TORONTO — It was a raucous night Oct. 1 at Adath Israel Congregation, where the federal candidates in York Centre riding squared off in a spirited debate.
Most of the two-hour affair, during which the audience had to be admonished several times to keep a civil tone, centred on Israel, anti-Semitism and terrorism. The evening was sponsored by B’nai Brith Canada.
Green party candidate Constantine Kritsonis touched off controversy early when he declared that Israel’s incursion into Gaza last year “went too far.” That earned boos and jeers, and a lecture to the crowd from moderator Marvin Kurz on democracy and freedom of speech.
Kritsonis called the Middle East “a complicated matter” and said Parliament should not be “a vehicle for a proxy war. We need to be neutral to be a peace broker.”
He said the Green party does not endorse the boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS) movement and he called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cease all settlement expansion.
Incumbent MP Mark Adler said his Conservative party “is very proud of its record” on Israel. To applause and cheers, he repeated Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2014 remarks to Israel’s Knesset: “Through fire and water, Canada will stand with you.”
Adler said his party has never had to dismiss a candidate for anti-Jewish or anti-Israel views – referring to the NDP’s and Liberals’ recent dropping of candidates who made controversial online postings – and has “never” voted against Israel at the United Nations.
He called the BDS movement “anti-Semitism, plain and simple,” and said his government “will not tolerate it for one second.”
Liberal candidate Michael Levitt touted his bona fides as a founding board member of the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee (CJPAC) and said “many things will change” under a Liberal government, “but one thing will not: we will always stand firmly in our support for Israel.”
Support for Israel “is a Canadian value, not a Conservative value,” Levitt said, and said Israel “should not be a wedge issue” in the election.
NDP hopeful Hal Berman, a palliative care physician, also said he rejects BDS — “not more or not less” than the Conservatives. He said criticism of Israel is not always anti-Semitic, and, in a barb directed at Adler, said claiming to be the son of a Holocaust survivor, as Adler had done on his campaign material until he changed it, “does not give you credibility.”
Levitt also took a shot at the incumbent, saying Adler’s now infamous remarks at the Western Wall, where he asked to be included in a photograph with Harper because it was “a million-dollar shot,” turned “what should have been a proud moment into an embarrassment.”
He earned cheers and boos when he said the Tories “have pitted Jew against Jew.”
Adler struck back, saying “what is really embarrassing and shameful” are Liberal candidates such as Omar Alghabra, a former MP now running in Mississauga and a former president of the Canadian Arab Federation, a group the Tories defunded for allegedly supporting terrorist organizations.
Adler said “a balanced position” on the Middle East “is really code, and we won’t stand for it.”
Berman said a “monopoly on righteousness does not belong to the Conservatives.” At one point, he lashed out at partisan audience members, saying he knows “six-year-olds who are better behaved.”
Turning to Iran, Berman said the NDP will not condemn the nuclear deal reached with that country and, quoting former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, would pursue a policy of “trust but verify.”
Adler slammed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for saying Canada will re-establish relations with Iran, “the largest state sponsor of terror in the world.” Later, Adler said Canada must fight terrorism because “it is here,” referring to last year’s gun attack inside Parliament’s Centre Block. “We’re all Israelis now. That’s what I told the prime minister.”
On the anti-terrorist Bill C-51, Berman said the Tories “are trying to scare us into giving up our rights.” He said an NDP government would ensure both security and the maintenance of rights. “We can have both.”
Levitt said it was a Liberal government that enacted anti-terror laws after the 9/11 attacks.
Kritsonis said the Green party’s opposition to anti-Semitism extends to Saudi Arabia, which exports Islamic extremism, and he wondered why the other parties never raise that issue.
In closing, B’nai Brith Canada president Henry Schnurbach said his organization disagrees with the Green party on several issues and is “willing to educate” it.