It’s official. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the number one Israelophile among world leaders. In truth, at least since George W.
Bush has been gone, Harper has merited the title, pulling Canada from its previous (self-imagined) status as an “honest broker” in an unabashedly pro-Israel direction. But in his speech this week in the Knesset, Harper outdid even himself. He reaffirmed Canada’s commitment to sanctions against Iran and hinted at his contempt for an Iran policy based on their pledges rather than concrete activities.
He condemned boycotts in no uncertain terms.
He called Israel a bastion of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. He praised Israel as the home of the Jewish people.
A cynic might say that this is all part of the Conservative party’s minority outreach strategy, which did succeed in turning Jewish ridings that had never voted for a party other than the Liberal party of Canada Conservative in the 2011 elections. But even still, no minority outreach policy requires the extent of Harper’s passion. Few political figures, Israeli or otherwise, have said anything quite like this: “Most disgracefully of all, some openly call Israel an apartheid state.
Think about that. Think about the twisted logic and outright malice behind that: a state, based on freedom, democracy and the rule of law, that was founded so Jews can flourish, as Jews, and seek shelter from the shadow of the worst racist experiment in history, that is condemned, and that condemnation is masked in the language of anti-racism. It is nothing short of sickening. But this is the face of the new anti-Semitism.”
Just leave it to a bland Canadian economist, always trying and failing to spruce up his image with successive pairs of garish designer glasses. For Canadians like me who grew up with cowardly equivocation from successive governments on Israel, Harper’s turn is as stupefying as it is impressive.
What, then, explains Harper’s passion? Shrewd commentators, have noted that Israel fits within Harper’s principled political conservatism. While benefitting from a broadly consensual cross-party economic consensus (not to mention the good luck of a growing China for a resource-based economy like Canada), in political terms Harper has surely shifted Canada to a British commonwealth version of conservatism over his near decade tenure in office. He has re-asserted Canada’s ties to the monarchy and reintroduced the “royal” in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Where his predecessors spoke of tolerance and multiculturalism as the alpha and omega of “Canadian values,” Harper has reintroduced “freedom” and “rule of law” into the Canadian lexicon. And, in foreign forums, the Harper government has consistently stood for liberty (while also trying, it is true, not to piss off the Chinese). And, of course, Harper’s government has defended Israel when she has been singled out in international institutions and forums. The defense of Israel, it has been said, fits within Harper’s principled defense of liberal democracies against their enemies.
What else is at work is Harper’s moral identification with the story of the State of Israel itself. Born into a middle class protestant family in Toronto, the young Harper, it is worth recalling, was a kind of runaway. While he finished high school in Toronto, he dropped out of the University of Toronto after a few months and went West – to Calgary, Alberta, where he worked in a mailroom, and eventually resumed his studies. Americans are fanatically mobile, and it is hard to understand that going West in such a fashion is not something nice middle class Torontonians typically do, and surely not in the late 1970s.
Whether or not Harper’s intellectual yearnings as a young man were evangelical, as has been said, Harper clearly felt bored and depressed by the prospects of the humdrum, comfortable but non-political life available in Toronto. Harper left this behind, for the West. Unlike so many young men and women who make such an escape, however, Harper used this voyage not to dispense with what he had been given at birth in favor of some great unknown or frivolity but to build something legitimately new in light of moral ideas.
Out there in the West, Harper found the excitement, opportunity, and, above all, politics which were lacking in Toronto. His abandonment of a typical Toronto urban life was followed by a true political education. Harper would go on to earn a master’s degree in economics and meet the western political guru Preston Manning. The rest is history.
How does Israel fit into all of this? The greatest Israeli diplomat, Abba Eban, noted in his autobiography that the “pioneering” countries – Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada – had a much stronger natural affinity with Israel than those stodgy, settled countries like France and England.
As a pioneer-prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper naturally sees Israel’s immense achievement over considerable obstacles. Through his own interesting moral journey out West, Harper has glimpsed the beauty and morality of the Jewish journey out East. If only there were more moral pioneers like Stephen Harper.
The author is a Tikvah Fellow and a PhD candidate in history at the University of Cambridge.
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