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Was a Toronto byelection a wake-up call on Trudeau’s approach to antisemitism?

OTTAWA — An organizer who encouraged Jewish residents to vote against the Liberals in this week’s Toronto byelection suggests a rise in antisemitism motivated many to show up at the polls.

Andrew Kirsch, the riding’s Progressive Conservative candidate in the 2018 provincial election, helped launch the Jewish Ally group earlier this year in anticipation of Monday’s vote.

The close race ended with the Liberals suffering a stunning loss and the Tories’ Don Stewart winning by nearly 600 votes.

Kirsch says members of the Jewish community feel “abandoned” by the governing Liberals, and he believes that played a bigger role in the results than any views about the Israel-Hamas war itself.

Both Liberals and Conservatives have acknowledged that the crisis in the Middle East was a factor in a riding where one in six residents identifies as Jewish.

During the campaign, the Tories made a direct appeal to the Jewish community.

Households received a letter signed by Melissa Lantsman, a deputy leader for the party and a Toronto-area MP who is Jewish herself.

It said that voters should choose the Conservative candidate as a way to call out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s alleged “betrayal.”

Kirsch’s group, which registered as the lone third party in the race, ran advertising in the area and tried to raise awareness about the fact a summer byelection was even happening.

Like the Conservative party, it asked Jewish voters to send Trudeau a message.

Kirsch said it’s important for people to understand that members of the Jewish community have a variety of views towards Israel and the conflict.

But there are throughlines, he suggested.

“What really had a broader resonance was this rise of antisemitism we have seen and the government’s response,” he said.

“We can disagree on how the conflict is being carried out, on Israel, on the government, on all these things.”

Residents have seen violence at community hubs, Kirsch noted, including a shooting at a Jewish school. And they are watching as similar acts unfold elsewhere in the country, including in other major cities like Montreal.

The downtown riding has also played host to ongoing protests over the war, added Kirsch.

“We can debate the lawful definitions of hate, but what we can’t debate is that it’s intimidating for the Jewish community, and I think that we, the Jewish community, did not feel supported in the way that they felt they should have been from this government.”

Talia Klein Leighton, a spokesperson for Canadian Women Against Antisemitism, said there is more to interpret from the results than a possibility that some Jewish voters wished to support Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre for his outspoken support of Israel.

Some people who historically voted Liberal may have stayed home, she said, because of perceived inaction on the part of the government.

“There are conservative Jews, and there are liberal Jews. I do think that this election is suggesting that that is changing,” she said.

Sue Goldstein, a resident who’s involved with Independent Jewish Voices Canada organization, questioned the notion that the byelection result could be explained by a shift of Jewish voters towards the Conservatives.

She noted that, in general, many people in the riding have been frustrated by economic concerns.

Still, she said she thinks many Jewish people with progressive views have been disappointed in the government’s response to the conflict.

Klein Leighton, who used to live in the riding, likewise said she’s spoken with people who are struggling to continue their longtime support for the Liberals because of what they describe as a “lukewarm” response to antisemitism.

The prime minister and other senior Liberals have repeatedly spoken out against a rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia during the conflict.

It stood out, Klein Leighton said, when Trudeau pronounced last month that “Zionism is not a dirty word.”

Still, many people see his response largely as “lip service,” she said.

Trudeau has tried striking a nuanced stance on the war that is playing out in the Gaza Strip.

The war was triggered by a Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 that killed some 1,200 people, with militants abducting about 250 others. Israeli ground offensives and bombardments have killed more than 37,600 people in Hamas-controlled Gaza, according to the territory’s health ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians in its count.

The Toronto-St. Paul’s byelection was the first federal contest since the war began. The riding, which has the country’s fifth-highest percentage of Jewish voters, has been vacant since longtime MP Carolyn Bennett resigned in January.

The Liberal MPs for several other ridings with high Jewish representation have been some of the most vocal during the conflict.

They include former cabinet minister Marco Mendicino and current minister Ya’ara Saks, who represent Toronto ridings Eglinton-Lawrence and York Centre, respectively, along with Ben Carr, the MP for Winnipeg-South Centre.

Anthony Housefather, the Liberal MP for Montreal’s Mount Royal, mused about quitting his party over government MPs’ support for an amended NDP motion that called for Canada to stop “arms exports” to Israel.

The Conservatives have their eye on the riding. It was Poilievre’s first stop on a Quebec tour after the House of Commons rose for a summer break last week.

He appeared on stage at a rally with the party’s candidate, Neil Oberman, a lawyer who represented Jewish students in a court case against the pro-Palestinian encampment at McGill University.

Klein Leighton said she’s nonpartisan and believes it’s important that voices like Housefather’s continue to remain in the Liberal party “even if they find themselves in the opposition.”

But she suggested it may be hard for some people in the Jewish community to continue supporting the Liberals under current leadership.

“Maybe this is a wake-up call.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26, 2024.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press