Second of a two-part series
Is the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) an improvement over the old structure of Jewish community advocacy in Canada, or not?
CIJA’s advantages and disadvantages have been a continuing source of debate since the organization dismantled Canadian Jewish Congress, the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC) and National Jewish Campus Life (Hillel’s parent body) in 2011 while simultaneously assuming the older agencies’ roles.
That change was criticized by community members who were loyal to Congress and lamented the destruction of the venerable 90-year-old organization.
However, supporters of CIJA say the new organization has done a lot of good in its two years of operation as the community’s main advocacy agency and that it’s too early to judge its work.
Maureen Appel Molot, distinguished research professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said the time was right for a shake-up of the old advocacy structure.
“No one likes change, so the quite dramatic changes… understandably generated angst in communities long accustomed to a particular way of doing things. In the one area to which I am particularly attentive – that of the campus – there have only been gains, and significant ones,” she said.
Molot said CIJA has backed many “long-overdue, innovative programming” initiatives on campuses across Canada.
Some of those include launching Size Doesn’t Matter, a pro-Israel, student-led public relations and marketing organization that often cheekily promotes the Jewish state across media platforms, and Buycott Israel, an anti-boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign devoted to encouraging the purchase of Israeli-made products.
Both of these programs have been so innovative that they’ve been adopted by American Jewish advocacy groups.
CIJA has also facilitated numerous Israel missions for Canadian academics.
“Sitting around the national community table many years ago, I was frustrated by the lack of clarity between the responsibilities of Congress and what was then the Canada-Israel Committee, and I felt the two organizations should be merged to facilitate the development of a more integrated Jewish agenda on national as well as Israel-related issues,” she said.
“In my view, the creation of CIJA was a step forward for the national Jewish community as well as for its constituent federations/communities.”
Jack Mintz, Palmer Chair at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, also noted some of the positives that CIJA brings to the community, but he believes the organization will have to fight harder than its predecessors to position itself as the community’s primary representative advocacy body.
“I was involved in early discussions about why [the community] needed to do a significant restructuring” of the advocacy landscape, said Mintz, a former director of the Canadian Jewish Congress Museum and Archives.
“While I was with Congress, there was a fundamental flaw in advocacy, in that it dealt with all the domestic advocacy issues while the CIC was responsible for Israel advocacy. It seemed fundamentally wrong that these two [areas] were separable issues to be dealt with,” Mintz said.
“Antisemitism was also related to anti-Zionism” and to continue with a separation of duties between CJC and CIC made little sense, he said.
Mintz said he was a “strong proponent” of moving to a “more rational advocacy approach… one body to deal with those types of issues.”
CIJA, he said, now brings all advocacy efforts under one roof “which I think is appropriate.”
However, Mintz said he isn’t sure how much CIJA’s new advocacy efforts have penetrated the community’s consciousness.
“The fact that I don’t see very much being put forward with respect to social justice or policy issues says something about CIJA,” he said. “In fact, the one concern I had with the new structure was dropping the name Canadian Jewish Congress, which had a brand out there. I thought it would be a problem, because CIJA was not known and wouldn’t have the same cachet and would take time to build up a significant brand.”
While he said he has read news reports about CIJA’s advocacy related to Israel and antisemitism, Mintz said he hasn’t seen as much ink about its “broader-based advocacy” on social policy.
Mintz said he doesn’t see what CIJA is doing right now that makes it as “significant [a] player” in the social policy field as Congress was.
The Jewish community may have a less positive view of CIJA than it had of Congress, because CIJA appoints its own leaders while Congress’ leaders were elected at national plenary conferences, he said.
Asked whether he felt CIJA’s self-appointment of its leaders is problematic, Mintz said that Congress’ plenary voting structure was democratic in theory, but in practice, there hasn’t been much difference between the two methods.
The plenary format gave Congress the veneer of democracy, but “in the end, a lot of its officers were chosen by rubber stamp anyway. It wasn’t as democratic as one thought,” Mintz said.
Engaging with the broader Jewish community should be a priority for CIJA, or it risks losing a branding war with other community advocacy groups, he added.
“There has been a decline in the brand [of community advocacy] relative to earlier years, which CIJA will have to think hard about in order to really demonstrate they are a significant player in advocating and being the spokesman for the Jewish community. Otherwise, other organizations are going to come in and fill the gap.”
The CJN contacted the community’s two other main advocacy organizations – B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center Canada (FSWC) – to get their opinions about the new advocacy landscape.
B’nai Brith did not respond to requests for comment by The CJN’s deadline.
Avi Benlolo, CEO and president of the FSWC, said his organization would be open to working with CIJA, as it had with Congress in the past, if the new body ever approaches it.
“Our door is always open for discussion, provided it aligns with our strategic interest and is mutually respectful,” Benlolo said.
The FSWC, he said, considers itself more of a “universal human rights organization” and is not strictly a Jewish community organ.
“We are not a replacement for CJC or any other Jewish entity,” he said.
According to Benlolo, his organization counts some 30,000 members in Canada.
Benlolo said he believes it was a bad decision to “collapse” the CJC.
“It was effective and had a good name in the community. While we were not always in agreement, our relationship was very respectful and constructive. We valued each other’s presence, and that helped facilitate advocacy efforts for the community. The void left by CJC has indeed created much more pressure for organizations like ours.”