Much of our attention during the production period for this issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin was focused on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first-ever visit to the State of Israel and the first official visit to Israel by a Canadian prime minister since Jean Chrétien’s trip 14 years ago.
Our My Israel columnist Barbara Crook was part of the 200-plus-person Canadian delegation that accompanied Harper on his tour of Israel, and her reports from Israel for us, some JTA coverage, several official photos from the PMO and from other Ottawa members of the delegation, were posted quickly on the new Bulletin website at www.ottawajewishbulletin.com. It was our first opportunity to use the site to report on a major breaking story as it unfolded and with more content than we could possibly use in the print edition. It was an exciting few days as we took advantage of this new tool to deliver news quickly to the community in a way we’ve not been able to before.
From all accounts, Harper was a huge hit in Israel, earning acclaim from Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum (there were two Arab members of the Knesset who heckled Harper during his speech and then walked out), from much of the Israeli press, and from everyday Israelis (as Barbara notes in her My Israel column on page 21).
All the while, we were also monitoring the mainstream and social media coverage of the Harper trip – particularly the commentaries. Some pundits applauded Harper. Others were highly critical and some, including several commentators generally seen as pro-Israel, felt the trip was too plainly partisan and missed opportunities for Canada to use its friendship to push Israel in areas of disagreement.
Some implied Harper’s support for Israel was simply electioneering in search of the Jewish vote in the next election.
To be sure, Harper and the Conservatives have courted the Jewish vote, just as they’ve courted the vote in other ethnic and religious communities – and just as the other parties have also done so.
Those accusations that Harper’s – and the Conservative Party’s – support of Israel are motivated by a search for the Jewish vote have been circulating for years. I’ve listened to Harper and such ministers as John Baird and Jason Kenney speak about Israel over the years and I’ve no doubt they are absolutely sincere in their support for Israel.
And the Jewish vote is only concentrated enough in a couple of Toronto-area ridings and one in Montreal that it matters. The Muslim community in Canada, the vast majority of which is naturally much more sympathetic to the Palestinians than to Israel, is about three times the size of the Jewish community and growing. So, if it was about electioneering rather than principle, Harper’s tilt would be elsewhere.
To be sure, there is also tremendous support for Israel on the Liberal – and even the NDP – bench. For example, I don’t think there’s a parliamentarian anywhere in the world whose record on Israel approaches that of Liberal MP Irwin Cotler.
In his speech to the Knesset, Harper clearly said, “Criticism of Israeli government policy is not in and of itself necessarily anti-Semitic,” before going on to discuss some of the efforts to delegitimize Israel that do cross that line.
And, while Harper would not criticize Israel publicly (just as he did not criticize the Palestinian Authority publicly), he did allude in his joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – which Netanyahu confirmed – that policy differences with the Israeli government on such issues as settlements and occupation were discussed.
Indeed, Harper pointed out that a reiteration of Canadian policy on key issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was publicly posted just before the trip. These are long-standing Canadian policies dating back to long before Harper was in power and can be seen at www.tinyurl.com/Canada-policy-I-P-conflict.
Harper’s visit to Israel and its implications for Canada-Israel relations in the years to come was a time of pride for the Canadian Jewish community. And, despite an ill-conceived comment at the Western Wall by one Conservative MP, it really wasn’t about the 2015 election.