I have been involved in the Jewish community locally, nationally and internationally over the last several years with increasing focus on advocacy and political engagement. As part of this commitment, I attended February’s NDP federal convention in Ottawa where several polarizing policy proposals concerning Israel were debated. I was shocked and deeply troubled by what I saw. At the expense of critical global issues, one-third of the 45 foreign policy proposals focused on the Jewish state and the ensuing discussions often featured abhorrent anti-Israel rhetoric.
This difficult experience reinforced my belief that Canadian Jewry must have a strategic advocacy organization that, despite our internal differences, unites and empowers us to counter such attacks on the Jewish state. After the NDP convention, I am even more certain that the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is that vehicle.
I say “despite our internal differences” because we must be cautious to avoid the echo chamber trap that has seeped into political discourse, including within the Jewish community. We naturally associate with people of similar views and lifestyles. It becomes tempting to conclude that, because one’s peers hold a given view, that must reflect broader community consensus.
Full disclosure: I have volunteered at CIJA for years and about a year ago joined the board of directors. At CIJA, one works with Jews across the religious and political spectra, encountering a vast range of opinion in the community. What I have found is consensus in an Orthodox shul in Thornhill varies sharply from consensus among secular Jewish young professionals in Vancouver, or Sephardim in Montreal, or among Jews in smaller communities such as Ottawa, Saskatoon or Winnipeg.
When it comes to advocacy – whether fighting anti-Semitism and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), advancing social-justice policies or helping resettle African asylum-seekers – we don’t have the luxury of numbers to remain internally divisive. We can’t afford the comfort of our own echo chambers, blithely criticizing others whose views don’t conform to our own.
CIJA strives to play a unifying role by representing the broad mainstream of Canadian Jewish opinion by emphasizing points of consensus upon which moderate Left and Right can agree. CIJA strives to dismantle echo chambers that divide and polarize our community. Consensus is reached through annual grassroots consultations and surveys, as well as hundreds of discussions among CIJA volunteers and staff with thousands of constituents. No less important is guidance from our federation partners, which are, in turn, informed by discussions with their local constituents.
Given the complex and emotional issues at hand, striking the right balance is difficult. Consider settlements, about which Canadian Jews hold passionate views on both sides. Most would agree, myself included, with CIJA’s CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel in the Canadian Jewish News in January:
“This is not to dismiss the fact that settlements are contentious, as shown in the diversity of opinion among Israelis and Jewish Canadians on this issue. There is room within the pro-Israel community for respectful disagreement over the long-term status of settlements. But whatever one’s view, we must all challenge the simplistic assertion that settlements are the core issue. … Settlements, like many other issues – water, security, energy, etc. – must be resolved in direct negotiations.”
This is just one example of CIJA emphasizing what unites, rather than divides, our community. This is key to CIJA’s ability to mobilize Jewish and pro-Israel activists of all stripes – including in the halls of the most challenging political conventions.
If you support BDS or believe the Jewish people have no right to self-determination in our ancestral homeland, then CIJA is not the place for you and will never represent your perspective. If, however, you believe Israel has a right to survive and thrive, and you wish to engage in constructive discussion about the many challenges facing the Jewish state, I invite you to add your voice to the discussion and join CIJA in striking the right balance in representing the broad mainstream of Canadian Jewry.
Tamara Fathi is an active community volunteer and member of the CIJA Board of Director.