Canada’s CIJA doesn’t speak for all of us

Unless CIJA demonstrates greater willingness to account for the diversity of views within Canadian Jewry, I would appreciate it if they would stop presuming to speak for me.

Netanyahu walks with Harper 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Chris Wattie)
Netanyahu walks with Harper 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Chris Wattie)
For those determined not to go beyond the surface, Canada’s Jewish community must appear to be a monolith. Operating almost in tandem with Stephen Harper’s government, it is loathe to even contemplate that today’s Israel is anything less than perfect. When it comes to Israel, the world has become black and white.
Leading the charge for Canadian Jewry is the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs. CIJA, which came into being in 2004 shrouded in secrecy, has anointed a group of unelected and unaccountable individuals as representatives and spokespeople for Canadian Jewry on “Israel and Jewish affairs.”
CIJA CEO Shimon Fogel took to these pages to proclaim success for the consolidation of Canada’s Jewish community, and in particular its Israel advocacy under CIJA’s banner. He takes credit for the role CIJA has played in shaping Canada’s Israel and Middle East policies, as well as “educating fellow Canadians on these matters.”
It is not in dispute that CIJA has found a partner in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. Their values and ideals are so much in tandem that it can be difficult to discern who writes whose speeches. Support, however, is not confined to the Conservatives. As Fogel notes, all of Canada’s major political parties are supportive of the State of Israel.
This does not necessarily mean, however, that other political parties fall in line with CIJA’s advocacy points as easily as the Conservatives. Likewise, not all Canadians would be supportive of CIJA’s advocacy points. And therein lies the catch. For the next deduction that it would follow logically is that not all of Canada’s Jews fall in line with CIJA, notwithstanding its claims to speak for all of us.
CIJA IS not interested in what I have to say. Similarly, it is not interested in what Charles Bybelezer has to say. Bybelezer took to these pages last week to articulate his misgivings about CIJA’s advocacy, claiming they were too moderate for his liking. Fogel, in his response, called him “totally disconnected from reality.”
Canada’s Jewish community is incredibly diverse. CIJA would prefer to ignore the left-leaning Jews; there can only be one manifestation of “pro-Israel.” That Israel has become a complex, nuanced issue demanding serious engagement and critical thought and analysis escapes CIJA. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman are not a modern-day holy trinity.
CIJA overlooks the numerous members of Canada’s Jewish community, myself included, who have serious questions about certain policies and realities promulgated by today’s Israeli government, but who still wish to engage constructively with Israel from a position of support.
From my own experience I know that it is possible to feel a strong emotional connection to Israeli, visit it numerous times, and love it, celebrate Israeli national holidays and enjoy Israel’s cultural gifts – from music and film to food, but still question the wisdom behind certain Israeli actions.
In their fictionalized and singular understanding of Canadian Jewry it is Fogel and CIJA who are totally disconnected from reality.
WHERE IS my voice in CIJA? Where is Bybelezer’s? If a page of Talmud can be surrounded by half a dozen commentaries, why is CIJA so unwilling to open itself up to voices that choose to express a commitment to Israel with opinions that might give it pause? If the answer is that accommodating multiple viewpoints detracts from its credibility as a lobbying organization, well then stop pretending to speak for everyone.
I should disclose that I briefly volunteered with the Darfur Action Committee of CIJA’s predecessor, the Canadian Jewish Congress. I felt Darfur was close to my heart because I think Jews should have a unique attentiveness to preventing genocide. CIJA put an end to the Darfur Action Committee.
In fact, CIJA is totally devoid of anything resembling the Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world. The only “non-Jewish” issue CIJA highlights on its website is a commitment to Canadian immigration and refugee reform, championed by Canada’s minister of citizenship and immigration, Jason Kenney.
Minister Kenney is set to receive an honorary degree from the University of Haifa for his “steadfast position against anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance and, in particular, for his solidarity with the State of Israel and his condemnation of Israel Apartheid Week.”
The organization has an agenda. And there is nothing wrong with an organization having an agenda. But Fogel writes of Canadians wanting “our profound attachment to Israel reflected by the support our government extends to that country.”
The problem is that there is no “our.”
Fogel, Bybelezer and myself all manifest our attachment to Israel in different ways, and even in challenging times we have every right to do so. I do not claim to speak for CIJA. Unless they demonstrate greater willingness to account for the diversity of views within Canadian Jewry, I would appreciate it if they would stop presuming to speak for me.
The writer is a lawyer in Toronto, and a progressive Zionist.