Harper, Israel and Canada’s Jewish community

Guest Opinion By Henry Srebrnik

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian) comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on January 8, 2014
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Parliament Hill, March 2, 2012. Canadian Press photo

On January 20, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will begin a four-day visit to Israel, as well as to Jordan and the Palestinian Territory on the West Bank. When he addresses the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, he will be greeted like a rock star.

Calling Israel “the light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness” at a dinner in his honour hosted by the Jewish National Fund in Toronto in early December, Harper vowed that Canada would always be a friend. “We understand that the future of our country and of our shared civilization depends on the survival and thriving of that free and democratic homeland of the Jewish people in the Middle East.”

Harper is unabashedly pro-Israel and makes no secret of it. In the United Nations and other international bodies, where Israel routinely comes under attack, Canada is arguably its most consistent defender. No country, not even the United States, has been as steadfast a supporter of the Jewish state as Canada has been since 2006, when Harper’s Conservative Party replaced the Liberals in office.

That same year, he supported Israel in its war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. And Canada boycotted the UN’s 2009 Durban II anti-racism conference in South Africa because of its Israel-bashing.

In 2012, Ottawa cut off diplomatic ties with Iran, and it remains “deeply skeptical” of the recently-signed nuclear deal between Iran and the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. “Simply put, Iran has not earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt,” stated Foreign Minister John Baird. Canada will continue to implement tough economic sanctions on the country.

In turn, Harper has earned the gratitude of a large sector of the Canadian Jewish community, in terms of electoral, financial and ideological support. He now has the almost unquestioning backing of most of the Orthodox Jewish community, the fraternal organization B’nai B’rith, and other groups.

This is a remarkable achievement, for a number of reasons.

For most of the 20th century Canada’s Jewish community was solidly Liberal —indeed, at various times even the New Democrats and their predecessor, the CCF, had more support among Jews than did the old Progressive Conservative Party. A Jewish Tory was an oddity.

As well, Harper’s political career began in the early 1990s within the Reform Party, the grassroots populist right-wing movement founded in Alberta — a province geographically and politically alien to most Canadian Jews, the vast majority of whom live in Montreal and Toronto.

Most Jews considered Reform as being, at the very least, antipathetic to Jewish concerns and values, if not (in the views of some) actually anti-Jewish.

But the Reform Party eventually morphed into the Canadian Alliance and then the Conservative Party of Canada, with Harper at the helm. And a most remarkable thing happened: he gained the confidence of Canada’s Jewish community, thanks mainly to his loyalty to Israel during difficult times.

In the May 2011 federal election, an Ipsos Reid exit poll found that among Jewish voters, 52 per cent voted Conservative, compared to 24 per cent who voted Liberal and 16 per cent who voted NDP. This is an astounding turnaround, given the deep historic ties between the Jewish community and the Liberal Party.

In the greater Toronto area riding of Thornhill, where 36.6 per cent of the population is Jewish, the highest in Canada, Conservative Peter Kent beat the Liberal candidate, Karen Mock, by 61.3 per cent to 23.6 per cent. This had been a very safe Liberal seat between 1997 and 2008.

The Montreal riding of Mount Royal, with an electorate that is 36.3 per cent Jewish, has arguably for decades been the most solid Liberal seat in the country; the Liberals have held the riding continuously since 1940. This was former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s own seat between 1965 and 1984; he was a man Montreal’s Jews adored.

Yet former Liberal attorney general and justice minister Irwin Cotler barely hung on to Mount Royal in the last election, beating Conservative challenger Saulie Zajdel with 41.4 per cent of the vote to Zajdel’s 35.6 per cent. Polling there demonstrated that a majority of Jews in the constituency voted Conservative; Cotler himself acknowledged that he didn’t get the support of most Jewish electors and only kept his seat thanks to the non-Jewish vote.

When Cotler had first won the riding in a byelection in 1999 he received 91.9 per cent of the votes cast; the Progressive Conservative candidate obtained less than four per cent.

Of course the Liberal “brand” is not dead yet. The new Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, recently acquired the support of Stephen Bronfman as the party’s chief fundraiser. Bronfman is a scion of the “first family” of Canadian Jewry — he is a grandson of Sam Bronfman, who built the Seagram liquor empire.

Montreal’s Jews, with their fear of Quebec separatism, remain more loyal to the party of Pierre Trudeau than do their counterparts elsewhere.

But now it will be the Liberals, not the Conservatives, who will have to fight all the harder if they wish to regain the Jewish vote.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.