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Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Reversing the Poles: How the Pro-Israeli Policy of Canada’s Conservative Government May Be Moving Jewish Voters from Left to Right

Filed under: Hamas, Iran, Israeli Security, Radical Islam, Terrorism, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 23:1-2 

Until recently, Jews living in the Western democracies have favored the politics of the Center-Left. Today, however, as the campaign of delegitimization of Israel gains  ground, the duty of loyalty to Israel bulks larger in the imaginations of Jews everywhere, and many are currently adjusting their political priorities to reckon  realistically with the fact that support for Israel is now stronger on the right end of the political spectrum than on the left. The recent political history of Canada indicates that greater appreciation for Israel’s jeopardy, along with consideration of the exemplary record of support for Israel by the Conservative government (2006 to the present),  are causing Canadian Jews to reexamine their place on the political spectrum, opening up the possibility of a reversal of polarity of the Jewish vote in future elections.

A Very Brief History of Recent Canadian Politics

In Canada, as in the United States, there has been for many decades an informed assumption that most Jewish voters will be found on the left end of politics. In Canada, for over a decade (1993-2003) this hereditary affinity was compounded by the fact that the Center-Right virtually disappeared from the political realm during the parliamentary election of October 1993. In a moment of time, the Canadian public unleashed against the newly installed Progressive Conservative prime minister Kim Campbell the anger that had long been accumulating against the government of her predecessor, Brian Mulroney (1984-1993), slashing the government party’s seats in the House of Commons from a majority to exactly two. In American terms: it was as though the Republican Party had vanished overnight.

With the collapse of the Progressive Conservative government in 1993 the Liberal Party, the left-of-center party, returned to dominance in national political life. Under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the Liberals won two more elections (1997 and 2000). On 14 November 2003, Paul Martin succeeded Chrétien as leader of the Liberal Party and on

12 December 2003 he became prime minister of Canada. Meanwhile, the opposition benches were occupied by four political cabals that (so it seemed) had no way of reaching out to the broader electorate beyond their several different regional and ideological bases.

To make a long and painful story short, it was not until late 2003 that the two conservative fragments – the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives (PC) – entered into formal union as the Conservative Party of Canada, and it was not until early 2004 that they settled upon one leader, Stephen Harper. This left the new party little time to prepare for a general election.

In Chrétien’s last months, stories about corruption among the Liberal Party’s fundraisers tarnished his government’s reputation. Still, confident that the forces of the Right were not as truly united as they were pretending, Martin called for a general election to be held on 28 June 2004. The Liberals were reduced to a minority – 135 seats of 308, while Conservatives won 99 seats, an increase of 21 over the combined numbers of Alliance and PC in the previous parliament. Just a little over two years later came a report from the Commission of Inquiry into the fundraising scandal; it was so damning of the Liberal Party that the three opposition parties were effectively forced to join in a no-confidence vote against the Martin government on 23 November 2005. An election was immediately called for 3 January 2006.  The outcome was a minority government of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Support for Israel among Conservatives during the Years in Opposition

Over the entire thirteen years of this last season of Liberal governments (1993-2006), Canadian Jews and friends of Israel became increasingly unhappy about the lack of enthusiasm for Israel’s cause in the Liberal government and in the ranks of the Liberal Party, even as expressions of support for Israel came consistently from the conservative parties in the House of Commons. The most forthright of Israel’s parliamentary champions in those days was Stockwell Day, MP for Okanagan-Coquihalla, British Columbia – a riding (electoral district) in which only a handful of Jewish voters has ever lived. Day became the leader of the Alliance Party in 2000 but had been defeated in a convention of the membership in 2002, whereupon he had become the party’s Foreign Affairs Critic in the House – in British terms, the Shadow Foreign Secretary.

Well before this, many Jewish groups had declared Day to be the best friend that Israel had in Canadian politics. During his Alliance days, Day had built up a cohort of friends among Canadian Jews, including many whose financial largess had in the past mainly benefited the Liberals. Most of these Jewish friends were drawn to Day and the Canadian Alliance by Day’s forthright declaration of the need for an Israeli-Canadian common front against terrorism. But only a minority of Day’s Jewish allies shared the Alliance’s social conservatism.

Stockwell Day’s commitment to Israel is not a sport. It derives from a well-developed conservative-Christian moral vision that is shared by many in the Conservative Party, but has hitherto seemed to be strongest among those whose political base is in rural and small-town Ontario, the Prairie provinces, and rural and small-town British Columbia. These are precisely the places in which the proportion of Jewish voters is smallest. Indeed, it seemed, as late as 2006, that the degree of devotion of a Conservative MP to the defense of Israel varies inversely with the number of Jewish persons living and voting in that member’s riding. By contrast, those Liberal MPs who had the most consistent records of support for Israel were either Jews themselves – notably, Irwin Cotler in the Montreal riding of Westmount, Quebec, and Anita Neville in Winnipeg South Centre – or they represented one of the handful of big-city ridings with significant concentrations of Jewish votes, notably, in Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg.

But the paradox is apparent rather than ultimate. It disappears when one accepts the fact that Israel’s cause is not an ethnic issue. The rule of thumb here is that among Conservatives, pro-Israeli politics follows not from ethnic belonging but from conscience or ideology, usually (but not always) grounded in Christian faith.

Even today, an important factor in the relatively greater presence of pro-Israeli voices in Conservative Party ranks is the presence of Christian Zionism among Evangelicals and Pentecostals. The present Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, an Evangelical Protestant, is the first Protestant prime minister in about half a century – if one overlooks the few weeks of Campbell’s tenure in 1993. Of further significance is that Harper represents in parliament a corner of the country (Alberta) with an exceptionally large representation of Evangelicals and Pentecostals. There is a deep political logic, therefore, in the circumstance that the Conservative Harper government, since entering office in 2006, has pursued a policy much friendlier toward Israel than that of any Liberal government of the past.

The Issue of Israel in the Election of 2005-2006

For many Canadian Jews, the low point in their esteem for Liberal governments came in November 2004, when Prime Minister Martin dispatched Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew to Ramallah for the purpose of attending the funeral of Yasir Arafat. B’nai Brith Canada’s executive vice-president Drank Dimant denounced the decision: “It’s scandalous. Is this going to be a new Canadian foreign policy, that we send our foreign minister to attend funerals of terrorists?”

Then the Martin government needlessly (as it seemed) allowed these wounds to be reopened when, on 11 February 2005, Foreign Minister Pettigrew laid a wreath on behalf of Canadians at Arafat’s grave in Ramallah.[1] In early February 2005, B’nai Brith Canada presented Pettigrew in person with a copy of its “Assessment of Canada’s UN votes on the Middle East based on the newly-devised ‘3-D test.'” Considering only the record of the Martin government, B’nai Brith maintained that Canada had upheld (either by its vote in favor or by its abstention) seventeen of the nineteen UN Resolutions that “demonize,” “delegitimize,” or “apply a double-standard to” the actions of Israel.[2]

 It was therefore an easy matter for the Conservative Party to promise to improve Canada’s performance on the matter of Israel. In time for the election of 2005-2006, Stockwell Day prepared “Talking Points” to give direction to Conservative candidates on foreign policy matters. The Talking Point about Israel states: “We believe that Canada and Israel share common values of freedom and democracy, as well as common interests in defeating global terrorism.” As for the so-called peace process, “Israel cannot draw a final boundary between herself and another entity (the PA) until both parties have proven their readiness to contain violent elements in their own population.” On the security barrier – the issue that most clearly divided public opinion into pro- and anti-Israeli camps at the time of the election – the document states: “A Conservative Government would acknowledge Israel’s obligation to her citizens to continue with completion of the Security Barrier along lines that reflect the present security situation.”[3]

The Harper Government Refuses Recognition to a Hamas-Led Government of the PA

By coincidence, the first Conservative Party of Canada government and the new Hamas government of the Palestinian Authority (PA) came into the world within a few days of each other. Stephen Harper was sworn in as Canada’s prime minister on 6 February 2006 and the leader of Hamas in the PA, Ismail Haniyeh, became prime minister of the PA on 29 March 2006. On the very day that the interim results of the PA elections were announced (26 January), Harper, at his first press conference after accepting from the governor-general the task of forming a government, confirmed a promise made during the election not to recognize a Hamas government.

Thus Canada became the first country, after Israel itself, to formally withdraw government-to-government assistance to the PA, while continuing to fund the work of UNRWA and the many NGOs.[4]  The government’s position was eminently defensible on the conservative principle that no political force is legitimate whose declared raison d’être is the annihilation of other human entities -single individuals or communities, races, minority groups, or entire populations. While the United States (with good grace) and the European Union (with conspicuous reluctance) soon took the same ground on this sticky issue, the mere fact that Canada was the pioneer on this occasion makes this a memorable moment in the history of Canadian-Israeli relations – and for that matter in the history of Canadian foreign policymaking.

From the Liberal opposition benches at once came condemnation of the government’s decision. MP Stephane Dion – then Foreign Affairs Critic, later to become the Liberal Party leader and leader of the opposition – said that “the government should, right away, commit itself to maintaining the $52 million in help. The social problems in the [PA] are awful, and, Canada should do more not less.” The Liberal Public Security Critic, Mark Holland, stated in an op-ed piece, “[The prime minister’s] pro-Israel cheerleading is [a] dangerous foreign policy shift…. it is short-sighted and dangerous.”[5]  Jewish groups welcomed the government’s announcement while Arab and Muslim organizations issued angry statements.

Canada’s New Approach to UN Declarations on Israel

In late March, Foreign Minister Peter MacKay announced that he had instructed Canada’s delegate at a meeting of UNESCO to switch Canada’s vote from the ABSTAIN column where it had lodged for many years to the NO column on one of UNESCO’s hardy-perennial resolutions of condemnation of Israel, thus putting Canada in a minority of two against forty-one.[6] This was a lonely place to be – a place where the only company was the U.S. delegate. Canada has since persisted in this behavior, even when, as occasionally happens, it meant being in a minority of one.

The Lebanon Crisis of 2006

The Harper government held to its pro-Israel course during Israel’s military intervention in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Spokesmen for almost all the governments of the world – including those of Britain, France, Russia, and the EU – were issuing boilerplate statements about the need for all sides to display restraint. Prime Minister Harper, however, found the earliest possible opportunity – his appearance at the G8 summit meeting in St. Petersburg – to express unqualified support for Israel’s right to defend itself. En route to St. Petersburg he told reporters on his plane: “Israel has the right to defend itself. I think Israel’s response under the circumstances has been measured…. The onus to end this escalation is on the other side – that is, the side of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. I would urge them to return the prisoners.”[7]

In July, speaking to about a thousand Lebanese Canadians demonstrating against the government, Canadian Arab Federation national president Khaled Mounammer described the prime minister’s statement on the Israeli incursion into Lebanon as “outrageous.” Noting that many persons of dual Canadian-Lebanese citizenship, currently living in Lebanon, were caught up in this mayhem, Mounammer said: “This is not what Canadians stood for in the past. Canada has always sought to be an objective mediator, but they’re now imitating the American front with no conscience for Canadian lives.”[8]

No well-informed commentator thought that Harper’s decisions concerning the Lebanon war were driven by the polls. A major polling organization discovered that 45 percent of the public appeared to agree that his position on this matter was “fair and balanced and completely appropriate,” while 44 percent described it as too pro-Israeli. Those most solidly opposed to the Harper stance were Quebecers (62 percent); those most supportive were those in the Prairie provinces (58 percent).[9] Given that Conservative Party support was most secure in the West and thus least likely to be affected by this stance; and given that Harper was at that very moment, with an early election probable, powerfully committed to finding more support in Quebec, this has to be seen as a case of fidelity to inconvenient principle over political opportunism.

Although he was a newcomer to the international political scene and inexperienced in the ways of major international conferences, at the Francophonie conference in Bucharest in mid-September, 2006 Stephen Harper shocked his colleagues by withholding unanimous support for a resolution of unilateral condemnation of Israel’s actions in Lebanon. Seasoned observers of la Francophonie were astonished:

“The issue forced leaders to extend the meeting in an attempt to get past the political stalemate. After what was supposed to be the final news conference, all leaders headed back into the closed-door meeting for about 30 minutes and eventually agreed on a statement saying that the Francophonie “deplores the tragedy in Lebanon and the dramatic consequences for all civilian populations” while calling for a total cessation of hostilities in southern Lebanon.[10]”

Sensing that public opinion was not as supportive of the government’s pro-Israeli position as Harper imagined, opposition MPs demanded an emergency session of the Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss the Lebanese crisis during the parliamentary recess (1 August 2006.) The three opposition parties combined to approve, 7 to 4, a resolution calling on the government “to urge an immediate ceasefire by all parties,” having rejected an amendment provided by the four government members that would have inserted the word “sustainable.” The government ignored the resolution.[11]

Liberal Leadership

The Lebanon crisis occurred as the Liberal Party of Canada was in the early weeks of the campaign leading to the selection of a new leader at a convention to be held in December.

After Paul Martin’s announcement on election night that he would not continue as Liberal leader, the Liberal caucus had met and settled on Bill Graham, MP for Toronto Centre, as their interim leader in the House. Graham, who had been a professor of international law at the University of Toronto, had served as foreign minister under Chrétien and subsequently as defense minister under Martin. While he was foreign minister Graham had resisted designating either Hizballah or Hamas as “terrorist groups” until virtually compelled to do so by parliament. Graham had castigated the Conservative opposition for being too dense to grasp, let alone support, the enlightened policy of evenhandedness between the Israelis and the Palestinians. During the Lebanon crisis of July-August 2006, Graham spoke of the Harper government’s “biased” approach as “a great error.” Canada, he said, “had lost its credibility as an arbitrator in world crises.”[12]

Until the Liberal leadership convention had been held, it would not be clear what would be the position of a Liberal opposition, let alone a future Liberal government, on the matter of Israel, so deeply was the field of candidates divided on this suddenly timely issue.[13] In mid-July, just a few days after Graham had attacked the government’s pro-Israeli line on the Lebanon issue, a group of prominent liberal fundraisers issued an open letter in the form of a newspaper ad denouncing Graham’s position and expressing disappointment with the party. By contrast with the liberals, one of the signatories, Gerry Schwartz (president of the Onyx corporation), said, “Today, the Prime Minister has again assumed a leadership role through his unequivocal support of Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism.”[14]

The Liberal leader who emerged from the close contest was MP Stephane Dion. His tenure would turn out to be brief indeed – December 2006 to October 2008 – with the result that he became the only Liberal leader in history who did not subsequently become prime minister. During those months a national election would take place (14 October 2010); the Conservatives would gain slightly, but not enough to become a majority; and Dion would find himself judged a failure by Liberals, who still were not used to the idea of being an opposition party. Here it is sufficient to recall that Dion, as Opposition Foreign Affairs Critic, had taken a conspicuously unfriendly attitude toward Israel; and though he moderated this position, needless to say, during his campaign for the leadership, his departure as leader was not regretted by friends of Israel.

Harper’s Public Declaration of Common Cause with Israel

On 9 May 2008, Prime Minister Harper spoke to an audience of about seven thousand gathered in the Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Israel’s founding. “Unfortunately,” he told the crowd, “Israel at 60 remains a country under threat – threatened by those groups and regimes who deny to this day its right to exist…. Our government believes that those who threaten Israel also threaten Canada” (emphasis added). For this reason, he declared, Canada had stood with Israel even when it was not popular to do so; and it would continue to do so.

Harper had expressed these same themes in a radio interview earlier that day: “I guess my fear is what I see happening in some circles is anti-Israel sentiment, really just a thinly-disguised veil for good old-fashioned anti-Semitism…. I am disturbed that there are some elements in our political system, there are even some members of parliament, that are willing to cater to that kind of opinion.” In the course of the interview, Harper spoke of his wish to make a “pilgrimage” to Israel to deliver in person this message of Canada’s support.15]

In July 2008, B’nai Brith International had presented Harper with its highest honor, the Presidential Gold Medallion for Humanitarianism. The award was prompted by “the esteem that the world’s Jewish community holds for you, Mr. Prime Minister…[on account of  your] unwavering principle on such matters as the safety and security of the Jewish people, the fight against global terror and reforming a UN system in desperate need of repair.” On the same occasion, B’nai Brith Canada established the B’nai Brith Centre for Human Rights in honour of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper did not try to deny that there was a logic in presenting this award to him at this time: “From the United Nations to the Francophonie, we have refused to be bullied into signing onto one-sided international resolutions against Israel and we will continue to do so.”[16]

Policy toward Israel as a Partisan-Political Issue

After the election of 2008, public expressions of approval of the Harper government’s pro-Israeli policy continued to come from Jewish organizations and the editors of Jewish journals. In December 2008 (that is, just a few weeks after the Canadian election), the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, regarded as the authoritative voice for Jewish opinion on public issues in the United States, presented Harper and his government as an entity with its inaugural International Leadership Award for their support for Israel. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of conference, praised Canada’s “support for Israel and [its] efforts at the U.N. against incitement and…the delegitimization [of Israel], where they have taken a role in the forefront.”[17]

A few days after Israel’s military intervention in Gaza in December 2008, the Canadian delegation illustrated its “role in the forefront” of the United Nations by offering its solitary vote against a resolution denouncing Israel for its alleged harassment of the innocent civilians of Gaza.[18] In the view of Canada, “The resolution wholly failed to acknowledge Hamas’s continual rocket attacks on Israel that brought about the current crisis, and ignored a state’s legitimate right to self-defense.”

Michael Ignatieff had become Liberal leader following the resignation of Stephane Dion. Ignatieff’s reputation among Canadian Jews had been damaged during the Lebanon crisis of 2006 by the impression that he had worked both sides of the street. As opposition leader, however, he found his way to a more sympathetic approach to Israel, at least in word. He was confirmed in this direction by the influence of his Foreign Affairs Critic, Bob Rae, whose wife is Jewish and whose children had been raised as Jews. At the same time, it is significant that the fathers of both Ignatieff and Rae had been senior Canadian diplomats, and the sons, reared in Canadian Liberal diplomacy, were anxious to have Canada appear more respectful of UN declarations about Israel than were Harper and his foreign ministers – a fact that was noticed by the Jewish organizations.

Durban 2

During 2009, as official the U.S. policy toward Israel under the new president Barack Obama was turning colder by the day, Canada’s official policy, under Harper, did not budge. An early opportunity to demonstrate that Canada was not joining the anti-Israeli parade had been presented early in 2008 when the United Nations Commission on Human Rights announced the program for what became known as “Durban 2,” scheduled to meet in April 2010. Well ahead of that date, Canada announced that, because of its “long and proud history of fighting racism, discrimination and intolerance in all its forms,” Canada would not attend. Jewish organizations expressed relief that Canada was now exercising “principled foreign policy leadership.” The Canadian Arab Federation (CAF), however, wanted the government to give wholehearted support to Durban 2. (The CAF took the opportunity to note that “Canada is also a violator of human rights.”)[19]

The Liberal Party’s newly elected leader, Stephane Dion, seemed no better able than had its acting leader, Bill Graham, to achieve unity on attitudes toward Israel. Dion himself told B’nai Brith that “he would fully support” the boycott of Durban II, but Dominic Leblanc, a once-and-future leadership candidate and the Liberal’s Justice Critic, told CTV News (16 January 2008) that Canada ought to stay with the Durban process.

The government’s decision against participating in Durban 2 had been based on study of the preparatory document for the conference already available in early 2008. But President Obama, acting in the spirit that informed his earliest diplomatic gestures – the approach to Iran, the approach to Cuba, and the courteous approach to Venezuela at an OAS conference – did send delegates to a preparatory meeting in January 2009. Despite American efforts at that meeting, the advance text of the final declaration confirmed the finding against Israel as a “racist and apartheid state” announced at Durban 1. It was not until 18 April 2008 that the United States was ready to announce, formally and “with regret,” that it was joining other nations – including Canada, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Germany, and New Zealand – in boycotting the UN Conference on Racism to be held during 20-25 April in Geneva.

To remove any doubt about what Canada’s abstention meant, the prime minister dispatched his parliamentary secretary, Pierre Poilievre, MP for Nepean-Carleton, Ontario, to represent Canada at the Conference Against Racism, Discrimination and Persecution, which had been organized by an international group of NGOs and was being held in the same city of Geneva and at the same time. [20] Poilievre extended his trip to travel to Poland and participate in the International March of the Living Mission, a tour of Nazi concentration camps to commemorate the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.[21]

Israel, Iran, and Canada

In Canada, as elsewhere in the world at this time, discussion about attitudes toward Israel was bracketed within consideration of the clearly imminent threat of Iran becoming a nuclear power. A substantial part in the discourse on this theme was played by two U.S. political science professors, John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, who reared upon stacks and stacks of footnotes the argument that American friendship toward Israel has, since the very beginning, impeded America’s ability to pursue policies based on its own best interests. The authors’ bottom line is that “Israel’s existence is ultimately not of strategic importance to the United States. In the event that Israel was conquered…neither America’s territorial integrity, its military power, its economic prosperity, nor its core political values would be jeopardized.”[22]

The Canadian government’s response to this line of thinking is expressed in an interview given by Peter Kent, minister of state for foreign affairs of the Americas and MP for Thornhill, Ontario, to Shalom Life. Kent said: “Canada has been concerned for some time not only about brutal repression of civil rights in Iran but also about the nuclear adventurism and the proclaimed quest of nuclear weaponry by President Ahmadinejad.” He described Canada’s support for further, properly directed sanctions – those that would “target the regime and not the opposition or innocent citizens.” He reminded everyone that “Prime Minister Harper has made it quite clear for some time now and has regularly stated that an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on Canada” (emphasis added).[23]

To a Canadian journalist, Kent explained the government’s pro-Israeli tilt: “If it looks like we are too supportive of Israel, it is perhaps because Israel is in a more precarious situation and because Israel is not launching a series of initiatives into the Palestine Authority or other neighboring states. All of their actions are in response to actions taken by others.”[24]

Dealing with Anti-Israeli and Anti-Semitic Biases of NGOs

Ministers of government receive in their daily email inbox declarations and position papers from a plethora of organizations claiming to speak for “the Christian conscience.” Until recently, one of the most effective of these organizations seemed to be Kairos, which describes itself as a “solidarity organization,” and which is supported financially by eleven church groups. Up until the end of 2009, Kairos received roughly half of its budget from the taxpayers of Canada, through a continuing grant from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA.) Over recent years, Kairos had drawn the ire of Israelis and friends of Israel for its support of Israel Apartheid Week at Canadian universities, for its policy statements and publications that adopt the Palestinian narrative about the Nakba, and for its characterization of Zionism as an “ideology of empire, colonialism, and militarism.”[25]

The previous Liberal government had been deaf to these complaints from friends of Israel, proffering the thought that we should all welcome healthy differences of opinion. Then, toward the end of 2009, the government of Canada gave notice that public funding of Kairos would soon end. [26] On this news, executives of the mainline churches, in cooperation with the various interfaith groups (the Canadian Council of Churches and others), fronted a campaign alerting Canadians to the need for “Urgent Action to Restore CIDA Funding to KAIROS.” Archbishop Tutu of South Africa lent his prestige to the cause of turning back what he called an “unparalleled setback for the poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised.”

The Liberal Party of Canada, too, took up the case for Kairos [27] Anita Neville, Liberal MP for Winnipeg South Centre and chair of the Liberal Parliamentarians for Israel, accused the government of making partisan use of the theme of anti-Semitism. “By making [support for Israel] a black-and-white issue,” she told reporters, the Conservatives were “setting it up as a wedge… It’s creating a backlash.” [28]

At about the same time, Victor Toews, president of the Treasury Board (the cabinet minister responsible for expenditures), during a visit to Ramallah announced that Canada was reducing its direct support to UNRWA. Until now Canada had provided UNRWA with 11 percent of its budget, amounting to about ten million Canadian dollars annually. In the future, Canada’s money would be directed, instead, to “specific projects in the Palestine Authority that will ensure accountability and foster democracy in the PA. These will be programs that are consistent with Canadian values.”[29]

Prospects for Partisan Realignment of the Jewish Vote

The entire number of persons in Canada identifying themselves to the census and to polltakers as “Jews” is roughly 356,000 – a bit more than 1 percent of the whole population. This figure includes those who tell the census-takers that they are “Jewish” when asked about their religion plus the smaller number who say they have no religion but are “ethnically Jewish.”[30] This should be compared with the 21 percent who tell the census-taker that they identify as “English,” the 15 percent (roughly) who identify as either “Scottish” or “Irish,” the 10 percent who identify as “German,” the 5 percent who identify as “Italian,” and so on.

Without doubt, the influence of Jews on the Canadian political scene is now and has always been greatly disproportionate to their share of the population. This phenomenon is patient of explanation in normal historical terms: it is not a marvelous, inexplicable phenomenon, nor is it a plot. The Jewish community of Canada, of all the distinguishable ethnic communities, has been concentrated for the longest period of time in parts of the largest cities, where the fact of their concentration has the greatest impact on cultural and political life. In most political constituencies in Canada, the actual number of Jewish voters is so small as to be utterly insignificant; yet, as already noted, MPs elected from places with the smallest number of actual Jewish residents have been among the most constant supporters of issues of close concern to Jews, and notably, of course, the cause of Israel.

Back in the 1990s, when the Liberal Party seemed to have gained a perpetual lease on government, most Canadian Jews were simply baffled by the manifestation of solicitude for Israel among conservatives. It was an unprecedented phenomenon. Jewish support for Liberals at the polls went back to immigration days; many Jews felt a bond that needs a stronger word than “loyalty” to leading Liberal politicians and party activists. For as long as anyone now alive could remember, any suggestion of serious engagement with Conservative politicians was outside decent bounds. Apart from everything else, few of these Conservatives were Jews.

The key to this story is that, in the hearts and minds of the mainstream Jewish organizations, “support for Israel” had not, until very recently, been the beginning and end of the Jewish agenda in politics.  So long as both major Canadian political parties were making the same noise about never leaving Israel defenseless against its enemies, most Jews did not hesitate to stay with the party that supported the wider range of liberal social causes. But during the 1990s, many Canadian Jews who had hitherto voted for the Liberal Party out of filial piety now began to study more critically the Liberal record on the Middle East. They discovered policies that seemed to have been achieved by triangulating between Israel’s position and the Palestinian position – an exercise in which principle had little place.

As Shimon Fogel of the Canada-Israel Committee puts it, “support of the Liberal Party is no longer the default position for Jewish voters.”[31] As already noted, the Conservative Party had already begun at the time of the Lebanon intervention in 2006 to turn their pro-Israeli policy into a partisan-political asset. [32]  In the summer of 2006, Morton Weinfeld, professor of sociology at McGill University, told the National Post: “My guess is that if a dangerous crunch came for Israel in the Middle East, [some Canadian Jews who had previously preferred the Liberal Party] would prefer a government that would stand by Israel rather than dither.”[33]

The question must be: has the “dangerous crunch” in fact occurred since then?

Jewish, Arab, and Muslim Voters

Jews must keep in mind that the Jewish electorate is small change compared to the combined Arab and Muslim electorate. According to Statistics Canada: “[Canadians who describe themselves as of “Arab origin”] make up one of the largest non-European ethnic groups in Canada. In 2001, almost 350,000 people of Arab origin lived in Canada, representing 1.2% of the total Canadian population. The number of people in Canada of Arab origin is growing considerably faster than the overall population. Between 1996 and 2001, for example, the number of people who reported Arab origin rose by 27%, while the overall population grew by only 4%.[34] “

At present, Muslim and Arab organizations in Canada lack the advantage that the Jewish community has in long political and cultural involvement in the communities in which they live. Furthermore, they are much divided among themselves – Arab Christians and Arab Muslims, Muslims of many Asian and African backgrounds. They are by no measure a single community. Still, the number of Arab and Muslim voters combined now greatly exceeds the number of Jewish voters, and this numerical advantage will surely increase over the next few years, given the higher birthrate of these groups.

During the elections of 2004 and 2006, organizations representing Canadian Arabs and groups representing Canadian Muslims conducted substantial informational campaigns to effect concerted action at the polls for the explicit purpose of preventing the election of Conservative governments. Today, politically-engaged younger Arabs and Muslims are continuing this “ABC” (Anybody But Conservatives) campaign. If Arab/Muslim unity could be achieved, they say, other ethnic groups who do not have the same high-level antipathy toward Jews or toward Israel would nonetheless join the chorus of complaint against the Conservative government’s pro-Israeli bias, in trade for support by the Arabs and Muslims for their issues of top concern.

This real prospect concerns some leaders of the Jewish organizations. They fear that the Jewish community is not as alert as it should be to the longer-range implications of the combined effect of low birthrates among Canadian Jews and the high birthrates, combined with ever-higher levels of immigration, among Arabs and Muslims.

Some Signs of Realignment of the Jewish Vote

The 2006 election was the first in a decade and a half in which a conservative party with some prospect of forming a government appeared on the ballot in all of the ridings of the country where Jews vote in significant numbers. Admittedly, the immediate result did not look like good news for Jews in politics. Two Jewish members of the previous parliament, both from Quebec and both Liberals, lost their seats, although four Jewish members, again all Liberals, were returned. No Jews were elected on the Conservative ticket, and so this Conservative government remains the first since 1979 without a Jewish member. For their part, Liberals say that most of the increase in Jewish support for the Conservatives has merely diminished the number of votes for Jewish candidates running under the Liberal banner without serving to elect Jewish Conservatives.

It is a painful fact that students of Canadian politics do not have access to the sort of detailed, privately funded research, based on exit polls and other kinds of polling, which students of American politics use to discover discrete shifts in voting patterns.[35] There is, however, more than enough material available from Statistics Canada on ethnic belonging, religious belonging, and so on that can be laid over the reports that go to Elections Canada from each and every polling place in each and every riding to enable generalizations based on anecdotes reported by Conservative candidates as they have gone from door to door in the course of the last three elections (2004, 2006, 2008).

The political strategists distinguish twelve ridings across Canada that have a significant Jewish population (over six thousand) as calculated in 2004. Of these, only one – Thornhill, one of the Greater Toronto seats – was actually won by the Conservative candidate at the last election. But in all of these elections there was a substantial shift toward the Conservative candidate, and, more specifically, a significant increase of the Conservative vote in the polls where Jews live in greatest numbers.

The Situation in Late 2010

Midway through 2010, diplomatic relations between the United States and Israel abruptly improved. After Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited the White House in July 2010, the media consensus turned around on a dime: the president and the prime minister, it was said, understood each other perfectly. Indeed, a few weeks later direct peace negotiations resumed between Netanyahu of Israel and Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (Ramallah branch.)

As this is written, the “peace talks” are (predictably) deadlocked. The Obama administration has not, however, returned to its earlier habit of blaming Israel. On the surface, therefore, it seems that the Harper government is today less at odds with U.S. policy than it has ever been since Obama’s presidency began. If this state of affairs should not last, however, the Harper government will have to ponder the implications of continuing to be out of line with “world opinion” in its policy toward Israel.

Canada Humiliated at the United Nations for Its Pro-Israeli Policy

In mid-October 2010, member states of the UN General Assembly willfully humiliated Canada by refusing to support its claim to one of the two “Western” places among the rotating seats on the Security Council – a place that Canada had been awarded on six previous occasions since 1948. The seat that Canada had been contesting went to Portugal, a firm supporter of the EU’s “evenhanded” views on the Middle East, and a state very much beholden to the EU for its recent agreement to rescue the Portuguese from the consequences of the nation’s massive budgetary deficit and national debt.

According to authoritative news sources, Canada was defeated on the ballot in the General Assembly despite having received written promises of support from 135 countries. “A senior Islamic official” explained that the fifty-seven-member bloc speaking for the Islamic Conference “had felt snubbed after Canada did not follow Portugal’s example of addressing the increasingly influential bloc as a group.”[36]

Among the experts summoned by Canadian television networks to explain this awkward event was a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Paul Heinbecker, who now heads a think tank on foreign policy. Heinbecker had denounced the Harper government for every Middle East policy decision beginning with its first, that of non-recognition of a PA government headed by Hamas. Now, on 13 October 2010, Heinbecker was able to step up and claim the mantle of a minor prophet. Interviewed by CTV News, he explained that Canada had been denied its place at the table because the Harper government was “selling policies that the international community is not sympathetic to…[among which are] polices that are frankly and strongly in support of the government of Israel. And again, whatever you think of the merits of the policy – and I happen to think we’re not as fair as they should have been [sic] – they’re note vote-getters. There are 57 votes in the Arab and Islamic community.”

On the same day, Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal opposition in parliament, likewise bemoaned the decline of Canada’s prestige: “This is the first time in sixty years we’ve failed to secure a seat on an institution that this country helped found.”  Ignatieff told his press conference that with this outcome the Harper government “had paid the price” for shifting Canada’s foreign policy away from long-established traditions – among which he noted the pursuit of balanced policy toward Israel and the Palestinians.[37]

There can be no doubt that Canada’s policy regarding Israel was decisive in this matter. The groups in Canada who usually speak for Jewish, Arab, and Muslim interests in Canada all certainly see the UN episode in that light. In advance of the vote, Khaled Moummar, leader of the Canadian Arab Federation, said that his people “feared that if Canada gains a seat in the UN Security Council, it may be used against Arabs and Muslims around the world.” [38] B’nai Brith Canada’s abovementioned executive vice-president, Frank Dimant, said of this gambit: “Despite purporting to be advocates of Canadian values, the Canadian Arab Federation actively lobbied against their country thereby trying to shame and divide Canada.”[39]

At his press conference following the vote, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said: “We will not back down from our principles that form the basis of our great country, and we will continue to pursue them on the international stage. Some would even say that, because of our attachment to those values, we lost a seat on the council. If that’s the case, so be it.”

Friends of Israel will hope (and some will pray) that Canada’s government will persevere in its pursuit of a policy of fairness toward Israel – a task that becomes increasingly lonely as the universal campaign of delegitimization of Israel gains ground. It is, as the Harper government insists daily, a “principled” policy, but, as domestic critics of this policy have predicted and as the recent UN episode demonstrates beyond doubt, it is not a policy that wins friends among a majority of the UN members. But then again, as one of Clement Attlee’s ministers once said: “The only thing worse than saying my country right or wrong is to say the United Nations, right or wrong.” Having principles is simply a virtue, and as such has its own rewards.

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[1] B’nai Brith (Canada), Press Release, “Pettigrew dishonours Canadians and terror victims by laying wreath on Arafat’s grave,” 11 February 2005; “Ottawa criticized for sending Pettigrew,” Globe and Mail, 12 November 2004.

[2] “An assessment of Canada’s UN votes on the Middle East based on the newly-devised ‘3-D Test,'” Institute for International Affairs, B’nai Brith Canada, Toronto, 2005.

[3] Parliamentary files of Stockwell Day, MP.

[4] “Canada suspends aid to PA after Hamas forms gov’t,” Jerusalem Post, 29 March 2006; “Canada severs relations with ‘terrorist’ Palestinian government,”, 29 March  2006.

[5] See “What they said in Parliament,” Jewish Tribune, 27 November 2009.

[6] Alistair Gordon, “Rx for Canada’s Foreign Policy,” Canadian Coalition for Democracies newsletter, 6 May 2006.

[7] Bruce Cheadle, “Harper sides firmly with Israel, ‘onus’ on hostage-takers to stop the conflict,” Canadian International Peace Project,, 13 July 2006. See also “Statement by Minister Mackay on recent events in the Middle East,” Foreign Affairs Media Relations Office release, 12 July 2006.

[8] Globe and Mail, 17 July 2006.

[9] “Half think Harper too pro-Israel: poll,”, 25 July 2006.

[10] Allan Woods, CanWest News Service, 30 September 2006.

[11] National Post, 21 August 2006.

[12], 18 July 2006.

[13] Angelo Persichilli, “Harper catches Liberals off-guard, Grits could lose substantial Jewish vote in next general election,” Hill Times,, 24 July 2006; Simon Doyle and Kate Malloy, “Middle East Fallout for Harper,” Hill Times,, 24 July 2006.

[14] “Liberal power couple back Harper on Mideast,” Globe and Mail, 4 August  2006; Toronto Star, 20 August 2006; “Leslie Scrivener, “Jewish Liberals – a Hezbollah Casualty?,” Toronto Star, 21 August 2006.

[15] “Canada will not abandon Israel: PM,” National Post, 9 May 2008.

[16] Jewish Tribune, 3 July 2008.

[17] JTA, 4 December 2008.

[18] Statement by Minister Cannon on the Situation on Israel and the Gaza Strip, DFAIT release, 252, December 2008.

[19] “Canada pulls out of Durban II: Canada leads by example, B’nai Brith says,” 31 January 2008.

[20] Details of this conference are at

[21] Pierre Poilievre, “Canada vindicated at Durban II,” National Post, 28 April  2009.

[22] John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007), 338.

[23] “An Attack on Israel Is an Attack on Canada,”, 12 February 2010.

[24] John Ivison, “Minister defends Canada’s support of Israel,” National Post, 7 September 2010.

[25] On this aspect of Kairos’s activity, see Central Conference of American Rabbis, CCAR Resolution on the 2009 Kairos Document, 15 April 2010,

[26] See Gerald Steinberg, “Canadian Government Denies Kairos Grant Application,” NGO Monitor, 8 December 2009,

[27] Liberal Party of Canada website,, 16 December 2009;, 16 December 2009.

[28] “Canadian lawmakers: Israel support may cause backlash,” JTA (, 9 January 2010.

[29] “Canada elects to fund PA justice system,” Jerusalem Post, 13 January 2010; “Jews Applaud, PA & UNRWA Slam Canada’s funding change,”,  21 January 2010.

[30], 12 October 2005.

[31] Author’s conversation with Shimon Fogel, 30 June 2010.

[32] Joan Bryden, “Tories use Harper’s stand on the Middle East conflict to pitch for donations,” CBC News (, 28 July 2006.

[33] National Post, 18 October 2006.

[34] Statistics Canada,

[35] Note, e.g., J. J. Goldberg, Jewish Power (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1996), which offers details of the shifts in partisan support by Jewish voters in all the national elections since the New Deal years. See esp. pp. 29-35. His materials derive from, inter alia, The American Jewish Yearbook and the American Jewish Voter Registration Campaign, sponsored by the Synagogue Council of America, 1992.

[36] “Canada loses UN seat despite promises: 135 nations claimed they would back us, insiders say,” Ottawa Citizen, 13 October 2010.

[37] “Tories blame Ignatieff for losing bid for UN seat,”, 12 October 2010.

[38] “Don’t give Canada a Security Council seat,” National Post, 12 October 2010,

[39], 13 October 2010.

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PAUL CHARLES MERKLEY, professor emeritus in history, Carleton University, Ottawa, is the author of many books and articles on aspects of Christian attitudes toward Israel, the Jews, and Zionism. He was the foreign policy adviser and research analyst to Stockwell Day during his days as the Opposition Foreign Affairs Critic (2004-2006.)