The Jewish communities of Canada have learned to expect a high rate of return from our political advocacy groups. Candidates or public figures who espouse anti-Semitic views are usually dealt with quickly. Motions supporting boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, brought forward by student governments on campus or by political parties at policy conventions, are defeated. Governments sympathize with, and pledge financial support to, synagogues in need of extra security.
And yet, when it comes to the question of faith-based schools, or getting an election date changed so it doesn’t fall on a Jewish holiday, or fighting back against a discriminatory ban on religious symbols in Quebec, the political establishment – and Canadians outside the Jewish community – suddenly become colder and more closed off.
Ever since the 2007 Ontario provincial election, in which the issue of faith-based schools was debated and decisively rejected, I have wondered: what makes an issue a political winner or loser for the Canadian Jewish community? After seeing the defeat of the court challenge aimed at moving the federal election date and the muted response to Quebec’s Bill 21, I believe I have an answer: issues that are framed as “Jewish issues” are losers with the rest of Canada. They’re perceived as “divisive,” if only for the fact that they aren’t issues that directly affect all Canadians – or even all Jews.
Canadian culture, which reflects “peace, order and good government,” isn’t really built to allow intense grassroots debate to influence high-level policy. In America, where one wears one’s ideological colours on one’s sleeve, accusing Jews of being “disloyal” is reprehensible, but not out of the realm of possibility.
Two Jews can have three opinions in the United States, so long as they are patriotic and wave the flag, but in polite Canada, where disagreement is frowned upon, it’s much preferred that we have one opinion. “The election is supposed to be for all Canadians” is the easy reply from “Official Canada,” worried about a scenario where everyone is fighting over the date, trying to move it for this or that religious reason.
What’s more, religious and secular Canadian Jews are not of one mind on these issues. It’s easy for the government, or a court, to observe that relatively few Jews celebrate Shemini Atzeret, and that enough Jews walk around with their heads uncovered and send their kids to public school. “Not only are these ‘Jewish issues’ instead of Canadian issues, but they’re Jewish issues that even the Jewish community hasn’t worked out for themselves!” say the bureaucrats and politicians.
It’s also not a coincidence that specifically religious Jewish causes enjoy little support in Canada. Politicians of all stripes supporting Israel is great, but how often do they prioritize Israel’s Jewish religious character? (And how often would Canadian Jews want them to?) As for synagogue security – that’s a public safety issue, not a religious issue.
It may be hard to accept, but pushing for funding of religious schools or moving election dates sounds like opposition to Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum, or support for Khalistani separatism in the Sikh community, or opposition to abortion, to the ears of Official Canada. In all cases, it comes off as a religious minority, or a minority of a minority, trying to divide Canada along religious lines.
If any progress is to be made, these issues must be framed not as Jewish issues, and especially not Jewish religious issues. The case must be made that Bill 21, or a situation where only Catholic schools receive funding in Ontario, undermines Canadian unity. This is already starting to happen in Quebec, where different faith groups are joining together with other activists to build a coalition to oppose the Bill 21.
There is also an absolute need for buy-in from outside the Jewish community, if Jewish issues are to succeed, and an absolute need to support the issues being put forward by other faith communities and activist groups, if we expect their support, in return.
How can our leaders make the case that our community’s intentions are in the best interests of all Canadians, not just Jewish Canadians? At the end of the day, that is a question they must answer.