Candidly Speaking: Canadian Israel advocacy in turmoil

The Jewish establishment blackballs the small but effective Israel advocacy group CIJR.

September 20, 2008 21:58
Candidly Speaking: Canadian Israel advocacy in turmoil

Isi Leibler NEW 88. (photo credit: )


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Canadian Jews can take pride in the remarkable infrastructure of educational, religious and cultural institutions they have created. The fact that assimilation and intermarriage in Canada are far less advanced than in the United States is largely attributable to their magnificent network of Jewish day schools. Canadian Jews also have a splendid record of support for Israel and their donors are among the most generous contributors to projects in the Jewish state. Regrettably, in recent years the community's public advocacy on behalf of Israel has dramatically declined. This paralleled a major upsurge in anti-Semitism and demonization of Israel as a consequence of Muslim immigration and intensified hostility from the Canadian left. The downturn had its genesis in 2004 when the principal communal fund-raisers, concerned about increased anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel, decided to supplant the traditional communal advocacy bodies - the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Canada Israel Committee - with a "more professional" organization. The new entity, the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA), was commissioned to deal exclusively with "advocacy on Canada Israel relations while the Canadian Jewish Congress would handle issues of Jewish concern." This effectively neutralized the central role of the Canadian Jewish Congress in determining policies on Israel and anti-Semitism and replaced it with an undemocratic body headed by professional public relations consultants. The federations, via the United Israel Appeal, allocate very substantial funds to the CIJA. The budget this year, including mega-salaries for the principal officers, amounts to more than $11 million. However, from the outset, the new team of PR professionals, headed by CEO Herschel Ezrin, was soon identified as archetypical practitioners of the discredited sha shtil approach, displaying passivity and determined to maintain a low profile. Their vast financial resources concentrated on campaigns emphasizing that Israelis "are just like the rest of us Canadians". Their PR philosophy, depicted as a model that other communities would do well to emulate, was outlined in a surrealistic internal document circulated in 2004 titled "The 10 Commandments." It was never formally repudiated and to this day appears to reflect CIJA policy. The document must be seen to be believed. Commandment 5 states: "Do not directly attack or assign blame to the Palestinians or their leadership. Canadians will not tolerate - or believe - that one side is more responsible for the violence than the other." Commandment 6 says: "Do not ask Canadians to pick a side in the conflict or assign blame. Very few Canadians are prepared to assign blame for ongoing violence or attacks." Commandment 7 states explicitly: "Do not ask the government of Canada to appear - or be - more favorable to Israel... There is no support for further government support of Israel." Commandment 9 warns: "Do not attack the media for being biased against Israel... There is no constituency to support a public effort to attack the media." That such a document was not immediately condemned and withdrawn demonstrates how a group of wealthy donors, dazzled by "PR expertise," bypassed the will of the vast majority of Canadian Jews. The obsession to avoid "confrontation" was especially acute on the campuses where Hillel activists were explicitly directed to avoid debates, ignore Arab anti-Israeli tirades and never display examples of Islamic anti-Semitism to avoid offending Muslim groups. Three years ago, the PR mavens even managed to convince the Montreal federation to cancel the annual Israel Independence Day parade out of a fear of possible anti-Israeli counterdemonstrations. Fortunately, independent communal leaders, rabbis and school principals took it upon themselves to lead a grassroots revolt to retain the dignity of the community and Independence Day parades were reinstated. THE CIJA has a virtual monopoly on Israel advocacy in Canada. The exceptions are a plucky B'nai B'rith Organization which attempts to be more assertive and a small but highly effective body known as the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research (CIJR) headquartered in Montreal. It is headed by Prof. Fred Krantz, a distinguished academic who for 30 years headed an influential program titled "The Great Books in Western Civilization" at Concordia University and the Liberal Arts College. There he opposed administration kowtowing to Arab and radical students, which climaxed in 2002 when Binyamin Netanyahu was unable to address the university because of violent campus riots. CIJR, whose influence extends beyond Canada, operates on a shoestring budget of less than $200,000 and is staffed overwhelmingly by volunteers. Among other initiatives, it publishes a daily Internet newsletter viewed by more than 100,000 readers, which incorporates key data, original op-eds and reprints of articles relevant to activists. Its greatest success was to create an elite group of student activists willing to take up the cudgels on behalf of Israel on the campus. Since the creation of CIJA, the Jewish establishment has totally blackballed CIJR and denied it any funding. When I accepted an invitation from Krantz to participate in CIJR's 20th anniversary dinner, I was cautioned by various parties that I would be associating myself with an "extremist" body. However, in Montreal I discovered that far from being extreme, CIJR was a beacon of light in the world of Israel advocacy in Canada. When introducing me to the audience, Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian minister of justice and global champion for human rights, an icon of Canadian Jewry recognized as one of the most outstanding Diaspora Jewish personalities of our time, lauded the outstanding work undertaken by the CIJR. Equally telling was the address by Alan Baker, the Israeli ambassador to Canada, who was retiring after a four-year term. Like Cotler, Baker a former legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry, could hardly be described as an extremist. He too cast lavish praise on the CIJR as the most effective Canadian body promoting the case for Israel and, in particular, praised it for its splendid achievements on the campus. He also castigated the Jewish communal leadership for failing "to have the good judgment to appreciate an organization that is working so well in the field... and should have wider community support." Canadian Jewish leaders, who fear that protesting against this state of affairs will shatter the "unity" of the Canadian Jewish community, are misguided. The blind reliance of establishment machers on PR specialists who appear to dictate policy in these areas reflects a malaise in Canadian Jewish leadership and highlights a need for greater accountability and grassroots public involvement. More importantly, if youngsters are dissuaded from confronting the scourge of moral equivalency whereby Israel's acts of self-defense are deemed comparable to actions of its enemies, or instructed that speaking up in defense of Israel is counterproductive, then the ground is being established for future generations to distance themselves from Israel. The time for reform is now while Canadian Jews are blessed with a prime minister who has emerged as one of Israel's staunchest international allies. Unlike the cowardly cabal of "PR experts," Stephen Harper is willing to publicly distinguish between Islamic fundamentalists seeking the destruction of the Jewish state and the right of Israel to defend itself. However, we cannot expect statesmen to be more pro-Israel than the self-appointed spokesmen of the Jewish community.

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