Jewish voters in Ontario will have plenty to consider when casting their ballots in the June 7 provincial election. Both the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and B’nai Brith Canada have identified issues of importance to the community, including combating anti-Semitism, improving community security, preventing genetic discrimination and helping the most vulnerable.
The riding of Thornhill has the highest concentration of Jews in Ontario, at 33 per cent. Conservative incumbent Gila Martow won in a byelection in 2014 and retained the seat in that year’s general election, winning by about 100 votes.
Martow introduced the 2016 motion in the legislature that rejected the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.
On May 25, she and fellow Tory Todd Smith called a news conference to accuse NDP Leader Andrea Horwath of ignoring anti-Semitism in her party. Smith and Martow claimed that Scarborough-Agincourt NDP candidate Tasleem Riaz posted pro-Nazi memes and praised Adolf Hitler on social media five years ago. Horwath said she would look into the allegations.
Still fresh in the minds of some voters in Ontario was Conservative Leader Doug Ford’s 2014 reference to his Jewish doctor, dentist, lawyer and accountant. He was booed at the time, but said he had the “utmost respect” for the Jewish community.
As a city councillor, Ford said he would defund the Pride parade, if it didn’t disinvite Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, which he called a hate group.
Martow said Ford has committed to expanding resources available to police to combat anti-Semitic vandalism, “rather than cutting them, as the Liberals did.”
“There is always room for more collaboration and I’m always happy to facilitate,” Martow told The CJN.
As for college and university campuses experiencing anti-Israel activity, a Conservative government will examine ways to hold public institutions responsible “for levelling the playing field on campus and protecting free speech,” she said.
Martow charged that the Liberals’ Anti-Racism Directorate “has dutifully ignored the issue of anti-Semitism, despite its noted prevalence, initially leaving it out entirely in the Anti-Racism Act, 2017. I understand the needs and concerns of this community and I intend on making this a priority for the directorate to explore educational programs about anti-Semitism for Ontario schools.”
She said much of her work as an MPP has been on accessibility for the disabled and that the “most pressing issue” in Thornhill is transit.
Her Liberal opponent, Sabi Ahsan, says he has not encountered any issues because he’s Muslim. “Over the years, I have worked closely with the Jewish community,” he told The CJN, adding that he once traveled to Israel on an interfaith trip.
An entrepreneur and chair of the Toronto Muslim Cemetery Corp., Ahsan said anti-Semitism and vandalism “have no place in our society.” As part of the Anti-Racism Directorate’s three-year plan, he said, “There will be a targeted education campaign to address issues of anti-Semitism, which includes digital and other strategic forms of communication.
“As a member of a minority group that has also been the victim of hate crimes, it is important for me that we stand up for any group that is being targeted.”
He said he “absolutely” supports Ontario’s anti-BDS motion.
“It is important for me as a candidate in Thornhill to stand up for Israel and to show that intolerance and anti-Semitism have no place in our society. Ontario supports the State of Israel as a strong ally, friend and economic partner,” said Ahsan.
He noted that Premier Kathleen Wynne’s trade mission to Israel netted $180 million in agreements. “Israel will continue to be a priority market for Ontario in both trade and research,” he said.
Ahsan said he was able to establish the Greater Toronto Area’s first Muslim cemetery in Richmond Hill several years ago, “only because of support that I received from the Jewish community.”
They worry that that type of hidden agenda fuels the flames of hatred.
The NDP candidate in Thornhill, Ezra Tanen, is graduating from York University’s health studies program. He’s running to ensure Ontario families have access to health care, senior care and public services.
At a May 23 candidates’ meeting, Tanen urged the Jewish community to engage anti-Israel protesters on campus, including those who champion the BDS movement.
“We need to build partnerships with various faiths on campus,” he said. “Oftentimes, BDS supporters don’t know much about Israel.… They support it just because it’s this anti-establishment, grassroots fight against a big, bad enemy. We need to engage these people.”
The NDP received eight per cent of the vote in Thornhill in 2014.
Whoever captures York Centre, which is about 18 per cent Jewish, will be a rookie politician and have big shoes to fill. The winner will replace Liberal Monte Kwinter, who set the record as the oldest MPP in Ontario. Kwinter stepped down as MPP in early May at age 87.
He was first elected in 1985 and served in the cabinets of former premiers David Peterson and Dalton McGuinty. He gained some admiration in Jewish circles for opposing his party’s cancellation of tax credits for parents of children in private and faith-based schools. More recently, Kwinter supported the establishment of a culturally Jewish hospice in North York, to which the government will provide up to $2 million.
There are a lot of blue signs in the riding, which has been Liberal for years, and they belong to Roman Baber, a lawyer who was born in the Soviet Union and lived in Israel from age eight to 15. His family came to Canada in 1995.
Baber said elder care is an important issue among Jewish voters, noting that the Conservatives plan to create 15,000 new long-term care beds in the next five years.
He said that Wynne “has stood by and watched our campuses become hotbeds of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic activity. Israel-bashing speakers and student groups are given free reign, while their pro-Israel counterparts are shut up, shut out or shut down. This is a disgrace.”
His party will investigate violations of free speech on campus. Post-secondary funding will be tied to the results of those investigations “and, by extension, the willingness of university administrators to protect the rights of all students.”
Having come to Canada from Israel, “I understand the unique bond of friendship that exists between our nations.” If elected, Baber said he will work to strengthen Ontario’s ties and increase trade with Israel.
Andrea Vásquez Jiménez – a community organizer, activist and educator – is seeking election in York Centre for the NDP. Jiménez is the community co-chair of the equity policy advisory committee at the Toronto District School Board and says she is passionate about “transformative changes within our communities, to further empower marginalized and disenfranchised peoples.”
The party garnered about 15 per cent of votes in the riding in the last election.
York Centre Liberal candidate Ramon Estaris, a real estate broker born and raised in the Philippines, says he would honour “the amazing legacy left to him by Monte Kwinter.” The riding is about 15 per cent Filipino.
Estaris said he’s hearing a lot in the riding about rent control and social services. If elected, he said he would work closely with the federal government’s Security Infrastructure Program, which provides houses of worship and communal buildings with funds to offset security costs.
He said he would also work with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee to tamp down anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist sentiment.
In Eglinton-Lawrence, which is about 22 per cent Jewish, the BDS campaign comes up often when talking to voters, said Liberal incumbent Mike Colle.
“They worry that that type of hidden agenda – anti-Semitism, which BDS is – fuels the flames of hatred and attacks on Jews in this community and internationally,” he said.
Colle, who has held the seat since 1995, reminds voters that Ontario under the Liberals was the first province to pass a motion condemning BDS. That was after the defeat of a bill that was co-sponsored by Colle that sought sanctions against companies complying with BDS.
Colle is once again opposed by Conservative hopeful Robin Martin, whom he defeated in 2014 by a margin of 55 to 33 per cent.
A lawyer, one-time policy advisor to an Ontario health minister and mother of a child on the autism spectrum, Martin says she is “a passionate advocate for quality education that ensures that no child is left behind.”
One of her “proudest achievements,” her website states, was helping Ontario adopt a universal cancer-screening program – “the first of its kind in Canada.”
Colle said another issue among Jewish voters is genetic discrimination. He had sponsored a private member’s bill to prohibit the practice by insurance companies and employers. It didn’t pass, but he said it did lead to support for the federal government’s passage of its own genetic discrimination bill last year.
Also in Eglinton-Lawrence, volunteer organizer Robyn Vilde is running for the NDP, which received just over seven per cent of votes in the last election.