From the Editor: Canada’s sudden shift on support for Israel at the UN

By Michael Regenstreif, Editor

The Jewish community in Canada, and the broader pro-Israel community (you don’t, as the old ad said, have to be Jewish to like bagels – or to support Israel), were shocked on November 19 when Canada reversed its position and voted “yes” on a nonbinding motion at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly affirming Palestinian self-determination; attacking Israel’s occupation of “Palestinian territory,” including East Jerusalem; and the construction of the separation wall by “Israel, the occupying Power.”

The motion – sponsored by North Korea, Egypt, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, and the “State of Palestine” – was one of the same recurring, one-sided anti-Israel votes that are passed each year at the UN. This year, the motion was supported by 164 countries while nine (including Australia) abstained.

The only countries to vote against the motion this year were Israel, the United States, and three Pacific island nations – the Marshall Islands, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia – that are heavily dependent on U.S. aid and generally follow its lead on UN votes.

Between 2006 and 2018, under prime minister Stephen Harper, and during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first term, Canada reliably voted against this motion and the other one-sided, anti-Israel motions at the UN.

Although Harper’s Conservative government may have been slightly louder than Trudeau’s Liberals in its support for Israel, until now, at least, there was little difference between the two approaches. Official government policy including support for a negotiated two-state solution and opposing settlements in occupied territories, has remained unchanged.

So why the sudden change in that particular UN vote?

As Joel Reitman and Jeff Rosenthal, co-chairs of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) said in a statement the day after the vote, “the reversal of 15 years of Canadian opposition to the annual UN ritual of Israel-bashing represented far more than a let-down. It contradicted explicit commitments made by Liberal candidates during the recent election to maintain the principled opposition to the 20 annual resolutions whose sole purpose is to isolate and delegitimize Israel. This about-face felt more like a betrayal.”

The timing of the sudden shift was strange. There was absolutely no indication during the campaign for the October 21 federal election that a change in direction of Canada’s support at the UN was being contemplated.

Israeli Ambassador Nimrod Barkan told the Globe and Mail that Israel was only given a few hours notice that Canada intended to vote yes on the UN resolution.

“It was a surprise … We had no inclination or hint that Canada would change its vote on the regular annual UN resolutions and we trusted Canada, knowing that this is a circus of anti-Israeli resolutions,” he said.

Further to the timing of the vote, it took place just weeks after the election, and less than 24 hours before the new cabinet was sworn in. By then, Chrystia Freeland would have been well aware that she would no longer be our foreign affairs minister, and the identity of the new foreign affairs minister was still to be confirmed.

So where did the impetus to change the vote come from? Was it from bureaucrats at Global Affairs or officials in the Prime Minister’s Office? Was it from the outgoing cabinet or incoming Liberal caucus? Was it from Freeland or Trudeau? Or from Freeland’s successor, François-Philippe Champagne? We don’t know the answers to those questions.

A number of explanations have been floated for Canada’s about-face on the motion. One unnamed source at Global Affairs Canada told the CBC the vote was an objection to the Trump administration’s announcement the day before that the U.S. no longer considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be illegal. If that’s the case, the decision was sudden and made at the very last moment.

Another possible explanation is that the move was part of Canada’s campaign to win a temporary seat on the UN Security Council in 2021. Canada’s support for Israel was the explanation for Canada not winning a seat there in 2010. But, surely, Canada’s “no” votes on other anti-Israel motions won’t make a Security Council seat any more likely.

As I write, on November 29, Trudeau has offered no explanation, while Champagne after being sworn in as foreign affairs minister said only, “I think people in the Jewish community in Canada and across the world see Canada as an ally but there are times when we must express our opinion and our position as we did yesterday at the UN.”

Meanwhile Liberal MP Michael Levitt reflected the views of many in the Jewish community when he wrote on Facebook: “If the intent of yesterday’s resolution on Palestinian self-determination was to affirm international support for a two-state solution, its lack of context, failing to recognize the historic and current security threats faced by Israel, undermines that cause.”

The sudden turn on the motion by a government that until now has maintained solid support for Israel at the UN – and, indeed, Canada voted no on other anti-Israel motions at the UN last month – and which embraced the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, and absolutely rejected the anti-Israel BDS movement, while also supporting Palestinian self-determination and a two-state solution, is highly concerning. CIJA has launched a campaign to demand the government return to its previous position.

Campus antisemitism

Meanwhile, there have been three recent incidents on Ontario university campuses in which criticism of Israel blatantly crossed over the line to antisemitism.

On November 14, the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) rejected a proposal to support the availability of kosher food at university cafeterias specifically because the group lobbying to make kosher food available was the university’s Hillel branch, which it deemed pro-Israel. After much coverage in the local media, the UTGSU issued an apology for the wording of its original response to the proposal for kosher food availability, while stressing it had not yet actually “deliberated the request.” Meanwhile, the University of Toronto Students’ Union, which represents undergraduate students, did offer its support for the availability of kosher food.

And at York University, a pro-Israel event on November 20, was attacked by a violent mob chanting slogans like, “Intifada, Intifada, go back to the ovens,” references to the violent Palestinian uprisings that killed more than 1,000 Israelis, and to the Holocaust, in which the Nazis murdered six million Jews.

As the IHRA definition of antisemitism clearly states, “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” These incidents, though, went well beyond legitimate criticism into antisemitism.

Meanwhile, in Montreal on November 28, the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU) demanded that Jewish student Jordyn Wright, a member of the SSMU legislative council and board of directors, resign because she will be participating in a Hillel trip to Israel and to Palestinian areas of the West Bank. There were no such demands placed on a non-Jewish SSMU legislative councillor who is also participating in the trip.