Jewish Canadians, Loyal Liberals, Lose Insider Status


By Sheldon Gordon

Published February 10, 2006, issue of February 10, 2006.
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TORONTO — In Canada’s recent federal election, Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper campaigned for Jewish votes as a staunch supporter of Israel, but the 300,000-strong Jewish community stayed loyal to the ruling Liberal Party. Harper won the election anyway, and he is forming a minority government without having a single Jewish Parliament member on his team. It’s the first time since 1979 that the community won’t be represented by one of its own at the center of power.

Despite this lack of insider status, however, many Jews, especially those on the right, are hopeful that Harper’s conservative agenda will prove more responsive to Jewish concerns — especially on Israel — than did the policies of the defeated Liberal government. But others think that the weak Jewish electoral support for Harper will make it difficult for him to override the Foreign Affairs department’s longstanding pro-Palestinian tilt.

The election results saw four Jewish members — including former justice minister Irwin Cotler — returned to Parliament, but to the opposition Liberal benches, while two Jewish Members of Parliament from Quebec lost their races. Former Liberal Government House leader Jacques Saada lost in a Quebec district in which Muslim opponents made an issue of his Zionist background, including his youthful service in the Israeli military. Meanwhile, the few Jewish candidates who ran on the Conservative ticket were all soundly defeated.

Although the Conservatives denounced the Liberals as fickle friends of Israel, most Jews apparently cast their ballots on the basis of domestic concerns. Harper, whose base is in Calgary, Alberta, failed to score any victories in Canada’s three largest cities — Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver — as urban Jews joined other city slickers in rejecting the Conservative Party’s perceived “hidden agenda” of social conservatism, including its opposition to abortion.

(Henry Morgentaler, the Jewish physician who overturned Canada’s anti-abortion laws in the 1980s by operating abortion clinics and winning jury acquittals in two criminal trials, warned the week before the vote that a Conservative government would try to take away women’s reproductive rights. Harper denied such intentions, but he did indicate that he would seek to roll back the Liberal government’s approval of same-sex marriage.)

Harper’s first item of business as prime minister-elect was to respond to the Hamas victory, which came two days after his win. The Jewish community was heartened that he lined up with America and Europe in vowing not to deal with a Hamas-led government unless it renounces violence and recognizes Israel’s right to exist.

The Conservatives, he said at a press conference, had “led the charge in the past couple of years to have Hamas listed as a terrorist organization, and we experienced some significant and unexpected resistance from the [Liberals] in that, so we have taken a very hard line on Hamas.”

Harper did not say whether Canadian development aid to the Palestinian Authority would be discontinued if Hamas maintains its hard-line positions. Defeated Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin had pledged $19.6 million in additional Canadian aid to the P.A. following Israel’s pullout from Gaza last August, bringing the total Canadian aid to the Palestinians to $248 million since the P.A. was formed in 1993.

But the Liberals, under Martin, had tried to make Canada’s voting record at the United Nations more balanced on General Assembly resolutions critical of Israel. The Liberal government recently opposed, or at least abstained on, a few resolutions that they had supported in previous years. The Canada-Israel Committee, the country’s major pro-Israel lobby, welcomed the change.

But Neil Drabkin, the losing Conservative candidate in Cotler’s constituency, was unimpressed: “There was a complete abdication of responsibility by successive [Liberal] foreign ministers to the civil service, who have traditionally not been very supportive of Israel. The new Conservative government will make sure the interests of the Jewish community are protected and, indeed, reflected in our policies. But it would have been nice for the Jewish community to have elected members in the government.”

The Conservative victory may shift the relative influence of Jewish advocacy groups. Significantly, the morning after the election, the right-leaning B’nai Brith Canada issued a news release that heartily congratulated the Harper team; the centrist Canadian Jewish Congress did not (although Congress President Ed Morgan said his group had sent a letter of congratulations to Harper).

Nonetheless, said Rochelle Wilner, past president of B’nai Brith Canada, “Congress, for a long time, bashed people like Stephen Harper.” She recalls that when B’nai Brith invited Stockwell Day, Harper’s ardently pro-Israel foreign affairs lieutenant, to attend a community roundtable, “the slamming that I got personally from my friends at Congress was unbelievable: ‘How can you meet with those right-wing redneck people?’”

Morgan was the lawyer for a group of Reform rabbis who last year supported Cotler’s legislation recognizing same-sex marriage — a hot-button issue for the Conservatives. But he said he is “not worried” that he, or Congress, faces a “loss of influence” with the new regime. “This government will be highly intelligent in the way that it reads the community, and will want to tap into as wide a constituency as possible,” Morgan said.

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