Jews, Muslims in Canada Fight Over Hezbollah

By Sheldon Gordon

Published August 16, 2006, issue of August 18, 2006.
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TORONTO - In a reflection of growing tensions between Canada’s Jewish and Arab communities, spawned by the Lebanon War, B’nai Brith Canada last week called for a crackdown on protesters who wave the Hezbollah flag at anti-Israel demonstrations.

B’nai Brith made the demand after 15,000 residents of Quebec, mainly Lebanese-Canadians, marched in a pro-Hezbollah demonstration in Montreal.

“The open declarations of support for the Hezbollah terrorist agenda that we have seen in recent days is a cause for mounting concern,” said Frank Dimant, B’nai Brith’s executive vice president. “Hezbollah is outlawed in this country, and it therefore should be illegal to wave the flags of this terrorist group on our city streets, an activity that encourages and promotes allegiance to terrorism.”

Previously B’nai Brith had urged parliamentary committees reviewing Canada’s anti-terrorism legislation “to recognize open demonstrations and support for terrorist activity as a criminal offense.” In the wake of the recent pro-Hezbollah demonstrations, the Jewish group renewed its call for the federal government to “close all loopholes” in the anti-terrorism legislation that was adopted after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Mohamed Elmasry, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, retorted that Jewish groups should “tone down” their rhetoric. “We are living in a liberal democracy where opposing voices to an overseas conflict is acceptable as long as they are peaceful,” he said. “There is no need to call on authorities to crack down on demonstrations.”

Although squabbling between Dimant and Elmasry is a media staple, emotions clearly have been running higher than usual in both the Jewish and Arab communities. Local Arabs were upset at the Canadian government’s slowness in evacuating 14,000 Lebanese-Canadians from the war zone, and outraged that a family of eight Lebanese-Canadians was killed in southern Lebanon by an Israeli air strike.

UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, along with Canadian Jewish Congress Ontario Region, implemented a pre-existing security plan providing for an increased visible police and security presence at Jewish institutions in the Toronto area. B’nai Brith issued a security alert, citing such incidents as a bomb threat against a synagogue, stones thrown at worshippers as they left evening prayer and a Jewish family being sent a decapitated pig. It also claimed that community organizations were receiving persistent phone and e-mail abuse and threats linked directly to events in the Middle East. Protesters at an August 12 rally organized by Arab groups in front of the Israeli and American consulates in Toronto burned three Israeli flags and cheered recitation of the number of Israeli soldiers killed in weekend fighting before the cease-fire took effect. Pro-Israel supporters held a smaller counter-rally across the street.

The Lebanon conflict, in addition to stirring up anti-Jewish feelings, raised the possibility of a migration of Jewish political support to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party.

Harper’s minority government took office last January, promising stronger backing for Israel and closer ties with America. During the month-long war, Harper was a staunch defender of Israel, despite opinion polls showing that 77% of Canadians favored neutrality in the conflict. Harper’s assertive stance contrasted with the neutral, “honest broker” role advocated by the opposition Liberal Party.

Although Jewish voters, like other voters in the country’s three major cities, largely shunned Harper’s Conservative Party in the previous election, Michael Elterman, a Vancouver-based board member of the pro-Israel lobby group the Canada-Israel Committee, said that if an election were held today, the Jewish community would “show its appreciation” for Harper’s support.

At a recent Toronto rally, 10,000 Israel supporters broke into applause when a speaker thanked the Harper government. Meanwhile, prominent Liberal backers such as Heather Reisman, the country’s largest book retailer, and Robert Lantos, a Toronto film producer, have announced their defections to the Conservatives over the Middle East issue.

But Elterman cautioned that “it might be too simplistic to say that our community has a single-item agenda.” “While at this time there is a very strong, positive feeling toward the Harper government,” Elterman said, “by the time the next election comes around, a lot will depend on some of the other issues that will arise between now and then.”

Having potentially alienated Arab and Muslim voters with its pro-Israel rhetoric, the Harper government is now struggling to appear more balanced. It has appointed a Pakistani-born Muslim parliamentarian, Wajid Khan, to visit the Middle East as its special adviser and write a report due in October.

Khan had criticized Harper’s Middle East policy, saying that, at the G8 leaders’ summit, “Mr. Harper unequivocally wrapped himself around the U.S. policy of unqualified support for Israel’s military actions.”

Elterman said that Khan’s ethnic origins should not disqualify him from such a role. But, the pro-Israel activist said, just imagine the reaction “if Mr. Harper had appointed a Jewish person with a history of being supportive of Israel.”

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