They didn’t all get together, hold hands and sing Kumbaya – but they came pretty close.
Participants in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s trip to Israel were positively gushing about the prime minister’s performance on the world stage, with several referring to his speech in the Knesset as the highlight.
Rabbis on the trip also mentioned the interaction between colleagues from various denominations of Judaism as a happy unintended consequence of the trip, which saw more than 200 community leaders, rabbis and businesspeople join the Canadian delegation as an “accompanying party.”
Referring to Harper’s address to the Knesset, Toronto lawyer Berl Nadler, a member of the board of directors of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) called it “a stirring piece of oratorical clarity on the issues.
“I think he was intellectually honest on the origins of anti-Zionism in a way even Jewish community leaders are not,” he said.
“There are very few world leaders who have as well thought-out a position,” he said. And considering the criticism he faced for drawing too close to Israel, Nadler said, “I think it’s a pretty gutsy thing to do. The prime minister has the courage of his convictions. They’re well thought-out political positions, based on facts, and well articulated.”
Nadler said the prime minister’s forceful address seemed to catch even members of the Knesset off guard, with his address being greeted by standing ovations.
Later, Harper visited the Western Wall. “You should have seen the cheering at the Kotel. It was heartwarming. It was like he was being welcomed as a genuine political and moral hero, a person prepared to take positions that are unpopular,” Nadler said.
Rabbi Philip Scheim, spiritual leader of Toronto’s Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Congregation, said, “For all of us, the highlight was the appearance at the Knesset. The sense of pride we had of the prime minister standing up in the Knesset, giving as pro-Israel a speech as can be, from the heart…
“He knew he would get flack” from some opponents, he said, referring to critics who say Canada is best served with a more even-handed approach to the Middle East.
“We were so taken by this man’s love of Israel, and without an ulterior motive,” he said. “He feels that Israel is a manifestation of justice and a rectification of the wrongs of history.
“When a prime minister stands up and positions Israel as a manifestation of light in the world, I can’t imagine anything more heartwarming,” Rabbi Scheim said.
Rabbi Jarrod Grover of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto, called the trip a “wonderful moment after wonderful moment – with a lot of waiting in between.”
Harper’s Knesset speech, his welcome by Israeli parliamentarians were “very powerful moments,” Rabbi Grover said.
“We’ve been working at this for a long time. It’s a dream come true.
“What’s the point of Israel advocacy if not this,” he continued. “We’ve been working to convince not just the Harper government, but Canadians in general, that they should be more [favourable] to Israel,” he said.
He rejected suggestions that political leaders should be more even-handed. “Why be temporizing every comment of support for Israel with ‘buts,’ ‘howevers’? That’s singling out Israel unfairly for everything wrong in the country instead of celebrating the many things they got right in a region that is collapsing. That even-handed position did us no good. We should be proud the prime minister sees that.”
For Vancouver lawyer Bernard Pinsky, Harper’s visit marked “the conjunction of two things I love – my country Canada and the country of Israel.
“I don’t see any conflict between loving and supporting them both. You can do both unconditionally. I want to be involved in making both places successful.”
Pinsky, past chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and past member of CIJA’s board, among other community leadership roles, said there were several memorable events during the trip. Standing at the Kotel as the prime minister approached, he was surprised to see “a group of Chassidim… shouting and excited and frenzied with joy” to see Harper.
On another occasion, on a bus to Tel Aviv University, the group could see Israelis standing on the roadside “with signs saying, ‘We love you Harper.’”
And at Yad Vashem, the group waited for quite awhile as the prime minister took a private tour of the Holocaust museum.
“We waited a long time, because he spent a lot of time at Yad Vashem,” Pinsky said. “To me, that was meaningful… He really feels that’s important. I really feel he got it. He’s a deep, intellectual guy who thinks things through.”
Rabbi Grover spoke of the benefit of spending time with his Jewish colleagues, as well as a few Christian ministers. “We spoke on the religious direction of the country and the challenges we face,” he said.
“This was really not just about Harper and the trip to Israel. It was a bonding experience for people who accompanied him. The Jewish community should feel good that we have so many friends in the government and across the country,” he added.
The one regret Rabbi Grover expressed was that “the visits were exclusive and secluded.” Even the highway was cleared to ensure Harper’s safety, he said.
“The prime minister saw the major sites, but he didn’t really get to see Israel.” Even taking him out for a coffee on Ben Yehuda, a pedestrian street in Jerusalem, would have exposed him “to the people, the culture, the real vibrancy of the country,” he said.
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Though some 200 individuals were part of the “accompanying party” that joined the official delegation, questions have been raised as to who made the list and who didn’t.
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of Beth Tzedec Congregation, one of Toronto’s largest synagogues, was not among those invited on the trip.
He’s not sure why. There has been some discussion in the community about the list. “Jews talk about all kinds of things. People talk, who is on, who was not on.”
According to Rabbi Frydman-Kohl, Pinsky and Nadler, the Prime Minister’s Office made the final list after soliciting suggestions from major Jewish organizations. MPs submitted their own lists.
Rabbi Grover said that’s how he was included, noting he has developed a personal relationship with his shul’s local MP, Chungsen Leung.
How the list was chosen is less significant than the trip itself, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl stated.
“What’s really important is what the prime minister did there and what it represents, both to him personally and as head of government, and to us, as a statement on Canadian policy in the Middle East. So we have to keep our eyes on the big picture.
“I’m thrilled. I think this has been a home run for the prime minister and, more importantly, a home run for Canada,” he added.