Jerusalem – It’s an old cliché that sometimes you have to leave your country to truly appreciate it – or at least to realize the special nature of things you take for granted.
So it was for me after witnessing the remarkable response to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first visit to Israel. In fact, it also gave me a greater appreciation of Israel, which has become a second home to me over the past 10 years.
“I feel even more proud to be a Canadian when I see you in this country,” I told the prime minister in our sole encounter, just after he had visited the Kotel.
It was not just experiencing the multiple ovations during Harper’s historic speech in the Knesset, or seeing him receive the key to Israel’s parliament – the first foreign dignitary to be granted this privilege in the history of the state.
Nor was it watching him turn a state dinner – with security so tight that every person at Harper’s table had his or her own scarily stern Israeli bodyguard – into a jam session that had even the most reserved guests singing “Bahmp, bahmp, bahmp” during his rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
No, it was seeing and hearing the reaction of ordinary Israelis, who were so excited to hear that I was Canadian.
“Your prime minister is amazing,” said a clerk at my favourite pen store in Jerusalem’s German Colony.
“How long are they staying? Do you think they will have time to come here?” asked a cashier at the Steimatzky book store in the Mamilla Mall.
It was seeing the entire transcript of his Knesset speech fronting the opinion section of the Jerusalem Post. And it was reading a commentary by veteran Israeli journalist Herb Keinon, who pointed out that, while Harper was not the first visiting world leader to praise Israel’s values of freedom and democracy, he was the first who didn’t feel the political need to balance this praise with criticism of Israel’s policies in the West Bank and the settlements.
“His was not a ‘Yes, but’ speech; his was a ‘Yes, yes’ speech,” Keinon wrote in the Jerusalem Post.
“What a shame, Netanyahu had to be thinking to himself while listening to Harper’s words, delivered without pathos and in a very matter-of-fact and even dry Canadian manner, that there are not more leaders out there like him.
“… No wonder … that most of the rest of the House stood up at the end and gave him a rousing ovation. It’s not every day that Israel, increasingly feeling isolated and alone, hears such words of praise and friendship.”
That doesn’t mean Harper agrees with every decision and policy of the Netanyahu regime. Indeed, he pointed out on more than one occasion that close allies are allowed (and perhaps expected) to have differences.
But, unlike U.S. President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande, Harper had no desire to take Israel to task in order to please her many critics. Nor did he care to curry favour with mainstream Canadian media on the trip, who appeared frustrated by his refusal to be baited into expanding his views on settlement construction and the precise nature of a future Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
“Any attempt to have me, while present in the Middle East, single out the State of Israel for criticism, I will not do,” he said.
Were Harper a silver-tongued orator in the style of former U.S. president Bill Clinton, it would be tempting to dismiss his remarks during his first trip to Israel as a typical politician’s charm offensive.
But, as Keinon noted, Harper does not aim for passion or charisma, although his words are so powerful that an Israeli friend remarked, “We are still waiting for Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] to make a speech like that.”
It’s the very nature of his matter-of-fact style of speaking that makes our prime minister’s message so convincing, at least to those who can overcome hand-wringing and political correctness long enough to focus on the wisdom of embracing the only democracy in the Middle East, even though it is far from perfect.
As Harper said, so simply and yet so powerfully, “Canada supports Israel because it is right to do so.”
Perhaps that’s an old-fashioned concept in a world of moral relativity, but it is somehow very Canadian – at least in the way that I define our national identity.
Barbara Crook paid for her own travel and accommodation during the prime minister’s visit to Israel.