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Prime Minister’s Pro-israel Stance Lures Some Canadian Jews to Tories

August 22, 2006
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Speaking recently at a large pro-Israel rally in Toronto, prominent Canadian filmmaker Robert Lantos voiced his frustration with Canada’s Liberal Party. Lantos thanked the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper for its “principled support” of Israel, then said: “I hereby take off my lifelong federal Liberal hat to you. Symbolically, I toss it away, if there were anyone willing to catch it.”

If the laughter and applause that greeted Lantos’ statements are any indication, his sentiments seem to be shared by many in Canada’s 360,000-strong Jewish community.

High-profile defections by two other prominent Jewish Canadians soon followed, as powerful business couple Heather Reisman and Gerald Schwartz, both long-time Liberal activists, were among eight signatories to a newspaper ad thanking Harper for “standing by Israel.”

Reisman is head of Toronto-based Indigo Books and a former chair of the Liberal’s national policy committee. Schwartz is head of Onex Corporation and a former president of the Liberal Party.

Both are leading philanthropists in Toronto’s Jewish community.

Reisman also announced she was quitting the Liberal Party to support Harper’s Tories. “I’m right there alongside Robert,” she e-mailed a friend, according to the Calgary Sun. “After a lifetime of being a Liberal, I have made the switch. It feels strange, but it is totally and unequivocally right.”

Traditional Jewish sympathy for the Liberals may be diminishing as a result of interim party leader Bill Graham’s belief that Canada should maintain neutrality in regard to Israel’s war against Hezbollah, even though Hezbollah is on Canada’s list of terrorist organizations.

The Liberals are perceived by some Jews as “poll-driven” and lacking firm principles to guide their foreign policy, said Ed Morgan, national president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

“What the community definitely appreciates in the Conservatives is that they’re only singing one tune,” Morgan said. “They don’t take a poll and then change their mind on significant policy issues. They’re really taking positions on the Middle East in accordance with what they said they would do, not in accordance with the public opinion of the moment. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, I think you have to respect that.”

In the opening days of Israel’s monthlong engagement with Hezbollah, the Globe and Mail ran a newspaper story titled “Is Jewish support for Liberals eroding?” and reported that Liberal Party headquarters had received dozens of calls “from traditional Jewish supporters expressing concern about the party’s position.”

Liberal politicians like former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler of Montreal say the party cannot update its Middle East policies or articulate them more clearly because former Prime Minister Paul Martin has resigned as party leader and a replacement won’t be chosen until November.

“It’s fair to say that Harper’s speaking up early and clearly has earned him respect and there has been a supportive response to that” in the Jewish community, Cotler said. “The Liberal Party’s situation has not yet allowed for that. We can’t yet speak in a uniform, consistent way on issues until we have a leader.”

Anita Neville, a Liberal member of Parliament, points out that several Liberal leadership candidates have publicly endorsed Israel’s right to protect its citizens from terrorist aggression.

Neville, who co-chairs a 20-person ad hoc committee called Liberal Parliamentarians for Israel, is one of numerous Liberals dissatisfied with the party’s position on the recent Israel-Hezbollah war.

But she believes the Liberals haven’t lost a significant amount of Jewish support.

“It’s early days right now,” she said. “There’s no question that many members of the Jewish community certainly appreciate Mr. Harper’s unambiguous position as it relates to Israel and the right of Israel to protect itself. But the Liberal Party stands for many issues that Jewish people have valued over the years, some of which are not championed by Mr. Harper. So I think we have to wait and see how this plays out.”

The Liberal caucus is actually deeply divided over the party’s position of neutrality and there is also much division over the issue within Conservative ranks, Neville noted.

“We hear about Mr. Harper speaking out strongly in support of Israel, but the thing that no one talks about is that Mr. Harper has a caucus that is muzzled,” Neville said. “We know that there is a diversity of opinion within that caucus. They just aren’t allowed to speak out.”

Ties between the mainstream Jewish community and the centrist Liberals run especially deep.

Historically, Canadian Jews have supported the Liberals in greater proportions than have other Canadians, although the differences between the community and the general population has diminished in recent years.

Cotler and Neville are just two of many Jewish candidates the party has fielded over the decades, and Jewish Canadians have been well-integrated into party affairs at the grass-roots level for generations. Sam Bronfman, the late whiskey magnate and community leader, was a generous contributor to Liberal coffers as were scores of other successful Canadian Jews.

Hershel Ezrin, chief executive officer of the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy, is himself a longtime Liberal government official.

“Immigrants who come in under a specific government regime tend to vote for the government that gave them a chance,” he said, in explaining the community’s longtime affinity with the Liberal Party, which has been the country’s predominant ruling power over the last century.

But Ezrin doesn’t believe that Jewish voting patterns are undergoing a “seismic shift,” as one commentator recently put it.

“It’s obvious that the policies of the Conservative government have attracted a newfound interest among Canadian Jews in what Conservatives stand for,” Ezrin said. “That’s a fair statement. But how that translates into political support is a much more complicated issue.”

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