Elizabeth May’s response to Green Party members voting to oppose Canadian support for Israeli colonialism has been wildly anti-democratic. She has not simply disagreed with a majority of members, which could reflect healthy internal processes, but publicly derided the party’s procedures and members’ clearly expressed opinions. After diluting a resolution about revoking the Jewish National Fund of Canada’s charitable status strongly endorsed by members in an online poll, May threatened to resign if the party didn’t organize another vote on a BDS resolution members strongly backed in a pre-convention online poll, convention caucus and full convention vote.
The possibility of the Green Party leader resigning over BDS has thrust the Israel boycott into the news and will turn into a highly fortuitous development for the Palestinian cause if members remain steadfast. But, May’s actions make little sense from a Green perspective.
As Maclean’s magazine pointed out, the party has more to gain by aligning with the growing number of Canadians critical of Ottawa’s support for Israeli colonialism. Only if one believes May could lose her seat in the House of Commons over the matter, which seems improbable, would embracing Palestine solidarity activism be bad electorally.
According to a poll conducted just before Israel killed 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza in 2014, 16% of Canadians sided with Palestine, while 17% sided with Israel. (The rest were undecided.) The percentage of Canadians who sided with Palestine is almost five times the 3.4% of Canadians who voted for the Greens last year. Additionally, the issue drives NDP activists to the party. The Greens have already gained a number of prominent NDP members disenchanted with that party’s support for Israeli violence.
But, even if you disagree with this electoral calculation, May’s reaction still makes little sense from the party’s perspective. Her actions have upset Palestinian sympathizers yet the media storm over the BDS vote makes it hard to imagine anyone mildly sympathetic to Israeli colonialism would vote, let alone campaign, for the Greens even if May succeeds in modifying the party’s support for BDS at a special convention.
Since her actions make little electoral sense, commentators have speculated May is driven by a combination of ego, fear of Jewish Zionist groups’ accusations of anti-Semitism, a desire to join the Liberal cabinet or her establishment foreign-policy outlook. But, the influence of Christian Zionism represents an unexplored variable in May’s position.
A practicing Anglican, May was studying to become a priest until a few years ago. She’s disparaged abortion and questioned whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper was a practicing Christian. “Being a Christian in politics is part of who I am as a person, so I don’t hide it”, May explained to the Anglican Journal in 2013.
In 2013 she praised the Jewish National Fund for “the great work that’s done in making the desert bloom.” While not explicitly Christian Zionist wording, this (anti-ecological) statement echoes its thinking.
While only May knows exactly what drives her thinking/positions, her church has a long history of Zionism, which began as a Christian movement. “Christian proto- Zionists [existed] in England 300 years before modern Jewish Zionism emerged,” notes Evangelics and Israel. Until the mid-1800s Zionism was an almost entirely non-Jewish movement. And yet it was quite active. Between 1796 and 1800 there were at least 50 books published in Europe about the Jews’ return to Palestine. The movement reflected the more literal readings of the Bible that flowed out of the Protestant Reformation.
One of May’s co-religionists Rev. William H. Hechler, chaplain to the British Embassy in Vienna, arranged for Jewish Zionist leader Theodore Herzl to meet Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Ottoman sultan, which then controlled Palestine. Another Anglican, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, came up with the infamous Zionist slogan “a land without people for a people without a land”. He wanted Jews to go to their “rightful home” (Palestine) under a British protectorate. According to a Canadian Jewish News review of Allies for Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism, “The Earl of Shaftesbury was the first millennariast, or restorationist, to blend the biblical interest in Jews and their ancient homeland with the cold realities of [British imperial] foreign policy.” He got Britain’s foreign secretary to appoint the first British consul to Jerusalem in 1839.
A speech in England by Anthony Ashley Cooper in 1839 or 1840 was the first encounter with Zionist thinking for Canada’s leading early proponent of the movement. At the time of Confederation Canada’s preeminent Zionist was Henry Wentworth Monk who briefly studied to become an Anglican minister. In A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada Irving Abella explains: “Henry Wentworth Monk, an eccentric but respected businessman, spent much of his time and money crusading for a Jewish homeland. In the 1870s and 1880s — long before Theodore Herzl, the Austrian founder of [Jewish] Zionism, even thought of a Jewish state — Monk took up a campaign in Canada and England to raise funds to buy land in Palestine for European Jews. In 1881 Monk even proposed setting up a Jewish National Fund. He issued manifestoes, wrote long articles, spoke to assorted meetings and lobbied extensively in England and Canada to realize his dream.” Citing a mix of Christian and pro-British Empire rationale, Monk called on London to establish a “dominion of Israel” similar to the dominion of Canada.
Monk was not alone in Canada. Many public figures, including prime ministers Lester Pearson and Arthur Meighan, expressed Christian Zionist thinking in backing the formation of the Israeli state. The son of a minister, Pearson’s memoirs refer to Israel as “the land of my Sunday School lessons” where he learned that “the Jews belonged in Palestine.”
While Christian Zionism is now associated with right-wingers such as evangelist Charles McVety, who campaigns against sexual education in Ontario schools, Left Christian Zionism has a long history. Future CCF (the NDP’s predecessor) leaders Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles, as well as a number of labour leaders, were members of the Canadian Palestine Committee (CPC), a group of prominent non-Jewish Zionists formed in 1943. (Future external minister Paul Martin Sr. and the premier of Alberta, Ernest C. Manning, were also members). Many CPC members’ Zionism was partly motivated by biblical teachings. Both Knowles and Douglas were Protestant ministers and, as an indication of the extent to which religion shaped Douglas, his main biography is titled Tommy Douglas: The Road to Jerusalem. In 1975, Douglas, the “father of Medicare”, told the Histadrut labour federation: “The main enmity against Israel is that she has been an affront to those nations who do not treat their people and their workers as well as Israel has treated hers.” This speech was made eight years into Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a quarter century after 800,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed in 1947/48.
A decade later Canadian Labour Congress president Dennis McDermott, who referred to himself as a “Catholic Zionist”, denounced a Canadian Senate report that rebuked Israel’s 1982 invasion/occupation of Lebanon and provided mild support for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. McDermott said the 1985 Senate report, which stopped short of calling the PLO the legitimate voice of Palestinians, was an “exercise in bad judgment and, even worse, bad taste.” (A portrait of McDermott hangs in a library named after him at the trade school of the Histadrut.)
Aggressive Christian Zionism still crops up in progressive circles. When I spoke about the Conservatives’ losing their bid for a seat on the UN Security Council to a Council of Canadians meeting in Delta BC, an older woman interrupted me to ask: “are you criticizing Harper’s support for Israel? Doesn’t the Bible say Israel is the Jewish homeland?”
May, of course, would never be so crass. But, she is associated with a religious tradition that has promoted this type of thinking. Recognizing their contribution to Palestinian dispossession, some Christian groups have sought to right a historical wrong by divesting from or boycotting companies enabling Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. Others have directly challenged Christian Zionism.
In 2013 the Anglican Church of Canada committed itself “to explore and challenge theologies and beliefs, such as Christian Zionism, which support the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.” Last year a number of groups organized an important multi-day conference in Vancouver titled “Seeking the Peace of Jerusalem: Overcoming Christian Zionism in the Quest for Justice.”
I can’t say for sure whether Christian Zionism has influenced Elizabeth May’s thinking. But, it’s clear she’s not supporting progressive Anglicans and other Christians reassessing their contribution to Palestinian dispossession.