Stephen Harper in Israel, politics and flawed principle

Stephen Harper addresses Israeli Knesset
Stephen Harper addresses Israeli Knesset

Stephen Harper has returned from a feel-good trip to Israel on which he was accompanied by an entourage of 208 people, largely at government expense — cabinet ministers, MPs, Senators, rabbis, officials from Jewish groups,  evangelical Christians, business people and various others. There has been much speculation about whether this was a trip based on politics or principle. The answer is both – politics as usual and deeply flawed principle.

The political dimension was caught perfectly in comments by Toronto area MP Mark Adler, who was desperate to push through security so that he could have a photo opportunity with Harper at Old Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Adler was heard on tape begging a Harper aid to let him get close to the prime minister. “This, it’s the re-election,” said Adler whose constituency contains a significant number of Jewish voters. “This is the million-dollar shot.” Eventually his wish was granted.

The Harper coalition

The Harper entourage was the largest such travelling road show that anyone can remember. The group nicely reflects core elements of the coalition that Harper has built with the intention of placing him in power and keeping him there. Key to the religious wing of that coalition is a collection of socially conservative evangelicals, Jews and conservative Catholics. Progressive Jews and Catholics and mainline Protestants were not represented on the junket.  It is well worth noting that groups such as Independent Jewish Voices were vocal in their criticism of the way in which the trip was organized and  executed.

Political level

At the political level, Harper was accompanied by six cabinet ministers including John Baird and Jason Kenney both hawkish supporters of the Israeli government. Among the MPs on the junket was B.C.’s James Lunney, past chairman of the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group. Lunney has travelled to Israel frequently and in an OP Ed in the Jerusalem Post in October 2013, he called for re-examining the two-state solution which has long been the cornerstone of peace negotiations in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Lunney described this policy process as akin to “trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole” – even though a two-state solution is official Canadian government policy. In a classic blame-the-victim moment, Lunney wrote that Israel lives with its neighbours in peace and he challenged the Palestinian authority to do the same.

Stockwell Day and his wife Valorie were also in Harper’s entourage. Day, another ardent supporter of Israel, was a guest speaker at a Canada Celebrates Israel event held during the 2011 federal election campaign. He was quoted at that time by the Canadian Jewish News as saying that Israel, as a Jewish state has “an aboriginal right to exist.” Most of us in Canada believe that Israel does indeed have a right to exist but it is ironic that the Canadian Alliance, which Day once led, contained MPs who did not believe that Canadian aboriginals have such rights in their homeland.

Jewish groups

The Israel trip also included 21 rabbis. It is difficult to imagine any Canadian prime minister taking along that number of Catholic bishops and priests on a visit to Rome to see the pope.

Frank Dimant, the CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, was listed on the tour. Under Dimant’s leadership B’nai Brith has developed close and supportive ties to Conservatives and the Christian right. Also present were officials from the Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA). That organization has replaced the 90-year-old Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), which was dissolved amid bitter recriminations in 2011. The CJC was liberal and non-partisan while CIJA, as its name implies, is essentially a single-issue organization created to support Israel, and has close ties to the Conservatives.

Julius Suraski, the events coordinator for the Jewish Defence League (JDL) of Canada, was listed as being in the prime minister’s accompanying party as well. The JDL was created in the U.S. in 1968 with the self-described purpose of protecting Jews from anti-Semitism. The American group was classified as “a right-wing terrorist group” by the FBI in 2001 and the JDL’s sister movements in Israel were both outlawed as terrorist organizations posing a threat to state security.

Evangelical representation

There was also broad representation from the evangelical Christian community, including the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and the Christian Missionary and Alliance Church, of which Harper is a member. Also present were representatives of Crossroads Christian Communications, a media and international development organization, The Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada, and The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.  Finally, there was the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem — Canada, which is not really an embassy at all but a conservative Christian group whose main reason for being is to provide support for Israel.

A lone Catholic cleric

Father Raymond De Souza, a Roman Catholic priest, was also on the plane. He is a frequent guest at Conservative-sponsored events on Parliament Hill and elsewhere, and is a regular columnist for the National Post. De Souza has used his column to describe his friendship and social connections to Jason Kenney and John Baird, and he frequently eulogizes the Conservatives. It appears that De Souza was the lone Catholic cleric on the trip. Was he representing the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, or was his bishop perhaps allowing him to freelance?

Eulogizing Israel

Harper used every opportunity on his trip to eulogize Israel and to speak darkly about some of its Arab neighbours. Israel, he said, is a close friend, a beacon for democracy, a Jewish homeland for people who had been long persecuted. “Through fire and water, Canada will stand with you,” he said. He also resurrected the canard that those who criticize Israeli government policies are anti-Semitic.

There are many impressive things about Israel but Harper is completely ignoring recent history. As he knows, and his entourage would as well, the state of Israel was created by intimidation,  force, and at times through terrorism perpetrated by Jewish paramilitary groups such as Irgun. The Palestinians had nothing to do with the Holocaust perpetrated in Europe but it was they who were forcibly displaced when the state of Israel came into being in 1948. The well-known British writer William Dalrymple says that when Israel was created, 700,000 Palestinians (Muslim and Christian) were driven from their homes and fields. The number of their descendants has grown into millions over the decades, many of them living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Following the 1967 war, Israel occupied territories that it has never restored and the United Nations and most of the world community considers that occupation to be illegal. The Israeli government has brazenly pursued a policy of encouraging the building of Jewish settlements on that illegally occupied land, dispossessing the existing occupants. While in Israel, Harper repeatedly refused to voice any criticism of a settlement policy that, on paper, Canada opposes.

Christian Zionism

Dow Marmur, rabbi emeritus at a Toronto synagogue, wrote in the Toronto Star during the trip that, “Stephen Harper is proof that you don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist.” Marmur continued, “[Harper’s] Zionism seems to be rooted in his Christian faith.” The rabbi said that Christian Zionists “believe that Jesus’ second coming is contingent upon the Jews returning to their homeland.” In other words, Christian Zionists believe the imposition of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1948 fulfils a biblical prophecy.

I have always believed that Harper’s policy regarding Israel was driven by domestic Canadian politics but it appears that for him this is also a matter of deep, but mistaken principle. Our prime minister is a Christian Zionist.



Reconsidering liberal Christianity

Rev. J.S. Woodsworth  Liberal Protestantism revisited
Rev. J.S. Woodsworth
Liberal Protestantism revisited

I read in the New York Times recently about an increasing attention being paid by American academic researchers to the history of liberal Christianity. The article says that in the U.S. the dominant story for decades has been about the rise of evangelical Christians. The Times reports that decades ago evangelicals “began asserting their power and identity, ultimately routing their more liberal mainline Protestant counterparts in the pews, on the offering plate and at the ballot box.”

The Times says, however, that now “a growing cadre of historians of religion are reconsidering the legacy of those faded establishment Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, tracing their enduring influence on the movements for human rights and racial justice, the growing ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic and even the shaded moral realism of Barack Obama — a liberal Protestant par excellence, some of these academics say.” The Times describes this as a “mainline moment.”

Liberal religion

Historical books with the following titles are making their way onto reading lists: Matthew S. Hedstrom’s Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the 20th Century; Jill K. Gill’s Embattled Ecumenism: The National Council of Churches, the Vietnam War and the Trials of the Protestant Left; and Leigh E. Schmidt’s The Rise of Liberal Religion. This is significant because sooner or later historical research usually finds its way into popular consciousness. Continue reading Reconsidering liberal Christianity

The Blaikie report on faith and politics

Rev. Bill Blaikie
The Blaikie Report

Rev. Bill Blaikie stands tall in the annals of Canadian parliamentarians and it is not only his imposing physical presence that sets him apart. Few MPs have served with equal distinction or for as long in the House of Commons (1979-2008) as the United Church minister from Winnipeg Transcona. And no one among contemporary MPs has been as staunch an advocate for the social gospel – a belief that religious faith can inspire progressive politics. It frustrates Blaikie when many people believe that religious faith, when taken to the public square, is inherently right wing in its political connotations. Even some members of the NDP (whose predecessor, the CCF, was forged in part as a religious movement), believe that religion should not be political and that it is an inherently right wing force. Continue reading The Blaikie report on faith and politics

John Baird talks through his hat on Israel

Canada’s foreign affairs minister was talking through his hat recently in Israel. John Baird was on a state visit and repeated at every opportunity that, “Israel has no greater friend in the world than Canada.” Then he would recount his story about how, as a young Parliamentary assistant working in the office of the Conservative foreign affairs minister in the 1990s, he could not stay quiet during the daily briefings about Israel. “I took a pad of paper and drew a white hat on one side and a black hat on the other. Under the white hat, I wrote ‘Israel’ and under the black, ‘Hezbollah.’” This recreated story, like much of what Minister Baird says, smacks of theatre but lacks the ring of authenticity.  But obviously he believes it will play well back at home, where he hopes that the Harper government will be able to rewrite the traditional playbook on Canada’s role as an honest broker in Middle East diplomacy. Continue reading John Baird talks through his hat on Israel

Index of Wellbeing and the Un-Economy


Jim Wallis

Two recent pieces of information give pause to claims that our economies are serving people well in North America and other countries. Jim Wallis, the American evangelical who has long been involved with a group called Sojourners, writes about an “un-economy” that is “unfair, unsustainable, unstable, and is making many people unhappy.”
Continue reading Index of Wellbeing and the Un-Economy

Election 2011, political and religious polarization

By Dennis Gruending

Jason Kenney and Msgr. Patrick PowersStephen Harper won his long-coveted majority government in the 2011 federal election, receiving just under 40 per cent of the votes cast by the approximately 60 per cent of eligible Canadians who bothered to show up. An exit poll of 36,000 voters conducted by the Ipsos Reid company on May 2 yielded some predictable results based upon the religious affiliation of voters, but it also served up some surprises. One thing to note is that 55 per cent of Protestants voted for the Conservatives, a number far higher than the number of Protestants who supported other parties. This is not a surprise because evangelical Protestants in particular have provided strong support to the Conservatives in a string of elections.

Secondly, the NDP did well among Catholics, winning 39 per cent of their vote, compared to the 30 per cent of Catholics who voted Conservative and 16 per cent who voted Liberal. The NDP vote rose dramatically in Quebec where a large percentage of people identify as Catholics even if they seldom attend religious services. It is highly likely that those people were voting primarily as Quebecois who were not impressed by what they saw in the Conservative, Liberal or Bloc Quebecois parties. It is unlikely in this case that they were voting based on strongly held religious preferences.

Continue reading Election 2011, political and religious polarization

Reginald Bibby, Beyond the Gods and Back

By Dennis Gruending

Reginald Bibby (Art Babych Photo)Sociologist Reginald Bibby is probably Canada’s closest observer of religious trends. He has been polling on religious practices and attitudes since 1975 and has placed the numbers into context in several books beginning with Fragmented Gods in 1987. Bibby has just released another book called Beyond the Gods and Back, and he spoke about it recently at an Anglican cathedral in Ottawa.

Bibby says that for many years he accepted the secularization thesis commonly proposed by most sociologists and researchers. In its most simple terms, Bibby says, “secularization refers to the decline in the influence of organized religion.” There are a variety of ways to track this situation but the one most often used is the frequency of attendance at religious services. Using Gallup Poll results from 1957, and later his own survey data, Bibby found that weekly church attendance in Canada fell precipitously among the population from 53% in 1957 to 24% in 1990.

Continue reading Reginald Bibby, Beyond the Gods and Back

Demographic winter and the religious right

By Dennis Gruending nonie_darwish_250.jpgRecently I received an email message urging me to read and then pass it along if I want to save Western civilization. The subject line said: Joys of A Muslim Woman: A MUST READ. Actually, it was not about joy at all but was an alarmist rant against Muslims. It was also an example of a recent fetish about “demographic winter”, which has become a favourite preoccupation with the religious right in the United States and to some extent in Canada. The message that I received provides material drawn from an author named Nonie Darwish.  She is of Egyptian heritage and her father was a senior officer in the Egyptian army until the Israelis killed him in 1956. Nonie moved to the U.S. in 1978 and became an evangelical Christian. She has written several books and has become prominent on the right wing lecture circuit and media. She is also founder of a group called Arabs For Israel and director of another called Former Muslims United.

One of Darwish’s books is called Cruel and Unusual Punishment:The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law. Her American publisher describes it as “a wake up call to the Western world.” The book blurb continues as follows: “Nonie Darwish presents an insider’s look at sharia and examines how radical Muslim laws are destroying the Western world from within . . . Heed this warning: sharia law is attempting to infiltrate Western culture and destroy democracy.” The viral message I received contained much the same admonition. Continue reading Demographic winter and the religious right