Canada: Is it still ‘good for the Jews’?

Last week began with a “tough message” for Israel from the Trudeau government and ended with lifting sanctions on Iran.

Israel''s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Canada''s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau [AP]
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau [AP]

Those who grew up after World War II in North America’s Jewish neighbourhoods might be familiar with the expression, “But is it good for the Jews?”

That’s because, post Holocaust, post pogroms, post all the anti-Semitism that propelled Jewish migration to Manhattan, Montreal and Miami, just about any major event, political or otherwise, was being measured by its level of threat to Jews.

Today, despite the apparent rise in anti-Semitism in some corners of Europe, the Jewish people no longer face annihilation. And so the question has become ironic, sort of a joke, something to say, half in jest, when evaluating, say, a presidential candidate or political party leader

But, last week in Canada, as a series of events unfolded, the question was heard again.

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It all began on Sunday, January 24, when Stephane Dion, the recently appointed foreign affairs minister, issued a terse statement expressing concern over “the continued violence in Israel and the West Bank”.

Abandoning Israel?

Reiterating Canada’s support for “a two-state solution”, he declared: “Unilateral actions, such as Palestinian initiatives towards statehood in international forums and continued Israeli settlements, are unhelpful and constitute serious obstacles to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.”

Israeli and Canadian Jewish media erupted. Bloggers accused Canada of abandoning Israel. Conservative Senator Linda Frum, sister of former George Bush Jr speechwriter David “Axis of Evil” Frum, even took to Twitter to complain of “moral equivalence“.

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The next day, a Dion spokesperson walked the contentious statement back: “We’re steadfast allies and good friends, and good friends can occasionally deliver tough messages, but it’s by no means to suggest that we’re somehow retreating from any kind of support of Israel.”

Canada's Foreign Minister Stephane Dion [REUTERS] [Reuters]
Canada’s Foreign Minister Stephane Dion [REUTERS] [Reuters]

Not that the original was tough to begin with.

What really made the statement significant is that, 10 days earlier, the Canadian Press published a little-noticed report on a confidential briefing memo to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which stated, “a truce between Israel and Hamas would be in their respective interests”.

Meanwhile last Monday, at Toronto’s York University, Paul Bronfman, a member of one of Canada’s richest Jewish families, complained about a mural in the student centre. It depicts a young man in a keffiyeh emblazoned with a map of Palestine, holding rocks behind his back while watching a bulldozer bearing down on an olive tree and a building.

Denouncing the painting as “anti-Semitic”, Bronfman, whose cousin Paul serves as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief fundraiser, withdrew his financial support when the university refused to take it down.

Denouncing the painting as 'anti-Semitic', Bronfman, whose cousin Paul serves as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief fundraiser, withdrew his financial support when the university refused to take it down.


Lifting sanctions on Iran

Then, on Tuesday, Dion announced that Canada would be lifting sanctions on Iran, a country that the former Stephen Harper Conservative government had designated as a “state sponsor of terrorism”. Calling Harper’s views on Iran “ideological and irrational”, Dion told reporters that not trading with Iran was bad for Canadian businesses such as Montreal’s Bombardier Inc, which last month lost an aerospace contract to its European rival, Airbus.

Finally, on January 27, which was International Holocaust Memorial Day, Trudeau commemorated the Nazi slaughter of 12 million – without ever mentioning Hitler’s efforts to wipe out Europe’s Jews.

So not a good week for Canada’s Jews.

For nearly a decade, former prime minister Stephen Harper was most decidedly “good for the Jews”. He stood foursquare – in his words, “through fire and water” – behind Israel and he marched in step with his counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu. 

“You are a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people,” the Israeli prime minister declared in 2014 when Harper visited Israel, complete with an entourage of 208, including rabbis, Christian evangelical leaders, lobbyists for Israel and even a representative of the Jewish Defense League.

No wonder that, throughout the contentious 2015 federal election campaign that would end with Trudeau’s Liberals vanquishing Harper’s Conservatives, there was much hand-wringing in the Israeli and Canadian Jewish media over whether the change in government would be “good for the Jews“.

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Well, for the first few months it seemed as if it might be. After all, Trudeau had baldly blasted the BDS -Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – movement. He had issued statements all but blaming the bombing of Gaza on the Gazans. And, throughout last year’s bitterly fought election campaign, he spoke at synagogues and Jewish community centres, saying his party “will have Israel’s back – not because it’s in our political interests to do so at home – but because it is the right thing to do”.


And so it came to pass.

Inalienable rights

Right after the election, Trudeau took a congratulatory call from Netanyahu.

In November, Canada voted against UN resolutions promoting “the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people”, including those expressing “grave concern about the extremely detrimental impact of Israeli settlement policies, decisions and activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, including on the contiguity, integrity and viability of the territory”.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses for selfies with workers before he greets refugees from Syria in Toronto [AP]
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses for selfies with workers before he greets refugees from Syria in Toronto [AP]

The two prime ministers would pose together for photos at the Paris climate talks. At the economic summit at Davos last month, Netanyahu announced that the two have “a very, very good relationship“.

But for a brief hiccup last autumn when Dion suggested that Canada would take a more even-handed approach in the Israel-Palestine conflict, acting in its former traditional role as, as one report put it, “honest broker” in the region, all seemed to be peaceful in the Canada-Israel valley.

Now, not so much.

Needless to say, the Conservatives who kept their seats in Canada’s parliament are furiously making the political most of last week’s events. One MP called Dion’s not-so “tough message” statement of last week, “outrageously vague“.

The cancellation of Bronfman’s financial support for York University has once again raised the issue of Jewish students feeling “unsafe” because of campus support for BDS and Israeli Apartheid Week activities.

As for Iran, Israel’s supporters criticise the lifting of sanctions as a sop to big business.

Last, but far from least, Trudeau’s not emphasising the Shoah in his statement commemorating the Holocaust … well, he quickly corrected the record, on Twitter and on the government’s website.

But, in the end, none of these events was particularly bad for Canada’s Jews.

They just weren’t particularly good for Israel. 

Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.