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Mega-donors Bid for Control of Canadian Bodies

TORONTO — A group of wealthy Jewish donors is trying to seize control of Canadian Jewry’s major advocacy organizations, offering a big increase in funding while seeking to impose a less confrontational approach to their lobbying efforts on Israel and other Jewish issues. The behind-closed-doors maneuver has alarmed some elected community leaders.

Allied with UIA Federations Canada, the national roof body of local Jewish philanthropies, the donor group includes prominent business figures such as Gerry Schwartz, CEO of the conglomerate Onex Corp.; Larry Tanenbaum, co-owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team; Stephen Reitman, whose family owns the Reitmans clothing store chain, and Brent Belzberg, founder of the venture capital firm Torquest Partners.

The group formed an “emergency cabinet” within UIA two years ago because of its dissatisfaction with the efforts of the community’s two major lobbying bodies, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Canada-Israel Committee. The Canada-Israel Committee is supposed to lobby on Israel, leaving other issues to the Canadian Jewish Congress, but overlap has been rampant. Since both bodies depend on the UIA for funding, they are vulnerable to what one observer called a “hostile takeover” by the UIA’s cabinet.

The big givers say they were shocked by a study conducted by government-relations expert Hershell Ezrin: Polling results showed that most Canadians don’t support Israel and are unaware of its democratic institutions. “Have we done a good [advocacy] job if that’s what the majority of Canadians believe?” asked Belzberg, a major donor.

The Ezrin study suggested an overhaul of the community’s public relations strategy to demonstrate that Israel’s values, and Canadian Jewry’s, are consistent with Canada’s. This would include displaying more sympathy for the Palestinian people. While not all the donors support this conclusion, they agree that the two advocacy bodies have to be better funded and more tightly coordinated.

Community activists fear the donors’ plans would end the element of democratic governance that now exists in the Canadian Jewish community, where the Congress is seen as a popular-based, broadly representative body speaking for most communities and congregations. “Our sages tell us that it’s not appropriate for those with the money to be setting the agenda for the community,” said Keith Landy, president of the Congress. “They should be given a role in directing where the money is spent, but not an exclusive role.”

The Congress, which has long billed itself as the “parliament of Canadian Jewry,” prides itself on its autonomy. The donors counter, however, that this autonomy has long been a matter more of form than substance. “Keith Landy may have the role of president, but he doesn’t have one dollar to do anything with unless the Federations give it to him,” Belzberg said. “If you’re the president of something that has dwindling resources and mixed mandates, what have you got?”

Some of the major donors, dismayed at the rise of antisemitism in Canada since the eruption of the intifada, had considered forming their own organization but decided to work through the UIA instead. As a result, funding for the advocacy groups is to double to $7 million this fiscal year and remain at that level in the following two years. But the cabinet appears to want a direct role in determining how the funds will be spent.

Their plan calls for the two lobbying bodies to take their orders from an executive director chosen by the donors group — and that has upset some community activists.

“This is a group of self-appointed people who have very little linkage with the Jewish amcha (masses), and they have private agendas of their own,” said Thomas Hecht, a Montreal businessman and former Quebec chair of the Committee. In Montreal, Federation CJA, a network of domestic and overseas Jewish agencies, recently abolished the Committee in the first move of the proposed restructuring.

B’nai Brith Canada, which along with the Congress has been a key stakeholder in the Committee, would have no role in the new setup. “It’s a dangerous move,” said Frank Dimant, the executive vice president of B’nai Brith. “The underlying theme is a total centralization of Jewish thought, opinion and messaging. It’s an attempt to silence the activists in our community, to go back to the old ways of ‘Sha, sha!’ I think it’s a process cloaked in secrecy right now, which isn’t healthy for dialogue within the community.”

Some community leaders believe the proposed restructuring can be positive. “Something had to be done” to improve lobbying efforts, said Irving Abella, a York University historian and former president of the Congress. “There is a crisis of advocacy within the community. There was a feeling that we had outmoded structures at a time when the problems had become far more serious. The restructuring will supply additional resources, and that’s good. The major concern is what role will ordinary rank-and-file members of the community play.”

Belzberg acknowledged that “this is being seen as a bunch of rich guys telling the others what to do,” but he denied there is any attempt to remove the democratic structure of the Congress. The intent, he said, is to end the overlap in pro-Israel advocacy between the Congress and the Committee and to lobby with a more “well-thought-out strategy.” Canadian Jewry needs an advocacy model that is as effective as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, he said.

Belzberg conceded, however, that the new structure would have the elected president of the Congress reporting to an appointed executive director. (Ezrin, the consultant responsible for the study showing lack of support for Israel by Canadians, was reportedly offered the job but declined.) Belzberg also acknowledged that he and some of his colleagues in the “emergency cabinet” might indeed join the board that oversees the executive director.

Critics such as Hecht and Dimant worry that a community leadership dominated by business machers would pull its punches when lobbying the federal government on Israel, lest it offend officials who could harm its business interests. For example, Israel (Izzy) Asper, one of the major donors, owns a television network that is vulnerable to broadcast regulators.

Belzberg rejected such concerns, noting that B’nai Brith’s Dimant also comes from a family with significant business interests yet hasn’t felt the need to mute his pro-Israel advocacy. That said, Belzberg and Schwartz, another key donor, are known to believe that the advocacy bodies have to rethink their confrontational lobbying tactics. “Calling people names and ‘beating up’ on government ministers is not the way to achieve anything,” Belzberg said. “It hasn’t worked.”

Belzberg also denied the claim of some community activists that the big givers are newcomers to advocacy, saying that some have held positions of community leadership and know the issues well. York University’s Abella agreed: “They’re rich, but that’s beside the point.”

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