MONTREAL — Justin Trudeau does not share his brother’s views on the Middle East and is not being advised by him, says Anthony Housefather, the Liberal candidate in Mount Royal.
In response to an audience question at a panel discussion among the riding’s major party candidates, held by Bialik High School Sept. 30, Housefather attempted to dispel a recurring claim that the Liberal leader is under the sway of his brother Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau, a documentary filmmaker.
The younger Trudeau’s strongly political films offer a point of view on the Middle East not entirely compatible with the Liberal party’s and certainly not with that of those with strong convictions about Israel. His most recent production was the 2012 The New Great Game: The Decline of the West & The Struggle for Middle Eastern Oil.
“Justin Trudeau has publicly said he disagrees with his brother and that he is not his adviser or playing any role in this campaign,” Housefather said. The question, like all the others that evening, was submitted in writing anonymously.
The assertion that Alexandre Trudeau is influencing his brother is being made in the open as well. At a public event the week before in support of Mount Royal Conservative candidate Robert Libman and featuring former foreign affairs minister John Baird, a woman in the audience wanted to know why the alleged role of Alexandre Trudeau in the campaign was not being addressed. Neither Libman nor Baird directly commented.
At the Bialik meeting, Housefather said he is “disturbed” by “anonymous emails circulating in this riding that make false allegations… Why would his brother’s views reflect on him? It doesn’t make sense.”
Close to 200 people, many of them students, attended the discussion among Housefather, Libman and NDP candidate Mario Jacinto Rimbao, moderated by principal Avi Satov. Students submitted six of the questions posed to them, and the rest came from the audience.
One from the latter was on the difference on Israel between Trudeau and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Libman said that Trudeau’s comments that Canada’s “reputation on the international stage has been tarnished… and we should return to a more nuanced approach as an honest broker can be decoded as it’s time to water down [support for Israel] in order to get along with the dictators at the UN.”
Libman also criticized Trudeau’s acceptance of the candidacy of Andrew Leslie in the Ottawa area riding of Orléans, because the retired general last year accused Israel of “firing indiscriminately onto Palestinian women and children” during the war in Gaza. Libman said Trudeau is being advised by Leslie on foreign affairs.
Housefather rebutted that Trudeau’s “mentor” on Israel is outgoing Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler, who was in attendance, and that his staff adviser is Marci Surkes, whom he described as a Jewish woman from the riding.
“As Justin Trudeau said during the [Sept. 28] Munk [foreign policy] debate, Israel should not be used as a wedge issue for the Jewish community,” said Housefather.
He insisted there is no essential difference between the Liberals and Conservatives on Israel, and that his party is guided by principle.
Housefather cited a number of public stands Trudeau has made in this regard, such as on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against israel. “We all know the Muslim vote is greater than the Jewish vote, so why would he say that if he did not truly believe it? As for myself, I have an impeccable record on support for Israel.”
Rimbao said he’s sensitive to how emotional the subject of Israel is for Jews, but the NDP believes Canada “should get back to its reputation for leadership in peace brokerage.”
The niqab was the subject of another lively exchange, sparked by a student query.
Libman reiterated the Conservative position that during the ceremony of taking the oath of Canadian citizenship, faces should be uncovered and that a Conservative government would pass legislation within its first 100 days making that obligatory.
He took a swipe at Trudeau for what he described as comparing that stance with Canada’s refusal to admit Jewish refugees during the 1930s and ’40s.
Housefather charged that Harper is using the niqab as a “distraction” from more presssing concerns, such as the economy and the environment. He compared this resorting to identity politics to the Parti Québécois’ proposed secular values charter.
The niqab is a “trivial” issue, he continued, noting that since 2011, only two women have asked to keep their veils on during a citizenship ceremony.
The covering of women’s faces, Housefather said, makes him personally “uncomfortable,” but “the majority cannot impose its values on a minority… Jews fought to against banning the kippah in the public sector.”
He said the government should refer the matter to the Supreme Court.
The response drew both boos and applause from the audience.
Rimbao said the Harper government is trying to instil “fear and paranoia,” and that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the wearing of religious symbols.
Libman and Housefather, both graduates of Herzliah High School, and Rimbao also emphasized the need for greater job training and opportunities in Quebec for young people.
The evening saw the first clear public endorsement by Cotler of Housefather during the campaign, in response to a question.
While the general audience was more focused on the Middle East and security, the students had questions on Senate reform, the place of “socialism,” and what each candidate would do for Mount Royal.
Just how divided Jewish voters in Mount Royal remain, even within families, is epitomized by Dida Berku and Jack Kincler, a couple married for 36 years who attended the event.
He is a staunch Conservative, while she favours the Liberals.
“I love Anthony, he’s a wonderful person… Whomever is elected is not going to make a huge difference at the local level. Our lives are not going to change much,” said Kincler, a businessman and chair of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, which isn’t taking sides in the election.
“The major issue for me is Israel, and Harper is definitely been the best friend for Israel. We owe him a debt of gratitude.”
Berku, a Côte St. Luc city councillor and lawyer, said, “I think Canada has a good record on Israel, whether it has been a Liberal or Conservative government.”
While all three major candidates have merit, she said Housefather is “an excellent leader, he builds consensus, he’s very responsive to the needs of his constituents.”