Canada's Answer to J Street Aims to Fight anti-Israel Moves From Within the Left

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Protestors in Ottawa, Canada, during a pro-Palestine demonstration on July 12, 2014.Credit: AP

While waiting at the beauty salon to get her hair cut in the days leading up to the Canadian national elections, Karen Mock, a high-profile social activist in this city, found herself within earshot of a rather disturbing conversation.

“I hear this woman confiding in her hairdresser, who happened to be an Israeli, that she thinks the Liberals would be a better choice for the country, but she’s afraid to say so to friends in the Jewish community because they’ve all been brainwashed against the party,” recounts Mock. 

Unable to resist the temptation, Mock thrust herself into the midst of their conversation. “I couldn’t help but overhear you,” she told the woman, “but oh boy, do I have an organization for you.”

That organization is JSpaceCanada, a relatively new presence on the Canadian-Jewish landscape. A self-described progressive Zionist organization, JSpace sees itself as the natural home for those among Canada's nearly 400,000 Jews who favor a two-state solution and oppose the occupation. A key objective of the new group, as defined in its charter, is “to provide Canadians with an alternative to the pro-Israel right and the anti-Israel left.” 

JSpace’s appearance on the scene comes at a pivotal time in Canadian-Jewish history: In recent years, Israel has for the first time become a wedge issue in national politics.  Largely accountable is former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who managed to convince many longtime Jewish supporters of the Liberal party that Israel – and in particular, its leader Benjamin Netanyahu – had no better friend in the world than him.

Today, five years after its initial launch, JSpace is gearing up for its big breakout moment. The organization was just recently incorporated as a not-for-profit, paving the way for a first big fundraising campaign. And with the political atmosphere in the country more favorable to its agenda following the defeat of Harper’s unabashedly pro-Netanyahu government, the stars may all be lining up. 

Just like Canadians don’t like to be confused with Americans, JSpace doesn’t like getting mixed up with the better-known organization that carries a similar name just south of the border: J Street. True, both organizations were created out of a desire to fend off the growing influence of the pro-Israel right in their respective countries. And true, both are pro-peace groups that oppose the settlement enterprise. But unlike its bigger and much better-funded American counterpart, JSpace is not a lobbying group. At least, not as of yet. Today, most of its energy is focused on recruiting supporters within the Jewish community rather than influencing foreign policy.

Karen Mock, Canadian social activist and member of JSpace.Credit: Courtesy Karen Mock

Politically, they’re not exactly situated in the same place either: JSpace sits more in the center of the political spectrum and sees a big part of its mandate as helping Jewish students on Canadian campuses counter the anti-Zionist left.  It also categorically rejects any and all forms of boycott against Israel. These differences are not surprising considering that the Canadian Jewish community as a whole has always shown more unconditional support for Israel.

JSpace was founded by members of the First Narayever Congregation in downtown Toronto, an unaffiliated, egalitarian synagogue. The driving spirit behind the initiative was congregation member Nora Gold, a novelist and former professor of social work. “It all started in my living room,” recalls the author of “Fields of Exile,” a book that spotlights the controversy over Israel on a Canadian university campus, which won the 2015 Canadian Jewish Literary Award. 

As she recounts, the initial motivation was to find a way to counter the growing influence of the anti-Zionist left on Canadian college campuses. “The idea was that if you wanted to fight the anti-Israel left, you had to do it from within the left, with people like us, who care about the same issues.”

Or as Mock, the former national director of the League for Human Rights in Bnai B’rith Canada, observes: “Since most of us have a background in human rights and anti-oppression work, we speak the same language as the left, and that’s crucial.” Mock, who also headed the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, today serves as spokeswoman and program coordinator for JSpace.

JSpace currently has about 600 Canadian Jews on its mailing list, and its two biennial conferences have attracted upwards of 150 participants. Its latest conference in November was attended by Bob Rae, the former premier of Ontario and leader of the Liberal party in the province. For JSpace’s core group of activists – among them lawyers, rabbis, academics, educators, human rights and social activists – that was a sign they were finally on the map.

Edward Trapunski, a writer and broadcaster, believes that contrary to conventional wisdom, JSpace represents the political orientation of most Jews in Canada today. “We’re the voice of the silent majority,” he says.

His fellow activist, Rabbi Larry Englander, is not convinced. “From my perspective, the Toronto Jewish community tends to be right-of-center,” says Englander, rabbi emeritus of Solel Congregation, a Reform synagogue in nearby Mississauga, where he served for more than 40 years. “One reason is that while they’re very Zionist, they’re not that knowledgeable about what’s going on. Another is that they’ve drunk the security Kool-Aid and are, therefore, very afraid of Arabs and Palestinians.”

Englander would eventually like to see JSpace become a full-fledged lobbying organization. “I yearn for us to do something that can ultimately impact Israeli society,” says the prominent Canadian rabbi, who serves today as chair of Arzenu, the worldwide progressive Zionist organization. “I hope we are eventually able to exert influence on our government so that it returns to its traditional role of honest broker and peacemaker in the Middle East.”

Hart Schwartz, a human rights lawyer and one of the founding members of JSpace agrees. “That should be something to aspire to in the long haul,” he says, “but right now our main goal is going to be holding educational events that go beyond the mainstream. At our last conference, for example, we brought in an Arab-Israeli who spoke about the Nakba [the Arabic word for 'catastrophe,' used by Palestinians to describe Israel’s War of Independence].  He spoke so eloquently that the Israeli consul-general who attended the event requested a meeting with him after.”

For Mock, JSpace will have made its big contribution by simply accommodating members of the community, like the woman she met at the hairdresser’s, afraid to speak their minds these days. “Creating a safe space where people can have these difficult conversations about Israel without being vilified – that’s the most important thing,” she says.

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