How the Jewish Vote Swung from Red to Blue

How the Jewish Vote Swung from Red to Blue
By Michelle Collins –
February 11, 2009

Just days into the Gaza conflict, on Dec. 29, even before the Conservative government had spoken on the situation, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff delivered the most strongly-worded statement on Israel’s right of defence of any Liberal leader in recent history.

“The Liberal Party of Canada unequivocally condemns the rocket attacks launched by Hamas against Israeli civilians and calls for an immediate end to these attacks,” Mr. Ignatieff said. “We affirm Israel’s right to defend itself against such attacks, and also its right to exist in peace and security.”

Not only was it a jump from the Pearsonian middle-road taken by Liberal parties past when it comes to the Middle East, but it came from the same man who had just two years earlier accused Israel of war crimes in a similar military operation carried out against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The move garnered support from some corners. National Post columnist Jonathan Kay—a longtime critic of the Liberal’s “even-handed” approach on the Middle East and Israel—wrote that with this statement, Mr. Ignatieff had “taken a firm pro-Israel line in the Gaza conflict,” calling the move smart politics and a “stirring demonstration of moral clarity.”

Some observers pointed to the fact that Hamas is a listed terrorist organization that has recklessly launched rockets into a sovereign state for years as likely reasons for the apparent switch. But Hezbollah is also a listed terrorist organization and has launched similar attacks.

Others note that in the summer of 2006, Mr. Ignatieff was not the leader of the Liberal Party, nor at the time was there much evidence that traditional Jewish support for the party was slipping toward the Conservatives because of the latter’s strong pro-Israel policies.

But it has now become clear that with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the helm, the Conservative Party’s pro-Israel politics have won the respect—and support—of a large segment of Canada’s organized Jewish community.

At the same time, a swing in Jewish votes toward the Conservatives in the last election cost the Liberals at least one affluent Toronto-area seat in Thornhill, where Peter Kent defeated Liberal Susan Kadis, despite the fact the latter is Jewish and had spoken out against Mr. Ignatieff’s comments in 2006. The election also saw Conservatives take marginal victories in a handful of other ridings where Jewish voters make up sizeable numbers, as reported by Canadian Jewish News on Oct. 23.

The message at the ballot box was loud and clear—the Liberals may have spent years listening to what the Jewish community had to say, but they hadn’t delivered.

“People were getting sick and tired of [the Liberal position],” says James Diamond, the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo. “I know Canada always wants to play a neutral role, but sometimes people feel there’s a right and a wrong on an issue, so why play a neutral role? And you know, the Conservatives were coming out and they have been true to their word.”

Mr. Diamond, who voted for the Conservatives in October’s federal election, says Mr. Harper had struck a chord with him, and many other Jewish voters.

Now, experts say Mr. Ignatieff’s surprise declaration highlights the extent to which the Liberals find themselves playing catch-up to the Conservative Party, which is reaping the benefits of the Jewish community’s fulsome support.

The extent to which that support matters at the ballot-box and in influencing Canada’s foreign policy remains a sensitive and hotly debated topic. But that hasn’t stopped the Conservatives from enjoying the fact they have taken one of the Liberal Party’s traditional bases, or the Liberals from fretting over how to win them back.

At the same time, however, Canada’s Arab community is growing, and experts say blatant efforts to win the Jewish community’s support at the Arab community’s expense could alienate an expanding bloc of voters.

Middle East James Diamond,Dominates

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of Jewish people living in Canada, in part because in the government’s Census survey, “Jewish” can be described as a religion or an ethnicity. Experts estimate Jewish-Canadians represent about one per cent of the population, or upward of an estimated 350,000.

While they may have been important in deciding the winner in a number of important urban ridings during the last election, they represent only a small voting segment. Nonetheless, Jewish-Canadians are said to be more politically engaged than many other groups and are consistent voters.

“The Jewish community is a longstanding community,” says Bernie Farber, CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress. “They are quite sophisticated in terms of their voting patterns. Certainly in the last four or five elections that has been shown.”

Yet Mr. Farber and many experts insist there is no monolithic Jewish voting bloc in Canada.

“I don’t think today any particular party can count on a ‘Jewish vote,'” he says.

There is also sharp debate over just how much power and clout the Jewish community holds. However, what is clear is that the Jewish community is well-organized, extremely politically active, and that they get their message out to top politicians and bureaucrats in ways many other cultural, ethnic and religious groups just can’t hope to match.

“I think it’s not so much the vote that matters,” says David Bercuson, a historian and director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. “There are a lot of Jews who are active in Canadian society through just about every field or endeavour today, which was not true 50 years ago. And I guess politicians think that those are ‘more influential’, let’s say, than other groups. [They] are more to be listened to.”

Morton Weinfeld, director of Canadian ethnic studies at McGill University, says there are many issues on the “Jewish communal agenda” that voters look for, but the Middle East dominates.

A number of senior politicians, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they are often perplexed at how much political attention is directed at the Arab-Israeli conflict, suggesting that it diverts resources away from other conflicts and humanitarian crises Canada could help around the world.

Part of the reason, it is acknowledged, is the outspoken and active lobbying undertaken by the organized Jewish community as well as, though to a lesser extent, that of the organized Arab community, whose groups are less established or organized.

One of the leading Jewish organizations is the Canada-Israel Committee, which was formed in the late 1960s to promote “increased understanding” between the peoples of Canada and Israel. CIC’s operations really expanded in 1973, in response to the Yom Kippur war. It has since become one of the largest foreign policy lobby groups in the country and has a permanent staff in Ottawa.

“Certainly I would say that the stands of the [Canada-Israel Committee] and B’nai Brith represent the large majority of Canadians in the Canadian Jewish community,” says Ira Robinson, a professor of Judaic studies at Concordia University in Montreal.

Also very active on Canada-Israeli relations, B’nai Brith Canada, a membership-based organization that is known to lean toward the right of Canada’s political spectrum, describes itself as the voice of grassroots Canadian Jewry and the country’s foremost Jewish human rights organization.

Jewish groups such as the CIC really began building up their clout and contacts with all political parties in the early 1970s. They have maintained close contact since and, as a result, are perceived to garner a fair amount of political traction.

Senior politicians and Middle East policy advisers say these Jewish organizations are perceived as being influential, and past surveys of Foreign Affairs staff confirm such a perception.

“In Canada it’s harder to lobby, yet the pro-Israeli lobby is still very effective. And they do a good job, they’re very skilled, they’re very on-message,” says a Middle East policy adviser who didn’t want to be named. “They’re constantly in contact with MPs, with the Department of Foreign Affairs. Whenever Foreign Affairs does something [on the Middle East] it’s going to get sort of positive or negative signals from the [Canada-Israel Committee].”

CIC has traditionally been the most active group in federal politics with the goal of influencing Canada’s policies on the Middle East. Last year, according to the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying, CIC representatives met with, among others, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Mark Cameron, a director in the prime minister’s office. A search for meetings with Arab, Muslim and Palestinian groups elicited no results.

Of all the free trips MPs accepted last year, Israel outnumbered other destinations by nearly two to one—even outpacing Taiwan, which was the top destination for freebies in 2007. According to Canada’s ethics commissioner, the Canada-Israel Committee spent more than $200,000 to send 23 federal politicians and their spouses to the Middle East.

Despite some of their best efforts to influence policy, however, Jewish organizations’ degree of success is apparently immeasurable, and experts generally say it has been low. In fact, in what little academic work has been devoted to exploring the role of Canada’s well-established Jewish organizations, all have concluded that they have had little effect.

“It’s not clear that the CIC has had major impact on government policy,” Mr. Weinfeld says. “They’ll probably say they’ve had a significant impact…certainly on the margins it has had some impact. It’s provided information and gone with MPs on tours to Israel…[but] I don’t think they have an enormous amount of power.”

Akaash Maharaj, who was national policy chair of the Liberal Party from 1998 until 2003, says Jewish and Arab groups have been “extremely successful” at raising their issues, noting that for a country geographically located far from Israel, their lobbying efforts ensure Middle East affairs remain a prominent political topic.

“The issue of peace in the Middle East, as important as it is, occupied vastly more political oxygen in Ottawa than it does in many capitals around the world because of the activism of Muslim and Jewish organizations than it would otherwise,” Mr. Maharaj says. “But having raised the profile of that question, I don’t believe either group of groups has been disproportionately successful in having its answers to those questions being embraced by government.”

In 2004, this lack of tangible success by the major groups led to the creation of the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy, or CIJA, a pro-Israel advocacy group to act as an umbrella organization that would streamline their combined lobbying efforts.

On its website, CIJA posts politicians’ comments about Israel dating back to 1998 and encourages its members to contact politicians, to call in to radio shows, and to blog their support for Israel online.

But Mira Sucharov, associate professor of political science at Carleton University, says it’s hard to know whether Canadian foreign policy towards the Middle East has been changed as a result of such activities.

“It’s difficult to analyze, in the case of particularly the Conservative government, whether they cause a policy tilt that is more sympathetic toward Israel or whether that is the Harper world view to start with.

“And I think there’s a lot to be said for the latter, and I think it’s a natural convergence of interests,” Ms. Sucharov says.

Mr. Robinson, too, says it is unlikely that the advocacy of Jewish organizations would cause a government to reverse a position.

“If you have a conviction that is less supportive of Israel, the fact that you have contacts from the Jewish community making representation is not going to change your mind all that much, this is what the historical record shows,” Mr. Robinson says.

“Stephen Harper is supportive of Israel not because the Jews sent a lobbying group and said: ‘Please Stephen Harper, support Israel.’ If he did not want to, he would cordially talk to all kinds of groups and do what he feels is right and proper.”

Harper and the Middle East

Mr. Harper is not the first prime minister to be accused of taking a pro-Israel stance to the Middle East—both Conservative prime ministers Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney first entered office with pro-Israel policy ideas—but it seems Mr. Harper is the first who has not been forced to back down.

So pivotal has the Middle East been considered within Canada that academics widely agree the measure of a prime minister’s approach to the Middle East inevitably becomes a matter of historical record.

“The Middle East frustrated Lester Pearson, preoccupied Joe Clark, angered Pierre Trudeau, and remains a minefield which Brian Mulroney has attempted to avoid, not always with success,” authors David Taras and David H. Goldberg wrote in the 1989 book The Domestic Battleground: Canada and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Mr. Harper is known to have strong ideological views on the Middle East, which he has repeatedly tried to contrast with those of the opposition. This stance is believed to be borne of his own convictions, rather than of any outside influence or political agenda. As a result, he keeps a tight grip over all statements on Israel and is heavy-handed about which MPs can speak on the issue.

“Obviously Stephen Harper as prime minister, and the Conservative Party in general, have adopted a very pro-Israel stance. I think they’re doing that out of conviction,” says Harold Waller, a political science professor at McGill University.

Since the Conservatives came to power in January 2006, many analysts and former foreign affairs officials say, there has been a marked shift in Canada’s approach toward the Middle East. While welcomed by many as a principled stance in support of Israel and against terrorism, others say the policy doesn’t hold Israel to the same standards as other countries.

Critics of the Conservative’s foreign policy have also accused Mr. Harper of modelling his positions after former U.S. president George W. Bush, who is considered to have presided over the most pro-Israel administration in history.

Two months into governing, in March 2006, Mr. Harper cut aid to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. Canada was the first country to do so, apart from Israel.

His pro-Israel position has been underscored by public statements, speeches, and a changed voting pattern at the United Nations, though this realigning of diplomacy against “unbalanced” UN resolutions, in fact, started under Liberal prime minister Paul Martin.

In 2005, Mr. Martin explained this shift as an attempt to depoliticize the United Nations, including the new UN Human Rights Council, rather than a move to appease Israel.

“We will continue to press for the kinds of reform that will eliminate the politicization of the United Nations and its agencies, and in particular the annual ritual of politicized, anti-Israel resolutions,” he said.

But the Conservatives, led by Mr. Harper, have repeatedly stated that Canada and Israel share the same values, namely respect for human rights, the rule of law, freedom and democracy, which makes the two mutual partners. At the same time, the Conservative view is Israel is a fellow democracy that is under siege, and it is imperative Canada stand with its ally.

“Unfortunately, Israel at 60 remains a country under threat, threatened by groups and regimes who deny, to this very day, its right to exist,” he said on May 8, 2008 at an event in Toronto. “And why? Make no mistake. Look beyond the thinly veiled rationalizations—because they hate Israel, just as much as they hate the Jewish people. Our government believes that those who threaten Israel also threaten Canada.”

Reaching Out to Jewish Voters

Whether the Conservative Party’s policies have simply happened to coalesce with the greater Jewish community’s views or not, it isn’t skimping from taking full advantage of the appeal its policies have for many Jewish voters.

“I think it is clear that, without question, this particular government has been very supportive of some of the causes that have been of concern to this community specifically, like the issue of security around our buildings and schools, the issue of anti-Semitism and racism, the issue of human rights, and Israel,” says Bernie Farber of the Canadian Jewish Congress. “Of course these are all matters of concern to our community and this particular government has been very supportive.”

At the same time, the Conservatives have been actively using their outright support for Israel to reach out to the Jewish community and recruit what were traditionally Liberal Party loyalists over to their political party.

“At the heart of relations between Canada and Israel is the dynamism of our shared communities,” the prime minister said in a statement released on May 14, 2008 to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding.

Over the last two years, Mr. Harper has made a habit of sending New Year’s cards to Jewish-Canadians, many of whom were surprised—and some angered—to be on the prime minister’s mailing list.

In the Globe and Mail last September, Jewish broadcaster and producer Ralph Benmergui wrote an opinion piece about the Tory government’s robust support for Israel and the tactic of sending Rosh Hashanah cards, calling it an “unctuous political strategy.”

The Conservatives have been anything but shy about promoting their pro-Israel stance while painting the Liberals the exact opposite. After the October 2008 election, Canadian Jewish News reported the Tories had succeeded in gaining more Jewish voters, in part because they “touted themselves throughout the campaign as the only party with a staunchly pro-Israel record.”

It was clear, however that the Liberals were already floundering among Jewish voters.

When business-magnates and couple Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz—CEOs of Indigo Books and Onex Corporation—announced they were throwing their support behind Mr. Harper in August 2006 because of his support for Israel, their partisan switch was headline news. Both had previously played leading roles in the Liberal Party; Ms. Reisman is a past national policy chair and Mr. Schwartz a former Liberal Party president. “Liberal power couple back Harper on Mideast,” the Globe and Mail reported; “Canada’s pro-Israel premier lures Jews to Tories,” reported The Jerusalem Post.

Around the same time, noted filmmaker Robert Lantos also spoke publicly of his switch to the Conservatives, telling a pro-Israel rally in Toronto in August 2006 that he thanked Mr. Harper for his “principled support” of Israel.

“I hereby take off my lifelong federal Liberal hat to you. Symbolically, I toss it away, if there were anyone willing to catch it,” Mr. Lantos said.

The most blatant example of the emerging partisan divide came in Mr. Harper’s response to Mr. Ignatieff’s comments accusing Israel of war crimes in the Lebanon conflict. In October 2006, Mr. Harper told reporters this was “consistent with the anti-Israeli position that has been taken by virtually all of the candidates for the Liberal leadership. I don’t think it’s helpful or useful.”

The accusation outraged Liberals and triggered drastic action within the party. An open letter calling on the prime minister to make a public apology, signed by 172 MPs and supporters, was released on Oct. 19, 2006.

Liberal Party officials are frank about the drop they’ve witnessed in Jewish support, and reporters and media pundits have been scratching at the issue for the past three years.

As Liberal Senator Jerry Grafstein put it, “I think what happened is that the Liberals have always taken a position of balance, and the Jewish community had felt that balance was unfair.”

Akaash Maharaj, former national policy chair for the Liberals, says mixed reactions among Jewish voters to the party’s Middle East politics started to emerge even before the Tories took over government.

“I would say there was a criticism of the Liberal Party’s foreign policy during that period, that it tried to walk this middle path when people would argue that the truth does not necessarily lie midway between two extremes,” Mr. Maharaj says.

In November 2006, Steven Pinkus, vice-president of the Liberal’s Quebec wing, told The Jewish Tribune the party had “lost significant support from one of its traditional strong bases” as a result of the fallout to Mr. Ignatieff’s reaction to the conflict in Lebanon. Mr. Ignatieff was the presumptive frontrunner for the Liberal leadership at the time, which eventually went to Stéphane Dion.

Ariela Cotler, former justice minister and Liberal MP Irwin Cotler’s wife, went so far as to publicly quit the Liberal party over Mr. Ignatieff’s comments, and in a letter to the National Post said Mr. Ignatieff lacked “moral integrity.”

At the same time, interim Liberal leader Bill Graham refused to take a position on the Israel-Hezbollah conflict while the party was busy choosing a new leader—though he did accuse Mr. Harper of abandoning Canada’s traditional role as an “interlocutor” in the Middle East.

While Mr. Ignatieff was levelling strong criticisms at Israel over its actions in Lebanon and the rest of the Liberal Party, led by Bill Graham, refused to take a side, Mr. Harper was taking a strong stand. He voiced outright support for Israel—describing its actions as a “measured” response at a time when the rest of the world was aghast—and he was one of a tiny group of world leaders who openly resisted international calls for a ceasefire.

The Tories’ aggressive efforts to paint the Liberals as anti-Israeli prompted the creation of a group called Liberal Friends of Israel within the party. The group’s co-chairs, Meredith Caplan, Michael Levitt and Jason Cherniak, have been outspoken of their party’s pro-Israel views and organized several rallies across Canada.

“Those who seek to characterize the Liberal Party as anti-Israel should take note of what we’re doing and of our leader’s support for what we’re doing,” Ms. Caplan said at a Walk with Israel event in Winnipeg in May 2007, which then-leader Stéphane Dion attended, along with many Liberal MPs, among them Mr. Ignatieff, Anita Neville, Ken Dryden, Irwin Cotler, Bob Rae, Carolyn Bennett and Senator Art Eggleton.

Liberals say the party is making a concerted effort to re-earn the support of voters, from all cultural and religious groups, who have either voted for other parties or stayed away from the polls in recent elections.

“I don’t think this is likely to translate into a dramatic shift in policy positions, but it certainly has manifested itself in terms of willingness to forcefully articulate existing positions; support for the state of Israel, for example,” Mr. Maharaj says of the Liberals outreach to Jewish voters. “I would say it’s more an understanding that it must articulate its positions rather than mumble quietly when asked difficult questions.”

The Growing Arab Community

According to Statistics Canada, the number of people in Canada of Arab origin is growing considerably faster than the overall population, and Canadians of Arab origin make up one of the largest non-European ethnic groups in Canada.

In 2001, an estimated 350,000 Arabs lived in Canada. By 2006, Montreal’s Arab population had grown by nearly 50 per cent to number an approximate 109,000 in that city alone.

While experts agree Jewish organizations have been extremely effective at reaching out to politicians, there is an awareness that Canada’s Arab community is getting stronger and more politically active.

McGill professor Harold Waller says Arab and Muslim groups carry out similar activities as Jewish organizations, contacting members of Parliament and the bureaucracy, but that Arab groups aren’t as well established at this point.

“I don’t think their influence is as great as the pro-Israel groups,” Mr. Waller says. “On the other hand, I think that the political parties are very much aware of the growing number of Arab and Muslim voters in the country, so some of the MPs in particular are beginning to respond to constituents and espouse that cause.”

Noting Mr. Ignatieff’s strong support for Israel during the Gaza conflict, Mr. Waller says it will be tricky for the Liberal Party to try to sway Jewish voters back to them while also trying to attract new immigrant voters.

“They will have to be very careful if they want to try to hold both Jewish and Arab voters. And, of course, one way to do that is to avoid taking critical positions on these issues, which I think was what some of the more recent Liberal governments tried to do,” Mr. Waller says.

Senator Grafstein says he finds that Arabs and Muslims are extremely active and are constantly sending emails to him.

“I would think that when it comes to working at the party level that they’re much visible and much more pro-active, certainly within the parties, certainly more than any Jewish organizations are,” Mr. Grafstein says.

However, he says much of the correspondence is “heated and unbalanced,” adding that he is influenced by facts, not vitriol.

He says that parliamentarians are very much affected by such communications, particularly when it comes in such high numbers.

Some of the more prominent groups include the Canadian Arab Federation, Palestine House, the Muslim Canadian Congress and the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations.

Samah Sabawi, a Palestinian-Canadian and an advocate for increasing dialogue on issues of the Middle East, says it is true that Arab and Muslim groups are younger and less organized. She says they continue to struggle to establish strong political connections.

Despite repeated requests for a meeting with Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon in response to the Gaza crisis, groups such as the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations were told the minister was unavailable.

Another challenge, she says, is that Arab-Canadians are hesitant to join advocacy organizations because they are a newer ethnic community in Canada and they don’t fully understand the political system.

“Most of the Arab-Canadians come from countries where they don’t trust institutions, and they don’t trust the system and so they’re not as willing to donate to advocacy groups. It’s really hard to get them behind an advocacy organization because of that lack of trust,” Ms. Sabawi says.

Some events in the last 10 years, however, have prompted many in the Arab community to become more involved, she says, beginning with the period following 9/11, the Lebanon war in 2006, and now the Gaza conflict.

However, Ms. Sabawi says there is still much work to be done in making their concerns heard among politicians.

“Different parties are more open to exploring the Arab community and to listening to members of the Arab community, for sure with the Conservative Party of Canada we still have a lot of work to do.

“And more recently with the Liberals as well as they try to figure out their direction and to re-establish themselves.”

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