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Israel and Canadian Jews

Mira Sucharov
November 8, 2016


by Mira Sucharov

From the Autumn 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

WHEN the United Church of Canada voted in August 2012 to boycott West Bank settlement products, the Canadian Jewish community’s reaction was harsh and swift. Calling the decision “morally reckless,” the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Canada’s dominant Jewish and Israel lobby, moved to cut ties with the church. ARZA, the Reform synagogue movement’s Zionist group, called the resolution “unfair” and “biased.” Rabbi Steven Garten of Temple Israel in Ottawa cancelled an interfaith event with the United Church, and B’nai Brith Canada accused the church of being “obsess[ed] with the Jewish state.”

More recently, when Jewish groups found themselves wanting to join the countrywide effort to sponsor Syrian refugees, some were in a quandary because the United Church is one of a limited number of sponsorship agreement holders with whom individuals or groups must partner to gain access to government channels. Yet working with the church, one synagogue member in another city who was organizing a refugee sponsorship effort told me, is simply “not an option.”

Not every Jewish group in Canada agreed. Not surprisingly, Independent Jewish Voices, which has embraced boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), “congratulated” the church on its resolution. Canadian Friends of Peace Now (CFPN) noted that their organization, mirroring Peace Now in Israel, itself supports a boycott of West Bank settlement products — a stance that has been advanced, at least in the case of the settlement Ariel, by such Israeli literary giants as Amos Oz, David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua. Nevertheless, in August, CFPN criticized the Green Party of Canada’s BDS resolution on the grounds that it “criticizes only Israel” and that the party is placing “itself in alliance with the wider BDS movement.”

If the landscape of Canadian Jewish opinion on the subject of Israel is broader than the official engines of the community would like us to believe, the differences across the left are just as fraught. It’s a dynamic similar, in many ways, to that of the American Jewish community, but with some significant organizational differences that lead in Canada to even more powerful means of marginalizing dissent.

COMPARED to their American Jewish counterparts, Canadian Jews on the whole are more traditionally observant and more strongly wedded to their Jewish identities. Conservative and Orthodox are the largest synagogue denominations in Canada, and Canadian Jews are more likely than American Jews to have visited Israel, have knowledge of Hebrew, and send their kids to Jewish day school. The only Hebrew immersion summer camp on the continent is in Canada (Camp Massad of Manitoba, where I spent ten summers.) Intermarriage rates are also lower, and owing to immigration patterns, Canadian Jews are a generation closer to the Holocaust.

While in some ways, organized Jewish life in Canada is a direct extension of American Jewish life — Canada’s Hillels, JCCs, and network of affiliated Jewish summer camps are all headquartered in the U.S., and Canadian-based rabbis, for the most part, train at American seminaries — there is a pressing organizational difference in how conformity about Israel is reinforced. In 2014, for example, America’s Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was placed in the spotlight when it voted 22-17 (with three abstentions) against admitting J Street, the liberal-leaning, “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group. The rejection said a lot about the kind of ideas deemed legitimate by the major organizational players in Jewish America. But Canadian Jews don’t even have an umbrella group corralling different points of view around a single advocacy table. Instead, since 2004, CIJA and its Jewish Federation structure has proclaimed itself the single address for matters related to Israel and Jewish advocacy. Since CIJA derives its core funding from the Federation’s annual campaign, it has an aura of legitimacy in seeming to speak for “the Jewish community.”

On Israel and the Middle East, CIJA is uniformly hard-line: director Shimon Koffler Fogel has called the nuclear deal with Iran a “stunning diplomatic failure”; CIJA has called the party resolution by the Green Party of Canada to support BDS “shameful” and “sickening”; CIJA accused UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in January 2016 of “excusing Palestinian terrorism.” (In fact, while Ban Ki-moon’s remarks in his January speech included an admission that “Palestinian frustration is growing under the weight of a half century of occupation and the paralysis of the peace process,” he was unequivocal about opposing “stabbings, vehicle attacks, and shootings by Palestinians targeting Israeli civilians — all of which I condemn,” he said.)

Critics complain that CIJA’s social justice work, the second prong of its stated mission alongside Israel lobbying, is but a shadow of what it should be. Bernie M. Farber, former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) — which, along with the Canada-Israel-Committee, was shuttered to make room for CIJA — faults the organization for placing “all of its marbles in Israel advocacy” while merely “dabbling” in human rights issues. “The hands-on, feet-to-the-ground work fighting anti-Semitism,” Farber says, “is not a real part of the CIJA agenda. Reaching out to engage in dialogue with other faith and ethnic groups, once an area [in which] CJC was a leader, is now relegated to the odd conference here and there. And virtually nowhere to be seen is the work CJC undertook in the areas of refugee advocacy, poverty, and labor relations.”

Given the tone that CIJA has successfully cultivated on Israel, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper emerged on the scene as Netanyahu’s best friend, Jewish Canadians were smitten. The 2011 elections saw the Jewish vote sway towards the Conservative Party (52 percent) from its previous Liberal home. By 2015, however, many Canadians, Jews included, had become tired of the “Harper style.” At least three heavily-Jewish ridings (electoral districts) — Winnipeg South Centre, Toronto’s Eglinton-Lawrence, and York Centre, turned back to Liberal.

The actual difference in Harper’s Israel policy compared to that of his predecessor was hardly significant, except in tone, as Harper and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu positioned themselves as best friends on the world stage. To conservative Jewish Canadians, this felt like a warm bath, while to progressive Jews seeking to push Israel on its settlement and occupation policies, Harper’s adoration of Netanyahu was irksome and unhelpful.

IF THE CANADIAN Jewish left is generally united in opposing Netanyahu’s policies, however, it is hardly unified.

Canadian Jews who don’t support BDS but count themselves as progressive on Israel have at least four organizational Jewish outlets with which to affiliate: Canadian Friends of Peace Now, Ameinu (headquartered in the U.S. and gradually gaining a foothold in the Canadian scene; I sit on their board), JSpaceCanada, and New Israel Fund-Canada. (The latter, however, restricts its focus to civil rights and social justice matters within Israel proper, not anti-occupation activity.)

Karen Mock, spokesperson and program chair for JSpaceCanada, explains how her organization, founded in 2011, came about: “There was no safe place for progressive Jews who wanted to ensure the safety and security of the State of Israel to relay the message that there is more than one viewpoint about Israel in our community.” Mock is critical of Canadian Jews on the left who are quick to vilify Israel and seem unable to recognize when legitimate criticism of Israeli policy crosses the line into anti-Semitism. “I’m pro-Israel and I’m pro-Palestine and I’m pro-peace,” she says. There needed to be a “place to raise the voices of those who want peace and security, and human and civil rights for all.”

The main Canadian Jewish organization that supports BDS is Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV), which takes pains, at least on its web-based statement of principles, to call attention to the scourge of anti-Semitism. But in supporting BDS, including the demand for Palestinian refugee return and the use of the “apartheid” label to describe Israel, IJV doesn’t get much of a hearing in the Canadian Jewish press or in Jewish organizations, including progressive Zionist ones.

I am not a proponent of BDS and do not affiliate with IJV, but when IJV invited me to debate Israel critic Max Blumenthal in a public forum on the merits and drawbacks of liberal Zionism, I agreed. My synagogue, however, refused to publicize the event. And twice I’ve had editors of Jewish community papers in Canada send back an installment of my regular column in which I’ve quoted IJV’s head staffer, Tyler Levitan, too extensively. Both times I capitulated, deeming that retaining a platform to help shape the conversation was more valuable than standing my ground against what I think is an unhealthy kherem (writ of excommunication).

As Canadian Jewish News editor Yoni Goldstein told me, “Even though we promote inclusion as a virtue, there are limits to how inclusive we’re willing to be. Abetting BDS and rejecting Israel’s future as a Jewish state crosses the line.” If members of IJV, Goldstein continued, “wish to separate themselves from the bulk of Canadian Jewry when it comes to Israel, so be it. Independence has its benefits, but the comfort of community is not usually one of them.” (Vancouver’s Jewish Independent is more open to pluralism on its pages around these matters.)

There are many Jews, of course, who choose to defect from the conversation entirely — including many younger Jews who are in the prime of their emerging political consciousness. Caleb Sher, a second-year student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, recalls how his years in 7th and 8th grades at Jewish Day School in Ottawa fostered a sense of alienation as he “was starting to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t wholeheartedly support the State of Israel.” He believes that the message of “unquestioning support for Israel” is largely what led him, until recently, to feel “apathetic towards Judaism.”

Depending on one’s personality and disposition, standing outside of what the organized Jewish community refers to as its “consensus” can either be a lonely or empowering experience. My own sidelining from a senior board position over my political views on Israel (an episode I wrote about in Haaretz) entailed a painful mixture of frustration, humiliation, and pride: I deeply resented the treatment I received but I took strength in the need, as I saw it, to continue to challenge the dynamic of political groupthink in the Jewish community.

IJV’s Tyler Levitan feels similarly. “It’s an awful feeling,” he said, “when the community in which you were raised considers you as persona non grata because of your political views. Being ostracized for embracing values I was raised with and that I strongly feel are in keeping with Jewish traditions has left me feeling betrayed, but at the same time, has emboldened me to make my views heard.” Those values? As Levitan describes them, “tikkun olam; treating your neighbours as you would want to be treated; the sacred value of each human life; struggling against discrimination and injustices of all kinds, regardless of who they’re committed against; speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves.”

Missing from this list, yet animating much of the center and right of the Canadian Jewish community on Israel and related matters, is a sense of Jewish particularism or tribalism.Can Jewish communal life survive without it? Language acquisition and maintenance, ritual practice, and the texture of cultural practice in many ways depend on a sense of group solidarity, and Canada’s Jewish community has consistently valued Jewish tradition, literacy and practice. But part of having a healthy tribe is also making room for multiple strands of opinion. When these issues involve questions of human rights, and when the human rights debate takes place against the backdrop of actions taken by the country we claim as our Jewish homeland, the discussion needs to be loud and robust. Imposed conformity won’t help alleviate human suffering. We also run the risk that the next generation, raised with a more universalistic and multicultural consciousness, might just abdicate altogether.

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University, Ottawa, and a columnist with Haaretz in Israel.