Conservatives Wooing Traditionally Liberal Canadian Jews

A Swing Vote in the Making

By Sheldon Gordon

Published December 22, 2009, issue of January 01, 2010.
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Leaflets mailed to homes in heavily Jewish districts of Canada’s major cities last November struck with uncharacteristic ferocity at the political party that Canadian Jews have long favored.

Canada’s Liberal Party, the Conservative Party broadsides charged, had “opposed defunding Hamas and asked that Hezbollah be delisted as a terrorist organization.” The Liberals had “willingly participated” in the 2001 “overtly antiSemitic” Durban international conference on racism. And Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff had “accused Israel of committing war crimes,” the leaflets charged.

Only the last charge was incontestably accurate and free of distortion. But the mass mailing reflected a new facet of Canadian politics. With elections expected this spring for a closely divided parliament, the Jewish vote is in play, seen as a swing vote in several key districts that could help tip the balance of national power.

“This is a game of inches in a minority [government] situation,” explained Paul Adams, a spokesman for EKOS Research Associates, an Ottawa-based polling firm. “The Jewish community is not a large demographic, but it tends to be concentrated in a small number of seats….It looks like an ethnic group that could be separated from the Liberals.”

At stake are five or six closely contested seats in a parliament the Conservatives are just 10 votes short of controlling outright. Conservative success among Jewish voters, long regarded as a pillar of the rival Liberal Party, would mark a major realignment by Canadian Jewry.

“There’s a bit of a trend these days towards the Conservative Party,” said Mark Waldman, executive director of the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee, a nonpartisan group that promotes Jewish involvement in federal politics.

Even before his election in January 2006, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper considered Canada’s 350,000-member Jewish community “in play,” and tried to rupture its Liberal ties. He has staked out a strongly pro-Israel position.

Shortly after the 2006 Lebanon War, for example, Harper blocked what he considered a one-sided anti-Israel resolution at the Francophonie, a summit of French-speaking nations. At the same time, Ignatieff, a former professor of human rights then vying for leadership of the Liberal Party, accused Israel of having committed a “war crime” in Qana, the South Lebanon village where Israeli air strikes hit an apartment building, killing at least 28 civilians, including 16 children. Speaking to a Jewish audience two years later, Ignatieff did not retract his view that Israel “may have failed to comply with the Geneva Convention of the laws of war.” But he expressed regret at his incendiary choice of words, terming the episode “the most painful experience of my short political career” and “an error.”

The Jewish community also lauded Harper for being the first Western leader to boycott last April’s U.N. Durban Review Conference in Geneva, known informally as Durban II, in Geneva, vowing that Canada would “not be party to an antisemitic and anti-Western hate-fest dressed up as an anti-racism conference.”

“The Conservatives have connected with some Jewish voters, especially those for whom Israel is of prime importance,” McGill University political scientist Harold Waller said. “With Israel under unprecedented international pressure, voters who are sensitive to this issue may well choose to reward the Conservatives.”

Already, the Conservative overtures have gained some high-profile converts within the Jewish elite. Heather Reisman, a veteran Liberal powerbroker, and Ariella Cotler, wife of prominent Liberal parliamentarian and Jewish communal activist Irwin Cotler, both have swung over to Harper.

The Jews who shift to the Conservatives are not necessarily buying into the party’s neoconservative domestic agenda. For one thing, having only a minority in parliament, Harper has had to govern from the center rather than the right. And most Jews remain liberal on such social issues as abortion and the publicly run health care system.

A typical case is Toronto’s Dan Ronen, a lawyer who was the Jewish community liaison to a former Liberal Cabinet minister. He plans to vote for Harper. “It doesn’t make me a Conservative,” he said. “I’m not a party activist. I’m supporting Harper because of his positions on antisemitism, on Iran and isolating [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, and for his unequivocal support for the State of Israel.”

There are no polls on Jewish-voter intentions. But the Conservatives do appear to be gaining strength in suburban Toronto ridings (parliamentary districts) with large Jewish minorities. Rochelle Wilner, a former president of B’nai Brith Canada, ran for the Conservatives in 2008 in the Toronto seat of York Centre, a traditionally Liberal preserve, with a significant Jewish minority. She lost, but trimmed the Liberals’ victory margin to a mere 2,000 votes from 12,000. “There’s been a huge shift” toward Harper among Jews, Wilner said. “I think the Conservative brand is stronger right across the country.”

Thornhill, the most Jewish riding in Ontario, ousted its Jewish Liberal incumbent in 2008. “There’s no question that the Jewish community, especially the Orthodox, felt the Conservatives had been very vocal in support of Israel and deserved to be given a boost,” said James Morton, leader of the Liberals’ political operation in that district.

The Conservatives, currently 10 seats shy of a parliamentary majority, targeted six heavily Jewish ridings with their controversial leaflets: three in Montreal, two in Toronto and one in Winnipeg. The Liberals — and the smaller opposition parties — accused the Conservatives of playing ethnic politics. “There’s the risk of a backlash against the Conservatives,” Waller said. “The circular was so misleading in some respects; people were offended.”

Cotler, who was justice minister in the last Liberal government, lambasted the leaflet’s claim that Harper’s government “led the world” in halting funding to the Hamas-led Palestinian government in Gaza. It was, in fact, a Liberal government that first banned financial support to Hamas and Hezbollah in 2002, he noted in an interview with The Toronto Star.

As for the charge that Liberals had betrayed Jewish interests by sending representatives to the first Durban Conference against racism, held in 2001, Cotler noted that he was one of those Liberals. The Israeli government of the day specifically asked Canada to remain at the conference “and make its voice felt and bear witness to what was happening,” he said.

Prominent Conservative legislators, such as Hugh Segal, Linda Frum and Judith Seidman, declined requests for interviews.

Neither the Canadian Jewish Congress nor B’nai Brith Canada, the two major Jewish advocacy groups, overtly endorses a political party. But B’nai Brith is clearly delighted with Harper. When the anti-Liberal fliers landed, a B’nai Brith news release defended the Conservative missive.

Historically, it’s the Liberal Party that has appealed to ethnic groups. For one, this was the governing party when most of those groups first were admitted into Canada in large numbers. Also, said Jonathan Goldbloom, a prominent Liberal organizer in Montreal, “the Liberals have been a slightly left-of-center party, the Democratic Party equivalent in Canada that argued for the role of government. They addressed issues of importance to the community beyond Israel.”

Goldbloom said that his party’s challenge now is to make its stand against antisemitism and for Israel “more apparent, especially when faced with an opponent that distorts the Liberal record.” He added, “We want all parties to support Israel; it shouldn’t be a wedge issue.”

Contact Sheldon Gordon at feedback@forward.com.


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