Model community

Toronto's Jewish community – the 3rd-largest in N. America – is unparalleled in its support for Israel. A behind-the-scenes look into 'hasbara' there.

walk with israel 311 (photo credit: David Brinn)
walk with israel 311
(photo credit: David Brinn)
It somehow seemed appropriate that, two nights before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu received a hero’s welcome from the Toronto Jewish community as he launched the annual “Walk with Israel” last month, legendary singers James Taylor and Carole King were serenading a Toronto audience at the Air Canada Center with their King-penned signature tune, “You’ve Got a Friend.” Because, the wide world over, Israel may not have a better friend than the 200,000 Jewish residents of Toronto.
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And it’s not just a “call me if you need me” type of support. It’s exemplified on a 24/7 basis: on the ground – with almost 10,000 people, only 24 hours before the Gaza flotilla raid would curtail his Canadian visit, greeting Netanyahu with rapturous applause before walking seven kilometers through Toronto waving Israeli and Canadian flags at the 42nd annual Walk with Israel; in the air – with almost 75 percent of Toronto Jewry having visited Israel at least once, a huge spike over their American Jewish neighbors; and out of their pockets – Canadian Jewry contributes around $60 million to Israel each year, and the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto gives more than all the other Canadian Jewish communities combined, to programs developing what they like to call Israel’s “frontier.”
“We’re the third-largest Jewish community in North America behind New York and Los Angeles, but we’re different in that in addition to meeting the needs of the Jews who live here, a major focus of our work – as well as many members of our community – is on Israel,” explained UJA Federation of Greater Toronto president Ted Sokolsky.
Driving north out of Toronto’s downtown area along famed Bathurst Street on the way to the federation’s bustling Sherman Campus, there are indications for miles and miles of a strong, vibrant Jewish community – day schools, synagogues, kosher bakeries and restaurants.
The Sherman Campus is currently undergoing a huge overhaul, and along with a refurbished downtown area Jewish community center and construction under way on the even more northward Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus in the heart of the York region – new facilities and services are being created to meet the needs of the diverse and growing community – which now includes an influx of 60,000 Russian Jews and Israelis.
ACCORDING TO Alan Winer, the volunteer chairman of the federation, the bond between Toronto Jews and Israel is a natural one and, bucking international trends, is being strengthened among the younger generation.
“If I look at the generation before me, it was incredibly Zionistic, incredibly community oriented. And it’s been able to pass on that kind of feeling to the next generation. That’s been the real success,” he said. “The challenge is to make sure my kids or my children’s children have that same feeling. So we spend about 20 percent of our budget on Jewish education, on tuition assistance, on programming. And on top of that we spend a lot on supplementary education, formal education, along with a strong camping system and great involvement from parents. It all brings home the message to the kids.”
Confident, financially secure and basking in the staunch support Israel receives from the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Toronto Jewish community is able to put its full and vocal backing behind Israel. The Walk with Israel, undeterred by the protests of a few hundred pro-Palestinian demonstrators, boosted by a contingent of Natorei Karta supporters, was an impressive show of force.
“The Walk is the one time of the year that all the different faces of the community come together,” said Sokolsky. “In Toronto, like in Israel, we have a really diverse community, whether it’s religious, Russians or Israelis. But when they all come together to walk for a common purpose and love, it’s really a heartwarming event.”
Understanding the clout of the Toronto Jewish population, a long line of national and provincial elected officials and candidates – including former Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden, now a Liberal Party MP for York-Central – crowded the CNE Direct Energy Center along Lake Ontario to hear Netanyahu speak and to show their support for Israel.
“Nowhere in the world have I met such a strong, well organized and self-confident community,” said Amir Gissin, the consul-general for Toronto and Western Canada, who said he receives some 500 requests to attend Israel-related events each year (“I’m starting to be a bit more picky, but I accepted over 200 last year”).
“The Toronto Jewish community is the most Israel-supportive community I’ve
encountered, starting from the percentage of resources of its campaign that goes directly to projects in Israel, through visits, through the centrality of Israel in the Jewish education system.”
Gissin always seems to be ahead of the curve. When he served as the head of public diplomacy at the Foreign Ministry, he was on the ground floor of the multiyear undertaking to rebrand Israel as a country not seen entirely through the lens of conflict. He was instrumental in retooling its advocacy doctrine away from the concept of “Israel vs. Palestinians” and toward a more global “moderates vs. extremists” messaging platform. And now, after nearly three years in Toronto, the youthful looking 45-year-old Jerusalemite is touting some new ideas on how to continue improving Israel’s image in Canada – by taking Taylor and King’s lead and making friends.
Gissin has not had that problem since beginning his stint in Toronto, enjoying excellent relations with the Jewish community and the professional organizations that he deals with on an ongoing basis.
“Toronto has become the most important arena for advocacy work by Israel,” said Gissin, sitting in his spacious office in downtown Toronto. “And, as opposed to the general concept of hasbara being seen as constantly failing, here we are winning.”
Gissin isn’t just saying that because he’s in charge. Two days before the Gaza flotilla became an international incident with the deaths of nine passengers, a small group of protesters were demonstrating outside the building calling for the flotilla to be allowed to pass through. But the protest was muted and most passersby stepped away from the curb to avoid the group.
Gissin called the protesters “the usual suspects. There are many demonstrations of this size, of people who have free time on their hands – and it’s always the same people. The important thing is that they’re not managing to attract lots of attention. In general, the media find the Middle East conflict less interesting, and 10 or 15 people carrying signs is not a story.”
Indeed, the next day, there’s nary a mention of the protest in the daily papers or on the local TV news. There are, however plenty of generally favorable stories about Netanyahu’s imminent arrival later that day.
Today, it’s a victory – two days later it would be a media disaster following the IDF raid on the Mavi Marmara. It’s all part of what Gissin calls a war, and it includes events such as the annual Israel Apartheid Week on campuses, past boycott attempts against the Toronto International Film Festival for its focus on films from Tel Aviv and against the Royal Ontario Museum for its Dead Sea Scroll exhibit.
“There is a war, the most severe war, in North America, in terms of the level of organization and the resources that our adversaries have. I’m not talking about one city or one university. I’m talking about a concentrated anti-Israel effort. Here in Toronto, I believe it is well organized, more than in any North American city. But here again, we’re winning,” he said.
THAT MAY be in part due to the ambitious pilot project to reframe how Israel is viewed in the eyes of Torontonians that Gissin was finally able to implement after developing the concept the previous five years in Jerusalem.
Featuring print ads prominently at bus stops and billboards across the city, along with radio spots and concerted efforts to pitch “non-conflict” stories about Israel to the Toronto media, residents were exposed to a country being portrayed as an innovative leader in technology that brings real benefits to their own lives. One ad depicted an Indian mother and daughter smiling under the words “Coronary stent. Lifesaver,” with a logo underneath saying “Innovation Israel,” and the tag line “Touching lives.”
“In the minds of Westerners, Israel equals conflict. That is the problem. For me personally, the problem is not hasbara, or the level of our sound bites or the English spoken by our spokespeople. The problem is that Israel equals conflict. And we contribute to it regularly,” said Gissin.
“Toronto is the first place where there’s a real understanding of the need to emphasize Israel through a wider angle than the conflict. There are other places where it’s being developed, but in Toronto it’s actually happening,” he added, refusing to take credit for the movement.
“It’s a process that started some years ago, before my time, with a realization in the Jewish community here – including all of the major professional organizations like the Canada-Israel Committee, the Canadian Jewish Congress, the federation, Hillel – that there’s a need to find a way to present to the local public opinion arena the idea of this other side of Israel, and they started emphasizing the concept of shared values that Israel has with Canada.
“The branding effort was a development on that, which added one important component – and that is relevancy. On a grassroots level, there is an understanding in Toronto within the Jewish community and among Christian supporters of Israel that to cope with the propaganda campaign against Israel, you have to be relevant. Because most Canadians don’t want to hear about conflict – and it’s the same elsewhere. And they want to hear about things that are relevant to their lives. The Middle East conflict is not relevant to their lives.”
According to Gissin, the year-long campaign has resulted in the perception of Israel shifting within Canada – not only among the rank and file, but in more non-conflict stories appearing in the Toronto media. In September, 2008, 86 percent of the stories about Israel that appeared were about the conflict. In September 2009, it had shifted to 50/50.
Internet-based studies commissioned by the consulate that were conducted following the campaign, showed that more than 30% of those exposed to the campaign think today that Israel is attractive, innovative, creative.
“The attributes which are part of the way we see ourselves and what makes us be proud of ourselves are now being shared by Canadians in a very significant way,” said Gissin. “The ultimate result of that is happening right now – the premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, is in Israel right now, saying, ‘We came to learn Israel’s innovation model.’” (He was referring to the business delegation led by McGuinty late last month.)
ACCORDING TO Howard English, the federation’s director of strategic communications, whose department partnered with the consulate in the branding campaign, the city was the perfect place to test the concept.
“Canadians are to some extent indifferent to the Middle East conflict – they think there should just be peace. On the other hand, we also know that most Canadians don’t harbor any innate hostility toward Israel. We know that Canadians by and large don’t support any attempt to boycott Israel – whether it be products, academics, cultural events,” he said. “It provides really fertile ground for a sustained campaign that demonstrates the human and multidimensional character of Israel.”
Federation president Sokolsky also praised the campaign, but said he would have preferred a lower profile surrounding its existence.
“When you’re launching a branding campaign, you shouldn’t be announcing that it’s a branding campaign,” he said.
Despite scattered criticism about the tactics employed, the bottom line for Gissin is that, according to his results, people in Toronto are being exposed to positive things that Israel does that are relevant to their lives, and therefore they look at the country more positively.
“We’ve made this connection – this is why we’re winning the war,” he said. “And it’s gone far beyond the consulate or the pro-Israel advocacy organizations. It’s now a grassroots situation. More than any country, the interest of Canada in Israel is not travelling through the lens of the conflict. That’s an achievement and if we can copy that reality to other countries, then I believe that Israel’s image will change in the long term.”
As successful as the pilot campaign may have been, Gissin is alreadylooking ahead to what he sees as the next way to cement Israel’spositive image in Toronto – and the world over. And it’s another “aheadof the curve” idea which he sees as the future of the relationship ofIsrael and the Diaspora, at least from the aspect of advocacy.
“We need to use the Jewish communities all over the world – and I thinkthe Toronto community will be a leader in this – to build bridges toother emerging communities in North America. To do it, we must use thestrength of the Jewish community, not in terms of resources orphilanthropy, but through its expertise,” said Gissin.
“Jewish communities in North America started very low, very poor withlots of anti-Semitism. Look where they are today – very rich, organizedsophisticated communities. The knowledge and experience gained duringthose years from being a neglected, poor community to where they aretoday, there are so many newcomers to North America that can use thisknowledge of building a functioning community, institutions andorganizations – all we have to do is share this experience.”
Gissin cited the Jewish-Somali Mentorship Project – which began lastMay and is supported by the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, CanadianJewish Congress, Canadian Somali Congress, Canadian International PeaceProject and Canadian Heritage – as a successful example of the concept.
“It’s not a gift of money, but a new kind of philanthropy – it’s togive and share experience,” he said. “That gives an opening tosomething which sounds simplistic but true. The most important thingnowadays, for Israel and for the Jewish community, is to make friends.If you look at all the events and efforts against Israel, boycotts, UN,apartheid week, NGOs human rights – there is an effort, an attempt toisolate and single out Israel. What do you do when somebody’s trying toisolate you? You make friends.”
Gissin admitted that it will take time to implement his plan because it’s not in the DNA of most Jewish communities.
“We have a tendency for self-isolation,” he said. “We have our ownfears of getting our young generation in touch with the younggeneration of other communities. It’s part of who we are as Jews, weneed to secure our youngsters, we’re well aware of that.
“But to share information and give a hand to emerging communities onthe adult professional level is, I believe, the future ofcross-communal relationships that in time will help the Jewishcommunity bring friends on board to support and accept Israel anddeclare that friendship loudly.”        
James Taylor and Carole King couldn’t have said it better.