I was recently invited to speak to an Ottawa-based Israeli-Palestinian relations group on the topic of Canadian Jews and Israel. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of public opinion data available on Canadian Jewish attitudes. We have some broad strokes on identity issues, though. In addition to Conservative Judaism – rather than Reform – being our largest denomination, Canadian Jews, compared to American Jews, are one generation closer to the Holocaust, are more likely to speak Hebrew, educate their kids Jewishly and to have visited Israel.
Most central to my talk though, was how Canadian Jewish institutions are responding to attempts to challenge Israel as a Jewish state, including the boycott movement.
A lively question period followed, but there was one question that stopped me in my tracks. What is it about Israel, a man asked, that makes you feel attached to it? He seemed genuinely curious and rather puzzled, so puzzled that he asked it twice.
Being in the field that I’m in, I have a ready answer. But I know I’m not typical. My own attachment to Israel centres primarily on a deep passion for Hebrew and Israeli culture. I lived in Israel for three separate years in my 20s, I speak only Hebrew to my kids, I alternate my Netflix watching with Israeli dramas, and I am as likely to binge listen to The Last Waltz as to Kaveret’s final concert album. My daughter’s dvar Torah at her bat mitzvah was the only one I’ve heard reference Arik Einstein lyrics. Of course, the attention I devote to Israel is partly a function of my profession, but I chose my area of study based on a great sense of attachment to the country and a desire to understand how the Israeli-Palestinian region can become a more just and humane place.
But what of my fellow Canadian Jews? Those of my parents’ generation, who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, might view Israel as an insurance policy in the event of the unthinkable. Religious Jews might feel a profound spiritual connection to the land. But what of the many less religious Canadian Jews of my generation (and younger), those for whom Canada, with its absolute commitment to freedom, tolerance and multiculturalism is as safe a haven as any they could imagine; those for whom particular stones on particular bits of territory are not understood to hold sacred meaning, and for whom Hebrew or Israeli contemporary culture is not something that pulls them?
What does Israel mean to these Jews, who are unlike my parents, unlike religious Zionists and unlike me?
I encourage my fellow Canadian Jews to articulate their attachments. Doing so with nuance and open hearts may help uncover new political arrangements. Maybe it would point to two states, maybe a confederation system where everyone has access to all the land, but possesses citizenship in only one state (as Dahlia Scheindlin and Dov Waxman have proposed), and maybe even a single state where both languages and cultures are carefully preserved. We should ask what threat, exactly, does refugee return pose, rather than leave it as an imaginary bugaboo. Being explicit about our emotional ties – while being open to hearing the emotional experiences of others – may bring us closer to supporting creative peace efforts.
A postscript: a survey of the Canadian Jewish community is currently being circulated by Jewish federations, and is being run by David Elcott and Stuart Himmelfarb, both of New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. As I recall, there is only one question on Israel, which asks whether the respondent feels “attached” to the country. Attachment is associated with many different perspectives and says nothing about one’s commitment to human rights for those under Israel’s control, for example. I hope that we may soon see more in-depth survey research on Canadian Jewish attitudes toward Israel and its policies.