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Israel’s diaspora minister courts Canada’s Christian far right – and causes a diplomatic scandal

Amichai Chikli’s upcoming trip is ratcheting up tensions with Canada’s lawmakers and its Jewish community

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission. Sign up here to get Haaretz’s free Daily Brief newsletter delivered to your inbox.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli’s upcoming visit to Canada to speak at a controversial evangelical college has become a diplomatic embarrassment for Israel.

An event at Ontario’s Canada Christian College June 1, where Chikli is billed as the keynote speaker, is intended to both celebrate Jerusalem Day and Israel’s 75th anniversary. It is co-sponsored by the Israel Allies Foundation, an organization that “works to educate and empower pro-Israel, faith-based legislators worldwide,” according to its website.

“Israel is under attack and antisemitism is growing. It is important that we take time from our busy schedules to stand with Israel,” reads a Facebook post on the college account promoting the event.

Canada Christian College’s president is Dr. Charles McVety, an activist and leader of Canada’s Christian far right. He is an anti-abortion activist who campaigned to repeal the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada and the teaching of the theory of evolution. The province’s former premier called him “one of the most publicly and vocally homophobic men in Ontario.”

When the college fought for university status in 2020, the Ontario assembly passed a motion to “condemn the extreme and hateful invective of Charles McVety and oppose any efforts to make Canada Christian College into an accredited university.” The college’s requests to become a degree-granting authority and upgrade to a university were rejected in 2021.

The college and McVety have close ties to Pastor John Hagee, the far-right Texas televangelist and head of Christians United for Israel.

Canadian media reported in 2020 that the college was the registered address for the Canadian branch of Hagee’s Global Evangelism Television empire, which describes itself as having “a mission to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.”

McVety was listed as one of the TV channel’s three directors together with Hagee, who has regularly sparked controversy over his remarks. These include the notion that Hitler and the Holocaust had been part of God’s plan to chase the Jews from Europe back to Israel; that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for gay rights; and, most recently, that the World Health Organization was using the COVID-19 pandemic to create a “one world economy, a one world government, a one world religion and a one world currency” in which “the whole world will be under the iron hoof of the Antichrist.”

A diplomatic storm erupted when it became clear that not only would Chikli speak at the college event, but also that he would be visiting the Canadian seat of government in Ottawa without going through the official channels.

It came as a surprise to Canadian government officials when Conservative lawmaker Leslyn Lewis sent an email to all of the country’s parliamentarians last week, inviting them to a “lunch celebration of Jerusalem Day and the 75th anniversary of the State of Israel” with Chikli, under the auspices of the cross-party, faith-based Canadian Parliamentary Israel Allies Caucus.

Stunned by the news, lawmakers closely involved in Israeli-Canadian relations rushed to clarify whether the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was aware that an Israeli minister was coming to Ottawa. It was not.

Under fire

Standard protocol is for such a visit to be coordinated with Canada’s government through Israel’s Foreign Ministry. In addition, any visit to the Canadian Parliament is organized by the Canada-Israel Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Organization – the official channel between Israel’s Knesset and the Canadian legislature.

The inter-parliamentary organization and the Israeli Embassy held their official commemoration of Israel’s 75th anniversary on May 15.

The Canadian Parliamentary Israel Allies Caucus, by contrast, is not an official organization. The group was founded 15 years ago – among the first in a parliamentary network of 50 pro-Israel caucuses under the aegis of the Israel Allies Foundation, which connects legislatures around the world with evangelical communities.

Lewis, who issued the invitation, has recently come under fire after photographs emerged of her friendly sit-down with European Parliament lawmaker Christine Anderson – a leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. She is known for her extreme anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic views.

The meeting was condemned by the pro-Israel advocacy group Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Even Lewis’ party leader, Pierre Poilievre, called Anderson’s positions racist, hateful and vile.

Lewis herself is a social conservative active in anti-abortion efforts and opposed to vaccine mandates, and has been accused of promoting conspiracy theories. In one instance, she was accused of comparing such mandates to the Nazis’ Nuremberg Code. She has twice challenged Poilievre for the party leadership.

She defended herself following criticism of the Anderson meeting, saying it was “within my job description” and that “I do not have to approve of everything a member [of the European Parliament] says in order to have the decency to have meetings with that individual.”

Liberal MP Ya’ara Saks is the first dual Israeli-Canadian citizen to serve in the country’s parliament. She called Chikli’s “back-channel” planning, as well as being hosted by someone who is a controversial opposition member, “extremely problematic.”

“I was highly disappointed to see this from the Israeli government,” Saks says. “This is not how diplomatic relations between two countries are managed – certainly not between Canada and Israel, which have been partners for so many years.”

Moreover, she adds, it was upsetting “to learn that an Israeli cabinet member is coming to Canada to be part of a fundraising event for an organization that has a clear pro-life, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQIA+ agenda that flirts with the extreme right and with neo-Nazi views.”

She also expresses disappointment that the primary purpose of Chikli’s first trip to Canada was seemingly not to familiarize himself and build a connection with the Canadian-Jewish community. Chikli “was willing to prioritize this event above his mandate for Diaspora affairs?” she asks. “We have many pro-Israel and hasbara organizations in the Canadian-Jewish community. I don’t understand why he didn’t prioritize them.”

Nachman Shai, who held the Diaspora affairs portfolio before Chikli, was highly critical of his successor’s actions.

When he traveled abroad in the role, Shai says, his trips were always “fully coordinated through the Foreign Ministry, as a representative of the State of Israel must do,” he says.

“Any foray outside the country’s borders must include the Jewish community,” whatever the purpose, he adds. “When I visited Canada, I devoted the decisive part of the visit to a conference of the Jewish community from across Canada, as well as separate meetings with various representatives, with an emphasis on young people and students. I also met with the Canadian minister of immigration to learn about their immigration policy – especially following the war in Ukraine. That’s the core of the job.”

Two meetings about the breach of protocol took place last week in which the Canadian government, headed by Trudeau’s Liberal Party, expressed their unhappiness over the visit.

Senior staff from the Canadian Global Affairs Ministry met with Israel’s outgoing ambassador to Canada, Ronen Hoffman, and his deputy head of mission Nira Staretz on the issue.

At the same time, Saks and fellow lawmaker Anthony Housefather expressed their unhappiness to Chikli’s chief of staff, Tuvia Chertok, and other members of the embassy staff in a Zoom meeting.

Following these meetings, Chikli’s visit has since been retooled. When arriving at the parliament, he will first officially meet with representatives of all parties under the aegis of the Friendship Organization. Only afterward will he be hosted by the Canadian Parliamentary Israel Allies Caucus.

Saks says she is aware that a meeting with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has now been arranged. The advocacy group confirmed that a meeting with Chikli had been set for May 31. It indicated that the feelings of the Canadian-Jewish community regarding the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul plans would be expressed at this meeting.

“As has been our approach from the very beginning when this government was formed, we will use our private dialogue to convey not just our support for Israel, but the specific concerns expressed by segments of our constituency regarding particular elements of the Israeli government’s policies,” says the center’s president and CEO, Shimon Koffler Fogel.

Fogel defends Chikli against Saks’ suggestion that the minister’s visit was centered around the Israel Allies Foundation event and that the Jewish community was a secondary concern.

“As we understand it, the whole purpose of the minister’s trip to Canada is to work with Jewish federations in Montreal and Toronto on ways in which Israel can support Jewish education, and it’s why he’s spending four days in Toronto,” Fogel says.

Haaretz sent a list of questions to Chikli’s office inquiring about the nature, agenda and funding of his trip. The questions related to whether Israel Allies Foundation or Canada Christian College were funding any part of his stay or if all of his travel was coming from the state budget. Other queries concerned the documentation approving the trip; his reaction to the negative response from the Canadian government regarding his breach of protocol; and for comment on the extreme politics of his hosts.

Chikli declined to respond to these questions.

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