Opinion

Canadian Jews Love Israel. Out of Love, We Must Learn to Criticize It

A landmark survey shows Canadian Jews have a far stronger sense of religious and cultural identity than their U.S. Jewish neighbors. But it also shows that those most emotionally attached to Israel back its occupation

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Paris. 30 November 2015
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

A new landmark survey of Canadian Jews offers good news, and less good news. It portrays a Jewishly literate and Israel-connected community, together with a deep skepticism that Israel's right-wing government is sincerely committed to peace.

But it also shows that people like me - deeply attached to Israel, yet highly critical of the direction - are still dissenters withing the community. We've got our work cut out for us to show that emotional attachment to Israel doesn't mean backing the occupation.

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The report, conducted by the Environics Institute in partnership with researchers at the University of Toronto and York University, provides community leaders and researchers with a treasure trove of data. And it confirms much of what we’ve known about the Canadian Jewish community while raising some tough questions about identity, attachment and the politics of Israel/Palestine.

The most exciting finding - though one that researchers have long sensed through piecemeal data gathered over the years - is that, especially compared to our more numerous American Jewish counterparts, Canadian Jews have a strong sense of religious and cultural identity.

On an array of key indicators - Hebrew literacy, intermarriage rates, visits to Israel, attachment to Israel, likelihood of belonging to a synagogue or another Jewish organization, choice of denomination, Jewish philanthropic donations, preponderance of Jewish friends, and formal Jewish education - Canadian Jews are impressively Jewishly literate and highly connected.

An impressive 40 percent of Canadian Jews say they can carry on a conversation in Hebrew. (American Jews’ Hebrew knowledge is far more limited, with only 52 percent of U.S. Jews saying they know the Hebrew alphabet, compared to 75 percent of Canadian Jews.)

Despite the high level of identification and knowledge, Canadian Jews remain markedly divided on Israel. Echoing American Jewish opinion, only 35 percent of Canadian Jews agree that "the current Israeli leadership is making a sincere effort" to bring about a peace agreement. Forty-four percent disagree with this statement.

And among the approximately 50 percent of Canadian Jews who feel the West Bank settlements have an impact on Israeli security, three times as many believe the impact is negative, versus those who believe it is positive.

This means that while Canada’s pro-Israel lobby - led by the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs - has an interest in portraying the Canadian Jewish community as cohesive when it comes to policy opinion on Israel, the facts point elsewhere.

But when it comes to the question of emotions, things get trickier.

A Tu B'Shvat seder and festive meal: Canadian Jews have a stronger sense of religious and cultural identity than their U.S. Jewish neighbors
Avi Noo / Chabad on the Coast

Given the high levels of identification and Jewish literacy, it’s not surprising that 79% of Canadian Jews feel "very emotionally attached" (48 percent) or "somewhat attached" (31 percent) to Israel. (The figure for American Jews is much lower, with only 30 percent saying "very attached" and another 39 percent saying "somewhat attached.")

But how do levels of attachment correlate with specific views on Israeli policy?

The report didn’t provide an answer to this. So I asked Robert Brym, one of the study’s authors, to run the numbers.

The data Brym provided me confirmed what I’d feared. The numbers revealed that emotional attachment to Israel among Jewish Canadians is positively correlated with a range of conservative policy beliefs on Israel.

This means that if you report feeling highly attached to Israel, you’re more likely to believe that the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to achieve peace; that settlements are legal under international law; and that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jews. (Not surprisingly, the respondents who indicated high attachment are also more likely to be Orthodox.)

So where does that leave folks like me, people who are highly attached and highly critical? People who think about Israel every day, who fantasize about the people and the place and the food and the films, who talk Hebrew to their kids, who listen to Israeli music, and who genuinely care about the country - but who would like nothing more than to see sweeping justice take root in Israel/Palestine?

People walk by election campaign billboards showing Israeli Prime Minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu, left, alongside Kachol Lavan party leaders. Tel Aviv, Israel, April 3, 2019
Oded Balilty,AP

As Brym reminded me, these correlations are only tendencies. Other people like me exist.

This suggests that there is room for the dissenters to make themselves more known within the Canadian Jewish community. But rather than seek to decouple Jewishness from attachment to Israel altogether - as some activists do - we must try to sever the presumed link between emotional ties to Israel and support for the Israeli-Palestinian status quo.

Looking to the future, we need to instill this feeling of critical attachment in our kids, rather than avoiding the topic altogether.

Those who are committed to justice and human rights need to ensure that we don’t turn away from Israel and that we don’t replace connection with indifference. If we do, we risk losing traction. Why? Because one could almost forgive Jewish institutional leaders for saying that their job is to represent those who care rather than those who are apathetic.

Those who would seek to speak only in the name of those who care need to know that attachment to Israel doesn’t only translate into a belief in the power of the sword over the olive branch, of land over justice, and of occupation over opposition to oppression.

But first, we need to show them that we’re here.

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