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Canadian Jews used as ‘political football

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TORONTO, Dec. 3 (JTA) — As Prime Minister Jean Chretien prepares for his return to Ottawa for a third consecutive majority government, he leaves behind a campaign that courted Canada’s Jewish vote as never before.

At the height of the campaign, in which an unusual amount of mud was slung, Jewish Parliament member Elinor Caplan, who represents a sizeable Jewish electorate in a district north of Toronto, declared supporters of the Canadian Alliance to be “Holocaust deniers, prominent bigots and racists.”

Jack Silverstone, the national executive director for the Canadian Jewish Congress, said that while he’s convinced the accusation is not true, it shows how the Canadian Alliance engaged in a fierce tug of war with the Liberals over Jewish support during the heated 37-day campaign leading up to the November 27 election.

Although Canada’s Jewish community numbers only 350,000 out of a population of 30 million, Jewish votes are seen as key in a handful of urban districts, mostly in Montreal and Toronto, which are regarded as traditional Liberal strongholds.

The Liberals won 170 seats in the 301-seat Parliament. The Quebec-based separatist party, the Bloc Quebecois, dropped to 38 seats, six less than in the last Parliament.

As before, the official opposition is the right-wing Canadian Alliance Party, which held steady at 68 seats, mostly in western Canada.

Five Jewish members of Parliament, all Liberal, retained their seats.

They included Herb Gray, who currently serves as deputy prime minister, and Irwin Cotler, a law professor who gained international renown for his activism on behalf of former political prisoners such as Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and Nelson Mandela.

According to Silverstone, the government’s support of a recent Security Council resolution that seemed “unfair and unbalanced” in its condemnation of Israel probably cost the Liberals some Jewish votes.

“But we’re also aware that the Canadian representatives have taken important positive initiatives in support of Israel at the United Nations that have been welcomed by the Israeli government,” Silverstone said.

Cotler’s criticism of the Security Council resolution — he called it “one-sided, misinformed and prejudicial to the cause of peace in the Middle East” — earned him the respect of the Jewish community but the rancor of Canadian Arab groups and even five of his fellow Liberal legislators, who publicly criticized him for breaking party ranks.

Last week, however, Cotler emerged triumphant and quite unscathed by the criticism.

In fact, his 83 percent margin of victory in a Montreal district was the largest majority of any candidate in the country.

He acquired that margin even though seven opponents ran against him, including those from all the major parties.

Cotler said he was “delighted” by his support in what he called Canada’s “rainbow” district, despite leaflets circulated the day before the election accusing him of “supporting the murderers of innocent Palestinian children.”

“I ran on a human rights platform, which included an emphasis on women’s rights, rights of minorities, rights of children, a human rights foreign policy and my human rights record,” Cotler told JTA.

“My position on the U.N. Security Council resolution was based on a human rights perspective — namely that Israel, like any other member state in the U.N., is entitled to international due process. I am pleased that the strong majority has vindicated that human rights platform.”

For other Liberal politicians, however, fallout from the U.N. vote may have been behind the party’s heated campaign rhetoric in pursuit of Jewish votes, Silverstone said.

“A great deal of effort was made to draw our community in partisan ways to a degree unprecedented in our experience,” he said.

“We repeatedly had to remind the players” from the Liberal and Canadian Alliance parties “that we are a nonpartisan organization and that we do not endorse candidates for political office,” Silverstone said.

“We resisted their aggressive attempts to make a political football out of our community. We have good relations with all the parties and we were not going to be dragged into a partisan debate, despite their most intense efforts.”

(JTA correspondent Bram Eisenthal in Montreal contributed to this story.)

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