“Did you hear the news? Guess who’s coming to town.” The buzz surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to Canada has been the focus of much animated conversation throughout the Jewish community.
Why is that? After all, the vast majority of those caught up in the excitement are not privy to the specific agenda that will dominate the bilateral discussions during this brief, official visit. Indeed, even the upward of 20,000 participants in the UJA Walk with Israel in Toronto who will greet and be addressed by the Israeli premier will not have an opportunity to engage directly with him. Yet the excitement prevails, not just in Toronto, but also across the country. What is it about this cameo appearance that prompts such an emotional reaction among Canadian Jews?
In truth, as welcome as “Bibi’s” visit is, the passionate and heartfelt reaction expressed by the pro-Israel community is related to something larger than the force of one individual’s personality. It is about something much more fundamental. It is about Israel, and it is about Israel and Canada. In many respects, the Canada-Israel relationship has served as a zeitgeist of the Jewish condition in Canada – how “safe” we feel, the extent to which we as a community are accepted as a valued contributor to Canadian society, and the legitimacy attached to our collective narrative.
Nowhere is that reality check more acutely evident than within the political sector. Canada’s relationship with Israel, its policies toward the Jewish state, its pronouncements on the conflict, the positions Canada adopts within the myriad of international forums, and the level of bilateral co-operation – taken together, all of these things have served as an essential scorecard for Jews regarding their place within this great country. So on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit, it is not out of place for us to ask ourselves: how are we doing? Have we made progress? Is it “safe”?
The short answer is “yes.” Despite all of the difficult challenges out there, the Canada-Israel bilateral relationship is stronger, more vital and promising than at any time in the 60 years since we first established formal diplomatic relations. Canada was instrumental in facilitating the rebirth of the Jewish state, and in all the subsequent decades, successive Canadian governments have nurtured the friendship and helped it grow in depth and scope. The milestones are many and they chronicle the maturation of a relationship that has evolved into a complex, multi-layered kinship that speaks to mutual strategic interests, shared values, synergistic economic growth and common aspirations for ourselves and the family of nations.
Yet for all that has been achieved – the space agency agreements and the trade missions, the joint projects in the developing world and the health-care partnerships, the co-operative efforts of the two Supreme Courts and the academic exchanges – often, what has had the most enduring impact are the words. The words of praise and criticism. The words of support and those of isolation. The words of understanding and the words of indifference, and sometimes, the absence of any words.
We have all learned that, unlike the childhood rhyme, words do have power. They can hurt and harm as well as comfort and heal. They can also validate or undermine, and as we cast an eye back to an assessment of the bilateral relationship, we discover that more often than not, the words of Canadian political actors have served to validate Israel and Canadian Jewish support for Israel rather than contribute to Israel’s isolation within the international community.
Ironically, even though polls suggest that politicians are not held in the greatest of esteem, their words and the opinions they articulate carry substantial weight. In a way, politicians have served as the ultimate “third party validators” – providing a “hechsher” of sorts for Israel’s supporters in Canada.
Perhaps the most important pronouncement came from then-prime minister Brian Mulroney during the most intense period of the first Palestinian intifadah, when he confronted the canard of “dual loyalties” and proclaimed that Canadian Jewish support for and love of Israel complement their commitment to and pride in Canada. It was a seminal moment in the Canadian Jewish experience and has coloured the public policy debate ever since. It provided a new context in which to understand the historic address by then-Israeli president, Chaim Herzog, to a joint session of Parliament. A survivor who had rebuilt his shattered life in Canada after the Holocaust – my father – sat in the gallery during that address. More than 20 years later, he still regards that event as the highlight of his life: a Jew who received sanctuary in Canada, sitting in the Canadian icon of freedom and democracy, listening to the president of the Jewish state share words with Canadian parliamentarians.
There have been other words, too. Then-opposition leader Jean Chrétien called the Canada-Israel Committee at 1 a.m. on the night the first scuds rained down on Israel during the First Gulf War in 1991, expressing his distress and pledging, even in opposition, that Canada would always be a source of support for her sister democracy in the Middle East. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Mulroney, who established the extraordinarily successful high-tech partnership between Israel and Canada, Chrétien made good on his word and established a free trade agreement with Israel – the first between Canada and any country outside North America.
Many have been the politicians who have added their words of support and solidarity – too many to chronicle here. Leaving aside the much-valued contribution of Jewish parliamentarians over the years, a few bear particular mention, because they speak to crucial dimensions of the relationship or special aspects of our experience:
• Current Treasury Board President and former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day, whose purity of support for Israel reassured Jews about a new political phenomenon that was entirely foreign to their experience.
• Liberal MP Joe Volpe, who cut short a trip to China during the worst days of the second intifadah in order to stand in solidarity with Canadian Jews confronting the violence that had erupted in the Middle East and had spread unprecedented and vitriolic hatred to Canada.
• Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard and his successor, Gilles Duceppe, whose words of understanding and friendship forever dispelled the myth that support for Israel was inimical to passionate Quebecers.
• Former prime minister Paul Martin, who publicly enshrined the idea of shared values between Canada and Israel, along with his foreign minister, Pierre Pettigrew, who validated our fears about the Iranian regime and who served as the first western politician to draw a linkage between Iran’s nuclear program and its threats to annihilate the Jewish state.
• Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who eloquently but unequivocally stripped Israeli Apartheid Week promoters of any credibility in his public condemnation of that toxic, anti-Israel initiative.
• And the courageous members of the NDP caucus, individuals such as Deputy Leader Thomas Mulcair, who have consistently challenged the radical element that has sought to capture the soul of their party.
All of these words and the many, many other people they represent have been welcome. The validation and friendship they stand for are cherished reminders of our place in Canada.
But of all the words spoken in 60-plus years, none have been so needed or so valued as those articulated by the current government. In Israel’s darkest hours, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered comfort and courageous leadership. In a time of political correctness gone wildly awry, his ministers have consistently chosen integrity over expediency. This government has established a new benchmark for the bilateral relationship, one that established Canada as a true ally rather than a “fair-weather friend,” and in a fundamental way, one that has captured the essence of all the good words spoken over the last 60 years.
It is a good time for a visit. It is a good time to celebrate the nature of the Canada-Israel friendship – both for what it is and what it promises to be.
Shimon Koffler Fogel is CEO of the Canada-Israel Committee.