The Jewish Specter Haunting Canada's Elections

Beyond the issue of pandering to Jewish voters is the question of whether current PM Harper truly is 'good for Israel,' and whether 'Jewish values' mandate voting for one set of policies or another.

Reuters

With the absurd theatre that characterizes much of American electioneering these days making it hard to look away, here in Canada we have our own election season roiling. And for better or worse, Jewish concerns — and Jews’ own perception of their collective desires and responsibilities — have taken pride of place. Amidst debates over the economy and the environment, the long-form census and anti-terrorism legislation, two fascinating themes have emerged in the mainstream media: one over how best to love Israel, and another over how best to be a Jew.

Since coming to power in 2004 and soon wresting Jewish votes away from the Liberal party, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has positioned himself among Canadians as Israel’s bae, its BFF, its bosom buddy. Harper spoke — and sang — at the 2013 JNF Negev dinner in Toronto. His foreign minister, John Baird, has also been a Negev Dinner honoree. Grateful for Harper’s support as his own government is increasingly feeling stung abroad, Netanyahu refers publicly to the Canadian prime minister as “Stephen.”

But not all Jewish journalists are impressed. Bernie Bellan — editor of one of Canada’s oldest Jewish papers — skewered Harper for Jewish pandering. In a wickedly funny piece on CBC.ca, Bellan, of Winnipeg’s Jewish Post & News, told in hilarious detail of a Harper-office-issued invitation which he surmised was intended to provide photo-op support to help the flagging campaign of a Conservative incumbent. In response, Bellan did everything he could to be subversive.

This week also saw the Ottawa Citizen feature Andrew Cohen, its international affairs columnist, chide Harper for pandering to Jewish voters. Cohen got in a jibe against the government for “dropping a little gelt” on the local JCC. But Cohen even went so far as to suggest that to live up to Jewish values (Cohen is, of course, Jewish, even being a cousin of the famed Leonard), one should reject the Harper government’s message.

Beyond the issue of pandering (or whatever one wants to call it — politicians need votes, after all), are the questions of whether Harper truly is “good for Israel,” and whether “Jewish values” mandate voting for one set of policies or another.

First, the question of Israel. Even if one criticizes some Jews for having become single-issue voters on an issue that isn’t even core to the concerns of most Canadians’ everyday lives, one still needs to put Harper’s so-called Israel support under the microscope if one really wants to think seriously about foreign policy. Is remaining silent in the face of settlement-expansion truly “good for Israel?” Is the quickly intensifying status quo a situation that is helping or hindering Israel — and the region’s — well-being? Is a true “friend” allowed to critique its ally’s choices? It’s a debate that’s well-rehearsed, but unfortunately isn’t conducted very fulsomely. Those who even ask these questions are often accused of “delegitimizing” Israel, or worse. This, while even Yitzhak Rabin — a Zionist of Zionists — called the settlement movement a “cancer” back in 1976, while warning of the risks of occupation-era Israel becoming an “apartheid” state.

And then there is the second question, that of how best to express one’s Jewish values at the ballot box. There are those, like Andrew Cohen, who maintain that Jewish values dictate a politics of compassion and pragmatism. This might include things like a more generous immigration and refugee policy, more equitable taxation, more attention to the less fortunate, responsible environmental stewardship, and a healthy respect for inquiry — including evidence-based policy. Harper’s critics — whether Jewish or not — have been quick to accuse the Harper government of failing on all those counts.

Yet, as I’ve seen on social media in the odd corner where the debate does take place, other Jews argue that to live Jewishly one needs precisely the kinds of policies Conservatives are peddling, policies such as keeping more income in the hands of individuals to make (parochial) Jewish choices including around childcare and subsidized kosher food, rather than facilitating centralized initiatives like government-sponsored daycare.

Even when it isn’t election season, when it comes to Jewish values, few can agree on what these values are. What we should be able to agree on, though, is that these debates are worth having. The core questions are these: which is more Jewish: a politics of tribalism and parochialism, or one of universalism and compassion? Should foreign policy focus only on keeping the powder of one’s allies dry? Or should international friends strive to help each push for longer-term, peace-building solutions? Should Israelis and Palestinian maintain hardline stances in the face of one another, or actively — and painfully — seek out pockets of compromise? And in the spirit of the High Holidays, is it possible, when it comes to international affairs, to ever say you’re sorry?