Canada's Israel Policy on the Day After the Elections

Harper may have had a different tone when it came to Israel, but some argue that he 'changed not one comma' on Canada's official policy.


With the largest voter turnout since 1997, the Canadian electorate has spoken, replacing Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives with a Liberal majority government led by Justin Trudeau. The third major party, the social-democratic NDP, also took a beating, losing more than half its seats.

Once the party which had long garnered the most Jewish support, the Liberals had fallen behind the Conservatives in the previous election with 52% of Jews voting Conservative in 2011. It’s too early to determine the Jewish vote on this election, but early indicators suggest a backlash against what had come to be known as the Harper leadership style.

At least three heavily Jewish ridings returned to Liberal from Conservative: Winnipeg South Centre; Eglinton-Lawrence; and York Centre. In Mount Royal and in Markham-Thornill, also well-known Jewish ridings, the Liberals also prevailed.

Harper has been widely seen by his critics as undermining democracy: abolishing the long-form census, not relating openly to the media, and as constitutional law expert Adam Dodek - an active Jewish community member in his own right - wrote the morning after the elections, “championing secrecy over disclosure, bureaucratic resistance over cooperation and risk management over public engagement.”

Others criticized Harper for sowing the politics of division, for example in his attempt to ban the niqab at citizenship swearing-in ceremonies. In his victory speech, Trudeau capitalized on this: “You and your fellow citizens,” he told his supporters, “have chosen a government that believes deeply in the diversity of our country.”

And then there’s the question of Israel.

Harper’s bid to make Israel a wedge issue failed. When he suggested in the leaders’ foreign policy debate that his government was the best supporter of Israel, Trudeau shut him down. In media interviews, both Trudeau and NDP leader Tom Mulcair spoke out forcefully against the boycott movement.  Trudeau even spoke in language right out of a Jewish Federation-style playbook, calling BDS “demonization, delegitimization and double standards,” adding, “that’s just not what we are as a country.”

Still, there remains the fundamental question of whether Harper’s Israel policies were any different from those of his predecessors. Bernie Farber, former head of Canadian Jewish Congress, pointed out that on Israeli-Palestinian issues, Jerusalem, the settlements and so on, “Harper changed not one comma” on Canada’s official policy.

He’s got a point. Reading through Canada’s official policy one might think one was perhaps reading the Arab Peace Initiative. Canada doesn’t recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem; Canada believes that a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem must take heed of international law, including UN Resolution 194; Canada declares that Israeli settlements are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Most would agree, though, that there was something different in Harper’s approach to Israel: its tone.

Benjamin Shinewald, former senior policy advisor in the Privy Council Office under both prime ministers Harper and Paul Martin, knows how important tone can be in shaping the conversation on the world stage. Shinewald notes that on an array of indicators — capped by Canada’s loss of its UN Security Council bid, its “international standing in the world and in the Middle East is in a shambles. We don’t have much of a voice with anybody. The first thing a new Liberal government could do is try to get our voice heard again.”

Shinewald believes there’s a host of things Canada could do in the realm of Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding, starting with empowering the many diplomats who are “demoralized.” Under the Harper government, Shinewald says, they simply “weren’t allowed to engage in public diplomacy.” It’s a story I’ve heard time and again from civil servants and foreign service officers who have felt hemmed in by the Harper government.

And then there are the spillover effects to the Jewish community of the Harper legacy. Farber points to mainstream Jewish organizations “tilting very strongly to the right since Harper became prime minister,” adding that “there’s a polarization I’ve never seen before in the Canadian Jewish community.” The mutual name-calling, the narrowing of open discourse, what Jewish tradition calls sinat chinam (baseless hatred) have all been intensifying.

It’s a dynamic that has frequently affected me in my Jewish communal life over the last several years, most recently when I was told in advance of a scheduled community project meeting that a fellow member of the Jewish community refused to have me in his home because of my columns.

Farber looks back fondly on his nearly thirty years at CJC, where vigorous debate and discussion took place around issues of social justice and poverty. By contrast, Farber points to hard-hearted, Harper-led policies like denying health care to refugees. “This was not my Canada,” Farber recalls thinking.

For my part, when it comes to Canada’s Israel policy, I’m hoping that the new government will change the tone back to the “fair minded” approach that had long been the Canadian foreign policy brand. Canada has had a long and storied history of being a peacekeeper and also a peacebuilder, including having chaired the working group on refugees in the multilateral Arab-Israeli peace talks in the 1990s. With its own mostly successful experiment in multiculturalism, and its continued focus on healing rifts across its own multinational landscape, there’s a lot that Canada can bring to two peoples trying to live in freedom, safety and dignity.