“I will undertake to do whatever my government can to facilitate the return of the abducted Israeli soldiers to their families.”
So concluded the formal part of a two-hour encounter with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It was only one of many meetings that took place on the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ (CIJA) Jewish community leadership mission to Israel and Egypt in September, but it certainly served as the centrepiece of our visit to Egypt.
It might strike some as incongruous that a Canadian Jewish advocacy organization would travel to the most populous Arab country in the world. But as the stellar delegation of Jewish leaders who joined us came to understand, this experience fit perfectly with CIJA’s evolving role as the advocacy arm of Canada’s organized Jewish community.
CIJA’s mandate is to preserve, promote and protect Jewish life in Canada through advocacy. To achieve this, we educate Canadians about the important role Israel plays in Jewish life, strengthen Canadian ties with the Jewish state, build relationships within the broader civil society and repel the many faces of anti-Semitism that assert themselves here, and throughout the world.
Much of CIJA’s work is conducted below the radar, out of the media spotlight that so often distracts or compromises the efficacy of the advocacy effort. However, CIJA’s impact and influence – especially within the political sector – do not go unnoticed, and that is where this story begins.
Egypt has struggled to gain traction in Canada. Legitimate concerns about its human rights record, in particular, have had a chilling effect on the Canadian government’s desire to engage in a robust bilateral relationship with the country. In turn, that has diminished economic and trade opportunities, as well as the all-important people-to-people connections that energize ties between countries.
In an effort to warm the frosty environment, Egyptian officials eagerly acted on advice from third parties who said that Canada’s Jewish community enjoyed strong ties with all political stakeholders and could help facilitate the elusive links needed to establish greater visibility and engagement.
For its part, the Israeli government also had an interest in encouraging CIJA’s engagement with Egypt. Jewish community encounters with Egyptian authorities could amplify, re-enforce and complement key messages to the Egyptian regime about their shared interests with Israel.
Equally important, the “value-added” offered by our community underscores how Egypt’s relationship with Israel can be leveraged to advance Egyptian interests. And given that Israel’s relationship with Egypt is a core strategic priority for the Jewish state, anything it can use to buttress the benefits that accrue to Egypt from the relationship is valuable.
To be frank, there is also a clear benefit to CIJA and our constituents. Such experiences demonstrate that CIJA is a serious voice that elicits broad respect within the political sector in Canada and abroad.
Those perceptions enhance our ability to drive the Canadian Jewish community’s advocacy agenda, whether on issues related to Israel, or domestic public policy. In this regard, the fact that the Canadian ambassador was able to access Egyptian government leaders through our initiative was noticed by officials at Global Affairs, magnifying the impact of our visit.
In his meeting with us, President al-Sisi reaffirmed the importance of Egypt’s relationship with Israel. Having him speak publicly about the Jewish state’s vital place in Egypt’s overall strategic calculus sends a significant message to other regional players, including Turkey – which the president singled out for emphatic criticism because of the destructive role it plays in promoting and supporting Muslim extremism.
Given systematic efforts by our adversaries to try and erase the historical footprint of the Jewish people in the Middle East, the president’s pledge to rehabilitate and preserve Jewish heritage sites in Egypt was also very welcome.
Upon our return to Jerusalem, we met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who emphasized the strategic value to Israel of our visit to Egypt, and thanked the delegation for our efforts. His warmth and validation were deeply appreciated by all the participants.
But the true measure of the trip’s significance – and a powerful reminder of how intrinsically we are all connected – was the emotional response and gratitude expressed by Leah Goldin, when our delegation relayed President al-Sisi’s message and commitment regarding her abducted son Hadar. For the hope we were able to offer her, dayenu.