Trudeau's Timeout on Uncritical Canadian Support for Israel

The recently-elected Canadian PM seeks to return his country’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a position of 'fair-mindedness.' So why is his foreign minister conflating BDS and anti-Semitism?

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

With the U.S. considering supporting a possible UN Security Council Resolution outlining the parameters for a new agreement, and with France aiming to host an international Israeli-Palestinian peace conference, observers are asking whether Canada’s change in government has ushered in a new era for Canadian-Israeli relations, characterized by a more pro-active approach, including more aggressive prodding of Israel, to the peace process. As is often the case with policy debate, the intention, the substance and the public framing don’t always match.

Recent reporting suggests that, unlike his predecessor Stephen Harper, with whom Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu enjoyed a deep and abiding political friendship, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seeks to return Canada’s Middle East foreign policy to its traditional role — one that’s commonly characterized as ‘fair-mindedness.’

“There are times we disagree with our friends and we will not hesitate from pointing that out. There are times we agree with our friends and will stand with them," Trudeau said at a recent Huffington Post Canada conference, noting in his words “The demonization, the de-legitimization or the double standard that's often applied to Israel”. He continued: "But, at the same time we won't hesitate from talking about unhelpful steps like the continued illegal settlements. We will continue to engage in a forthright and open way because that's what people expect of Canada."   

A decade ago, several months after the Conservatives had taken the helm, Bill Graham — then interim head of the Liberal party and head of the opposition, uttered similar sentiments. Graham wrote in 2006 that, “It is vital for middle-power nations such as Canada to pursue a fair-minded and balanced foreign policy because it preserves our ability to act as an appropriate intermediary, helping to make peace between enemies, rather than simply validating the positions held by any one party. It is only by acting in this way that we can truly help our friends.”

In the Canadian tradition, fair-mindedness is not intended to mean down-the-line neutrality. Rather, fair-mindedness has meant trying to praise or critique actions based on their perceived merits. This doesn’t mean, of course, that Canadians agree with every action the government takes. Nor does it mean that every Canadian government characterization of a policy stance is itself an intellectually fair one.

Several weeks ago Foreign Minister Stephane Dion characterized unilateral UN actions by the Palestinians as well as Israeli settlement building as being unhelpful for peace. Superficially fair-minded, yes. But I fear this was more of an attempt to be symmetrical than to be right. Even setting aside the fact that the UN is the multilateral body par excellence, the Palestinian Authority’s UN bid for statehood recognition can actually be seen as a direct step in the dance of bilateralism. All Israel has to do is extend sovereign recognition to Palestine and a platform for bilateral, state-to-state negotiation — the kind that inheres between pairings of states all over the world — will actualize.

More recently, the Canadian House of Commons passed a motion condemning” any “attempts” by Canadian individuals or groups to promote boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) against Israel. Introduced by the Conservatives and opposed by the NDP and Green Party, the ruling Liberals backed it. As would be expected, the Canadian Jewish community’s right-leaning Israel advocacy wing lauded the motion, while critics pounced. Writing on the BC Civil Liberties Association website, Alyssa Stryker claims the motion flies in the face of Canadian constitutional protections of free speech.

One could argue that a motion such as this could give rise to a chill factor, particularly among the average Canadian who may not understand that a parliamentary motion is not legally binding. But a motion is just that — an expression of parliamentary sentiment, not a law. What’s more, Canada’s constitutional protections are intended to balance an array of interests and values — so one could argue that such a motion does that, in theory, at least. But a deeper problem lies in how Canadian officials presented it.

Foreign Minister Stephane Dion told two stories about the Conservative-led motion. While he criticized the motion as being “further proof that the Conservatives have not learned from their mistakes and are still trying to divide Canadians on issues that should unite them,” he nevertheless used the anti-Semitism brush to tar BDS — an act of legal and non-violent protest. In saying that “we must oppose the boycott, divest, sanctions campaign in our communities and continue to speak out forcefully against them,” Dion said, “We must fight anti-Semitism in all its forms.”

Accusing BDS of being anti-Semitic is one of the last vestiges of a reactionary politics that seeks to conflate Jews with Israel’s founding ethos — Zionism. While some BDS proponents would be content with a two-state solution (which is the endgame favored by Canada, the U.S., the EU, and in principle, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority), it’s true that one of the main demands of BDS — namely full refugee return — would threaten Israel’s aim of maintaining a Jewish majority. But while this poses a challenge to Zionist thinking, and while it is a demand that Israel is unlikely to accept and thus it lacks the pragmatic aspect important for reaching a deal, to say that it is a form of Jew-hatred is hyperbolic and misleading.

So while Canada under Trudeau appears to be abandoning the Harper era of uncritical support (publicly, at least) for every Israeli move, Trudeau’s officials should tread with care to ensure that fair-mindedness also means right-mindedness.

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @sucharov