Understanding the silence of Canada’s Jewish establishment

Walk with Israel Toronto

Why is Canada’s Jewish establishment almost completely unwilling to criticize Israel?

In “American Jews are loudly protesting Israel’s anti-judiciary law. In Canada — not so much” Andrew Cohen instigated an important discussion. The Ottawa Citizen columnist points out that prominent anti-Palestinian US-based groups such as the Anti–Defamation League, Jewish Federations of North America and Democratic Majority for Israel have criticized the recent judicial reform. Conversely, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center have stayed mum.

In what was probably meant as a rejoinder to Cohen, B’nai Brith senior counsel David Matas and University of Toronto professor Aurel Braun published “Israelis can sort out their legal reform issues on their own”. The Globe and Mail commentary argued that we should criticize enemy (“authoritarian”) states — where we have little influence — but stay mum on judicial reforms partly motivated by the colonial power’s desire to expand its war crimes in the West Bank. Matas and Braun make this argument despite assisting groups that raise massive funds for projects in Israel, which have greatly strengthened the hand of its most supremacist, colonialist, forces.

Cohen highlights an institutional explanation for the US/Canada divide. The director of CIJA’s office in Jerusalem, David Weinberg, supports the judicial reforms, publishing “The overpowerful justice system threatens democracy, Levin will fix it”. More broadly, CIJA was set up a decade ago by half a dozen wealthy individuals to replace the nominally democratic Canadian Jewish Congress. CIJA’s main patron, United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto, is chaired by hard-line former Conservative senator Linda Frum. Another CIJA patron, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, recently fired staff member Maytal Kowalski the day after she called on its CEO to take a stronger stand against the Netanyahu government.

Beyond leadership questions, Canada’s Jewish community is more Zionistic. 80% of adult Canadian Jews have visited Israel, which is twice the US rate. On average they’ve visited five times and one in six have lived there for six months. According to a figure circulated by some in Canadian government circles, 5,000 to 6,000 Canadians currently live in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

There’s double the enrollment rate in private Jewish schools in Canada than the US. Half of Jewish children in Montréal attend Jewish schools and the largest private school in the country is Toronto’s TanenbaumCHAT. These schools generally act as Zionist training grounds.

While 50% of US Jews live in intermarried (or common-law) households, that number is 23% in Canada. Of broad social benefit, intermarriage is inversely associated with individuals feeling a “bond” with Israel.

Canadian Jews are more right-wing in their voting patterns. 75% of US Jews vote Democrat while Canadian Jews increasingly vote Conservative. Home to nearly two thirds of Canadian Jews, the Ontario Conservatives won the provincial ridings with the highest Jewish concentration. Federally, Canadian Jews have supported the Conservatives despite living largely in cities (Toronto and Montréal) that elect few from that party. In the 2011 federal election an Ipsos exit poll found that 52 per cent of Canadian Jews voted Conservative versus 39 per cent of the overall population.(The only riding in greater Montréal that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives even bothered seriously contesting in 2015 was Mount Royal, which has a Jewish plurality.) More recent polling suggests about equal support for the Liberals and Conservatives federally.

There are historical parallels. Elite Canadian Jews, especially after the British empire’s 1917 Balfour declaration, were more active Zionists than their US counterparts. In Canada’s Jews: A People’s Journey Gerald Tulchinsky notes, “The First World War accentuated differences between Canadian and American Jewry. For example, loyalty to Britain’s cause provided Zionists with opportunities to identify their purposes with Britain’s imperial mission.” In Canada, much more than in the US, it was beneficial to one’s standing among the elite to support Zionism. There was no hint of dual loyalty for Canadians who worked to create a Jewish state as it could be part of “British Canadian nationalism.”

Whatever the reasons, Canada’s dominant Jewish organizations have long taken an ‘Israel no matter what’ position. During Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza I wrote “While the JDL [Jewish Defence League] would likely back the complete incineration of Gaza, one wonders just how far the more mainstream groups are willing to go in cheering on Israel’s current onslaught, its third large-scale assault on Gaza in five years. Will the Jewish establishment withdraw support if 2,000 Palestinian are killed? Or is the breakpoint 5,000? Or maybe B’nai B’rith and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs would back the Israeli military all the way to 50,000 dead?”

Even as the colonialist state is increasingly criticized by Zionist groups internationally, ‘Israel no matter what’ Canadian organizations refuse to challenge the extremists running the Israeli government. Rather, they appear pleased, or at least satisfied.

One can only hope that left wing and moderate Jewish Canadians recognize this and respond appropriately. Actions and lack thereof should have consequences.

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