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Inside the Jewish-Canadian election battleground

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologizes for the government of Canada refusing entry to the MS St. Louis in 1939, in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Nov. 7. (CPAC)

In 2011, a seismic political shift among Canadian Jews seemingly took place when an Ipsos-Reid poll found that 52 per cent of Jewish voters had supported Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in that year’s federal election, while 24 per cent voted for the Liberals and 16 per cent supported the NDP.

Until then, the majority of Canadian Jews had usually voted for the Liberals, who were seen as the party of immigration and tolerance, which are important values for many Jewish voters.

But Harper was welcomed as by far the most pro-Israel leader to come along, perhaps since the creation of the Jewish state. Even before 2011, high-profile Liberals were abandoning their party to support the Tories and their fiercely pro-Israel stance.

Jewish voters may now wonder whether Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer will continue Harper’s policies, as well as forge his own path on issues of concern to Jewish-Canadians.

With the election campaign underway, one sign points to another possible shift on the horizon. According to the expansive 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada, conducted by the Environics Institute for Survey Research and released earlier this year, Jewish support stood at 36 per cent for the Liberals, 32 per cent for the Conservatives, 10 per cent for the NDP and two per cent for the Green party.

If true, a 20 per cent drop in Jewish support for the Conservatives in eight years is surely dramatic. For his part, Scheer has been courting the Jewish vote by promising to move Canada’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to end this country’s funding of UNRWA, the scandal-plagued United Nations agency that’s dedicated to the plight of Palestinians.

But University of Toronto sociologist Robert Brym, a co-author of the Environics survey on Canadian Jewry, doesn’t trust the results of the 2011 Ipsos-Reid poll. For one, he said it surveyed a much smaller sample than his study did, was conducted online only and screened for people who said they voted, while his did not.

“I’m frankly surprised that Ipsos-Reid and various media outlets reported it without hesitation or qualification,” Brym told The CJN.

McGill University Prof. Morton Weinfeld, a longtime watcher of Jewish political trends, said he’s not certain about the extent of the decline in Conservative support, as suggested by the 2018 Environics survey. Some of it, he suggested, might be due to “spillover effects” from Jewish opposition to U.S. President Donald Trump.

When it comes to issues that matter to Jewish voters, it’s hard to deny that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been active. He apologized for Canada’s refusal to admit the MS St. Louis, which carried Jews desperate to escape Hitler’s Europe. He’s maintained Canada’s Israel-friendly stance at the UN. His government worked with the Jewish state to modernize the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement. It also adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.

READ: Q-AND-A WITH JUSTIN TRUDEAU: STANDING AGAINST ANTI-SEMITISM – PAST AND PRESENT

In 2016, Trudeau and the Liberals supported a parliamentary motion introduced by the Conservatives condemning the BDS campaign against Israel. The Liberals have also quadrupled funding to the Security and Infrastructure Program, which the Tories started to help at-risk communities protect themselves against hate crimes.

But while Harper’s Conservatives eliminated aid to UNRWA in 2010 over the agency’s ties to Hamas, the Liberals restored funding in 2016, to the tune of $110 million to date. That has stuck in many Jewish craws, especially given that other Western countries have stopped funding the agency. Scheer has also pledged to end it if his party forms the government.

Trudeau has embraced a pro-Israel stance, but has eschewed the more passionate rhetoric and tone used by the Conservatives, political scientist Steven Seligman argued in a paper published last year in The American Review of Canadian Studies.

In terms of substantive policy, the Trudeau government has made “only one change – the restoration of Canadian aid to UNRWA,” Seligman wrote.

Joe Oliver, a former Conservative cabinet minister under Harper, agrees that defunding UNRWA is important.

The agency, he said, is “outright hostile to Israel,” and tied to organizations that are banned in Canada. The schools, textbooks and media it funds openly call for the elimination of Israel. “It’s a shambles and a disgrace,” Oliver said. “Why are we continuing to fund that?”

For many Jewish voters, Scheer’s boldest promise was made in May, one day before Israel celebrated its Independence Day: to move Canada’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a notion not even Harper floated. It came nine months after the Conservatives voted to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and about a year after the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem, which also coincided with Israel’s Independence Day.

The Liberals say Canada’s position on Jerusalem will not change. In a wide-ranging CJN interview last November, the prime minister said the only circumstance that would lead to him moving the embassy is a two-state solution worked out between Israel and the Palestinians “that is agreed to and stabilized. This is not a decision that can be made unilaterally by third parties, or even by one of the two parties. We need a two-state solution that is worked on by both parties to secure peaceful, democratic states on both sides.”

Overall, observed Weinfeld, it seems that some Canadian Jews “are doubtful of Trudeau the way some American Jews were doubtful of (former president Barack) Obama.” It’s possible, Weinfeld added, that Israel “may become more of a wedge issue in Canada among Liberal party members, the way it has in the U.S. among Jewish Democrats.”

Israel did become a wedge issue – and a heated one – during last year’s riots at the Gaza border, but it wasn’t among Liberals. Trudeau called for an independent investigation into Israel’s shooting of a Canadian doctor during the violence, and he was roundly condemned in some circles for failing to mention Hamas’ role in the fighting.

The episode led to an old-fashioned donnybrook in the House of Commons between him and Scheer.

The Conservative leader bluntly accused Trudeau of blaming the border rioting solely on Israel – “a country that goes out of its way to minimize civilian casualties” – without placing any blame on Hamas.

Trudeau replied that the Liberals have “repeatedly condemned the violence, including the incitement to violence by Hamas, but I will express once again that I am proud that Canada is one of those countries in which support for Israel and friendship with Israel go beyond partisan lines.”

Each leader accused the other of using Israel for partisan purposes.

There’s little doubt that Israel is a galvanizing issue for Jewish voters. While opinions are divided when it comes to how Jews view Canada’s relations with the Jewish state, a plurality endorse Ottawa’s current level of support. But a “significant minority” believe it is not supportive enough, the Environics study found.

Opinions are closely linked to party affiliation. The study found that 59 per cent of Canadian Jews who support the Liberals think Canada is “about right” in its level of support for Israel. In contrast, 60 per cent of Canadian Jews who identify with the Conservatives believe Canada is insufficiently supportive of Israel.

“The parties most opposed to nationalistic Israeli policies are the only ones that attract a substantial number of Canadian Jews who believe that Canada is too supportive of Israel,” the study found. Some 27 per cent of Canadian Jews who identify with the NDP and 21 per cent who support the Green party were in that camp.

Brym said the main takeaway from his poll is that Jewish voters appear fairly evenly split between Liberals and Conservatives. Jews on the right like Harper and Scheer because of their support for Israel’s Likud party, Brym said, while Jews who are critical of Likud policy are more likely to vote Liberal, NDP or Green.

The results from data collected over the past six months by Campaign Research Inc. were less evenly split. They show Jewish-Canadians favouring the Liberals over the Conservatives, by a margin of 42 per cent to 36 per cent.

Yet Weinfeld sees meaning in another category of Jewish political support. The Environics survey showed that 18 per cent of Jews indicated “none,” or “don’t know/no answer,” when it came to party support. “My sense is that Jews who see themselves as small-l liberals would stay with Trudeau,” he remarked. “But right now, things seem fluid.”

Brym said he expects that some Jewish backers of the Conservatives are troubled by Scheer’s “apparent willingness to tolerate white nationalist support, but I doubt this will influence any Jews on the right to abandon the Conservatives.”

Charges of white nationalist support have dogged Scheer, but they mystify Oliver.

“I don’t know of him ever tolerating white supremacists. Sometimes, the Liberal talking points are converted into the mainstream. Will an inaccurate story have an impact? Sometimes they do,” he said.

Longtime Conservative Bruce Gilboord, a Toronto-based financial planner and veteran of the efforts to secure the Ontario tax credit for parents of children in private schools under former premier Mike Harris, backed Scheer for Tory leader, partly due to Scheer’s pledge to give parents of students attending independent schools a tuition tax deduction of up to $4,000 annually per child. That was music to the ears of many beleaguered Jewish parents, especially in Ontario, where there is no government funding for day schools.

But a few weeks ago, Scheer abandoned that pledge because of Trudeau’s “budget mess,” as a spokesperson explained it. Nevertheless, he still has Gilboord’s support for even suggesting the idea.

“If someone says the right thing and has the right philosophy, they can get two checkmarks,” Gilboord said. “If over the course of events, he has to take away that promise, he still gets one checkmark. He says the right words and then does it. That’s a handshake and a hug. So he’s now at a handshake.”

Anyone searching for daylight between Harper and Trudeau’s policies on Israel might be disappointed, according to Seligman.

Trudeau’s approach to Israel has “borrowed heavily from the Harper playbook,” Seligman stated in his paper. And as he wrote in The CJN last year, Trudeau “has more in common” with Harper than with his Liberal predecessors, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

Yoine Goldstein, who served as a Montreal-area Liberal senator from 2005 to 2009, said he’s concerned about Scheer’s “extreme conservatism, which includes opposition to gay marriage and women’s rights. If I measure that against Trudeau, Trudeau wins hands down.”

As well, under Trudeau, Canada has voted against, or abstained, on a spate of annual anti-Israel resolutions at the UN – “more than any previous government, including the Harper government,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein also defended Trudeau in the SNC Lavalin scandal involving attempted political interference by the prime minister with the justice department on behalf of the Quebec engineering giant, resulting in an ethics violation.

Trudeau’s maneuvers were the “correct thing, by and large, for him to do,” Goldstein said. “He may have pushed too hard, that’s a matter of judgment. But one would expect a prime minister to save thousands of jobs. That’s his job.”

Oliver thinks Scheer will continue Harper’s “principled” support for Israel.

“Every indication suggests he takes the issue of anti-Semitism very seriously and is a strong supporter of Israel. The fact that he would be consistent with the previous government in the support of Israel is a good thing because it shows continuity.”

But, he noted, the Jewish vote is small. “You don’t get a majority government by catering to less than one per cent of the population,” said Oliver. “You do it because you believe it’s right. If (Scheer) is going to be just as principled as Harper, I’m a happy guy.”

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