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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.