest casualty of the waiver of freedom of expression that occurs when an untruthful charge of anti-Arab comments is allowed to morph into a charge of “racism” and then spins out of control to effective censorship and implicit threats against the author.

I am the author of The Second Catastrophe – A Novel about a book and its author (Mantua Books). My novel, which received good reviews, is a story about a Canadian Jewish Professor, who is writing a book about the situation in the Middle East, and who, after his daughter is injured in a terrorist attack in Israel, rushes off to be with her. There, the Professor, a religious Jew and a widower, finds himself falling in love with the beautiful Israeli divorced doctor (a non-religious Jew) who is treating the daughter.

The book’s theme is the problems of modern Israel, between the religious and the secular, and as an outpost of “western” values in a sea of ever radicalizing totalitarian Islamic nations. The book alternates between the book the professor is writing, and his fictional life, thoughts, and relationships. The Professor’s book within a book is in no way racist, and I have him supporting a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

Nevertheless, at a lecture/book reading about the book at a Chapters’ store in Waterloo Ontario, I was verbally attacked by two men who identified themselves as a Palestinian and an Iraqi, and who first heckled me, and then shouted me down so that I was unable to speak.

One alleged that I “had no right to speak if I was pro-Israel” and that I thought that “all Muslims are terrorists”. He had walked in after the lecture had started, and may have misconstrued some comments about that radical minority we call “Islamists” — and may have thought I was talking about all Muslims. Anyway, I denied that I thought such a thing, in as strong terms as possible. Then he alleged that is what my novel said. I noticed that he had only just picked up a copy off the table where they were for sale, and when I asked him if even had read it; he said, “part”, and I decided to ignore him. After he and his buddy, took turns screaming at me, the audience grew impatient and asked them to allow the guest speaker to continue. One then screamed, “He is a f—ing Jew.” When I told him that no one has the right to come to a lecture and call me a “f—ing Jew”, the manager (who had introduced me, but then left the lecture), came back at that moment. He then told everyone that the lecture was cancelled. No Chapters’ employee was in attendance for more than a minute or two, except a young woman wearing a hijab, who later identified herself as a Palestinian.

To make a long story short, the Palestinian woman, who was no more than 20 years old, lied to both the police and her superiors at Chapters, telling them that I had said that all Muslims are terrorists. She seemed to know the hecklers, and I believe the confrontation was a set-up.

The thing spun wildly out of control at that point, with Chapters’ putting out a horrible press release, with specious Canadian moral equivalency, apologizing to the attendees that they had to hear racist comments from both the hecklers and the guest author. This press release was published in several newspapers.

As a result of my attempts to get Chapters to retract the allegation that I had made racist comments, and to ask the book store to specify what comments I was alleged to have made, I ended up getting on the wrong side of Heather Reisman. [1] I kept offering them copies of sworn affidavits from two reputable professors who were in the second row throughout the whole lecture. These stated that I had said nothing racist – and that the heckler was the one who alleged my thoughts were that all Muslims are terrorists, whereas I had said no such thing.

Finally, I told Miss Reisman that if they didn’t retract the statement, I would be forced to take legal action.

I said that to her, reluctantly, knowing that she controls a huge proportion of the Canadian retail book industry. Her response was clear. Within one week she had her VP of Supply Management write to my publisher that they were removing all 300 copies of my book from their stores across Canada, allegedly because of “poor sales”. This is notwithstanding that it was selling well in the larger cities, and some stores had sold out their allotment of 7 books per store. They refused to even stock one copy in the stores where it was selling well, and they even for good measure removed its availability from their website.

Since this defacto suspension of my book spelled success for Islamist lies and intimidation, others were encouraged to go farther. On a public forum page of the Canadian Coalition for Democracies (one of the few Canadian organizations willing to make a public statement in my support), they received a posting, from a person, identifying herself as Jewish, saying she was at the lecture, and that I had made her ashamed to be a Jew, and what I really said was that “All Arabs and Muslims must die.”

The posting was in broken English and was signed with the name “Sela Vomberg”. I had lived in Waterloo, and was familiar with the Vomberg family who were shocked by the contents of the posting, and confirmed that there was no such person as “Sela” in their family. As the Vomberg’s parents are Holocaust survivors and most of their family was killed during the Holocaust, they had always made it their business to search for other “Vombergs far and wide” and so they were certain there was no such person.

With the help of Al Gordon from the Canadian Coalition for Democracies, and some pro bono legal work from Weir Foulds law firm in Toronto, we got the computer IP address from which the email was sent, and then got a court order disclosing the name and address of the people who sent the email. Naturally, it hadn’t come from ‘Sela Vomberg’, but had come from a Palestinian family who lived a few doors down from the Vombergs. Essentially, they decided to appropriate the Vomberg name, to spread the lie that I was advocating the death of all Muslims.

Ironically, in my novel, I had my fictional professor get in trouble for some slightly inappropriate wording — which in our current climate, becomes a huge problem. In speaking about the suicide bombings at his fictional lecture in 2002, He speculated that the Israelis might have to erect security fences. I had my character say the fences might be a good idea, “essentially to keep the animals in the zoo.” In the novel, on the next day, a student newspaper has banner headlines stating “Zionist professor calls Palestinians ‘animals in a zoo”. He is then brought up on charges that he contravened the university’s Human Rights Code, by giving a reasonable impression that he is biased against certain students.

So you can imagine – given my character’s fictional experience in the novel — the irony of what’s happened to me, in light of my life imitating art, and in light of the fact that as a former practicing lawyer, I am extremely careful how I word things. But it didn’t help me in real life, because it really didn’t matter what I said, only what the young woman alleged.

You can imagine the chilling effect all this had on me. But, I could have carried on with speaking engagements, if I just had had some support amongst Jewish organizations, the press, or other writers’ organizations, but no one wanted to get involved. Barbara Kay from the National Post said she would do something, and I spent weeks providing her with copies of all relevant documents, emails, court documents, etc. Then her son Johathan, the Comment editor at the Post inadvertently sent me an email with an email from his mother attached below, where she confided that she was not going to publish the story after all, because her sister is a friend of Heather Reisman and her sister asked her not to do anything to embarrass Heather.

Anyway, if you are still reading this, I hope you find my story an important example of how moral relativism, political correctness, and fear of offending the powerful, have come together to make me defenseless. Even Jewish groups starting withdrawing their invitations to speak, and my elderly father, a survivor of Auschwitz, pleaded with me to stay out of the public eye. As well, I have two children at University, and I didn’t want them attacked. But I really feel that the story is just so bizarre, that it should see the light of day, so that this kind of intimidation can be recognized by the majority of Canadians, who I still feel are good people.

If you want to read an account of the Chapters lecture, it was printed in the Jewish Tribune at . However, B’nai Brith, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre all declined to make statements, and the last named said that if I was wronged I should hire a lawyer and sue. (The lawyer I called about a libel suit wanted a $20,000 retainer.)

To this day, Chapters refuses to put in writing what I am alleged to have said to justify their charge of “racism”. I have even started a Small Claims Court action, and Chapters is now in breach of a Court Order that they were supposed to disclose this information by last November 23rd.

Anyway, I hope you have read this, and that it has enlightened you further on how big a problem we have with our fundamental liberties in this country when even the civil liberties organizations won’t do anything for you if you are perceived to be Politically Incorrect, even if in fact you are not.

I continue to write a lot, but the only area that I currently publish in concerns the development of affordable rental housing for the working poor — in which field I have worked for many years.

Howard Rotberg, Vancouver


One reason why we ran Mr. Rotberg’s account of his ordeal is the fact that the Jihadist fronts have made a practice of singling out those who talk candidly about Islamic extremism and harassing them. Someday soon, it will probably be the Institute’s turn – and if we don’t help people like Mr. Rotberg, who would help us when we need it? As Edmund Burke put it over two centuries ago, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Cutting and running in a fit of inane moral equivalence to distance yourself from the appearance of trouble is one way of doing nothing. – JT