Canada’s Israel Lobby and the Elections

by Paul Weinberg

Growing up Jewish in Toronto, I often heard how important it was not to wash your dirty linen in public. Such comments were directed specifically to Jews like me who, back in 1982, paraded in front of the Israeli consulate and carried placards denouncing that country’s military invasion of Lebanon. In Canada, however, Jews are actively discouraged from washing their linen inside the living rooms, synagogues, and meeting halls of the Jewish community as well.

As Bernie Farber, commentator and former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress explains, Jews in Canada are largely the first- or second-generation offspring of Holocaust survivors—in contrast to the more multi-generational American Jews—and thus more fearful of anything they perceive to be an “existential threat” to the Jewish state. As a result, discussions in the generally pro-Likud Jewish gatherings in Canada, Farber points out, don’t touch on Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights or lately the weird historical revisionism statements that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has uttered about Hitler and the Holocaust.

The rationale for not breaking ranks in the face of real or imagined anti-Semitism reaches back into Canada’s history. At one time in the 1930s and 1940s, the government of then-Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie prevented Jews from coming to the country in his infamous “None Is Too Many” immigration policy.

Things are much different today in 2015 in my more multicultural and tolerant country (at least for Jews, if not for Muslims or indigenous peoples). Yet, this purported ironclad unity among about 380,000 Jews out of a total population of 35 million Canadians is a complete fiction. Left-right divisions have always festered above or beneath the surface here. It was especially so during the recent October 19 election when Jews joined other Canadians in rejecting the right-wing wedge politics of Stephen Harper’s right-wing Conservatives and helping to usher in the more inclusive Justin Trudeau and his Liberal party.

Farber attributes the return of Jews to the Liberal fold in key Montreal and Toronto parliamentary seats to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s successful combination of a socially conscious and inclusive politics with a continued commitment to Israel. “It was quite clear, with one minor exception that in fact, the Jewish vote did come back to the progressive side, Liberal or NDP,” he explains.

From CJC to CIJA

In its 100-year history, the CJC functioned like a “Jewish Parliament” with its annual meetings, membership input, and focus on advocacy for human rights for all Canadians. It was also not wildly radical or outspoken on the subject of Israel.

Nevertheless, in 2011 wealthy funders in the Jewish community, including the high profile financier Gerry Schwartz and his wife and book chain owner Heather Reisman, pressured the CJC to merge with the Canada-Israel committee and other organizations to form a new hybrid body that eventually became the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. They were reacting to the increased activism of pro-Palestinian rights groups on Canadian university campuses. But the new body discarded the CJC’s social justice themes. “There is no longer a Canadian Jewish Congress, but the [Jewish] community is still finding ways [to speak out], maybe not through its official body,” Farber told me in an interview a few years ago.

The Canadian foreign policy establishment sympathized with Israel’s concerns since its founding in 1948. But there was an even-handedness in Canadian votes at the United Nations on Middle East issues that especially alarmed pro-Israel advocates. In recent years the country edged into a closer orbit with Israel, starting in the last days of the previous Liberal government and then ramping up further during the last 10 years of rule under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Closer military and economic links developed between Canada and the Jewish state, and in the 2011 Canadian election 52 per cent of Jews voted Conservative, according to an exit poll conducted by Ipsos Reid. In April 2011 before that election the Globe and Mail reported from another pollster Nik Nanos that in four of five ridings in Toronto and Montreal with a sizable Jewish minority, “the Liberal vote declined significantly between the 2006 and 2008 elections –- at more than double the rate in the rest of the country.”

As the new voice for Canada’s Jews, the CIJA reflected this turn toward narrower concerns with a focus primarily on defending the Jewish state at all costs—to the point of equating criticism of Israel on university campuses and through boycott campaigns as “anti-Semitic.” It continues to do that today. This fall for instance, the CIJA has attributed responsibility for the horrific violence between ordinary Palestinians and Israeli Jews to only one side in the 100-year-old conflict.

“All the explanations and equivocations we have heard this month refuse to acknowledge the primary cause of these attacks: Palestinian incitement,” writes David Cape, current CIJA president, in an email. “In mosques, media, and especially graphic social media, young Palestinians are encouraged to martyr themselves by attacking Israelis—and those inflaming the situation includes PA officials and activists from Fatah, the governing party in the PA,”

In an article that I wrote for Inter Press Service in 2004. CIJA CEO Shimon Fogel described the occupied Palestinian territories “as disputed,” rather than occupied. In addition, a few years ago his organization supported the massive E1 Jewish settlement project on Palestinian land in greater Jerusalem, despite criticism from Middle East experts that it would undermine the establishment of a future contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank. This downplaying of the role and impact of the occupation appeared to be shared by both CIJA and the Harper government, says Sheldon Gordon, a spokesperson for Canadian Friends of Peace Now.

Furthermore, the Harper government turned a blind eye to its own official opposition to the expansion of Jewish settlements, Gordon notes.

Its rhetoric [was] extremely pro-Israel, which is fine, but they are not pro-two state solution. They had it on their web site, the foreign affairs web site, but in a meaningful sense, they were not supportive of a two state solution.

And although CIJA has representation from all the major political parties on its board, it was especially close with the Harper government. By linking post-9/11 fears of terrorism with threats to Israel from the Arab and the Muslim world, many of the harder-edge measures passed into law in Parliament by the Conservatives under Harper—tougher anti-terror measures (Bill C-51), restrictive refugee policies (Bill-31), and a more complicated path toward achieving Canadian citizenship for landed immigrants (Bill C-24)—were also in sync with how CIJA and the Israeli right viewed politics.

“We also support the introduction of measures to ensure that those who apply for Canadian citizenship actually intend to maintain a meaningful connection to Canada after taking the oath,” CIJA CEO Fogel told a parliamentary committee on May 5, 2015.

Fogel’s clout on Parliament Hill in Ottawa during the Harper government’s tenure was given credence by the Hill Times, which described the CIJA CEO as among the most 100 influential political actors. A sister publication, Embassy Magazine, stated Fogel was one of 50 people with the greatest impact on Canadian foreign policy.

CIJA’s registration with Canada’s office of the commissioner of lobbying reveals that its Ottawa office of 15 staffers, including Fogel, regularly visit a host of federal government ministry offices to press their concerns about Israel and anti-Semitism and more general subjects such as security, immigration, and refugee policy. Fogel is also listed on the CIJA web site as “having served as consultant to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and as a member of the prestigious Round Table on Global Security under the Department of National Defense” in Ottawa.

The CIJA functions in many ways like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The difference is that AIPAC is strictly focused on lobbying for Israel and does not purport to represent the full range of interests of the American Jewish community. Also, CIJA has a low public profile here among Canadian Jews, in comparison to the now disbanded CJC or the former head, Bernie Farber. He has re-established himself as a public commentator in print. CIJA’s budget is also difficult to track on its web site.

Harper vs. Trudeau

Before his election as the new Liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau—the son of Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister for the most of the time from the late 1960s to 1984— always stressed his pro-Israel credentials. But he also refused to march entirely in lockstep with the Harper government’s 9/11 narrative. As a result, he became a subject of suspicion in Jewish leadership circles in the run-up to the October election.

Trudeau had, for instance, supported US President Barack Obama’s negotiated deal with Iran over its nuclear energy technology program—in contrast to both CIJA and the Harper government. Nonetheless, it was the Liberal’s leader’s denunciation of intolerance against Muslims in Canada and his drawing of parallels to Canada’s exclusionary policy towards Jews of an earlier time that drew the ire of CIJA CEO Fogel in March 2015.

“We view this comparison as inaccurate and inappropriate, and we will communicate that sentiment to Mr. Trudeau’s office,” Fogel wrote. “In this regard, we note that the Government of Canada has appropriately and consistently distinguished between marginal, extreme, terrorist elements of the Muslim community and the broader Muslim community.” Going further Jewish Canadian businessman and philanthropist Michael Diamond was quoted on Oct. 16, 2015 in the Globe and Mail as the federal election loomed: “In electing a Liberal government we are increasing the risk of giving power to those who may be tied to radical Islam.”

Election Results

Canadian Jews did not follow Diamond’s advice in the October election. We know this from looking at urban parliamentary seats where pollsters tell us that the Jewish vote is significant. The Liberals won in Montreal’s Mont Royal (36.3 per cent Jewish), Toronto’s York Centre (23.7 per cent Jewish) and Toronto’s Eglinton-Lawrence (18. 6 per cent Jewish). The one exception, Toronto’s Thornhill (36.6 per cent Jewish) stayed with the Conservatives, partially because of a significant presence of orthodox Jews there, says Bernie Farber, the former CJC CEO.

“Losing Harper’s leadership in this area [i.e. supporting Israel] will not be an easy pill to swallow,” Diamond wrote in the Canadian Jewish News on October 29. He added later, “Trudeau talks about a Canada for all Canadians. How he interprets that, given the diversity of our country’s population will be the challenge.”

Harper, in an attempt to drum up support from his conservative base, injected a dose of Islamophobia into the electoral campaign. One of the hot-button issues involved the wearing of the full head covering or niqab during citizenship ceremonies. The CIJA, normally an organizational chatterbox, did not speak out against the Conservative Party’s targeting of a handful of wearers of the niqab in the last desperate days of the election campaign. CIJA spokesman Steve McDonald emailed that his organization was simply following Canadian law in not responding to the niqab issue:

Because the niqab has become a partisan policy issue, Canada Revenue Agency regulations prohibit CIJA [as an organization with charitable tax status] from commenting, particularly during the election. As with most things though, our community does not appear to be of a single mind on the issue.

In the post-election fallout the CIJA seems reconciled to the Liberals taking power in Ottawa. CIJA’s current chair David Cape was quoted in CJN stating he and his colleagues are “grateful” for the positions taken by the new prime minister on a host of issues including “social justice challenges” and a “close Canada-Israel relationship.”

But Bernie Farber is skeptical that CIJA can easily morph from its pro-Harper partisanship to a politically neutral stance in the post-election period. “I know CIJA denies that it is top down, I get all of that,” he says. “But the fact is it is a tightly run, professionally run, advocacy group that made serious errors in judgment [during the Harper years].”

The question for me is whether the small moves away from the stifling unity in the Canadian Jewish community are sufficient when the violence in Israel and Palestine seems to be spiraling out of control.

Photo: Justin Trudeau interviewed by the CBC (courtesy of Alex Guibord via Flickr).

Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton, Ontario-based freelance journalist whose work appears in, Outlook, and the Monitor, a publication of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Correction: An erroneous assertion regarding politician Stockwell Day has been removed.

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One Comment

  1. Israels isolation is widespread and growing, a direct result of insults to host governments as the populace begins to acquire power. This self-inflicted condition arises as their leaders, the likes of Netanyahu, use anti-semitism as their mantra when their arrogance becomes more prominent.

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