Free to criticize

Young Canadian Jews speak out for and against Israel.

MARNI SOUPCOFF 521 (photo credit: Courtesy: Peter Redman/National Post)
(photo credit: Courtesy: Peter Redman/National Post)
‘It would seem to me that in the ’70s, being a conservative Jewish writer in Canada wasn’t a growth industry. But now it is, or can be,” Lorrie Goldstein said over breakfast at the United Bakers Dairy Restaurant in the heart of Jewish Toronto. Goldstein, the 59-year-old senior associate editor of the conservative Toronto Sun, was comparing his early working years to how things are now.
When Goldstein was starting his career – unlike today – the Canadian media and Canada itself leaned to the left of center. Currently there are several outlets to amplify conservative voices, and among those with prominent positions at those publications and networks are a significant number of young Jews.
At times, they speak out on issues with opinions that are at odds with those of the Canadian Jewish establishment. While they may be in agreement with the plurality of Canadian Jews who support Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government’s economic policies, they clash with them on issues of rights – in particular those of free speech.
Expression of stalwart support for Israel is a hallmark of both the Jewish community and the conservative press, but critics, as well as some of the right-wing journalists themselves, have begun to question this practice.
“There’s a louder voice for conservatives in the media than there ever was,” said Kevin Libin, 39, managing editor of the National Post in an interview in his office overlooking his paper’s main newsroom. “There’s been an industry move that naturally realized that there was a vacuum in the marketplace. The National Post sprung up [in 1998], and other papers realigned themselves to compete with it.”
And in terms of the new crop of Jewish journalists working for these publications, he said, “It took a couple of generations for Jews to realize that their fate and their prosperity and their survival weren’t necessarily linked to liberal ideals, and that Jewish cultural values could be communicated and supported as well, or perhaps even better, through conservative politics.”
For many, the loudest of the voices of which Libin speaks belongs to Ezra Levant. He’s the 40-year-old writer, radio commentator and former publisher (of the libertarian-leaning The Western Standard) whom Canadians, depending on their own politics, either enthusiastically cheer or totally abhor. Since April 2011, viewers have been watching him rant in FOX TV’s Bill O’Reilly-fashion against liberalism on The Source, his Sun News Network (“Canada’s Home for Hard News and Straight Talk”) show.
Nattily dressed in a dark suit and tie, Levant told a reporter that he uses the single word “freedom” to sum up his views. “Our fundamental freedoms are in jeopardy,” he said. He spoke of “a deliberate project of ‘lawfare’” waged by radical Islamists.
“There’s an unholy alliance between secular politically correct leftists and reactionary Islamic fundamentalists, both of whom share the same goal: silencing and censoring conservative people with a Judeo-Christian set of values who want to defend the Western culture against the onslaught,” he proclaimed with a practiced assuredness.
Of Canada’s strong hate speech laws that his enemies make use of, he said, “It’s a poetic irony that the Jews who created these censorious laws [to fight anti-Semitism] are now the victims of them. I find no comfort in the words ‘I told you so,’ rather I’d like to change the law... to strengthen our freedom of speech... which you need before you can marshal the public will to fight, whether politically, culturally or militarily.”
It is clear that Levant, who was interrogated for 900 days by the Alberta Human Rights Commission for having published the Danish Muhammad cartoons in 2006, speaks with conviction, but his critics challenge his journalistic credentials.
“Levant is a provider of simple solutions,” claimed Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto and the former vice president of news for NPR.
“He’s not a journalist. He’s a pamphleteer.”
Such criticisms are not likely to deter the highly provocative Levant.
“For me, journalism was never about the craft. It was about the message... I’m not in love with any particular process. I write because I have something to say,” he stated.
JONATHAN KAY, National Post editor of comment and author of Among The Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground (Harper, 2011), agrees that the freedom of speech/hate speech issue is serious in Canada.
Kay, 43, thinks the fact that the passage of the Jewish community to a generation that has no living memory of the Holocaust has been key to younger Jews feeling more part of the mainstream and no longer in need of special protection.
“You don’t see yourself as a victim and you see yourself as part of the dominant power structure. Those are major ingredients of a conservative identity,” he said.
Kay’s deputy, 38-year-old Marni Soupcoff is the only woman on the National Post’s seven-member editorial board. Once a self-professed “geeky libertarian teenager,” she has matured into a definitively right-of-center columnist and blogger. Jewish writers have responded critically to her opinions against government-imposed limits on free speech, even the kind that some people may consider hateful.
Writing mainly on social, health and parenting issues, she has not broached the subject of Israel.
“Israel is a big issue for this paper and for my family... I feel very defensive about it. I feel that it is reported and treated unfairly. But writing about something that I am passionate but not knowledgeable about would be the worst combination,” she admitted.
Kay, on the other hand, does write about Israel and tries to be a voice against “pro-Israel groupthink” that is characteristic of conservative publications.
“I myself have migrated to this middle ground just in the last year,” he said, “because I became so weirded out by the spineless American response to [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu, when Congress greeted him like a hero – showing him more reverence than they for [President Barack] Obama.”
Dvorkin, who tells his students, “Who you are should inform your journalism, not deform it,” says young Canadian Jewish journalists “are missing an important part of the discussion. They are failing to provide a complex and sophisticated critique on the Middle East.”
In conversation over lunch, he mentioned that, although the National Post is generally still circling the wagons around Israel, he had noticed a shift in Kay’s columns.
“I think the only special contribution we [Jewish journalists] can make is that we can speak more truthfully about the situation there [in Israel] because we are Jews. I can get away with saying that maybe we’re a little too monolithic in our support,” Kay said. “Similarly, I can speak about anti-Semitism not really being a problem anymore in Canada. If my name were Muhammad or Winston Hawke Thorpe, I couldn’t do that.”