The Canadian Jewish community has been largely disconnected from reality these past 10 years. The Liberals’ stunning electoral victory offers us a precious chance to reconcile with ourselves, and with that reality.
The Conservatives’ muscular pro-Israel rhetoric has long resonated with many Canadian Jews and brought them into Stephen Harper’s political base. This is perfectly fine, of course, but what is worrying is that the silencing of disagreements and control of messaging have percolated into our communal life.
You would think that a community that virtually invented the concept of dissent would have celebrated our differences and fostered a deep sense of mutual respect across party lines. Instead, at some point in the last decade, a clear sense began to emerge that the Conservatives were the only “legitimate” choice for Canada’s Jews.
Jewish fundraising organizations tripped over themselves to bestow all manner of awards on Harper and other Conservative stalwarts, such as Jason Kenney, while prominent Jewish advocacy organizations shifted evermore right, blurring the line between communal interests and partisanship. Little by little, communal dissent dissipated. Mutual respect fell into short supply.
All this pushed Jewish Liberals back on their heels, their Jewish and Zionist bona fides sometimes even called into question. Some Jewish Liberals became almost apologetic and timid in the face of their Conservative co-religionists.
That reality began to change with the 2013 election of Justin Trudeau as the Liberal party’s leader. Jews increasingly saw a leader who supported Israel just as robustly as Stephen Harper. A key moment happened in the campaign during the Munk Foreign Policy Debate, during which Trudeau asserted: “The issue of Israel where we most disagree as Liberals with Mr. Harper is that he has made support for Israel a domestic political football, when all three of us support Israel and any Canadian government will.”
In failing to refute Trudeau’s assertion, Harper effectively communicated that the Liberal party really did, in fact, have Israel’s back. In one fell swoop, Trudeau neutralized 10 years of wedge politics, and Jews began paying greater attention to the Liberal leader and to the other issues at play in the campaign.
Those issues resonated strongly with many of us, although Conservative strategists continued to mistakenly believe that Jewish voters were single-issue voters. Instead, from the economy to the niqab, from Rob Ford to refugees, Jews increasingly found themselves questioning the Conservatives’ judgment and bristling at their tone.
It is telling that two of the three Jews elected in 2011 were Conservatives, whereas the six Jews elected in 2015 are all Liberals. More telling still is that every “Jewish riding” in Canada save one went Liberal red, while Canada’s most senior Jewish parliamentarian, Joe Oliver, lost his seat to Marco Mendicino, a Liberal newcomer who expressed his support for our community unambiguously, but also inclusively.
Today, with change so clearly in the air across Canada, we should all seize the opportunity enthusiastically to welcome its breezes into our Jewish community, too. To earn the trust of our community’s grassroots, Jewish advocacy organizations should acknowledge the problems of the past and embrace real dissent. To earn the trust of our new government, they must commit to a truly non-partisan future.
Jewish Liberals, meanwhile, should avoid any temptation to settle scores with their Conservative counterparts. Instead, they should reach out to Jewish Conservatives in a spirit of unity and collaboration.
No matter which party you voted for, all of us in the Jewish community should recommit to the deeply Jewish concept of derech eretz, long absent from our communal debate, but central to who we are at our core.
Benjamin Shinewald lives in Toronto and serves on a variety of Jewish