MONTREAL – A small-town Quebec mayor who has drawn fire for anti-Israel remarks says he’s free to speak his mind and is defending himself against critics who say he should resign.
Stephane Gendron, who also hosts a TV show, says he’s sorry if he offended anyone when he called Israel an apartheid state that doesn’t deserve to exist.
Reading from a statement on Friday, the Huntingdon, Que., mayor said Jews indeed have a right to form a state.
The statement came exactly one month after Gendron, on his show, uttered the latest in a series of controversial comments he has made about Israel over the years.
During the Dec. 27 episode, Gendron called Israel an “apartheid state” while paying tribute to Quebec politician Amir Khadir for his boycott of a Montreal shoe store that sells shoes made in Israel.
He compared that boycott to similar campaigns against South Africa’s racist regime in the 1980s, and he expressed hope that Israel would also collapse someday like that regime.
On Friday, Gendron explained that the rapid-fire format of the show didn’t allow him to properly express his full opinion.
While Gendron sought to clarify his comment, he also defended it.
“As an engaged citizen, I have the right to denounce the way Israel carries out its policies against the Palestinians,” Gendron said before Friday’s edition of “Face a Face,” the show he hosts.
“I don’t believe that denouncing Israeli government abuses is anti-Semitism.”
Later Friday, the network that hosts Gendron’s show moved to dissociate itself from what it called “unfortunate” comments.
“V Network would like to reassure the public that these types of comments will no longer be tolerated on its airwaves,” the network said in a statement.
The network said it would be meeting with two organizations that had complained: the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and HonestReporting Canada.
The two organizations said they wanted to meet with the network to discuss the “important distinction between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and the delegitimization of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.”
For his part, Gendron said Friday that what he wants is to see Palestinians and Israelis living side-by-side, in peace.
Now the mayor says he doesn’t want to talk about the issue anymore.
“I apologize to anyone I might have offended,” Gendron said.
“The chapter is now closed.”
However, one group that called on Gendron to step down or be taken off the air vowed to continue its campaign.
“It’s not just one time that he’s spoke out and said outrageous remarks about Israel and the Jewish people,” said Meir Weinstein of the Jewish Defence League’s Canadian branch.
“In the past he’s compared Israelis to Nazis; there’s nothing more hurtful and hateful than spreading defamation of that kind.”
In 2006, Gendron said he was misunderstood when he was quoted by a Quebec City newspaper comparing Israelis to “modern-day Nazis.” He later explained that he was referring to the behaviour of the Israeli government, during that year’s bombing of Lebanon.
This week, Weinstein was one of about 20 protesters picketing outside Gendron’s office, demanding his resignation or removal.
Weinstein said the pressure will continue and his group plans to continue its complaint with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.
Gendron, 44, has been mayor of the tiny town near the Quebec-New York border since 2003, and has been reportedly courted by certain provincial and federal parties. He has gained a reputation for being outspoken and colourful.
He was once removed from television by a now-defunct network for making controversial comments that resulted in complaints. Gendron has been back on the air since last fall.
On the political front, he became known for an attempt to institute a curfew to crack down on alleged youth vandalism.
Last year, he announced plans to boost his town’s population by attracting French-speaking Muslims from North Africa. The plan was to build a mosque and slaughterhouse in an effort to attract immigrants to the town.