The pro-Israel speech that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen J. Harper delivered in the Knesset on Monday surprised only those who don’t know him.
For those who really want to know Harper and his deep connection with Israel, I would like to recall a very special December evening in Toronto, the 2013 Negev Dinner, organized by the Jewish National Fund Canada’s CEO Josh Cooper, KKL-JNF national president Frank Wilson and JNF Toronto president Faye Minuk. They held the event to raise funds for The Stephen J.
Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Center, with Harper as the special guest.
In Toronto, on December 1, it was -10 degrees outside, but inside the Toronto Congress Centre there was only warmth and love. The dinner, attended by 4,600 people, was a huge demonstration of support for Israel and JNF from both Jews and non-Jews in Canada. Prime Minister Harper arrived with his lovely wife, Laureen, much to the delight of the crowd, and shook hands with the guests as they entered.
In Canada, Harper is known as an enthusiastic backer of Israel, which was enough to bring out hundreds of Palestinians to a demonstration outside. But a man of honesty and integrity like Harper would not be deterred from saying exactly what he believes, even if this was not some people’s cup of tea and even if he sometimes has to pay a personal price for it.
When my friend, Stephen Harper, stood up on stage that night, his gesture set a new precedent of support for Israel and the JNF by the prime minister of another country.
In front of the invited guests, who were in formal attire, Harper then took off his jacket and tie, changed into jeans and a T-shirt, and instead of the usual speech and platitudes, he surprised his audience with a rock-and-roll performance, accompanied by his four-person band. As lead singer and keyboard player, he sang songs that represented more than words his appreciation, love and support for the State of Israel and the Jewish people. He gave a superb performance, singing classics by the Beatles and Rolling Stones.
It’s hard to describe in words the electrifying and exciting atmosphere that gripped me and the rest of those present in the hall on that unforgettable night. I was a stranger abroad and yet felt more at home than at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem.
Speaking in front of television cameras that broadcast the event live, Harper unabashedly said he had come to voice his support, love and affection for the Jewish state, and announced his upcoming visit to Israel.
“We understand the future of our country depends on having a free and democratic state in the Middle East,” he said. “Israel will always have Canada.”
We are not naive. All those sitting in the hall and Stephen Harper himself were fully aware of the harsh criticism leveled against Israel abroad, the numerous boycotts and endless attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state.
That’s why it should not be taken for granted that a prime minister of another country stands up and honestly declares, with impunity and without fear of political repercussions, his admiration for Israel and the justice of his cause. It is his own personal path, and no one can steer him away.
“My father taught me to fight anti-Semitism,” he said. “It’s something on which I was brought up.”
Regarding the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Center, he said the project was important to him for three reasons: “I value it obviously as a personal recognition that is bestowed on me, I also think it is a fantastic environmental project, but the third, most important thing is this: It is where it is, in the homeland of the Jewish people, in that light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness, the State of Israel.”
Stephen Harper has the same qualities of great leaders that history remembers. I salute him for the courage and determination with which he expresses his views and beliefs, without hesitation, even when these may not be popular on the international stage. The State of Israel really has a friend in Canada’s leader! We, in KKL-JNF and in our offices across the world, draw strength from the support of a leader of his stature. The haters of Israel see JNF as the Zionist flagship, and as such we come under poisonous attacks on a daily basis. These find expression in every possible way on the Internet, in violent demonstrations, as well as overt and covert threats by leaders of states and mayors in which JNF holds meetings and conferences.
When the Canadian prime minister declares, as he did in the Knesset, that “through fire and water, Canada will stand with you,” not as a slogan, I do not only swell up with pride, I am also filled with confidence and hope that those dark forces acting against democracy and freedom of speech will not succeed in planting their poisonous seeds all over the world.
This is also the time to thank others for the role they have played.
First, I would like to thank Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, who held a warm, family reception for Stephen and Laureen Harper.
I would also like to thank Linda Frum, who has been a representative of Ontario in the Senate of Canada since 2009. As a member of Toronto’s Jewish community and energetic activist in JNF Canada, she has together with JNF’s CEO Josh Cooper fostered a warm and wonderful relationship with Prime Minister Harper.
We decided on a particularly original way to mark Harper’s current visit to Israel.
Today, January 22, we are holding a cornerstone ceremony at the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Center, named after our dear friend, the prime minister of Canada. Harper, who will be present for the event, thoroughly deserves this rare honor.
KKL-JNF’s Hula Lake Nature and Bird Park is located along a major global migration route. Every year during spring and fall, close to 500 million birds rest in the Hula Valley on their way to warmer climates in Africa. The park has become a mayor attraction for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year from Israel and abroad, and serves as a model for cooperation between conservationists, tourists and farmers.
Through the support of JNF Toronto and the funds raised at the 2013 Negev Dinner, KKL-JNF is now able to inaugurate the 4,000 square-meter, state-of-the-art visitor center at this unique site.
The Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Center will benefit the environment and become a major source of income for the residents of the area. We hope to host a million visitors a year, and instill in them a love for the environment and nature.
Stephen Harper, my friend, it is an honor that our visitors’ center in the Hula Valley proudly bears your name.
The writer is world chairman of KKL-JNF.