Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s trip to Israel reportedly cost at least $239,000, but many members of the Jewish community say it was worth it for its impact.
“We believe that the bilateral relationship was advanced significantly as a result of this trip – including the prime minister’s decision to include senior cabinet ministers with mandates to expand the partnership with Israel in many key sectors of the economy,” said Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, who was part of the prime minister’s delegation.
“Certainly for the Jewish community it provided much valued twin-validation of our place in Canada as well as our connection and commitment to the Jewish state.”
Fogel, whose flight was paid for by CIJA but who had three nights’ accommodation covered as part of Harper’s delegation, added that the composition of the 208-member trip “was varied, reflecting the broad range of Canadian stakeholders in the Canada-Israel relationship.”
Twenty-one rabbis were among those who accompanied Harper. One of them, Rabbi Philip Scheim, spiritual leader of Toronto’s Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Congregation, whose accommodation for the trip was partially subsidized by the government, downplayed the idea that the cost was high.
“It’s such a minor expenditure in day-to-day political life,” he said. “To show our compassion and concern for other parts of the world and those engaging in a peace process, it’s worth it.”
Bernie Farber, former head of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress and a former provincial Liberal candidate, who is now senior vice-president of government and external relations for Gemini Power Corp., said the trip “feeds into a kind of… frenzy” in the Canadian Jewish community when it comes to Harper.
“The only thing that seems to matter right now for Canadian Jewish leadership is Israel, to the exclusion of many other policy matters that Harper has brought forward that are not in the best interests of our community, and we have just remained silent,” he said, noting recent legislation that denies health care to refugees.
But Rabbi Scheim said the trip could have an impact on the peace process.
“Now [Harper] has an opening to use Canada’s influence to lead Israel in a good direction and help create the environment where there could be increased dialogue,” he said, noting that Harper also met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while he was in the region.
Both Rabbi Scheim and Farber agreed that many delegates were valuable to have on the trip – for example, the rabbi said his experience in Israel with Harper has allowed him to convey his insights to the community and his congregation – but they both said there were some questionable inclusions.
Farber said that in particular, the far-right Jewish Defence League should not have been represented because of what he called its homophobia and Islamophobia.
“They have shown their stripes in that respect,” he said. “I don’t know why anybody in politics would want to be associated with them.”
JDL national director Meir Weinstein said going on the trip was “recognition of our contribution… in defence of the community,” adding that the organization paid for the flight, but not the accommodations, of its lone representative. He also denied that his group is homophobic and Islamophobic.
Weinstein said his group marched with the Jewish LGBT group Kulanu when it took a stand against an anti-Israel group’s participation in Toronto’s gay Pride parade, and regarding Islam, he said the JDL is “just trying to expose organizations that want Israel destroyed.”
On the whole, Farber said the trip was worth the cost, even if it was a bit over-the-top in its display of support for Israel.
“On the one hand, we all understand the need for strong support and we love that a prime minister like Stephen Harper who has shown that support, but we also have to be visionary,” he said. “We have to understand that not everything can be based on Harper’s support of Israel.”