According to exit polls, a majority of Canadian Jews – 52 per cent – voted Conservative in the 2011 federal election. Will Jewish Canadians continue to support Stephen Harper in the 2015 vote in increased numbers, even as polls indicate the prime minister’s national support is hovering around 30 per cent?
In post-Word War II Canada, Jews were very divided in their political loyalties. Gradually, voting patterns coalesced mostly behind the Liberals. Joe Clark’s stumbling initiative to move the Canadian embassy to Jerusalem in 1979 and Brian Mulroney’s strong support for Israel never affected voting patterns significantly in favour of the Conservatives.
But in October 2000, cracks in the Jewish community’s traditional support for the Liberals appeared after Canada voted for UN Human Right Council Resolution 1322, which condemned Israel’s “excessive use of force” against the Palestinians. This was but one of 10 resolutions Canada supported that were critical of Israel. MP Irwin Cotler openly chastised members of his own Liberal government.
As the Liberals left the door ajar to losing Jewish votes, politicians on the right began to push it wide open. Stockwell Day, as head of the Canadian Alliance party, began to make inroads among Jewish voters, and Harper continued the trend. Just before the Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties merged in 2004, Harper gave a speech to Civitas, an organization that promotes individualism and social order, in which he emphasized family, crime, self-defence and a principled stand in foreign policy as ways to attract support from ethnic groups and religious denominations.
Harper has been unstinting in his appeal to Jews and his support of Israel. Ahead of the 2006 federal election that brought him to power, the Conservatives adopted some very prominent positions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that favoured the Israeli government. Canada became the first western country to suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority. Harper unequivocally defended Israel’s reprisals in Lebanon after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, even though Israel’s massive 34-day attack killed more than 1,000 Lebanese and displaced one million more. Canada evacuated 50,000 of its citizens from Lebanon at the time. When eight members of a Montreal Canadian-Lebanese family were among the casualties, Harper defended Israeli military actions as “measured.”
After that, prominent Jewish Liberals began to join the Conservatives, including Robert Lantos, Heather Reisman, Gerald Schwartz and other plutocrats. While Michael Ignatieff, then Liberal leader, accused Israel of war crimes, under Harper, Canada was the first country to withdraw from Durban II in January 2008. At the start of 2009, Harper’s government was the lone dissenter regarding the UN Human Rights Committee’s criticisms of Israel. As a result, Canada lost its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council.
Last June, I had dinner with Cotler. He was originally elected in Mount Royal with 92 per cent of the vote. In 2011, he told me, a majority of Jews in his riding voted Tory. He only managed to be re-elected with overwhelming support from the Vietnamese community. He’s not running again. If he had done so, he predicted he would have been defeated. Now, Mount Royal is awash in Robert Libman-Stephen Harper signs. Libman could be on the verge of winning a riding that’s been Liberal for 75 years.
Canadian Jews live in a country much more dedicated to hyphenated integration than melting pot assimilation. Seventy-four per cent of Jewish Canadians have visited Israel – twice the ratio of Americans. For most Jews in Canada, Israel is a wedge issue, far more important than it is for Jews in the United States. The strong and sincere rhetorical support for Israel by Harper, even when there are no deliverables, has resulted in a tectonic shift in Jewish Canadian voting patterns that’s likely to increase in 2015, even as much of the rest of Canada is moving in the opposite direction.