Israel: An inspiration for smaller nations

For a Quebec nationalist, Zionism and its creation of the State of Israel are awe-inspiring.

Canada Budget (R370) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Canada Budget (R370)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Today, Canada can be considered Israel’s best friend. Not only has Canada’s government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, taken clear and supportive positions in favor of Israel, Thomas Mulcair, the new leader of the Official Opposition (the New Democratic Party), is known to be a friend to Israel. As well, the Liberal Party, led by Bob Rae and counting in its ranks Prof. Irwin Cotler, can also be considered a supporter of Israel.
However, it is fair to say that in Quebec Israel might not be as popular as in other parts of Canada. That is due in part, to the sources of information available in French.
It is well known that in France, opinion tends to be solidly behind the Palestinians. There, Palestinians are too often viewed simply as victims and objects of history, never as fully responsible participants in history. This French view of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the prism through which the situation is analyzed, is very similar to Quebec’s. It is easy to understand why, as French media, French analysts and French books are an important source of information on this topic for many Quebeckers.
A closer look at Israel may well cause a change of viewpoint. Recently, a group of Quebec nationalist intellectuals (both for and against the independence of Canada’s French-speaking province) was in Israel to learn from what is arguably the biggest success in nation building in the world post-World War II: the Jewish state. The most often heard impression from them: inspiring.
Like most people in the world (outside a small post-national, post-modern elite, found mainly in Europe), they believe that the nation is where a democracy, a culture, a civilization lives. For these visiting Quebec intellectuals and for many people around the world, the nation is the best interface between the individual and the universal.
There is no such thing as a “citizen of the world.” One is a citizen of a country and it is through that country that one interacts with the world.
This is even truer in our globalized world.
During their visit, many parallels between Quebec and Israel were drawn. Former Quebec premier René Lévesque – considered by many to have been Quebec’s greatest leader of the 20th century – once said that “French Canadians and Jews have quite a bit in common.” Lévesque often evoked comparisons between the State of Israel and the preservation of Jewish culture and traditions, and Quebec and the preservation of French culture and traditions in North America.
Like Quebec, Israel faces an incredible linguistic challenge. If Quebec is a French island in an English- speaking sea, Israel is a Hebrew island in an Arabic-speaking sea. Not only must Israelis work hard to ensure that Hebrew remains vigorous, Israel succeeded in resurrecting Hebrew, a language that not so long ago was used only for prayer and was totally inept for the modern world.
Israel’s success in making Hebrew its national and everyday language is highly impressive. Quebec would be well advised to follow this example. Today, Hebrew is both Israel’s national language and its common public language. Yet, as in Quebec for its English speaking minority, the Arab minority has rights, including linguistic ones, well-respected and protected by the Israeli Supreme Court.
As well, Israel’s decision to build its future on hi-tech is similar to Quebec’s. As Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand said in October 2010: “Israel is similar to Quebec in many ways.
There is the size. There are Israel’s sectors of the future, which are similar to Quebec’s: biotechnology, pharmaceutics, information technologies. And Israel is a world leader in both the technological sector and venture capital.”
All this made a huge impression on the visiting Quebeckers. As someone who visits Israel many times a year, as someone who proudly calls himself a Zionist and a pro-Israel advocate, I was thoroughly refreshed by a week with this group of Quebeckers in Israel.
The cause of their lives is a vibrant, French- speaking Quebec. Whether inside or outside Canada, they want their nation – situated beside the most powerful economic, political, military and cultural empire the world has ever seen: the United States – to continue to thrive as a unique and distinct society.
Quebec is 8 million strong, has a minority (English- speaking mainly) representing about 20 percent of its population, is surrounded by another culture, has a quiet capital (Quebec City) and a fun-loving metropolis (Montreal). It is destined to excel if it wants to survive. Sound familiar? Of course, the parallels go only so far. No Quebec neighbor seeks its physical destruction. No president of a nearby state hopes to see it annihilated. No attempt at genocide was committed against French Canadians in the 20th century. And North America is not the Middle East, but likely the most peaceful neighborhood on the planet. Still...
For a Quebec nationalist, Zionism and its creation of the State of Israel are awe-inspiring.
What the group witnessed amazed them: a country that did not exist 65 years ago is now a (if not the) start-up nation. A language that was relegated to synagogues is now a living, modern language. A people that was persecuted and scattered around the world is now standing tall and proud.
Meeting with these intellectuals was refreshing not only for me but also for the Israelis they encountered. It is too easy to become jaded, to be cynical about Israel, even for its strongest backers and supporters. Sometimes, it is good to see Israel through someone else’s eyes to realize how great an example it is - and can be – not only for Quebeckers, but for the millions of people living in small nations around the world who are proud of their identity, are proud of their heritage and who do not want to be swallowed up by globalization’s powerful forces.

The writer is a lawyer working for Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. A Member of Parliament from 1997 to 2006, he is the author of A Quebec Jew: from Bloc Québécois MP to Jewish Activist, which won the 2012 Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award (Memoirs).