Politics

Jew v. Jew v. Jew v. Jew v. Jew v. Jew

Six journalists debate the question of why shrill partisanship is tearing apart the Canadian Jewish community

Photograph by Jason Ransom
Jason Ransom / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Benjamin Netanyahu and Stephen Harper.

The Walrus is not a partisan publication, nor a religious one. We do our best to stay out of the spats and feuds that inevitably plague all communities of faith in this country. But in recent years, the interplay of federal party politics with the organized Jewish community has become a prominent part of public life in this country—largely (though not exclusively) because of the Conservative Party’s consistently aggressive efforts to woo Jewish voters and champion the cause of Israel. As Joseph Rosen noted in the January/February 2014 edition of our magazine (“The Israel Taboo”), the response of Canada at large, too often, has been to look away at such developments—in part out of fear that any commentary might be interpreted as hostile or even anti-Semitic. In this election cycle, however, such an attitude is unsustainable: The Jewish community itself is now in the midst of social crisis because of the issue, as several prominent incidents indicate.

In recent weeks, Canada has witnessed a series of unusual political controversies within its Jewish community. Mark Adler—the Conservative candidate for York Centre, and a strongly self-identified Jew and Zionist—attracted negative attention when it was reported that his campaign materials and signage prominently identified him as a “son of Holocaust survivor.” It also was revealed, by the Canadian Jewish News, that his claim to be the first MP who is the child of Holocaust survivors is untrue. (The distinction lies with former Liberal MP Raymonde Folco, who has been scathingly critical of Adler’s decision to cite his ancestry in this way.) Last week, Adler revealed new campaign signage that makes no mention of the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, a resident of the majority-Jewish Montreal riding of Mount Royal reported in the Montreal Gazette that “Campaign workers for Robert Libman, Conservative Party candidate for the riding of Mount Royal, knocked on my door in order to ask whether Libman and Stephen Harper could count on my support. When I told them that I wasn’t really interested, one of them proceeded to tap on the mezuzah affixed to my doorpost and said ‘Ok, but remember what you are.’” The online verson of the article was headlined “As a Jew, I’m offended at being treated like a one-issue voter.”

August also featured a bitter mass-circulated email war within the Toronto Jewish community, in which strongly pro-Zionist Conservative supporters furiously condemned Jews who support Justin Trudeau’s Liberals—even going so far as to suggest corrupt motives. As this conflict unfolded, the Jewish Defence League staged a protest outside the private Toronto residence where Trudeau held a fundraising event. The ferocity of the rhetoric prompted one Canadian Jewish News writer to ask: “Do people in this community have nothing better to do than attack fellow Jews just because they hold a different political view? Is it really necessary to concoct conspiracy theories to explain why someone would support a party that is filled with fellow Jews and fellow Zionists? ”

Of course, left- and right-wing Jews in Canada have been disagreeing about all manner of issues for generations. This is not new. But what is new in this election cycle is the way that these longstanding disagreements have mapped closely onto a partisan framework. Stephen Harper’s commitment to stand by Israel “through fire and water” has inspired the view, among some, that voting for anyone but the Conservatives is a sellout of Israel, and even of Judaism more generally.

Perhaps it is this unsettling linkage of Jewish civic life with Ottawa’s rank partisanship that explains the negative reaction, including among many Jews, to Adler’s use of the Holocaust to promote his candidacy. Even in the statement he issued following the controversy, Adler could not help but return to this theme:

I am proud of my family heritage, and will never forget the sacrifice of my forefathers who faced persecution simply because of their faith. Mme. Folco, like my family, faced unspeakable atrocities, and we will never forget the somber story that unites our experience. That is why I am doubly resolved to continue to be a steadfast defender of Israel, and champion of freedom for those facing persecution in an increasingly insecure world.

Following these events, Walrus editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay initiated an email discussion with five other Canadian Jewish journalists, to identify the roots of this unsettling trend, and to find ways to reverse it. What follows are excerpts from that correspondence.

  • Barbara Kay is a columnist with the National Post. She sits on the advisory board of the independent, pro-Israel organization, Canadian Institute for Jewish Research (CIJR).
  • Marni Soupcoff, also a National Post columnist, serves as executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation.
  • Yoni Goldstein is editor-in-chief of the Canadian Jewish News.
  • Joseph Rosen teaches at Dawson College in Montreal. He is the author of “The Israel Taboo,” which appeared in the January/February 2014 edition of The Walrus.
  • Andrew Cohen is a journalist, bestselling book author, and professor of journalism at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
Jonathan Kay

My starting questions for all of you are broad. Is any of this really new? Didn’t the Liberals, in their day, try to manipulate the Jewish community in an equally aggressive way? As we all know, the Jewish state truly does lie in a dangerous part of the world, and Harper truly has been one of its greatest defenders on the world stage? Given that, are hawkish Jews morally correct to draw partisan lines on this issue? And some militant Islamists truly do dream of incinerating Israel’s Jews in the same manner that Hitler slaughtered the Jews of Europe. Is Adler’s original campaign ad defensible on that basis?

Barbara Kay

I will start with the above-described claim involving Robert Libman in the riding of Mount Royal. Let’s set the scene.

Mount Royal is probably the only place in Canada where it might legitimately be assumed that Jews can be “guilted” into voting for the one party that supports Israel unequivocally. It is not only a heavily Jewish riding, but it is disproportionately older. And there are amongst the older Jews a disproportionate number of Holocaust survivors, and children of survivors, as compared to other centres of Jewish life in Canada.

When I came to Montreal more than fifty years ago, I was struck by the number of my Jewish peers here who were first-generation Jews, while almost everyone I had grown up with in Toronto were, like me, the children of parents born in Canada. To illustrate the difference, when I was invited to join the board of the Jewish Public Library here, I was shocked at my first meeting when half the discussion was carried on in Yiddish—with no translation. I was the only person (and only Torontonian) there who did not speak or at least fully understand Yiddish, even though I was by no means the only person there in my thirties.

All the major institutions of Montreal’s communal Jewish life are in this riding or near it: the federation offices, the Jewish Public Library, the arts centre, the Jewish hospital, etc. Because of Quebec’s unique demographics, anglos in general and Jews even more so tended to “huddle” geographically far longer than Jews in Toronto did. So even though young, confident Jews are now living in many other areas of the city, the older generation stayed put. Mount Royal remains the absolute hub of mainstream Jewish life in Montreal.

So what may seem quite brazen and offensive to more (ahem) sophisticated Toronto Jews may seem business as usual to a core group of voters here.

It should also be remembered that single-issue voting is, in general, very much a Quebec thing. Federally, what is the Bloc Québécois if not a single-issue, ethnocentric voting bloc, whose leaders shamelessly raise alarms about cultural dissolution, casting the ROC and the threat of English penetration as Enemies of the People? What is the Parti Québécois but a single-issue nationalist guilting machine harping away, literally or figuratively, about the “conquest,” as if it had been a sort of genocidal humiliation rather than a fact of history from which it would have been healthy to move on as other nations move on from their ancient defeats? I also should add that most Quebec anglophones are traditionally single-issue voters provincially—in that we always vote for the leader who is not a separatist. So single-issue voting is almost part of our DNA here in Quebec. We are used to hyperbole in identity politics.

That said—and although I too find the overt and aggressive thrust of the campaign strategy off-putting and stupid, as backfire could and should have been foreseen as a strong possibility—I personally admit that I am a single-issue voter in that sense, and not at all ashamed of it. I am fed up with Stephen Harper for all the reasons everyone else is. But I do consider Israel’s future an existential issue, and I think he is the only leader in Canada—and most of the world—who “gets it” when it comes to the threat of Islamist Judeophobia and exterminationism.

So I shudder at the thought of the naive and—on the Middle East file, at any rate—historically ignorant Justin Trudeau managing our foreign policy. I think Thomas Mulcair [of the NDP] is personally intelligent about Israel, but his party’s intelligentsia has a bad history, and so he is actually an anomaly within his ranks. So I will vote for the Conservatives (although I do not live in Mount Royal riding, and my vote will have no impact; mine is a solidly Liberal riding). Still, I most certainly did not need to be reminded of the Holocaust in order to make my decision.

I should add that federally I am not always a single-issue voter by any means. But in such parlous times for Israel, things are different.

Joseph Rosen

As Jon indicated upfront, what’s new in this election is that Jewish debates on Israel have become mapped onto partisan politics. Harper has clearly and repeatedly stated that he is taking a side with Israel, hoping that Canadian Jews who care for Israel will vote Conservative. But the idea that it’s in Jews’ interest to vote for Harper is based on a couple of incorrect assumptions.

The first assumption is that Harper’s Conservatives have “taken a side” with Jews and Zionists. Have they? I’d argue that Harper has sided with right-wing Zionists—Jewish and Christian alike.

I know many Zionists (Canadian and Israeli) who think that ending the occupation of Palestinian lands is a prerequisite for peace, and who think that Israel’s settlements are destroying the possibility of a two-state solution. Many Zionists and Jews care about Palestinian human rights, and are worried about the increasingly shaky prospects for democracy in Israel. Harper doesn’t support them.

Take a look at the composition of the latest Knesset: the radical right is taking over. And the religious right has increasing power over public policy. It is this fundamentalist Zionism that Harper is supporting.

Many Israelis and diaspora Jews are terrified and distraught at the changes happening within Israel’s political system—some think that Israel is careening toward disaster. Not because of any militant Islamic group, but because of the internal meltdown of Israeli democracy. Jews who care about these issues should think long and hard about which Zionists Harper is befriending.

The second assumption is that the support of Harper’s Conservatives has a positive impact on Israel. (We know it’s not good for Palestinians.) Harper is certainly a friend of [Israeli prime minister] Benjamin Netanyahu—and of the military-industrial complex that supports right-wing Zionism. Like many fundamentalists—whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim—Harper believes quite adamantly in good vs. evil.

Is he being cynical and manipulative? Or does he secretly hold an evangelical world view? Does he believe, along with many Zionist Christians, that Jews must first return to Israel so that Jesus can return—whereupon the Jews will convert to Christianity or die?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what motivates Harper’s form of Zionism. The important question is: Does a narrative of good vs. evil help us (a) to understand the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and (b) to establish a secure and just peace in the region?

Barbara thinks that Harper understands the threat of “Islamist Judeophobia and exterminationism”—as if Mulcair and Trudeau aren’t aware of these dangers. Everyone knows that some Islamic groups are violently anti-Semitic. But treating them as a form of “radical evil” is mythical oversimplification, and doesn’t help create a stable solution to the problem. More fundamentalist attitudes only stoke the fires. And these fires are very useful for the careers of politicians such as Harper and Netanyahu.

For centuries, the concept of Israel has been taken as an abstract symbol: both of good, and of evil. A symbol of utopia, Israel has been used for political ends going back at least to the Crusades. Seeing Israel as an apocalyptic battleground for a fundamentalist definition of good and evil is part of the problem—an inextricable component of the cycle of violence that tears the region apart. The inhabitants of the land—people, lemon trees, goats, olives—have all paid the price.

So—partisan politics aside—I’m going to disagree with Barbara. I don’t think that a vote for Harper actually contributes to the democratic health, stability, or security of Israel.

Jonathan Kay

I’m considerably more hawkish than Joseph. But I find fundamental agreement with him on the propositions that: (1) “Jewish debates on Israel have become mapped onto partisan politics”; and (2) “For centuries, the concept of Israel has been taken as an abstract symbol: both of good, and of evil.” I’d say it is the combination of these two phenomena that is producing the current weirdness.

The whole idea of partisan politics is based on the demonization of the other party as misguided and malign. Even subjects that are obviously nuanced and subject to reasonable disagreement (such as, say, the best approach to income inequality) are reduced to screaming matches about who loves the middle class more. If you layer that kind of shrill, Manichean debating style on the argument over Israel, which already has been the subject of angel-versus-demon debates for generations, the hysteria gets turbocharged.

This already was a problem before 9/11. But in the last fourteen years, the struggle against militant Islam has become, for many, the defining struggle of our time. And that fact has lent an existential, apocalyptic quality to what once was merely a debate over a particular region on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

One of the most troubling aspects is the way the dynamic I’ve described above pushes people toward conspiracism. For many partisans, it is not enough to say that Republicans and Conservatives generally take a more uncritical attitude toward Netanyahu—which is true. They go beyond that, and deliver the suggestion that Obama or Trudeau are somehow in cahoots with radical Islamists, or have an agenda to destroy Israel.

In this overheated rhetorical environment, it perhaps should be expected that some Jewish politicians, such as Mark Adler, would go to extreme lengths to prove the purity of their commitment to Judaism and Israel. After all, humans have long been susceptible to the idea that a person’s character and motivations are embedded in their bloodline.

Marni Soupcoff

I’m always surprised by what seems to be the general confidence within Canada that a Canadian prime minister’s stance on Israel will have a major impact on Israel’s fate one way or another. That’s never been something I’ve felt was a given, or even especially likely. Which may help explain why efforts at “guilting” me into supporting a Canadian political party based on its being good for Israel would never work.

As Canadians, I see our best contribution as coming from our modelling a peaceful nation that manages to maintain every individual’s personal freedoms. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re doing all that well with this project. If we’re going to fix something, let’s start with that.

Yoni Goldstein

1. I may be alone in this discussion when it comes to Adler’s invocation of his Holocaust bona fides, in that I have no problem with it. In fact, I think it’s useful information for the many Jewish voters in York Centre who are either survivors themselves or the children of survivors. It’s helpful for the Jewish community to have someone represent that sort of sensitivity in Parliament. (I was, however, disappointed that he continued to claim he was the first child of survivors weeks after he was notified that fact wasn’t true.)

A recent study out of New York’s Mount Sinai hospital suggests trauma-induced genetic changes found in Holocaust survivors may be passed along to their children. For better or worse, the Holocaust remains at the centre of consciousness for many Jews, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it might affect their voting patterns. Besides, it’s not like Adler was the only to play on the Shoah trope: The NDP candidate in York Centre also notes he is a child of survivors in his campaign literature.

2. As for the election rhetoric in the Jewish community, there’s no question it’s a sorry state of affairs. The fiery email exchange Jon referred to in the preamble has ignited a real storm within the Toronto community. I’ve been forwarded the original email—in which a community member is excoriated for supporting Justin Trudeau—more times than I care to count. Some are forwarding it as evidence of a sort of Tory madness that has infected much of the community. A few others contend that, while they support Harper, personally attacking anyone for expressing a different opinion is completely unacceptable. But most seem to agree with the email writer’s premise—that Trudeau is bad for the Jews, while Harper and the Conservatives are the only real choice for the Jewish community.

Community organizations are trying to tamp down the rhetoric. Thus far, it doesn’t seem to be working, though that might be because the Jewish Defence League, a right-wing group with a clear and unabashed Tory bent, has taken to defending the anti-Trudeau language.

3. The underlying question, as Joseph suggests, is why the Jewish community is so supportive of Harper, and so clearly scared of Trudeau and Mulcair. Barbara is right to point out that Trudeau has made comments, including his stance on Iran, that worry some Jews; while Mulcair, who has generally been supportive of Israel, must contend with leftists in his party. Voters may also remember the relative lack of support for Israel at the UN exhibited by previous Liberal leaders.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have built up so much goodwill that many Jewish voters, who, like Barbara, find much of the Harper agenda problematic, will suck it up and vote Tory. To my mind, this is more about what-have-you-done-for-me-lately than some mass paradigm shift. It’s hard to know for sure what Trudeau or Mulcair would do vis-à-vis Israel if they were to win, but there are clear indications that both would be friendly to Israel. Jewish voters, though, might be uncomfortable taking a risk on either one when they know they can count on Harper.

Joseph’s point that not all Jews see Harper’s Mideast stance as positive for Israel and/or Judaism is entirely correct. Disagreements about the settlements, occupation, peace prospects, Iran’s nuclear ambitions abound in the Jewish community. I know many Jews who feel disengaged from the community because there is a tendency to quash dissent, or at least try to sweep it under the rug. To my mind, this is a problem with the dynamics within our community, not a problem with our politics per se.

Andrew Cohen

Mark Adler is a parliamentarian of no distinction—no seat in cabinet, no private member’s bill, no memorable speeches, no notable committee work—who lucked into a usually Liberal seat during an election when the Liberals collapsed and suffered the worst defeat in their history. The incumbent was a lazy (so said the Conservatives) Ken Dryden, whose vote dropped in every election he fought until his defeat in 2011. It is a seat the Liberals expect to reclaim in October; and if they can’t get this one, they probably won’t be official opposition, let alone form government.

So Adler does what he can because there is so little he can do. To make his ancestry his electoral calling card is sad but unsurprising. Tactically, if he believes conservative Jews will make the difference in his riding, it makes perfects sense. In a tight game, it is a Hail Mary—well, Hail Miriam—pass. Ethically, it is pathetic, for reasons Jon has suggested. After four years in politics, Adler is known for two spectacular acts of self-abasement—begging for a picture with the Prime Minister at the Wailing Wall and advertising himself as the son of a Holocaust survivor. I think he’s a schlepper desperately worried about losing the best job he will ever have.

I don’t buy the argument that Justin Trudeau is dangerously naive on foreign policy. He could not be less prepared than Stephen Harper, who had been virtually nowhere when he became PM in 2006, and showed no interest or experience in the world beyond our shores. It is why he reversed himself on China after two feckless years.

As a Canadian, it distresses me how little we discuss foreign policy in election campaigns, and I have argued that Justin Trudeau lost a huge opportunity in the first two years of his leadership to go abroad, meet his counterparts, and think and talk seriously about the world and Canada’s place in it. He did not, and it was not just about “whipping out our CF-18s.” He did not really speak in the House during the ISIS debate, yielding his time to Marc Garneau. Nor has he spoken about Iran, at least not in any detail. In fact, beyond a clichéd speech on Canadian-American relations, he has never addressed foreign policy as leader.

As a Jew, though, I am delighted that his party, however quietly (see the short news release from [Liberal foreign affairs critic Marc] Garneau’s office when the deal was announced), is supporting the Iran agreement. I wish Mr. Trudeau would wave his arms, jump up and down, and rush to the ramparts to declare that his prospective government will join our allies—the US, Britain, France, and Germany—in supporting the deal, and salute it as flawed but necessary. In doing so, he would align himself with the Democratic Party, most American Jews (see the polls), a number of former generals and admirals, hundreds of prominent scientists, and much of the security establishment in Israel, which sees diplomacy as the best hope here. For the most part, the Liberals soft-pedal their support for Iran because they too are worried about the wrath of Jewish voters who oppose it, but the Liberals do support it.

I am not afraid of a Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau. He [aspires to become] a prime minister, not a president, and he will have many smart people to advise him, as does every PM. Frankly, like others, I am more worried about a Canada which, without a word of criticism, continues to support blindly a destructive government in Israel.

Marni Soupcoff

I would like to hear more thoughts about whether Adler’s original campaign ad is defensible. By my tally, here’s what we have so far. Barb thinks the ad was off-putting, stupid, and crude, but suggests that this sort of thing probably seemed less so to those who live in a place such as Mount Royal. Jon blames the overheated rhetorical environment and intimates, though doesn’t explicitly say, that the ad was hysterical. Yoni has no problem with the ad, and indeed thinks it provided useful information.

My initial reaction to the ad was disgust. But then again, I also was disgusted when the Conservatives sent me a Hanukkah card, so maybe my disgust bar is set very low. But I can’t be the only one who resents the assumption that the religion of the woman who gave birth to me defines my political and other preferences.

Jonathan Kay

I’d like to talk a little bit more about the effect of the Internet on the intra-community dynamic we’re discussing. Jewish hawks and doves always have argued with each other about the Middle East. What has changed in the last fifteen years is that in many cases, they don’t really argue actual ideas of their own: They just mass-forward some column they like to all their friends—which is exactly what is happening with the campaign to vilify Trudeau supporters among Toronto Jews. This didn’t happen back in the 1990s, when people more often were forced to come up with their own ideas, or at least actively paraphrase the ideas of others. Now it’s just “Yeah, what this guy says. See attached.”

The hawkish position, in particular, has coalesced into a hard-and-fast dogma—expressed in its purest form through the columns of Charles Krauthammer, Wall Street Journal editorials, GOP talking points, and (more recently) the sloganeering speeches of Benjamin Netanyahu. These texts have become a sort of hymn book that gets forwarded by email and Facebook back and forth from one hawk to another. This is why the debate has become so standardized, including all the trite historical comparisons: Obama is like Neville Chamberlain; the Iran deal is like Munich; Netanyahu is like Churchill; hey, shouldn’t we all be more like Ronald Reagan?

I think Barbara is completely correct that Trudeau’s main focus is domestic policy, and that he is more interested in solving Canada’s problems than interjecting in a conflict on the other side of the world. But to me, that’s okay. As a Jew and a Zionist, I really would be completely satisfied with any party leader who said:

I’m a Canadian politician running on Canadian issues. For what its worth, I will have Canadian diplomats vote down any UN resolution that singles out Israel for abuse, I will welcome Israel commercial and tech partnerships where they make sense for Canada, I will make Canadian military technology available to Israel, and I will ensure that Canada is an ally to Israel in the war against terrorism. But I will not pretend that the protection of Israel has existential significance to me any more than the protection of, say, Taiwan, South Korea, and India, which all are equally menaced by violent non-democratic neighbours.

Which brings me to Adler (and, by extension, Harper), whose floridly expressed support for Israel I find to be simply inappropriate for someone running for a Canadian legislature. Their rhetoric about their love for Israel is so over the top that at times it suggests an almost complete erasing of the sovereign line between our country and Israel. I have a childhood friend, Gideon, who lives in York Centre. And when he gets calls from Adler’s folks, extolling Adler’s connection with Israel and such, Gideon makes a practice of cutting the phone-bank caller off and saying “Excuse me, but this man seems to be running for the Knesset. May I ask you to tell me his qualifications to become a legislator in Canada? ”

In the past, that is the sort of thing you might expect to come out of the mouth of an anti-Semite—the sort of people who accused Jews of having divided loyalties. But more and more, you hear Jews themselves raise their eyebrows at the Tories’ Israel love-in. And maybe here we are getting to the real emotionally felt reason I am offended by Adler’s tactics: It seems to breathe life into the conceit, that I always associated with Jew-haters, that there is some dark plot to put our own country’s power directly at the service of Israel. This always is rejected as the basest sort of conspiracy theory. Yet here we are, with a government whose policy on the region more or less consists of “What Netanyahu said.”

It is very important to note that this instinct to support Israel comes from a good place, I think: I reject the idea that Stephen Harper and his closest political allies are inspired by Christian eschatology. Also, it is important to remember how friendless Israel was, say, back in 2002, during the “Jenin massacre” nonsense. It was a great thing when Canada came around to supporting Israel against the calumnies heaped against it. It is a great thing that we walked out of the Durban farce. Harper (and, before him, Paul Martin) showed real leadership on such files.

But the Canadian movement against the dogma of Israel demonization has become a rigid dogma of its own. And its vote-grubby manifestations, of which Adler is emblematic, are mortifying. Like all dogmas, it has created a cult of hatred against anyone who opposes the dogma, including any Jew who doesn’t line up behind Harper. That’s an awful thing to happen to our community.

Barbara Kay

What else has changed in the last fifteen years is that Islamo-fascism has become a serious threat not only to the entire Middle East, but to Europe, and to us in a still-minor key, but that could quite easily change. With it has arisen a deeply disturbing brand of Judeo-phobia that does indeed seem reminiscent of the Nazi era. Hitler did not have a nuclear bomb and there was no Jewish state in his era. If there were and if he had had one, he would have used it. Virulent, exterminationist strains of anti-Semitism run rampant in the Muslim enclaves of Europe and Scandinavia, abetted by shrilly anti-Zionist leftists; and even though national leaders are not happy about it, they have no serious plan to deal with it.

When you look at the global re-emergence of this violent hatred, it is perfectly natural for Jews in the Diaspora to consider that we may be heading for an apocalyptic moment. The Iran deal was made with no reference to Iranian threats to Israel—as if the mullahs are just blowhards venting steam when they claim they will use a nuclear weapon to obliterate Israel. Anyone who thinks Israel’s precarious situation should not be afforded special consideration is not realistic.

I wish we could vote for candidates who are only interested in Canada’s domestic needs, but I think those days are long gone. I do not believe one must be a conspiracy theorist to believe that Islamism is the great threat to global stability of our time, and I am not comforted by the idea of having a leader that does not appreciate this reality. Israel is the front line for the democracies in this clash of civilizations, which I think is merely in its ascendant phase, and Israel has very few friends. In these extraordinary times, the friends she has should be permitted to express that friendship with unusual vigour in order to lend some backbone to those leaders who would prefer appeasement.

To Joseph Rosen: This idea that Harper’s evangelical Christianity is a guide to his actions is nonsense. If that were the case, why would Israel be the sole expression of it? He has been utterly AWOL on abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage and has made it clear he will not go near any social issues with a ten-foot pole. The “secret agenda” theory of Harper’s evangelical master plan is a very good example of a conspiracy theory, I am sorry to say.

Jonathan Kay

The rise of Islamo-fascism, which Barbara mentions, has indeed had a huge effect on the dialogue within the Jewish community. Because the issue is cast as the defining struggle of our era, Israel hawks have ratcheted up the rhetorical stakes accordingly: If you’re soft on the Palestinian issue, that means you’re soft on Hamas, which means you’re soft on militant Islam more generally, and, therefore, on the survival of Western civilization itself. And so a debate about whether, say, it’s a good idea for the Israeli government to keep building settlements in East Jerusalem becomes, within five minutes, a screaming match about whether you want our civilization to be overrun by sharia. Inevitably, the debate produces two mutually alienated camps of Jews.

A related phenomenon, equally disturbing to me, is the way Jews now relate to other minorities. Until 9/11, Jewish organizations typically were leaders in the movement to make Canada a more pluralistic and tolerant society. That is still a major strain within the mainstream, acronymed Jewish establishment. There still are plenty of Bernie Farber and Karen Mock types out there, along with their Ezra Levants and JDL nemeses. But to a worrying degree, many Jews now feel it is acceptable to talk about Muslims in the casually derogatory way that xenophobes once talked about Jews. Attend any major-synagogue panel discussion about the Middle East, for instance, and you will find that the Q&A often features references to Muslim birth rates, fifth columnists, secret sharia plots, and the like.

The irony here is that a common talking point in these same circles is that Canadian mosques are full of anti-Semitic hate speech—which no doubt is true in many cases. But synagogues themselves now feature the opposite sort of abusive speech. This just didn’t happen much before 9/11. It was then taken for granted that Jewish values were coterminous with secular Canadian values such as multiculturalism. That’s gone, and I miss it.

Barbara Kay

I miss those political days of wine and roses too, Jon, but that was a kind of golden age of rosy hope over what was to be a disillusioning experience. Only those immured by idealism and—sorry, that word again—naïveté believe that multiculturalism has been a roaring success.

I know there are Jews who hate Muslims as a group, just as there are Jews who hated Germans as a group when I was young. That is a crude reaction to a bitter historical experience, perhaps, but people do often react crudely when they are frightened and traumatized. When I hear you deplore this tendency, however, which I of course do as well (easy enough when you look at our Jewishly golden lives in this peaceful and inclusive place), I fear that you may also include Jews who feel antipathy to Islam, which is not always a form of outright bigotry, but rather a historically learned fear-based perspective. The Koran, in the way it has been interpreted by many Muslim groups and sects, has had a powerful influence on those who are expressing near-pathological hatred of Jews as the unifying bond of their existence.

Hamas and Hezbollah are not based in anti-Israeli policies. They are Judeo-phobic at the core and have proved it many times over. It seems to be quite realistic that Jews, who some might say suffer already from a form of historical PTSD, should feel a certain loathing for the religious ideology that is indissolubly linked to the raging anti-Semitism in, say, France, where it has become more than clear that multiculturalism is an abject failure, not to mention in Britain, Norway, the Netherlands, and other places where Muslim-dense zones have been fermenting Islamocentric alienation and hatred of Jews in particular but the West in general.

Andrew Cohen

I lament Barbara’s lament that we can no longer vote for candidates on the basis of domestic issues alone; as well as her defence of making Jews one-issue voters, where the issue is Israel and the spread of radical Islam. I would welcome, as I think we all would, a more prominent discussion of the world in our national discourse. We hide from it, and it would broaden our little Canada. But taking where our politicians stand on these questions to be the sole criterion for Jewish voters (an approach the Conservatives trumpet) suggests that we are narrow, parochial, and small. It is to deny a Jewish voice in our politics that cared about human rights, social democracy, a sensitivity to the underclass. The Canadian Jewish Congress used to have that kind of broad mandate, but it was dismantled by the group that gave us the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), a shill for the government.

When I was growing up, every party supported Israel and that was fine with the Jews. Shrewdly and tactically, the Conservatives have introduced a super-Zionism into our politics, in which they are more Zionist than David Ben-Gurion and the rest of you are something less. So, now there are levels of Zionism, and being less than an enthusiast for the Likud Zionist is, suddenly, less than acceptable in some places, which is why Jewish groups picket Justin Trudeau.

I think all parties are dedicated to the State of Israel, and I can live with the views of the Liberals and New Democrats. If either opposed Israel, that would be different. They don’t.

I long for the days, Barbara, when Jews could talk about national politics and national questions, with civility (as we are here, I must say), instead of making one’s loyalty to Israel a McCarthy-esque question. It has become that, thanks to the Conservatives, and it is just one way they have coarsened the political culture. Jews have fallen for it—which is why we’re talking about it.

Barbara Kay

Not to monopolize, but I must take issue with your polarization, Andrew. I am not a supporter of Likud or any other Israeli party, and never have been. I am very uncomfortable with most of the settlements and the fanaticism of the people who live in them. As a Jew, I have a serious problem with ultra-Orthodoxy; the Haredim give me the creeps and I have said so publicly many times. I am sure you and Jon and I would find much to agree with in criticizing Israeli politics.

And there are many others like me who think that Israel’s situation has now become rather more an existential issue than it was, not to mention the continued viability of Jewish communities in parts of the Diaspora—so that where we might once have said that it was irrelevant whether our government voted for or against certain resolutions regarding Israel, or remained neutral, now things have changed. The issue has become a more pressing concern, and therefore justifies our heightened sense of Jewish solidarity with Israel (a better word than “loyalty,” which for some people, when coupled with the word “Israel” invites the often-referenced canard of “dual” to hover nearby), enough to make it a political consideration at election time.

Jonathan Kay

Speaking of the Haredim, does anyone else on this group find it upsetting that Canadian Jews aren’t more vocal in opposing the practice by which planes to Israel are delayed because some religious nut won’t sit next to a woman? If Muslims were doing this on Canadian runways, Jason Kenney would personally throw them off the planes.

Barbara Kay

I certainly find that upsetting. Misogyny can be found in many patriarchal religions, and here’s one more example. But then, many airlines won’t allow a man travelling alone to sit next to a child travelling alone, and will ask the man to move so the child can sit next to a woman. Which is a form of misandry, no?

Yoni Goldstein

Andrew makes an interesting point regarding CIJA. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Congress’s successor a “shill” for anyone, but there is certainly a perception among many that Jewish community organizations have become too cozy with the Conservatives (even though, publicly, such organizations will be non-partisan during the campaign). Andrew is also correct that Congress’s once-broad mandate has narrowed considerably under CIJA, although any number of grassroots organizations have taken up the mantle, and CIJA isn’t entirely limited to issues involving Israel.

My big question for the leaders of these organizations would be: What happens on the day after the election? If the Conservatives retain power, there’s no need to change direction, of course. But in the increasingly likely scenario that the NDP, Liberals or a coalition of the two takes over, how will Jewish organizations react? Is there a political price to be paid for perhaps leaning too far right? Or will everyone—that is, community groups and the new leadership in Ottawa—find it more expedient to bury the hatchet and work together? And if the latter, does that mean Jewish voters will inevitably swing back toward the centre, or even the left?

As for religious issues in Israel, I think we can all agree there is much we’d like to see changed, mainly involving the ultra-Orthodox and other religious extremists. I’d say Israeli and Diaspora Jews are mostly of the same mind here—we all want to see a more pluralistic form of Judaism take root in the Jewish State.

Israelis appear to now be fed up enough with the overarching rule of the ultra-Orthodox when it comes to religious matters that change seems inevitable. In the last few weeks, as an example, an Israeli organization called Tzohar has established its own conversion courts, a direct attack on the country’s rabbinical establishment, and a positive sign for religious freedom. And yet, with religious and ultra-Orthodox parties holding the fate of a shaky Knesset coalition in their hands, there isn’t much Netanyahu can do right now. There may even be some regression in the short term—for example, when it comes to ultra-Orthodox serving in the army.

Marni Soupcoff

Yoni and Andrew’s points about CIJA make me wonder how many Canadian Jews there are like me. I have no affiliations with any Jewish organizations and I actually feel a certain degree of alienation from such groups, maybe because the idea of homogeneity based on a religion I don’t even practice make me uncomfortable. I don’t go to synagogue except when celebrating others’ bar or bat mitzvahs, and I’m married to a non-practicing Roman Catholic.

So why do I even call myself a Jew? If there’s one thing I have internalized, it’s the cultural sense of historical persecution and vulnerability that comes with being Jewish. But maybe it’s that same cultural indoctrination that has led me to reject any efforts, even ostensibly positive ones, to group Jews together as a single people—each of them interchangeable—who will put the issue of Israel above all else and vote as a block? Or maybe it’s just the contrarian individualist in me who resents assumptions being made about my preferences based on one shared characteristic, in the same way it irritates me when people assume they know how I’ll come out on an issue based on my gender?

I have inherited a general and genuine wish for Israel to survive and thrive. I think I would have that wish even if I weren’t a Jew since I feel so strongly about individual freedom, which is in far greater supply in Israel than anywhere else in the Middle East, and since I cannot resist an underdog. And yet, I couldn’t tell you what is going on in the Knesset or even who the key political players are apart from Netanyahu, who consistently makes North American news. There may be a sense in which I am the opposite of the typical Mount Royal voter, and maybe that’s why my reaction to the Adler ad was so actively negative.

Jonathan Kay

Incidentally, by complete coincidence, I spent this morning in a breakfast meeting with a woman who does communications with a venerable and extremely well-known Jewish organization. She was complaining to me that her organization now gets no press because its executive director is scrupulously apolitical, and refuses even to comment on anything with a partisan aspect, such as the Mark Adler controversy. She compared her organization to that of a once similarly situated Toronto-based Jewish organization that, in the years after 9/11, made the strategic decision to go “all in” with the new mood of hawkish partisanship. That fellow gets quoted in the media all the time, and the donations come pouring in.

Yoni, the comparison between the two organizations is quite fascinating—and I was going to pitch this to you as a Canadian Jewish News story. But my pitch dovetailed so eerily with this conversation that I included it in our dialogue.

Joseph Rosen

Marni’s response strikes a chord. More and more Jews (especially younger ones) feel their political positions aren’t represented by mainstream Jewish institutions or Canadian political parties. As Andrew points out, one of the effects of Harper’s “super-Zionization” of Jewish electoral concerns is the vanishing of “a Jewish voice in our politics that cared about human rights, social democracy, a sensitivity to the underclass.” This voice—when applied to Israel and Palestine—is at risk of vanishing from Canadian Jewish institutional life.

I can’t help but think of the Jews being excluded from electoral politics as well as from mainstream Jewish institutions and public debates such as this one. What about those Jews who are prepared to jettison Zionism if it remains deaf to the question of Palestinian suffering? What about the children of survivors who end up becoming pro-Palestinian activists? What about the Jews who think that the Occupation is partly responsible for Palestinian resistance? What about those who think that the settlements are the primary obstacle to peace? These Jews have left the building—like the fifth son who doesn’t even show up to the Seder. If Conservative-voting Jews are trashing Liberal-voting Jews, this is the absurd end game of a bullying that has been going on for a while. Jews who dissent on Zionism or criticize Israel have been ostracized and marginalized in mainstream Jewish institutions for some time now.

I don’t think Harper is a hero for boycotting two UN conferences, for scuttling a G8 memorandum because it referred to 1967 borders, or for attempting to make BDS a hate crime. Some people think the spectre of anti-Semitism is dealt a tremendous blow when we silence criticism of Israel. The blow doesn’t hit Hitler: it hits the Israeli left.

Banging the war gong, shoring up ranks, vilifying dissenters: these are key tactics of anti-democrats, whether in Canada or in Israel. The war on criticism—within Jewish communities themselves—has made Jewish voters look a lot more homogenous than they actually are. Those who disagree often end up leaving the debate, exiting the synagogue, or becoming so frustrated that they stop identifying as Jewish. Homogenizing Jewish positions on Israel—whether within Jewish institutions, or for the purposes of partisan politics—will not help solve Israel’s problems. Diversity is required for adaptability, resilience, and creativity.

Just as Israel is used as a symbol of utopia, the Holocaust is used as shorthand for radical evil. Despite a million examples of name-calling—everyone calls everyone a Nazi in Middle East debates, it’s less Merchant of Venice and more Mel Brooks musical—the analogy never fits. Because it is rare, in history, for political conflicts to be as clear cut as in the Holocaust: where the perpetrator was entirely guilty and the victims entirely innocent. This is almost never the case—and it certainly is not the case in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The Nazi label can’t be simplistically applied to militant Islam either. Sure, some of them are insanely anti-Semitic—but we can’t understand the production of radical Islam without addressing the complicity of American foreign policy since at least the ’70s. Democracy and radical Islam have been dancing together for decades.

I don’t know if Adler’s use of the Holocaust is cynical. I don’t know if Harper really thinks he’s combatting anti-Semitism when Canada boycotts the UN, or proposes to criminalize BDS. But I do know that we disrespect Holocaust memory when we use it to stifle debate, demonize dissent, and silence criticism. In the words of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi: “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”

Barbara Kay

The Jews who have “left the building” are not being stifled, Joseph. They are on campuses all over America and Canada, as professors who support BDS and Israel Apartheid Week, and as students absorbing the message that Israel is the pariah of the nations. The people who are actually being stifled on campus are Jews who would like to push back against militant anti-Zionism, but are afraid to speak up because of intimidation. A thousand Stephen Harpers would not have the influence on young people that is exerted over them in university by a near-monolithic phalanx of people who hold your opinions.

Marni Soupcoff

The point I was trying to make is that there are some Jews who were never in the building to begin with. They don’t support BDS or Stephen Harper. They’re not stifled. They don’t see “Jewish” issues as central to their identity, even if they retain some of the Jewish appreciation for how quickly one can become persecuted and relegated to being a member of group with no regard to his individuality.

Jonathan Kay

I want to bring this correspondence toward some kind of conclusion by asking a question: What responsibility do we have, as Jews and journalists, to try to guide the dialogue within our community in a more productive way? As the editor of a Jewish newspaper, Yoni deals with this question every day. But it is something I think about, too.

Since I am asking you for ideas about constructive debate, here are mine. Not quite coincidentally, they resemble the ground rules that I circulated informally before we began this discussion:

  1. Don’t use political swear words like “useful idiot” or “imperialist.” Yes we’ve all used them in the past, including me. But let’s just stop doing it. The only people who appreciate it are the people who already 100 percent agree with their own position.
  2. The next time you feel that urge to mass forward some article that you agree with, and that states your opinion in an extremely aggressive manner, think twice. Does the rhetoric in that article make it at all likely that anybody reading it will think more carefully about the underlying subject? Or are you just engaging in a process of tribal bonding with people who already agree with you? It is usually more constructive to describe your opinions in your own words, rather than rely on the rhetoric of others.
  3. Whenever you hear anybody describe any group—Muslims, liberals, conservatives, anything—in a monolithically hateful way that, if applied to Jews would be considered anti-Semitic, mention it to them.

Before I sign off, and leave the last word to the rest of you, I want to quote to you from an email I recently got from a Jewish lawyer—a man I have known for twenty years. We once were friends, but now, not so much, because . . . well, this response to my tweets about Mark Adler says it all:

The Jewish community is under siege—in the world outside North America and on campuses in North America itself (and in Obama’s circles). If you are short on info, I can send an endless stream of reports on this tragic development[.] For ANY Jew ANYWHERE to throw oil on this exploding spew of hatred is (and I’ll say this gently) infuriating to behold. So [Mark] Adler did a stupid thing. Did he kill somebody? For this, we should have more hateful vitriol visited upon us [Jews]?

At this point, my friendship with this person is effectively over. And I’m guessing this sort of experience has been duplicated many thousands of times over among Jews all across Canada. It makes me sad, but it also makes me want to try to fix this poisonous rift in the community.

Yoni Goldstein

For me, it’s not so much about lowering the temperature. I much prefer having community squabbles out in the open—I think that’s what healthy communities do. And the truth is, most Jewish Canadians I know are more than capable of engaging in healthy debate.

Still, there are some very loud, mostly angry voices on the fringes, and the tone of debate is becoming more vicious, and more personal. I think it’s important for Jewish journalists to document that whenever they see it, so people know what’s out there. And you hope that when you do it, people realize they have to work together to keep the extreme opinions from gaining momentum.

Barbara Kay

Sadly, poisonous rifts amongst Jews are a fact of Jewish life and have always been, especially during those periods when Israel has been a sovereign nation (see under Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes). Communist Jews v. capitalist Jews, Zionist v. anti-Zionist, religious v. secular. Civility has never been our strong suit in any of these internal debates.

We’re a stiff-necked people, and historically well-trained for disputatious colloquy. Calling out fellow Jews for perceived faults, loud and publicly, is our prophetic legacy and therefore our idea of duty, not to mention fun. Even anti-Zionist Jews think they’re following the precept: “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue” and helping to “Let justice roll down like a mighty stream.” We just have different ideas of what constitutes justice, and fight like pit bulls for our own position (you knew I’d get pit bulls in there somehow).

In summing up Jews’ tendency to no-holds-barred debate, which makes laid-back, assimilated Jews uncomfortable (I’m lookin’ at you, Dear Leader), I don’t think I can improve on what I wrote as a postscript to my cultural memoir, Acknowledgements: For me writing is not work. But it isn’t quite play either—or not play as it is perceived by non-Jews. Jews are not a spontaneously lighthearted people; we can appear lighthearted, but we work at it. Until the last few hundred years, the whole idea of play—exercising one’s body or mind for pleasure, “fun,” or mere aesthetic gratification—was looked down on by Jews as the mark of people who were neither serious nor moral. Spontaneous play, organized sport—these are Hellenist inventions, eagerly snapped up by Christians—that completely bypassed Jews (and Jews it).

From the Enlightenment on, we Jews have naturally wanted to “play” like everyone else. But it still doesn’t come spontaneously to many of us. (Our first novelist, Shalom Aleichem, evoked laughter that bled; our most artful modern novelists and entertainers—Bellow, Roth, Chabon; Woody Allen and Larry David—are steeped in mordant, moralistic angst.) As a consequence, when we modern Jews do engage in play, we cannot “just” play; we take play as seriously as we take everything else in life (this point was made to perfection in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire). We try, but we don’t really understand activities that are ends in themselves. Even when we choose to be funny, it is humour with the bite of moral judgment or self-loathing.

Above all, we’re not used to playfulness when we argue. Ideas are not something we juggle with for the entertainment or mere admiration of others. We don’t boast the crystalline sparkle of an Oscar Wilde or a William F. Buckley. We take pride in the gleaming tungsten of Spinoza and Norman Podhoretz. Ideas are not just important to us, as they are to others. They are a matter of life and death. We have been tolerated because of ideas, hated because of ideas, and decimated because of ideas. (We still await the idea that will make us lovable.)

So argumentation is existentially serious work for us, not a test of acumen or a “gotcha” political game. After 3,000 years of continuous intellectual vigour and an equally long tradition of internal dissent over our destiny, we are trained to go for the jugular in debate. Our style is typically confident and aggressive, even belligerent. We seethe with special contempt for fellow Jews who disagree with us. Forbidden to use physical violence against them, we have become expert in savage internecine denunciation.

I do not think I have the responsibility to change that, even though I am sure it is off-putting to observers, and could not even if I wanted to. There is just too much at stake.

Joseph Rosen

Barbara’s earlier response to me provides a good example of how polarization works. She puts me and a whole group of Jews into a tidy and over-simplified box with a well-turned phrase: “a near-monolithic phalanx of people who hold your opinions.” In my time on campus I’ve hung out with many of these people—and debated with them extensively. It’s a diverse group with, yes, a couple of angry extremists who sometimes yell louder than others. Painting my “phalanx” as a set of censorious aggressors enables her to avoid addressing any real questions—like whether the settlements are in fact a primary obstacle to peace, and hence whether Harper’s support for them works against the possibility of peace. In this, Barbara’s tactics perfectly replicate those of the most extreme left on campus: they too will put all Zionists in a tiny box, over-simplify their position, and refuse to address their questions and concerns. Each side throws up it hands and says the other side is unreasoned and ill-intentioned. The rhetorical battle over Israel is not a healthy example of the old joke: “ten Jews, twelve opinions.” Polarization reduces the plurality of voices, deadens the discussion, and discourages new voices from joining.

To guide our conversation in a productive way today, we need to take a break from the combative and pugilistic model of dialogue. Sure, Jews have argued for hundreds of years—it’s in our culture, and well recorded in the Talmud. The Rabbis always debated respectfully—and they felt that the future of the universe depended on their interpretations. Even ideas that are proven wrong are documented, and considered to be worthy of future reflection. Beit Shammai, a school of interpreters who follow one Rabbi, is consistently proved wrong by Beit Hillel—but mystical Rabbis remind us that in the next reality, the conclusions of Shammai might apply. I propose we take this much less macho and more measured Talmudic approach to our debates.

Concretely, we need to include a wider variety of voices addressing more nuanced questions. One thing I often see in the media: one lefty is set up in opposition to one righty, and the two of them immediately fall back into their clichéd corners. The right-wing Zionist yells about Islamic fundamentalism, the lefty Jew yells about the Occupation and Palestinian human rights. Let’s undo the polarization that makes these positions appear monolithic. Let’s create forums for the “left” to debate BDS or find real responses to militant Islam. Let’s create situations where the “right” addresses the problem of the settlements or looks for alternatives to Israeli human rights violations. Intelligent, nuanced debates among people with closer positions is more useful than mud-slinging. In my experience, talking with Palestinians has been illuminating; seeing things from their perspectives has helped me to perceive new nuances. So let’s invite more Palestinians to engage in these conversations. Rather than make monoliths of our opponents, let’s investigate the diversity that might produce new questions and new solutions. Let’s keep Beit Shammai in the game.

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