If ever you wanted to read about the difficulties of being a Jewish lefty in Canada (or, for that matter, anywhere in the world) nowadays, I highly recommend reading Joseph Rosen’s piece on the subject (The Israel Taboo: Money and sex aren’t the only thing Canadians won’t talk about), in this month’s Walrus. In it, Rosen outlines the basic problem of reconciling your Zionism (i.e. the belief in the right of diverse Jewish peoples to call Israel their home) with the continued oppression of Palestinian people by the government of Israeli in the name of defending that very state. As Rosen says “My Jewish friends are afraid of my lefty friends and my lefty friends are afraid of my Zionist friends. As a lefty Jew, I’m scared of both.”
As I watched Prime Minister Stephen Harper give an historic speech to the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) last week, I was filled with ambivalence. First, in the spirit of full disclosure, I am Jewish Canadian with close family currently living in Israel. Second, like Rosen, I tend to be on the left of the political spectrum in this country, and largely sympathetic to the aspirations of the Palestinian people to a state of their own.
So why all the cognitive dissonance? After all, wasn’t Harper simply their on a diplomatic mission and addressing his fellow parliamentarians (for the first time in Canadian history, I might add) in Israel?
The conflict stems from what I and many other diaspora Jews (there are apparently 350, 000 of us in Canada, according to the PM’s speech) perceive as Harper’s stance on the geopolitics of the Middle East in general, and on the Israel-Palestinian question in particular. His alignment with, arguably, the most extreme bunch of hawks ever to come to power in Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu, the man that casually referred to our head of government as ‘Stephen’ this past week, and his government, is rightly condemned throughout much of the international community for undermining the peace process, expanding the illegal occupation of the West Bank, violating international human rights laws, both in times of war and peace, and so on.
But this op-ed isn’t so much about the political reality in Israel today, as it is a personal observation of what the Prime Minister’s trip to Israel meant to me. The truth is, many Canadian Jews like me, don’t believe in giving Netanyahu carte blanche and are quite embarrassed when our Prime Minister implies in a speech delivered to the Israeli parliament, that any singling out of Israel for criticism of its questionable policies is tantamount to a ‘new anti-Semitism” or that his government’s support of Israel is not a matter of domestic or international politics, but simply a moral position and that it is ‘right to do so”. The latter was shamelessly contradicted by Conservative MP Mark Adler, who was part of Canada’s official delegation, when he begged to be photographed with the PM at the Wailing Wall as part of his re-election strategy. Or when he makes the historically illiterate statement that Israel has never contributed to the instability in the Middle East (anyone remember Israel’s 1982 invasion of and occupation of Southern Lebanon?).
The question of Israel/Palestine is obviously a sensitive one and we all need to be careful about the ways we discuss it. I hear far too much demonization of the other side in Canada. If we as a country have anything to contribute to a peaceful resolution of this situation, it will first require us to set aside the differences that cause so much strife and vitriol right here in Canada, let alone in the Middle East.
As a Canadian Jew who is generally uncomfortable with the blatant favouritism displayed by the Harper government towards one side of the conflict, at the expense of eventually finding a compromise solution, I cringe whenever friends and family repeat me the hackneyed talking point that Harper is a true friend of Israel. Friendship, in my books, means more than simply going to bat for an ally every time they are in hot water, over some international incident that they played a large part in creating themselves. It means being much more critical when we feel that Israel, and especially the current government, is deliberately making negotiations with Palestine impossible through their excessive demands and statements. It also means being much more encouraging towards the Palestinian people in their diplomatic overtures towards Israel, no matter how tentative such actions maybe, including supporting the legitimate efforts of the Palestinian people to gain greater recognition on the international stage.
So let’s applaud the Prime Minister for finally getting around to visiting the country that he frequently overpraises. But let’s also not be naïve about the influence such a diplomatic mission will have on the peace process. Thanks to Harper’s severely biased pro-Israel rhetoric, it will have precisely zero effect on the ongoing and bogged down negotiations between Israel and Palestine being brokered by the U.S.
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