I have contributed, along with 35 other writers and researchers, to a book called The Harper Record 2008 – 2015. It is a project of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. My chapter is called: White Hats, black hats, the Harper government’s policy toward Israel. As you will see I draw the title from a simplistic comment made by former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird (remember him?) I am providing here the introductory and concluding segments of the chapter. Continue reading White hats, black hats: The Harper government’s policy toward Israel
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.
Theologian Hans Kung once said that there will be no peace among nations until there is peace among the world’s religions and there will be no peace without dialogue. The three Abrahamic faith groups in Ottawa – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – have taken that advice to heart.
On November 10, 2013 the three groups will co-host a one-day colloquium at Carleton University in Ottawa. The theme to be addressed is: How can one be a person of faith in the 21st century in Canada? (By way of transparency: I am involved in the organization of this event).
“We want to fill the hall,” says David Lee, who broached the idea of such an event. Mr. Lee is chair of the 50th anniversary committee of the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality (OSTS). “We want to draw upon the experience and wisdom of the three faith traditions to address key issues going forward, regarding future possibilities and challenges for persons of faith in Canada.”
Mr. Lee says that OSTS approached the Jewish and Muslim communities about the idea and the response was encouraging. “People there were enthusiastic about holding an inter-religious event of this kind. There is a great deal of mutual respect among us.” Continue reading Christians, Jews, Muslims plan Ottawa colloquium
My wife Martha and I spent September 2012 in Europe with about 10 days of that time in Berlin. We rented a small apartment in an area called Scheunenviertel not far from the city centre. We discovered that this neighbourhood had been a centre of Jewish population in the city prior to the Second World War. We were just a few blocks from the gold-domed Neue Synagoge, which had been inaugurated in 1866, destroyed by allied bombing in 1943, and later rebuilt as a museum that opened in 1995. There were an estimated 560,000 Jews in Germany (160,000 of them in Berlin) when Hitler came to power in 1933. Most were either driven into exile or killed. Today there are 100,000 Jews in the country, about 10,000 in Berlin. Continue reading Stolpersteine commemorates Jewish victims
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
Although I have attended Remembrance Day ceremonies at the National War Memorial in Ottawa in the past, in 2009 I decided to support a smaller event whose theme was peace and reconciliation. On November 10 I was one of about three hundred people who heard an agonizingly sad but ultimately hopeful speech by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. He is a Palestinian paediatric physician and peace advocate whose house in Gaza was struck by Israeli tank shell on January 16, 2009.
Stephen 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.
On day 12 of the federal election campaign Stephen Harper was in Markham, Ontario wooing immigrant voters. That same evening in Ottawa several hundred people gathered at a church called the Peace Tower on Bronson Avenue not far from Parliament Hill. There they pledged fealty to the state of Israel and praised Stephen Harper as that country’s Canadian benefactor. The event, called Canada Celebrates Israel, was one of four that occurred in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver within a few days in early April. The rallies featured three Israeli politicians who are members of the Israeli Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, as well as a cast of fundamentalist Christians from Canada. The four events received virtually no coverage in the mainstream media but an Ottawa-based student newspaper did a look-ahead piece in March. In that story one of the tour’s organizers said it was an outreach effort to Jewish and Christian communities to show support for Israel, but it certainly was not political.
Perhaps. But the Conservatives happened to be well represented. Jim Abbott brought greetings on behalf of the federal government. Abbott was the longtime Reform, Canadian Alliance and later Conservative MP for Kootenay-Columbia but has chosen not to run again in the 2011 election. Stockwell Day, the recently retired minister of the Treasury Board, had been billed as a guest speaker at the Ottawa event, but instead he provided a message on videotape. Day was available in person at the Canada Celebrates Israel event in Montreal on the previous evening. The Canadian Jewish News reported on it and described Day as giving “a strongly pro-Israel speech” which earned him a standing ovation. The newspaper described part of his speech as follows: “Day earned wide applause when he said Israel, as a Jewish state, has ‘an aboriginal right to exist’ and that the Hebrew scriptures, written as far back as 1,000 years BCE, provide historically accurate evidence of the Jewish presence in what is now Israel.” Continue reading Canada celebrates Israel: Christian Zionism and the election