In recent years, the Canada-Israel relationship has grown in prominence – due largely to the widening recognition that Canada has emerged as a key ally of the Jewish state. From supporting Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, opposing the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral bid for statehood, or on a myriad of UN votes, Canada has taken a principled stand on a range of key issues. At various international fora – including the G-8, G-20, and Durban Review Conference – Canada has demonstrated particular leadership. The resulting curiosity I’ve encountered with colleagues from pro-Israel groups around the world invariably leads to the question: Why Canada?
On this point there has been much speculation, to various degrees of accuracy, both in Canada and elsewhere. For the sake of clarity, and to dispel any myths, I offer three distinct factors that help explain why Canada has demonstrated an increased understanding of Israel and the challenges facing the Jewish state.
1. The Canadian Jewish community is relatively large, engaged, and has an impact beyond its numbers.
Canada’s Jewish community, estimated at some 385,000, is the third largest in the Diaspora. Our historic roots are longstanding and pre-date the country’s founding, but the establishment of sizeable Jewish communities in Canada began much later than our southern neighbour. While the United States saw the arrival of German Jewry in the early 19th Century, Canadian Jewry saw no equivalent cohort. It did experience large waves of Eastern European Jewry and Sephardic Jewry in the early- and mid-20th Century, respectively. In general, Canadian Jews are one generation closer to their immigrant forebears than are American Jews. It is also worth noting the significant influx of refugees following the Shoah, with Montreal alone becoming home to more survivors than anywhere in the world outside Israel and New York.
This history has a profound impact on Canada’s Jewish community today – not the least of which is the low rate of assimilation (relative to the United States). It has also contributed to the development of a brand of Canadian Zionism that is particularly activist, and even dynamic. As one telling indicator, it is estimated that two-thirds of Canadian Jews have visited Israel compared to only one-third of American Jews (according to Daniel Gordis).
The passion of Canadian Jews for Israel has translated into political activism. Keep in mind that, in federal politics, donors are restricted to giving a little more than one thousand dollars. Corporations, unions, and other organizations cannot legally donate a single cent. The notion of Jewish financial influence in politics, an idea often sourced in Antisemitism, simply has no real bearing on the electoral process. Instead, Jews are increasingly focused on direct involvement in campaigns and public office, as volunteers, interns, or employed staff. Needless to say most of those involved are motivated by a range of issues, Israel among them – but suffice to say that virtually all identify with some form of Zionism.
This is to speak only of disproportionately high levels of civic engagement among Canadian Jews. The strong and important support for Israel found in greater Canadian society, including among various Christian groups, represents an even broader pool of activists – one that has been cultivated by the core Jewish pro-Israel community.
2. The principled underpinnings of support for Israel are broad and transcend party lines.
There is a widespread assumption that non-Jewish politicians – especially those in right-of-centre parties – are motivated by an Evangelical worldview that dictates support for Israel. True as that may be for some, it sufficiently explains only a fraction of support for Israel in Canadian politics.
It fails to reflect the many Conservative cabinet ministers and Members of Parliament who are not overtly religious, but have been vocal in their support for Israel. Foreign Minister John Baird, whose photo was plastered across Israeli media during his official visit to Jerusalem earlier this year, is just one of many examples of this phenomenon.
The idea of theological support for Israel also sheds no light into those individuals across the partisan divide, including prominent Liberals and New Democrats (Social Democrats), who have been strong friends of Israel and the Jewish community. This wide-ranging group extends beyond the centre of the spectrum well into the Left, including the former leader of the Bloc Québécois (Quebec Separatist party) and the former leader of the New Democrats (Jack Layton, who passed away last year). Recently, the New Democrats selected Thomas Mulcair as their new leader (and Leader of the Opposition) – who has been viciously attacked by anti-Zionists for his support for Israel. That anti-Israel activists were utterly unable to find a sizeable pool of sympathetic votes inside Canada’s historic party of the social democrat Left is a point that should not be lost on readers.
Indeed, while many of my colleagues abroad have noticed that Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives have been particularly supportive, few recognize just how much parties on the Centre-Left in Canada have shown a warm, even remarkable understanding of Israel. The challenge of consistent hostility toward Israel among the mainstream political Left in Europe has simply failed to translate across the Atlantic – and this is an important factor in understanding Canada.
3. The Canadian media and public have a more balanced centre of gravity than those in other countries.
A January poll released by the firm Environics revealed that by a two-to-one margin, Canadians consider the Harper government’s policy on the Middle East “balanced” rather than “too pro-Israeli”. This is consistent with the fact that polling numbers typically show Canada falling somewhere between those found in the United States and Europe. While we do not generally rise to the levels of enthusiasm found among Americans, Canadians do not report the same levels of negativity – even hostility – toward Israel as Europeans.
This balance is generally reflected in Canada’s mainstream media. National television and newspaper outlets occupy a broad range on the political spectrum, making for refreshing diversity on a plethora of domestic and foreign issues. Generally speaking, for every commentator with an ideological axe to grind against Israel, there exists at least one professional counterpart who openly expresses sympathy for the Jewish state. Whether it’s to be found in human interest stories profiling Israel’s humanitarian work abroad or in business pieces applauding Tel Aviv as a hub of creativity, there is substantial admiration for Israel among significant elements of Canada’s media.
Indeed, just as at the government level, the vast majority of media in Canada diligently work to provide a balance of voices and factual context when reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are exceptions, but, as mentioned, those exceptions are usually counterbalanced by supportive media voices. The resulting body of coverage typically reflects a tone of measure and complexity that is sadly drowned out among influential circles in Europe – due to the caustic effect of anti-Israel rhetoric that, despite its presence, has largely failed to resonate with mainstream Canadian influencers.
All of this is to speak only in terms of generalizations, and there are always outliers to the rule. There’s no doubt a range of factors at play in Canada, but one thing is certain. The level of understanding for Israel shown by the Canadian government is largely reflective of a committed Jewish community, broad cross-party political support, and a balanced centre of gravity among average Canadians and the media they trust.