No one was surprised when Eglinton-Lawrence Tory MP Joe Oliver, with his long list of Bay Street accomplishments, became finance minister in March.
The surprise was that Oliver managed to be elected MP of Eglinton-Lawrence in the first place.
To understand how a Tory was elected in a riding that had been Liberal since its creation in 1979 is to understand how Prime Minister Stephen Harper successfully targeted and captured the Jewish vote.
All of the four most Jewish ridings in Canada, according to recent census data – Thornhill, Eglinton-Lawrence and York Centre in Toronto and Mount Royal in Montreal – had been easy Liberal wins since their inceptions. But, starting with the 2008 election, many Jews who had always voted Liberal started putting an X in a different square on their ballots.
By the 2011 election, the great switch was on, with only Liberal MP Irwin Cotler retaining his Mount Royal seat, but by his slimmest margin yet.
It’s strange, because Jews are liberal – cosmopolitan, concerned about social inequality and uninterested in what goes on in the bedrooms of the nation. Yet it’s easy to see why many Jews paid so little attention to their convictions and crossed the floor. As former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff writes in his political memoir, Fire and Ashes, only a single political question matters: “Is it good or bad for the Jews?”
Jews may possess other voting identities but like all minorities, they allow their ethnicity to move to the fore if they feel threatened. And Jews always feel threatened. The deepest and most neurotic Jewish fear is that we are David and the world is Goliath, and if we let our slingshot rest for a second, we will be crushed.
Harper zeroed in on this fear with a carefully crafted, two-part communication plan, positioning himself as the true defender and champion of Israel and setting up the Liberals as his foil.
Regarding the former, he did so mostly through loud rhetoric, with his most tangible action being changing the way Canada votes at the UN. The real-world effect on Israel is nil, but it’s a show of support that’s easy to feed to people starved of this sort of strident advocacy.
What actually helps Israel is Canadian foreign policy, which has remained unchanged since Harper took office.
The Department of Foreign Affairs website calls Israel an “occupying power” and refers to the territories captured in 1967, including east Jerusalem, as “occupied territories,” and Canada continues to fund Palestinians generously.
Regarding the second part of his plan, Harper went on the offensive, and it’s not to our credit that we fell for it so easily. It’s our weakness that we’re sensitive enough to see any space between praise and a pause as criticism.
In 2006, for example, the Tories mailed flyers to houses in Jewish ridings citing every scrap of out-of-context, half-factual information that implied the Liberals hated Israel. One bullet point on the flyer stated that the Liberals “willingly participated in the overtly anti-Semitic Durban I” UN anti-racism conference. The reference was to Cotler, a former president of Canadian Jewish Congress whose daughter had served in the IDF and who told the Toronto Star he stayed at the conference as an observer at Israel’s request.
Another bullet stating that “Michael Ignatieff accused Israel of committing war crimes” was true, although Ignatieff immediately retracted and amended his statement, which referred to Israel’s bombing of Qana during the 2006 Lebanese conflict. Ignatieff writes of this blunder in Fire and Ashes: “I questioned whether a democratic state’s legitimate rights entitled it to violate the laws of war. This shouldn’t have been the issue. Why should a politician take it upon himself to rule on an embattled state’s compliance with the Geneva Convention?”
Shhhhh Michael! This is politics – there’s no room for measured comments on controversial issues – it’s too confusing. Best to stick to talking points.
Harper and his communication team excel at staying on message. Notice that he and his ministers never stray from talking points but simply repeat short, simple phrases riddled with synonymous keywords such as “shared values” “allies” “friend” and “special relationship.” The Liberals’ official positions on Israel are equally supportive but they’re less focused on making us believe it.
Harper’s real political genius lies in how he presents his support of Israel as a passionate love affair – as authentic. We are blinded to his machinations, because we believe that Israel is the homeland of his heart. This may be true, but we must not forget that he’s also a political animal, able to sniff out where votes are hiding.
And with only a few ridings short of a majority government in 2011, he saw opportunity in certain districts. A leaked document, titled Breaking through: Building the Conservative brand in cultural communities, explained exactly how the Tories planned to woo ethnic votes. As it said: “There are lots of ethnic voters. There will be quite a few more soon. They live where we need to win.”
A bar graph displayed 10 targeted ridings: three were “Jewish,” the others Chinese, South Asian and Ukrainian.
Readers should remember two things. One is that the Jewish population isn’t too small to be courted for votes. Because of Canada’s first-past-the-post system, a concentrated group of voters can become a tipping point that translates into seats. We became a tipping point.
Second, authenticity generally emerges by accident, like when York Centre MP Mark Adler begged to pose with Harper in front of the Western Wall this past January.
“This, it’s the re-election,” he said crassly, within range of a microphone. “This is the million-dollar shot.”
Danielle Kubes is a freelance writer in Toronto.