TORONTO (JTA) – For many Canadian Jews, the country’s prime minister has been more than just a breath of fresh air when it comes to support for Israel. They wonder whether Stephen Harper may be too good to be true.
Elected with a minority Conservative government in January 2006, Harper has left an unmistakable record of solidly and unapologetically pro-Israel moves and statements, mostly to the delight of the country’s 370,000 Jews.
For example, at Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations marking Israel’s 60th birthday earlier this month, the 7,000 audience members thundered their approval when Harper declared Canada’s “unshakable support” for the Jewish state before adding, “Our government believes that those who threaten Israel also threaten Canada.”
For many Jewish observers, the warm words are a far cry from the tepid and sometimes hostile attitude of the Liberal Party, which governed Canada longer than any party and all but took the Jewish vote for granted.
Indeed, Canadian Jews have tended to vote Liberal. One informal study showed that during the 1970s, the years of Pierre Trudeau, they voted for the Liberals at a rate 20 percent higher than the national average.
The last survey of Jewish views, in 1987, found that among rabbis, Jewish academics and community leaders in Montreal and Toronto, 41 percent called themselves Liberals, 21 percent Conservatives and 15 percent aligned with the left-wing New Democratic Party.
For Rochelle Wilner, a former president of the right-leaning B’nai Brith Canada, the Conservative Tories’ pro-Israel stance has been refreshing.
“You have no idea,” she sighs, adding that the talk on the Jewish street “is definitely in support of Harper, his principles and policies.”
Wilner is running as a Conservative for a Toronto-area seat in Parliament in the next election, which is widely expected later this year or in early 2009. Currently there are no Jewish members in the Parliament in the governing party – a first since 1980.
At the United Nations, Harper’s government has continued a trend that began in the late stages of the previous Liberal government.
The Canada-Israel Committee reports that in the past three years, there have been 13 “constructive vote changes” – including shifts from a “yes” or “no” to abstentions – on issues related to Palestine and Israel.
In March, Canada provided the lone dissenting vote when the 47-seat U.N. Human Rights Council voted overwhelmingly to condemn Israel for its armed incursions into the Gaza Strip.
In substance, Canada’s Middle East policy has not changed under the Conservatives. It still recognizes Israel’s “right to assure its own security,” and calls for the “creation of a sovereign, independent, viable, democratic and territorially contiguous Palestinian state as part of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace settlement.”
But like his fellow evangelical Protestants, Harper seems to be a genuine fan of Israel and Canadian Jewry. His championing of Israel “is personal and philosophical,” the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s Larry Zolf noted in a recent online column.
“He admires Israel’s toughness and military elan,” Zolf wrote.
As Wilner sees it, Harper’s support for Israel is a result of his living “by a code of ethics and principles. “
“He has a moral compass and he’s guided by that; I honestly think it’s that simple,” she said. “There’s nothing hidden. Often he has said he supports Israel because it’s the morally right thing to do.”
Even so, many opine that Harper and his Tories have left Canada open to accusations that its much-vaunted neutrality is gone.
“That Canadian attempt at even-handedness has utterly disappeared under Stephen Harper, who lavishly celebrated Israel’s 60th anniversary with promises of Canada’s ‘unshakeable’ support while utterly ignoring the fact that this is also an anniversary – although a very different one – for the Palestinians,” left-wing columnist Linda McQuaig wrote recently in the Toronto Star.
Harper’s seeming shift was most evident at the outset of Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon, when the prime minister said he supported Israel’s “right to defend itself” and described its military campaign in Lebanon as “measured.”
At a huge rally for Israel in Toronto that summer, well-known Jewish film producer Robert Lantos received a thunderous ovation when he thanked Harper for his government’s “principled support” and said he was doffing his “lifelong federal Liberal hat.”
Lantos was soon joined in the Tory fold by other high-profile Jewish Liberals, including Gerry Schwartz , the president of the Onex Corp., and his wife, Heather Reisman, the CEO of Indigo Books & Music.
In January, Canada provided Israel another boost when Ottawa announced it would boycott the follow-up to the 2001 anti-racism conference in South Africa. The Harper government assailed the Durban parley as a “gong show” and “a circus of intolerance” directed mainly at Israel.
The follow-up conference will take place in Geneva in April 2009.
But what do all these positions mean on the political battlefield?
“There’s been some shift” toward the Conservatives among Jews, “but it’s not as big as most people think,” says longtime Liberal pollster Martin Goldfarb. “Israel is not the only issue facing Jews. They are not a one-issue people.”
Indeed, while mainstream Canadian Jews tend to be very supportive of – and hawkish on – Israel, on domestic matters such as social policy, immigration, justice and anti-racism programs, they tend to be far more liberal, Goldfarb said.
Thus, many Jews in Canada, Goldfarb included, find themselves torn between the Conservatives’ support for Israel and the rest of their agenda.
“I like what Mr. Harper is doing with respect to his Middle East policy, but I am not yet prepared to vote for the Conservatives” because of a series of other issues that affect the middle class and lower middle class, he said.
As examples, Goldfarb cited tax policies, post-secondary education, crumbling cities, and health and child care.
McGill University sociologist Morton Weinfeld, Canada’s pre-eminent watcher of Jewish trends, agrees.
“Those Jews who see the security of Israel at the heart of their political agenda might tend to be more supportive of the Conservatives,” he said, noting that the trend is mirrored among the slight increase in support for Republicans among U.S. Jews, who still vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
“If the security of Israel is your No. 1 defining concern, then you’re less torn,” Weinfeld said. “But if it’s a concern along with other domestic concerns and you are a progressive supporter of Israel, then you are more torn.”
Apart from anecdotal evidence that many Jews “have been struck by the clarity of the Conservative government’s position on Israel,” Weinfeld says there is no hard data to show a large-scale rightward Jewish shift.