Will Trudeau's Canada Still Support Israel?

After an election that saw Israel become a wedge issue, Jewish voters are waiting to see if the new Liberal government will cool Canada's support for the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau before a bilateral meeting at the UN climate change summit in November in Paris.
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP

Her commitment and loyalty to the Jewish state would hardly seem to be open to question. After all, Penny Fine is director of Israel engagement activities at her neighborhood congregation here.

Yet, in the period leading up to the October national elections, this Montreal-born Canadian, who spent the best summers of her childhood at Zionist camps, found herself increasingly under attack for supporting the Liberal party. That is to say, the party challenging the Conservative party rule of then Prime Minister Stephen Harper who had managed to establish himself – in the eyes of many Canadian Jews, at least – as Israel’s best friend in the world.

“It was awful,” she says. “The Liberals had always been the party of the Jews, but in the last election, it got to the point that I had to stop talking to some people. Harper and his people managed to tap into something highly emotional in the Jewish community, and things got pretty ugly.”

It wasn’t only Jewish supporters of the Liberal party who found themselves in a bind. “On almost every issue, I support the Liberals,” acknowledges Channa Sargon, an Israeli who moved to Toronto more than 50 years ago. “I support abortion, and I support gay rights, but still, I voted for Harper, and the reason was his support for Israel. And you know what? I was afraid to tell my son that because he’s such a lefty, and I thought he’d be angry at me.”

For the 400,000-strong Jewish community of Canada, it was a fiercely divisive national election. Harper may have succeeded in wooing many Jews over to his Conservative party, but it was an achievement that came at the price of pitting Jew against Jew and fomenting deep antagonism within this once proudly unified community.

“He managed to turn Israel into a wedge issue and convince many nave people that the Liberals were anti-Israel,” notes Karen Mock, a prominent human rights activist and card-carrying Liberal who ran for parliament in the 2011 election but lost.

Or as Bernie Farber, former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, observes: “What happened was completely unprecedented because the Canadian Jewish community has always prided itself on keeping issues within the family. Sadly, this past government used Israel to create divisions within the community, and it worked.”

The Jewish Defense League, founded by the right-wing extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, was once considered a “shondah” (disgrace) among Canadian Jews, notes Farber. But under the Harper government, he points out, it gained legitimacy. “Harper even invited a representative of the JDL to join him on his official trip to Israel,” notes Farber.

In the 2011 Canadian election, Harper’s Conservatives captured 52 percent of the Jewish vote. It was the first time in Canadian history that the party won a majority among Jewish voters. Although a detailed tally has yet to be published, the Conservatives were apparently still the favorite party for Canadian Jews in the October election. Their charm, however, seems to be wearing off – as evidenced by Liberal victories in several key Jewish districts. According to various estimates, in the last election, the Conservatives garnered somewhere between 40 and 45 percent of the Jewish vote – in other words, not the majority.  The rest of the vote was split between the Liberals and the New Democrats. Justin Trudeau, the young and charismatic Liberal leader who ousted Harper, is believed to have drawn many young Jewish voters back to the party.

Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper speaks at Israel's Knesset.
Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO

Irwin Cotler, Canada’s most renowned Jewish Liberal, attributes the success of the Conservatives in recent elections to the fact that Israel is such a key issue for Jewish voters and Harper knew how to play on that. “If you ask American Jews where Israel is in their spate of electoral preferences, it would be issue No. 4 or 5,” says the former Canadian justice minister and attorney general. “You ask Canadian Jews, it ranks No. 1, 2, or 3. For a lot of Canadian Jews, Israel is a ballot box issue.”

As Cotler and other seasoned observers note, however, the main difference between the Conservatives and Liberals on the question of Israel is in rhetoric, rather than substance: On paper at least, both big parties support a two-state solution and oppose the expansion of Israeli settlements.  Harper had been careful to avoid these thorny issues, though.

“He really raised the bar when it came to Canada’s relations with Israel,” says Liberal voter Joel Reitman, a board member at the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada. “It made Canadian Jews proud to hear him talk the way he did about Israel, but at the same time, some Jewish Liberals became afraid to identify as such for fear of being ostracized by the community.”

Berl Nadler, another CIJA board member situated on the opposite end of the political spectrum, said that despite their disappointment that “their position on Israel didn’t carry the day,” Conservative Jewish voters seemed open to giving Trudeau a chance.

Although they have found some reassurance in the new government’s recent show of support for Israel in the United Nations, other declarations have put them on edge. These would include a statement made by Trudeau on International Holocaust Memorial Day last week that omitted any reference to Jewish suffering (subsequently dismissed as an “early draft” mistakenly sent to the press) and some gentle criticism of Israeli settlement policy by the newly appointed Canadian foreign minister. 

Almost four months after the divisive election, Reitman is optimistic that most Canadian Jews are putting the past behind and moving on. “I have Jewish friends who weren’t talking to me before the election who are now asking me if I can help arrange meetings for them with the new Liberal MPs,” he says.

Jewish Conservatives may be feeling less aggrieved these days, concurs Farber, “but the attitude is still very much one of ‘wait and see.’”

Not all have recovered, though.  A case in point would be Irving Weisdorf, a local businessman and former leftist who has since swung far to the right. “There’s nothing that’s been said by the new government to make me sleep better at night,” he confides. “For me, it’s still hard to tell whether Justin Trudeau is as nave as his statements suggest.”

Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl has witnessed the election drama play out in his own congregation, Canada’s largest, with much trepidation. “On the whole, I think there’s a strong strain of liberal Zionism here in Canada, but Harper was able to appeal to a certain base, and that clearly split the vote,” says Frydman-Kohl, senior rabbi at Beth Tzedec, a Conservative congregation.

What, if any, personnel changes take place at the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv, he believes, will be a key sign of where the country’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel is headed. “Ambassador Vivian Bercovici was a political appointee of the previous government,” he notes. “It will be interesting to see if she stays on or if she’s replaced and by whom.”

Meanwhile, he sums up the attitude among many Canadian Jews as “waiting and watchful.”