A Fresh Perspective: Harper and Israel

"Why does Harper support Israel in such a bold way?"

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
With the recent announcement of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit to Israel in January, I find it appropriate to take a closer look at one of the most interesting political actors in the world with respect to his relations with Israel.
Ever since taking office in 2006, Harper has probably been the most supportive world leader to Israel. Starting in the Second Lebanon War, shortly after being elected, Harper changed the tone of Canada’s foreign policy from one of neutrality and even criticism towards Israel to a completely pro-Israel policy. In that war, Harper put all the blame for the violence on Hezbollah, and strongly defended Israel’s right to defend itself.
While support for Israel is a bipartisan issue in Canada, for years the Jewish community there was frustrated by its voting record at the UN. Since Harper took office things have changed dramatically, with Canada being willing to take bold steps – and pay the price for its support for Israel.
Canada was the first to boycott the Durban Review Conference in 2008, for fear it would become another anti-Israel conference. In 2010, Canada lost a bid to become a part of the UN Security Council. According to Harper, this loss is directly linked to Canada’s strong support for Israel.
Canada’s foreign minister met with Tzipi Livni in her east Jerusalem office, being the first country to have an official diplomatic meeting with an Israeli government official in that part of the capital.
In 2012, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas tried to get UN General Assembly to grant the Palestinians recognition as a de facto state. Canada was one of only nine states to vote against the resolution. What is striking is that after the vote, leaked memos showed that Canada intended to cut its $300 million in aid to the Palestinians, while Israel argued against such a cut, claiming the support was important. In other words, Harper’s Canada was acting in a more pro-Israel way than Israel! The question immediately comes up: Why does Harper support Israel in such a bold way? After all, electorally, it does not make much sense: According to a 2013 BBC World Service Poll, 25 percent of Canadians view Israel’s influence positively, with 57% expressing a negative view.
Also, Canada does not have a large number of evangelical Christians for whom support of Israel is a critical issue, like there is in the US.
When supporting Israel, politicians are appealing only to Canada’s 350,000 Jews. In contrast, the Arab-Canadian population is 470,000.
While, as we will see, in some heavily Jewish ridings Israel can be a pivotal issue to winning the district, it is unclear if this support helps more than it would hurt in other key ridings.
For Harper and his Conservative Party, it seems that supporting Israel is a moral issue. “I would characterize the position as one of moral clarity,” said Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver on a recent trip to Israel. “If there’s a conflict between a democratic ally and terrorist groups that want to destroy it, we don’t see grays. The moral relativism that is sometimes a big factor is not what guides us. We think it’s important for countries to walk the walk as well as talking the talk. When the victim is portrayed as the perpetrator and the perpetrator as the victim, this is not something we want to be associated with.”
Harper himself, at the recent Jewish National Fund dinner in which he announced his trip to Israel, explained: “In the world of diplomacy, we know how easy it is to drift away from Israel. We understand that the future of our country and of our shared civilization depends on the survival and thriving of that free and democratic homeland of the Jewish people in the Middle East.”
This is not the discourse of a party making political calculations, but rather of a party taking a moral stand.
The effects of Harper’s support for IsraelHaving said that, Harper’s support for Israel did have a strong influence on the voting pattern of the Jewish community of Canada.
Traditionally, the community voted for the Liberal Party. However, various ridings which are heavily Jewish and were Liberal strongholds turned to the Conservative Party: Peter Kay in Thornhill, Joe Oliver in Eglinton-Lawrence, Mark Adler in York Center – all won in previous Liberal strongholds with a strong Jewish presence.
One of the most interesting battles happened in the Mount Royal riding in Montreal, from where this writer originates. There, the Liberal candidate is one of the most popular Israel supporters in the world, Irwin Cotler. For those who do not know him, he is often considered a Canadian version of Alan Dershowitz; as former justice minister, Cotler is one of the most popular politicians in Canada. Mount Royal and Thornhill in Ontario are the only two districts in Canada where Judaism is the most commonly practiced religion. This district has been Liberal ever since 1940.
In 1999, in his first time running, Cotler received 91% of the vote. In the previous elections, in 2011, Cotler received only 41% of the vote, with his main opponent, Saulie Zajdel of Harper’s Conservative Party receiving 36%.
For Zionist Jews in the riding, however, the question was neither Cotler vs Zajdel nor Liberals vs Conservatives. Rather, the question was whether to vote for Cotler in the riding or Harper as prime minister. Those voting for Zajdel really voted for Harper, many expressing frustration at the fact that Cotler was in the wrong political party. Those who voted for the Liberals really voted for Cotler, praising his own personal record and saying that if anyone else was running, they would have voted Conservative. At the end of the day, Harper managed to give an incredibly strong fight against Cotler. Many analysts actually claim that he won the Jewish vote, but lost in other sectors where Cotler is still more popular.
While, as stated earlier, the Jewish community’s electoral weight is nowhere near as strong or significant in Canada as it is in the US, Canada’s Jewish community has shown gratitude to Harper for his moral clarity and strong pro-Israel stand.
Should Zionist Jews in Canada vote for Harper? Within the Jewish community, there is growing criticism of the fact that many Jews vote in Canadian elections based on the candidate’s support for Israel. As such, certain Jews criticize the shift in support from Liberals to Conservatives.
To respond to this criticism, I want to bring two levels of arguments.
First of all, on a completely pragmatic level, voting according to foreign policy is not an illegitimate strategy. When voting, the electorate looks at parties and candidates as a whole.
Yet what defines who they will vote for will also depend on the differences between the parties. If the parties are quite similar on internal issues, it makes sense to vote according to their foreign policy.
In Canada, both the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party can be defined as centrist: the Liberals being on the Center-Left and the Conservatives on the Center-Right. It makes complete sense for Zionist Jews who do not feel there is a really significant difference between these two parties on internal policy that will really affect their daily lives to look at foreign policy.
However, on a deeper level, I think that for Jews, Israel must always be the No. 1 issue, even when parties have vastly different platforms on internal policy. The Jewish nation is a national entity. Although we might be spread out around the world, we kept our national entity.
We are part of this nation; Israel is our country.
Canadian Jews, just like American Jews, French Jews and all other Jews in the Diaspora, should of course aim to get what is best for both Canada and Israel. Both are important parts of their identity. However, if one must choose either Canada or Israel, Israel is our eternal homeland, and Canada is simply a nation that has graciously accommodated us during our exile. This might not be a popular position among Jews who are worried about being accused of dual loyalty – but, in my opinion, it is the correct position for a Jew to have.
To me, as a person who is conservative politically while being strongly Zionist, this question has not arisen. When voting for Harper before making aliya, I was supporting both his internal policy and his foreign policy. However, while it might sound good to criticize people who vote according to the Israel issue, I believe that this voting pattern only shows that they got their priorities right.
Jewish law teaches us that when giving charity, we must first take care of the needs of our own and only after, take care of the needs of others. A Jew who did not forget that he is in exile knows that his own are in Israel. For such a Jew, the most important issue in any election campaign will be Israel.
The writer is an attorney who graduated from McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s honors graduate program in public policy. He is currently working as a research fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum.