When Canada’s Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, recently accused the opposition Liberal Party of being “anti-Israel,” Liberals and the media looked for a credible rebuttal not from Jewish members of the party but from the politician who is considered by many in the community to be an “honorary Jew.”
The counterattack was quickly forthcoming from Bob Rae, a former premier of Ontario who only has been a Liberal Party member since April and is seeking to be elected as its national leader at its convention this weekend. Rae slammed Harper’s attack as a “big lie” that was “deeply divisive,” saying he was offended personally as well as politically.
For Rae, Jewish issues are indeed personal. Rae is of Jewish descent — although he did not know this while he was growing up.
The son of prominent career diplomat Saul Rae, he was schooled in Ottawa, Washington and Geneva before earning a Bachelor of Arts and a law degree at the University of Toronto. In the mid-1960s, just as he was entering university, he learned the family secret: His paternal grandfather was Jewish. William Cohen, the eldest son of Orthodox Jewish refugees from Lithuania, had taken the surname of his Scottish bride, Nell Rae, after the couple immigrated to Canada just before World War I. They raised their son, Saul, as an Anglican, a faith he passed on to his own son, Bob.
Rae was stunned by the revelation (a discovery similar to those made later in life by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and Senators John Kerry and George Allen), and he immersed himself in studying his Jewish heritage. He retained his Anglican faith, but married a Jewish woman — Arlene Perly-Rae, a vice president of the Canadian Jewish Congress — and the couple has raised their three daughters as Jews.
Rae, too, has been a committed supporter of the Jewish community, speaking frequently at Israel Bonds dinners and publicly identifying himself as “a part of the Jewish community.” In response, “the community has come as close to saying ‘yes’ to that, as it could for a non-Jew,” said Simon Rosenblum, a former CJC official who also served as a policy adviser in Rae’s provincial government. “He was always thought to be a mensch in the community, and his support for Israel was part of the equation.”
A Liberal Party supporter in his youth, Rae moved to the left-wing New Democratic Party. He led the NDP to an unexpected victory in Ontario’s 1990 election, establishing the first social-democratic government in the province’s history. Beset by an economic recession and a crisis in public finance, Rae ruled for five turbulent years before the NDP was decisively voted out of office.
During his short taste of provincial power, however, the cerebral, articulate politician did what he could to show his support for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. When Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, Rae organized a reception at the provincial legislature that brought together local Jewish and Palestinian community leaders in an attempt to build bridges.
The following year, he led a delegation of business leaders to Israel and the West Bank, meeting with Rabin and with Palestinian peace advocate Sari Nusseibeh. A few months later, the premier signed a co-operation agreement between Ontario and Israel to promote trade and cultural relations. Since losing the premiership, Rae shed his allegiance to the increasingly radical NDP. The final straw came in 2002, when the federal party’s foreign affairs spokesman described Israel as a terrorist state and went to Ramallah to show solidarity with Arafat. In a newspaper column, Rae wrote: “The NDP… denounces any military action against terrorism whether by the United States, Canada or Israel. This is not a vision of social democracy worthy of support.”
Those who support Rae in the current Liberal leadership race believe he is the only potential leader who could stem the growing Jewish migration from the party to Harper’s Conservatives — a trend accentuated recently with the stunning defection of Ariela Cotler, wife of Liberal Member of Parliament (and Rae supporter) Irwin Cotler.
But others doubt that even Rae’s personal popularity in the community will translate into votes. “I think Mr. Rae’s record on Israel and the ‘Jewish agenda’ is quite impeccable,” said Dan Ronen, who ran unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Liberal and is now switching to Harper. “But is he going to stop the outflow? It won’t change my view. But the community would at least be willing to listen to him.”
Rae was unavailable for an interview.