TORONTO (Jan. 17)
For Richard Marceau, the upcoming Canadian election marks the fourth time he has run as a candidate for the separatist Bloc Quebecois — but the first time that he does so as a Jew. The 35-year-old Quebec City politician has a Jewish wife and converted to Judaism only last summer, yet he already understands that the Jewish community rarely speaks with one voice on any given issue.
“You know the old joke about two Jews and three synagogues? The Jewish community doesn’t seem to be unanimous on any issue,” he observed, citing the same-sex marriage legislation that Parliament passed last year, about which the Jewish community still seems as divided as the rest of the country.
Despite the historic ties between the Jewish community and both the centrist Liberals and the left-leaning National Democrats, many observers predict that the Canadian Jewish vote will shift to the right, in line with the national trend.
Two of Canada’s leading Jewish organizations have produced election guides and undertaken various other activities to help the country’s 390,000 Jews make educated choices when they mark their ballots Jan. 23.
The Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy has issued a 32-page election guide for voters as well as a separate guide for candidates and a page of guidelines on effective advocacy.
CIJA, which oversees the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Canada-Israel Committee and an alphabet soup of other communal organizations, has met with candidates in most districts with significant Jewish populations.
“The goal is both to educate them and to try to gauge what their approach is on issues of particular concern to the Jewish community,” said Manuel Prutschi, CIJA’s executive vice president.
B’nai Brith Canada has also produced a lengthy position paper outlining issues and recommendations, and has organized public town-hall meetings and private discussions with candidates.
On the domestic front, both groups put anti-Semitic and hate-related activity at the top of their respective lists. B’nai Brith noted 857 reported incidents in its national audit of anti-Semitic activities in 2004, a nearly 50 percent rise over the previous year and the highest level in more than two decades.
As outlined in their election guides, both CIJA and B’nai Brith want the government to help cover the high cost of security now borne by many Jewish institutions. Both also want tougher anti-terrorism legislation and stronger legal mechanisms to denaturalize and deport war criminals who have found safe haven in Canada.
Other domestic concerns include school funding, affordable housing, health care and values education for immigrants. B’nai Brith is pushing for government-hosted courses for newcomers from lands where democracy is neither practiced nor understood.
“We should be teaching Canadian civics and values to new immigrants, and we haven’t been doing that as a society,” said the group’s executive vice president, Frank Dimant.
The election guides outline positions on a range of international issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Canada-Israel relations, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and related technologies in countries such as Iran and Syria.
The guides call for an end to Israel-bashing at the United Nations and recommend reforms that would allow the world body to take a more constructive role in the Middle East.
While the organizations are officially non-partisan and generally take pains to maintain good working relations with all political parties, B’nai Brith often is more outspoken, and its election guide does not shy away from criticizing the Canada’s current government.
For example, the B’nai Brith guide censures a recent federal policy paper that describes Palestinian terrorism as being merely “counterproductive” to the peace process, asserting that “it more aptly should be called a ‘crime against humanity.’ “
“Such mild criticism can only encourage further terrorism,” the guide asserts. “At the same time, the ‘serious obstacle’ to peace is alleged to be ‘Israeli settlements.’ Such anomalies are indicative of a serious disconnect in current Canadian policy.”
While the latest election polls indicate the Conservatives will win enough votes to push the scandal-ridden Liberals out of office, Jewish communal leaders prefer to remain mum on how such an outcome will affect the Jewish community.
“Governments may propose, but opposition parties dispose,” observed the CIJA’s chief executive officer, Hershel Ezrin. “That’s why it’s important to keep good relations with all the parties.”
The same principle seems to apply within the Jewish community. Despite occasional differences, CIJA and B’nai Brith tend to show a remarkable degree of coherence in their concerns, CIJA’s Prutschi said.
In the event of a Conservative victory, the Jewish community will lose a strong advocate in Ottawa in the person of Liberal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, said historian Michael Brown, a professor emeritus in the Jewish studies program at Toronto’s York University.
But Brown believes a Conservative government will not necessarily be more supportive of Israel or reject more anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations.
“There’s no reason to think that once in office, the Tories will act differently than the Liberals,” he said. “That’s a historical view, because the last time the Tories made a political campaign promise about Israel” in 1979, “they were going to move the Canadian Embassy to Jerusalem. They were not in power more than a couple of months before they decided they weren’t going to do it.”
Despite predictions of a Jewish lean toward the Conservatives, the Bloc Quebecois’ Marceau is confident of winning every Jewish vote in his riding, or district. But that’s not as impressive as it sounds: Quebec City’s roughly 200 Jews, most live over the line in an adjacent district, he explained.
“The only Jews in my riding live in my house,” Marceau said.