Columnist Takes Heat for Mideast Views

By Sheldon Gordon

Published December 23, 2005, issue of December 23, 2005.
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TORONTO—When Canadian Friends of Peace Now awarded columnist Shira Herzog its first annual Journalism Peace Prize last week, it reinforced a remarkable makeover of her image in Canada’s Jewish community.

Herzog, who won the award from the Jewish peace group for her monthly columns on the Middle East in the Globe and Mail newspaper, was the leading public advocate for Israel in the 1980s when she was executive director of the Canada-Israel Committee, the community’s major pro-Israel lobby. In those days, she was in great demand as a speaker among Jewish groups.

Now, however, she is an articulate critic of the Israeli government’s occupation policy, a stance that has upset many in Canada’s conservative Jewish community. Her speaking engagements have declined, and she receives hostile e-mails from some of her readers.

“I’m chipping away at some of the blind spots, challenging some of the mantras,” she said. “I’m trying to give a different perspective, not expecting that everyone is going to agree with me. Civilized disagreement does not disturb me at all, but I’m pained by the language that sometimes appears in e-mails that I receive.”

Although Herzog is not the only prominent Canadian Jewish voice of dissent, none of the others has her cachet. Born in Israel, she has lived in Canada since 1974 as a dual citizen. She is the granddaughter of the late Isaac Halevi Herzog, the second Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, the daughter of the late Yaacov Herzog, a senior adviser to three Israeli prime ministers and ambassador to Canada, and the niece of the late Chaim Herzog, a former president of Israel.

Her credentials as a scion of Zion are complemented by formidable leadership skills. Two years ago, when Canadian Jewish machers were unhappy with the community’s lobbying efforts, they superimposed a new decision-making body on top of both the Israel Committee and the Canadian Jewish Congress, and approached Herzog about becoming its president. She declined.

Herzog prefers to wear several hats. In addition to writing the column and hosting a cable-TV show on Israel, since 1988 she has been a vice president of the Calgary, Alberta-based Kahanoff Foundation, which funds innovative social and cultural projects in Canada and Israel. The foundation has invested almost $60 million in Israeli projects over the past 25 years.

Among the projects Herzog has helped incubate are the Ma’of fellowships for Israeli Arab scholars, which in the past 10 years have increased the number of Israeli Arab academics in Israeli universities. “For some Israeli students, outside of their army service, the first time they encounter an Arab in person may now be as a lecturer at a class in university,” she said.

Through the foundation job, Herzog is able to spend about one-third of her time in Israel and be an agent of social change there, while also becoming a leading voice in the nonprofit sector within Canada. But it is Herzog’s national newspaper column, begun three years ago, that most raised her profile in her adopted country.

“She is among the finest Israel analysts that I have read in [any] newspapers,” said Derek Penslar, director of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. “She is extremely well-informed and she manages to square the circle of being critical of Israeli policy while being fundamentally sympathetic to Zionism and to the need for Israel to be a Jewish state.”

That distinction, however, eludes many Canadian Jews. “There are certain people in the community who will not brook Shira’s approach,” added Penslar. “It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance. I think it’s simply impossible for most Jews who are supportive of Israel to tolerate sustained criticism of Israel’s policies.”

Herzog denies that she has drastically shifted her views on the Middle East. “By and large, I have always felt that holding on to the territories was a burden on the state of Israel at many different levels and that widespread settling of civilians there was bound to become an albatross. That has been my perspective for a long time.”

She also rejects the notion that she has moved leftward. “I really don’t like labels, and today they’re anachronistic,” she said. “What does it mean to be ‘pro-Palestinian’? If you believe the Palestinians have rights and are entitled to a state alongside Israel, does that mean you are inimical to Israel’s existence and security? Of course not. But that’s the way it’s interpreted.”

This summer, prior to Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, Herzog took the unusual step of blasting B’nai Brith Canada in her column for tolerating Israeli extremists who, she wrote, were not just opposing the Gaza withdrawal but were trying to undermine the legitimacy of Israel’s elected government.

Shoel Silver, past president of United Israel Appeal Federations Canada, admonished her not to “demonize” one segment of the Israeli people. In a letter to the newspaper, he wrote: “Ms. Herzog’s rush to judgment as to who jeopardizes [Israeli] democracy may satisfy her, but it should not form the basis for Canadian Jews to call for the heads of the settlers.”

Herzog is unrepentant. “I’m guided by what I see as the reality rather than by a concern about how people are going to react and whether this is going to give Israel more friends or more enemies in Canada,” she said. “Sometimes consumers of news call for fairness in the media when what they really expect is advocacy of their own position. But I stand for what I believe in.”

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