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Politics

The Man Who Upended Canada’s Green Party

As Annamie Paul dodges a non-confidence vote, former aide Noah Zatzman scoffs at the idea he put her career in peril.

Christopher Guly 20 Jul 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Tyee frequent contributor Christopher Guly is an Ottawa-based journalist and member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Annamie Paul was set to face a non-confidence vote today. But the meeting that could have derailed her leadership of the Green Party of Canada was cancelled two days ago.

On Monday, she gave a press conference, pleading for party unity. Sometime next year, after an expected fall election has been waged, she expects to face a leadership review. Until then, she said, "I hope people will continue to support me. I hope I will be given the opportunity to serve.”

Paul has regained some footing as she scrambles to avoid sinking into a pit of intrigue within her own ranks. But how did she find herself on the brink in the first place?

A key figure in the drama is Noah Zatzman, until recently her trusted senior advisor, a little-known political operative who helped Annamie Paul make history as the federal Green party’s first Black and Jewish leader.

Zatzman was the go-to guy who helped facilitate publicity and media contact for Paul when she was elected the ninth leader of the Green Party of Canada on Oct. 3, 2020.

He claims credit for helping Paul run strong in her latest byelection bid, a daunting task, he says, given he’d found a Green party apparatus “in disarray.”

And then, on May 14, Zatzman triggered a crisis for his client when on Facebook he accused “a range of political actors” of “appalling anti-Semitism and discrimination.”

Guilty of such bigotry, he said, were federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, former Green leadership candidate Dimitri Lascaris and “many Liberal NDP and sadly Green MPs.”

“We will not accept an apology after you realize what you’ve done. We will work to defeat you and bring in progressive climate champions who are antifa and pro LGBT and pro indigenous sovereignty and Zionists!!!!!” wrote Zatzman, who is gay.

In response, the Green party’s federal council passed a motion calling on Paul to “repudiate” Zatzman for his “attacks” on Green MPs.

Paul has yet do so, adding fuel to a mounting rebellion within the party’s federal council, which is poised to cut money and staff key to her political success.

While Paul has not yielded to the demand she disown Zatzman’s statements, the man who made them shows no intention of walking them back. He is no longer on the Green payroll. But Zatzman scoffs at the idea that he has placed Paul’s career in peril, and he maintains there is a serious problem of anti-Semitism inside the Greens. “I meant what I said,” he told The Tyee.

Other Green insiders hold him responsible for an existential crisis for the party that once employed him, and say he has never been adequately held accountable. A Jewish aide to MP Paul Manly placed Zatzman in the category of some who manage to be both progressive and aligned with “the most radical right-wing politicians in Israel.” He sharply differed with Zatzman, saying that “criticizing human rights abuses is not anti-Semitism.”

Who is Noah Zatzman, how did he come to play such a key role in the political rise and stumble of Annamie Paul, and what can the controversy surrounding him tell us about fissures running within the Green Party of Canada?

‘I SHOWED UP EVERY DAY’

Zatzman had never met Annamie Paul until July of last year, an introduction made through mutual family friends. Just prior to joining her team, he was doing media relations work for Climate Strike Canada.

The 37-year-old, Halifax-born Toronto resident played a behind-the-scenes role as he had for over a decade, working mainly in the world of public relations and communications.

Between 2011 and 2015, Zatzman served as publicist for Bell Media’s Discovery channel. Afterward, he spent nearly three years in former Ontario Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne’s office as a special assistant and later senior advisor for tour operations.

Before that, Zatzman — an active provincial Liberal — lived in Ottawa between 2008 and 2009 and worked as a special assistant for Ontario Liberal member of Parliament and future industry minister, Navdeep Bains.

Zatzman joined the effort to win Paul a seat in last October’s federal byelection in Toronto Centre. Just three weeks after becoming Green leader, Paul placed a close second behind former CTV broadcaster Marci Ien, who held Toronto Centre for the governing Liberals — a dramatic improvement from Paul’s fourth-place finish in the same riding in the 2019 federal election.

Paul’s byelection campaign was led by Sean Yo, who also ran Ontario Green party Leader Mike Schreiner’s successful 2018 general election bid to become the province’s first Green member of Ontario’s legislature.

Zatzman views his contribution to the October effort the “most important thing” he did for Paul. “The party didn’t know how to run the byelection,” he said. “I spent the first seven days with her in Ottawa doing media — basically a hundred interviews a day.”

“The party gave us no support. The only one who helped us was Rosie Emery, [the party’s press secretary],” said Zatzman.

“I showed up every day at Annamie’s residence in my Toyota and we went around Toronto Centre.”

Zatzman didn’t expect to stick around after the votes were counted, but said he recognized that the party was in “complete disarray” and he decided to stay with Paul and help run her office as a volunteer.

“I ended up dropping all my clients,” he explained. “But Annamie and the party said, ‘You have to eat.’” So this year he entered into a six-month contract, which Zatzman said was set to expire this July.

However, an email sent by Doug Tingey, president of the party’s fund to GPC members, indicated that the federal council’s executive committee passed a motion on June 4 that Zatzman’s contract would not be extended — and that “he was advised to stop working,” Tingey told The Tyee.

Cut loose from the Greens today, Zatzman takes no responsibility for placing Paul’s position within the party in peril.

He said that Paul’s problems originate from both a disgruntled federal council and an attempt by former federal leader Elizabeth May’s “old guard to keep control over the organs of the party.”

“That is completely untrue at every level,” said May in an exclusive interview with The Tyee. “Noah has no basis to say that. He was not on council.”

THE SPLIT ON ISRAEL

The latest round of decades of fighting between Israel and Palestinians started with Palestinian protests in East Jerusalem over Israel’s impending removal of six families from a region annexed by Israel and claimed by Palestinians. The death toll would ultimately include 256 Palestinians (66 of whom were children) and 13 Israelis (including two children). As Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad launched rockets into Israel and Israel waged air strikes on Gaza, the Green party, on May 10, issued a statement calling for “an immediate de-escalation in the violence and a return to dialogue as a means to seeking a peaceful solution.” For some in the party, that did not go far enough in criticizing Israel’s policies and methods.

Green MP Paul Manly, who represents the B.C. riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith, compared the planned removal of Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah to “ethnic cleansing.”

Then-Green Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin, who left the party a month later and joined the Liberal caucus, tweeted that she found the official Green response to the Middle East conflict “totally inadequate.” In the since-removed tweet, Atwin said that “forced evictions must end” and that she stood “with Palestine and condemn[s] the unthinkable air strikes in Gaza,” concluding with the words, “End Apartheid!”

Then came Zatzman’s social media rebuttal vowing to work to defeat MPs in his party and replace them with pro-Israel “Zionists.” Followed in turn by Green federal council demand that Paul disown such statements. And charges that Zatzman’s accusations and Paul’s reticence to disown them had caused Atwin to go.

Paul declined to discuss with The Tyee her relationship with Zatzman, but said that his now-infamous Facebook post was not made on her behalf.

Zatzman makes no apologies for posting his comments.

“I’m very offended by the suggestion that I didn’t have the agency to call out the anti-Semitism,” said Zatzman, noting that he was never “an aide” or “a staffer” in Paul’s office and that he always used his personal Gmail, not a Green party email account, to communicate with journalists.

“My association with Annamie had nothing to do with the Green party. I was a consultant and friend who helped manage her office.”

He said he has not talked with Paul since he stepped aside from his advisory role last month prior to the July 4 expiration of his contract.

However, Zatzman underscored that even if he had been on the Green party staff, he still would have called out the MPs on anti-Semitism.

“There’s an old-school notion on Parliament Hill that only the 338 MPs and the prime minister’s chief of staff have the agency to say anything. I’m sorry. In the U.S. and western Europe, it’s not like that,” he said, adding that he has no regrets about his Facebook post based on Paul’s mantra that “silence emboldens hate.”

“My remarks were supported and shared by the organized Jewish community,” said Zatzman, who added that his name is now being used as a “synonym” or “stand-in” for that community in addressing anti-Semitism and that by extension, the federal council is really asking Paul to “repudiate” the Jewish community as a whole.

“The party is tolerant in so many ways, but not for Jewish people — there is no room for dissent from me.”

His family has strong Jewish roots in Canada. His great uncle Joseph Zatzman was the first Jewish mayor in Canada east of Montreal — in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia from 1964 to 1967. His mother’s family ran Hyman’s Bookstore — a Jewish commercial landmark on Toronto’s Spadina Avenue — from 1926 to 1971.

In terms of his ideology, Zatzman said that as a “liberal” and “left-wing eco-Jew,” most closely aligned with the views of the Israeli Labor Party or the social-democratic and green Israeli party, Meretz, he too shared the “astonishment that international law was being broken at Sheikh Jarrah and the heinousness of [former Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s administration to impose such a thing on Palestinians.”

However, expressing opposition to that action using such terms as “apartheid” or “ethnic cleansing” is “anti-Semitism,” according to Zatzman, who said he relies on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of the word, which neither directly mentions “apartheid” nor “ethnic cleansing.”

Zatzman, who said he supports the partition of Palestine, believes it to be difficult for “people who have never been to the region, and who are not Jewish or Arab or Palestinian or Israeli with skin in the game” to fully understand the dynamic playing out among all groups on the ground.

He said he has visited Israel almost every year since he was 17.

GoldenblattKidderMay.jpg
‘What is happening in East Jerusalem is ethnic cleansing,’ wrote Ilan Goldenblatt, an aide to Green MP Paul Manly, shown here adjusting the knot on Manly’s tie. At centre is John Kidder, husband of Green MP and former party leader Elizabeth May. Photo supplied.

Zatzman also clarified that he wasn’t calling for Manly’s and Atwin’s defeat during the federal election. “My intent was I wanted to challenge them in their nominations,” said Zatzman, who added that it was his “right” as a Green party member to do so.

But as May pointed out, the two MPs had already been nominated as Green candidates earlier in the year — and furthermore, in a June 1 interview with La Presse, he said that he did not “regret calling Paul Manly and Jenica Atwin anti-Semitic.”

“He said that if in transforming the party to make it more mainstream we lose Jenica Atwin, along the way, oh well, big deal,” said May, the Green MP for the B.C. riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands. “At that point, he was still in the leader’s office — still listed by some media as our chief spokesperson, senior advisor. I don’t know what his official title ever was.”

“To me, that’s deeply shocking that was allowed to happen without him being reprimanded and immediately removed. This was not a grey area. This was a serious transgression for anyone in any leader’s office in any party in the history of any democracy that I can think of,” she said.

“It was deeply unacceptable. That’s why we lost Jenica.”

May raised the Middle East crisis during question period in the House of Commons shortly after Atwin and Manly tweeted their comments and before Zatzman posted his on Facebook. May told The Tyee that she agreed with their positions — not necessarily Atwin’s wording — on the situation facing the Palestinians because those views reflect the party’s policy.

Zatzman said he considers May “a great friend of the Jewish community” and recalled how he was moved to tears nearly four years ago when he and now-former Supreme Court justice Rosalie Abella sat together in the Commons gallery and watched May deliver a highly emotional speech following the federal government’s official apology for Canada’s decision to turn away the MS St. Louis and its 907 German Jewish passengers fleeing the Nazi regime in 1939.

As for the other two MPs, Zatzman said that prior to the social-media skirmish over their “settler-colonialist narrative” on Israel, he was “in touch multiple times a day” with their staff.

“We were friends,” said Zatzman, who told The Tyee that he “begged Jenica to retract” her tweet in text messages he sent to her now-former chief of staff, Shannon Carmont, over the course of two days. He said that he only met Atwin three times over Zoom calls.

On June 14, after leaving the Greens for the Liberals, Atwin issued a statement in which she said her “words regarding the conflict between Palestinians and Israel were intended to send strength and love to peoples” and that she regretted if her “choice of words caused harm to those who are suffering.”

Zatzman wonders why Atwin “said yes to the prime minister, but no to Annamie Paul” about walking back her original remarks. He said that “as a Jewish person” he felt personally offended by “the anti-Semitism that was disseminated.”

At her June 16 news conference in Ottawa, which The Tyee reported on, Paul said that she did “not consider any of our MPs to be anti-Semites — I have said that repeatedly.”

“I have also said that there is a great deal of room for differences of opinion in our party. That is one of our hallmarks. None of the members of our party have ever been sanctioned by me in any way for their views on any foreign-policy matter.”

Atwin has not responded to interview requests; Manly declined an interview.

‘DOES NOAH REPRESENT THEM?’

Paul Manly’s chief of staff, Ilan Goldenblatt, is an Israeli-born Jew who wants to make it clear that “criticizing human rights abuses is not anti-Semitism.”

So clear, in fact, that he gave that title to a post he placed on Manly’s blog.

In it, Goldenblatt noted that he is the son of Montreal Jews who immigrated to Israel (made “Aliya”) in 1972 as Zionists. When he was 17, he went on a high-school trip to Poland to visit the Nazi death camps. Goldenblatt also served in the Israeli Defense Forces, known in Israel by the Hebrew acronym, Tzahal.

He also relied on the same words Manly and Atwin used in their tweets to describe the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.

“What is happening in East Jerusalem is ethnic cleansing,” wrote Goldenblatt, who moved to Canada in 1998.

He said that in the West Bank, there are roads and tunnels and towns “that are for Jews only.”

“Jews can move freely while Palestinians have to face humiliation and endless delays at checkpoints. Jews can take over land and start building houses immediately, while Palestinians in their own villages can’t get a permit to build on land they own, and regularly have houses demolished by bulldozers backed by armed military escorts. This is indeed apartheid!”

In an exclusive interview with The Tyee, 47-year-old Goldenblatt said that he is Manly’s “main advisor” on Israeli-Palestinian issues.

“I wrote the tweet,” he said of the social-media post that earned Zatzman’s ire.

Goldenblatt said that Zatzman’s reaction to the tweets reflects a position “quite common for Jews who are progressive on Indigenous rights, BIPOC rights, LGBTQ rights — but when it comes to Israel, align with the most radical right-wing politicians in Israel.”

On the latter, he referred to the annual “March of the Flags,” which took place in Jerusalem last month.

“Hundreds of right-wing extremists, waving Israeli flags, run through Muslim neighbourhoods in Jerusalem chanting, 'Death to Arabs,' said Goldenblatt, whose mother and other family members still live in his hometown, Haifa, and who once owned a Middle Eastern restaurant in Nanaimo called the Thirsty Camel Café.

“If I were a young Palestinian under Israeli occupation — I don’t think I would join Hamas, because I’m no friend of any fundamentalist organization — but it would be hard to believe in peace,” said Goldenblatt, who also remembers bartending in Tel Aviv in the 1990s when Israelis were targeted with bombs set off in buses and cafes.

He believes that some of Zatzman’s trips to Israel were part of Birthright Israel, an organization that offers Jewish adults, between the ages of 18 and 32, what it describes as “a free, life-changing trip to Israel,” and which Goldenblatt added, received “a ton of funding from [the late] Sheldon Adelson, a very right-wing American Jewish casino magnate who was a huge supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu.”

Zatzman told The Tyee that he led Birthright trips to Israel four times, between 2007 and 2015, but has also visited the country on private trips, as well as was one of the lead political staffers on Wynne’s 2016 business mission to Israel and the West Bank.

Goldenblatt also challenged Zatzman’s claim that he is “representing the Canadian Jewish community.”

The organization Independent Jewish Voices Canada “is critical about the occupation,” said Goldenblatt. “Does Noah represent them?”

“I think he’d be happy if the Green party just ceased to exist because he’s that angry,” he said.

“But I think he had no concept of what would happen when he made that post — and he’s found himself in a Hitchcock movie where things are spinning out of control and he doesn’t know what to do about it.”

Zatzman has not been entirely alone in his accusations of anti-Semitism. Former federal Green president Paul Estrin wrote in the National Post earlier this month that “the party is self-destructing by focusing on Jews and allowing anti-Semitism and discrimination to thrive.”

But within the Greens, Goldenblatt can be added to a number of Zatzman critics, particularly on a Facebook group called Green Party of Canada Supporters.

One of Zatzman’s biggest detractors has been Constantine Kritsonis, a six-time Green Party of Canada candidate and former federal council member, who established the Green supports Facebook group five years ago.

On June 17, he posted a message that he had filed a complaint against Paul’s “MP libeling sock puppet Noah Zatzman” with the Green Party of Canada’s ombuds and appeals committee, an arms-length body from the central party structure.

The committee received two complaints — one of which came from Toronto-based Kritsonis — regarding Zatzman’s comments about the two MPs and which in Kritsonis’s case, called on the party’s federal council to pass a resolution demanding that Zatzman “apologize” or have his Green membership terminated “permanently.”

Zatzman said the committee reached out to him seeking an explanation as to why he accused the MPs of anti-Semitism along with a request for “documentation” to prove his claim. He said he didn’t respond, and provided The Tyee with an email chain between him and committee members Ben Petkau and Sara Golling.

The committee asks included: “On what basis did [he] accuse the two MPs of anti-Semitism?” What attempts has he made “to resolve any concerns [he] might have with” Manly and Atwin? Did he believe he was “the target of anti-Semitic actions or statements” by the Green Party of Canada and its members before he “publicly accused two Green MPs of anti-Semitism”?

In all three cases, Zatzman was asked to provide documentation.

As he told The Tyee, the requests caused him to be incredulous. “Imagine a Black or Indigenous person accuses someone of racism and is asked to prove it,” said Zatzman, who considered filing a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission both against the committee — over its conduct and report, which contained 13 findings and eight recommendations — as well as against the federal council about its motion calling on Paul to repudiate him.

The ombuds committee “doesn’t get to tell Jews what antisemitism is or is not,” he wrote in an email to Golling. “We tell you and we expect you to listen.”

In its initial report, the committee used the term “anti-Jewish” instead of “anti-Semitic” because “Semitic” refers to all “Semitic peoples, including Arabs and Palestinians, [and] not only Jews” — despite the accepted definition that “anti-Semitic” means any form of hostility, prejudice or discrimination directed against Jews.

The committee issued a revised report, using the term “anti-Semitic,” but left intact its conclusions.

Among the group’s findings was that the use of the term “apartheid” to “describe the restrictions placed on the rights of Palestinians is not, in itself, a sign of being anti-Jewish.” (For more on the ombuds committee report, which was retracted, see sidebar.)

THE ELIZABETH MAY FACTOR

On Sunday, CBC reported that the vote of non-confidence was cancelled and a review of Paul’s party membership would not proceed.

Green federal council interim president Liana Canton Cusmano’s bilingual statement had alleged that Paul’s “failure to meet her obligations as leader has caused the defection of a member of our caucus to another party and tangible damage to the party in the form of impairment of the party’s reputation, cancelled memberships, reduced donations and withdrawals of potential candidates for the upcoming general election.”

AnnamiePaulElizabethMayPodiums.jpg
Green party Leader Annamie Paul between Green party MPs Elizabeth May and Paul Manly in Ottawa last October. Former Paul aide Noah Zatzman blames ‘infighting’ tied to May for Paul’s current troubles, not his charges of anti-Semitism in party ranks. Photo: Sean Kilpatrick, the Canadian Press.

Before the vote was abruptly cancelled, Cusmano described it as “the most consequential thing that has ever been undertaken at the Green Party of Canada.”

But Paul is hardly out of the woods. The party reportedly is so cash-strapped that the federal council might pull back $250,000 allocated for her election campaign in the federal riding of Toronto Centre. The embattled leader has also temporarily lost staff, which are unionized, including Victoria Galea, her executive assistant.

Zatzman said “infighting” within the party goes back well before he launched his famous tweet, and that Atwin’s departure was because she was “not happy” with the turmoil.

Elizabeth May, he said, was well aware of Atwin’s discontent. In fact, the “infighting” was driven by May and her supporters, Zatzman said.

He said he doesn’t know why May, currently the Green party’s parliamentary leader in the Commons, hasn’t come out fully in support of Paul’s leadership.

“I was over the moon when Annamie won the leadership and have been fully in support of the leader at all times,” countered May, who recently moved with her husband and former federal council vice-president, John Kidder, from Sidney to Saturna Island.

“I have done everything she has asked of me every time,” said May, who was willing to step aside last fall and allow Paul to run in Saanich-Gulf Islands.

In an interview with The Tyee last month, Paul insisted that she would “defy anyone to find anything but positive statements from me" about her relationship with May.

Zatzman conceded that he thinks May “means well” and “wants Annamie to be elected” to the House of Commons — and ultimately wants to serve as Speaker of the House, something which May herself has acknowledged.

She also told The Tyee that she personally donated $1,000 to Paul’s election campaign in Toronto Centre as part of a Zoom fundraising event held on May 14 to mark her 10th anniversary as an MP.

May added that she included Paul in her shadow cabinet as international affairs critic, and believes the “difficulty” she has experienced with the federal council could, in part, be attributed to the fact that most members have not met in person with Paul, who has been forced by the pandemic into virtual gatherings from the time she assumed the leadership last year.

For his part, Zatzman said he loves May and thinks “the world of her,” but believes she is a “pyromaniac politically” and “has not let go” of running the party — ignoring in the process a request, he said, from the leader’s office to “take a very slight step back.”

May rejected that characterization. “When I was leader, I did not run the party — I understood the job was to be the chief spokesperson. Green party leadership is vested in the membership under our constitution, and in between biennial general meetings of the membership, the federal council runs the party.”

May added that she was happy that Paul has been able to gain more control of party communications than she had during her 13 years as leader when she was “on the losing end of more council votes” than those in support of her motions.

And what did May think of Zatzman calling her a political “pyromaniac”?

She laughed. “With friends like Noah, I don’t need any enemies.”  [Tyee]

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