The Israel trap
As a Liberal staffer during the 2008 federal election, I often received incredulous emails from Jewish friends who wondered how I could possibly be trying to defeat Stephen Harper, a prime minister who was such an adamant supporter of Israel. When I worked for Michael Ignatieff, I was treated to regular pronouncements that my boss was an anti-Semite.
Too often, I’d take the bait. “Harper didn’t change Canada’s voting record at the United Nations. Paul Martin did!” I’d protest. “The Conservatives haven’t actually changed the content of Canada’s Middle East policy since they took office!”
For non-Conservative Jews, this is the Israel trap: the temptation to argue endlessly about the Jewish state with friends for whom it is the single most important subject in Canadian politics. By playing their game, we’ve all been complicit in turning Canadian Jews into single-issue voters for the first time in our community’s history.
This hasn’t happened by accident. It used to be that, as a community, our political priorities were distinctly multifaceted. Irwin Cotler and Canadian Jewish Congress helped to craft the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. David Lewis and Dave Barrett were powerful voices in social democratic politics. In Ontario, Eddie Goodman led the “Big Blue Machine” through decades of Progressive Conservative rule.
Jews who voted Conservative used to do so because they were true conservatives – because they shared the party’s views on the economy, the environment and health care. Many of these partisans have spent the past decade trying to persuade the rest of us to join them, and they’ve used Israel as a wedge to win Jewish votes. It’s worked.Exit polls after the 2011 federal election indicated 52 per cent of Jewish voters marked their ballots for a Tory candidate.
In the United States, Jewish Republicans have tried to replicate their Canadian cousins’ success, to no avail. Nearly 70 per cent of American Jews voted to re-elect President Barack Obama in 2012, despite a multimillion-dollar effort – led by billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition – to paint the Democrats as insufficiently hawkish in their support of Israel. In a 2013 poll by the American Jewish Committee, 52 per cent of American Jews identified as Democrats, and just 15 per cent as Republicans. A 2012 poll by the same organization, identified the economy, not Israel, as the most important election issue for Jewish voters by a wide margin.
It could be that, as conservatives go, our Tories are simply less menacing than their Republicans, so Canadian Jews who are politically moderate might be more willing to support right-wing politicians in Canada than they would be in the United States. But to explain a phenomenon is not to deny it. Anyone who has discussed politics at a seder table in the past decade will confirm that Canadian Jews who vote Conservative are likely to do so because of one issue more than any other: Israel.
Of course, not every Jew who votes Tory does so solely, or even primarily, because of the prime minister’s pro-Israel rhetoric. But the manner in which our community interacts with our country’s politics has unquestionably changed. Party operatives of every stripe have come to think of Jews as single-issue voters, and our community’s elites seem keen to prove them right.
Look no further than Canadian Jewish Congress. For more than 90 years, its advocacy focused as much on human rights at home and abroad as on the Middle East. When it disappeared in 2011, the leaders of the organization that replaced it dropped Canada from its new name, the “Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.” Canada’s most prominent Jewish organization now refers to just one country – and it isn’t ours.
This Passover, Harper will undoubtedly be praised from shul pulpits across Canada, and not just by the 21 rabbis he brought to Israel. Between now and the 2015 election, you’ll likely see the photo of the prime minister at the Kotel – which Tory MP Mark Adler infamously described as “the million-dollar shot” – in campaign leaflets and ads. The panoply of political concerns that once defined the Jewish community will continue to fade into the background.
No one forced Canadian Jews into the Israel trap, and no politician can keep us there. But if we don’t want our leaders to see us as single-issue voters, it’s time we stopped acting that way.