Can Tories hold on to Jewish voters?

Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu with Stephen Harper in Ottawa in 2010. Harper’s support for Israel has been cited as one reason Jews have voted for the Conservative party FILE PHOTO
Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu with Stephen Harper in Ottawa in 2010. Harper’s support for Israel has been cited as one reason Jews have voted for the Conservative party FILE PHOTO

Two or three elections ago, Bonnie Bereskin was canvassing door to door in Toronto’s York Centre riding for then-Conservative candidate Michael Mostyn. York Centre was a longtime Liberal stronghold, represented at the time by high profile MP Ken Dryden. She knew she was in for a tough sell, but she was shocked when she heard, on more than one occasion, Conservative leader Stephen Harper and his Alberta cohorts described as Nazis.

The soon-to-be prime minister was called other names of less disrepute, but the mistrust, if not outright contempt, for the Tory leader surprised her. She was originally from Alberta, where Conservatives had governed the province for many years, during which the Jewish community was treated well – unlike Ontario, Alberta provided funding to religious schools – and Israel was held in high regard.

So she couldn’t quite make sense of the level of animosity to the Tory brand. Of course, that was after Liberal cabinet minister Elinor Caplan had accused the Canadian Alliance, one of the forerunners of the Conservative party, of having supporters who
“are Holocaust deniers, prominent bigots and racists.”

Despite the negative messaging, Bereskin believes she and other Tory workers laid the groundwork at the time for a swing in the riding. In 2011, York Centre turned Tory blue as Mark Adler unseated Dryden to bring the riding into the Conservative fold for the first time since 1962.


In 2015, the riding swung back to Liberal red, as did Eglinton-Lawrence, immediately to the south, where finance minister Joe Oliver was defeated. Both are home to substantial Jewish populations. In a pre-election online poll conducted by The CJN, 44 per cent of respondents said they favoured Harper and the Tories – a total greater than the 32 per cent of the national vote they received in 2015.

Just north of Toronto, Thornhill, the riding with the largest concentration of Jews in Canada, returned Tory Peter Kent in 2015, as it did in 2011.

It’s a truism that for decades, if not generations, Jews had supported parties of the left, mostly Liberals, and to a lesser extent, New Democrats. That seems to have changed in the last few years. Harper’s vigorous support for Israel during the 2006 war with Hezbollah and two conflicts in Gaza, as well as a pro-Israel voting record at the United Nations and its lead in walking out of the second UN anti-racism conference in 2009 (which was shaping up to be like its anti-Israel predecessor), solidified Jewish support for the Conservatives. Tory candidates and senior ministers often repeated the phrase that the government supported Israel through fire and water.

In 2015, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau fought hard for those Jewish votes, repeatedly emphasizing that there was no daylight between Liberals and Conservatives in their support for Israel.

But Jewish Conservatives believe the last 10 years have marked a major change in the kind of support the Tories can expect from Jewish voters going forward. Voting for the Conservatives has been normalized, and not just because of the party’s support for Israel, they say.

“I’m a Conservative for the party’s economic principles,” Bereskin said, pointing to a belief in smaller government, individual responsibility and personal freedom. “Support for Israel is helpful, but it wasn’t the reason I support the Conservatives.”

Bereskin, a member of the egalitarian Reconstructionist Darchei Noam Synagogue in Toronto, described herself as being on the libertarian end of the political spectrum. Jews have in the past voted overwhelmingly for the Liberals, but “you can be Jewish and adopt Conservative values and ensure support for Israel,” she said.

Stephen Harper holds up a hockey jersey presented to him after delivering a speech at the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy dinner in Ottawa on Feb. 6, 2007 FILE PHOTO
Stephen Harper holds up a hockey jersey presented to him after delivering a speech at the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy dinner in Ottawa on Feb. 6, 2007 FILE PHOTO

Steven Slimovitch is a criminal defence lawyer in Montreal. In the past election, he supported Conservative candidate Robert Libman’s bid to win longtime Liberal stronghold Mount Royal, which Anthony Housefather retained for the party. “I have been a lifelong Liberal supporter, and I began to lose favour with the Liberal government because of their policy toward Israel and Jewish questions in general,” he said.

Slimovitch referred to the failure to prosecute Nazi war criminals and to Canada’s voting record at the UN as factors in his decision.

He pointed to “Mr. Harper’s overwhelming and strong backing of Israel.”

Slimovitch, who is national counsel to B’nai Brith Canada, said Jews don’t vote as a bloc – for some, domestic issues trump concerns over support for Israel; for others, it’s the other way around.

But there’s been a change over the years in the way Jews see the two major parties, he continued. Support for the Conservatives has grown among Jews “as people became more well off and comfortable in society.

“The Tories were always perceived as the party of another place,” he said.

“As time goes on and as people began to see the policy that the Conservatives put into place for Israel, things changed.”

Gary Shapiro also supported Libman in the last election. In fact, he serves on the executive of the local Conservative riding association. But his family were strong Liberal supporters going back a couple of generations. His grandparents voted Liberal, as did his parents. He began to move away from the Liberals, whom he saw as trying to be all things to all people, and moved to the Tories, because of Harper’s “backbone, strength of character” and principled support of Israel.

“I don’t think the young generation is locked into anything”

Other Jews did, too, he surmised. Although there is no data yet to show how Jews voted in Mount Royal in 2015, in earlier elections, Irwin Cotler would take the riding with 92 per cent of the vote. Housefather got only about 50 per cent, suggesting that Jews, like the rest of the population, have switched allegiances from where they were before, he said.

Shapiro believes the Jewish vote, particularly among young people, will be up for grabs in future elections. It will depend on particular issues, candidates and party leaders.

“My kids are all over the place,” he said. “I don’t think the young generation is locked into anything. I think it’s, ‘What are you going to do for me now?’” he said.

Torontonian Chani Aryeh-Bain says she’s always been a Conservative. “I like their sound economic policies. That was the main attraction.

“When Harper came into office, I definitely liked his policies on the Middle East,” she added.

Aryeh-Bain, who ran a business for 25 years, said “I liked the job [Oliver] did as finance minister. He’s quiet, calm and steady. That’s what I liked about him.”

During the recent federal election campaign, Aryeh-Bain worked for Oliver and tried to recruit other supporters.

“I mobilized Jewish women in our riding,” she said. “That’s a segment that generally doesn’t go out to vote.”

She managed to persuade 100 Jewish women to volunteer on Oliver’s campaign.

Although Aryeh-Bain said it’s tough to recruit people in large numbers to work on a campaign, she believes Jewish support for the Liberals has waned somewhat, unlike support for the Tories.

“The Liberals have changed and Jews have drifted away from them,” she said.

Under Harper, the government steered a moral course on the Middle East, even if it wasn’t always popular, and she expects that to continue, regardless of who becomes the party’s next leader.

As for Trudeau, she wishes him well. “If he fails, we all fail,” she said. But she finds him too celebrity-oriented, too much flash compared to Harper’s low-key reliability. As for his support for Israel, “I’m not convinced of it, but let’s wait and see,” she said.

READ: Liberals, Israel and the lessons of history

In the meantime, she’s not just waiting for the next election in four years. She’s already arranged a get-together of dozens of women, the majority from the Orthodox community, to answer their questions about “what to do now.”

“We’ll discuss how to [stay] interested in politics and how to take on an active role,” she said. “I want to see where their strengths lie and what they want to do.”

Guidy Mamann is one of those people who made the journey from left to right.

“Like many Jews, I voted Liberal ever since I could vote. I was very skeptical about Preston Manning and the conservatives from the West and I associated Stephen Harper with that movement,” he said. But with Harper as the leader, he was persuaded to vote Tory, “for the first time in my life.”

A Toronto immigration lawyer, Mamann said he has opposed Conservative policy on some issues related to his field, but backed them on others. He’s done the same with the Liberals.

But, he continued, “it’s not good to be a one-issue voter.

“I’m not a ‘big C’ Conservative or a ‘big L’ Liberal,” he said. “If somebody has a good plan for the country, I’m going to follow him regardless of the party.”

“I felt very comfortable with [Harper’s] hand on the wheel of the economy,” he said. In fact, that was what initially attracted him to the party. “It was only after the first [minority] term that I saw him as a defender of Israel and of a principled foreign policy, one that was not necessarily popular but was consistent with our Canadian values,” he said.

Mamann believes those positions were based on principles, not crude electoral calculations. “Even if you don’t look at it from that position, the statements on the Middle East conflict must have cost him many more votes than it brought in,” he said.

Mamann said Conservative policies are important to him. He likes the conservative agenda of low taxes, fiscal prudence and less red tape. He wants to see the economy remain vibrant and believes the Liberals will introduce expensive programs that “we don’t need” and are “ill-conceived,” which will require higher tax burdens into the future. “Kids will be paying for the luxuries their parents enjoyed,” he said.

Canadian and Israeli ministers and diplomats pose during Stephen Harper’s 2014 visit
Canadian and Israeli ministers and diplomats pose during Stephen Harper’s 2014 visit

Mamann said he was a big supporter of Pierre Trudeau and admired the changes to the constitution he spearheaded.

As for the current prime minister, Pierre’s son, “I don’t have confidence that he’s capable of running the country.”

Interestingly, it is one of the issues near and dear to his heart that has further distanced him from the Liberals – refugees.

Trudeau’s announced plan to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015 smacks of political opportunism, he said. The plan was conceived in haste to attract votes after a photo of a dead Syrian toddler made international headlines.

Not enough consideration was given to resettling and absorbing the refugees, he said.

What’s more, the policy is unfair to the tens of thousands of other refugees who were looking to make Canada their home. There are an estimated 10 to 12 million refugees around the world, Mamann said. Many have been in the queue waiting to come to Canada, and their relatives are calling him, distraught that their family members must wait while Syrians jump the queue.

“They’ve been waiting for years, and all of a sudden, in the middle of an election campaign, based on one picture, he made a decision,” Mamann said.

READ: A Q&A with Justin Trudeau

Stuart Kamenetsky is a member in good standing at Toronto’s Congregation Darchei Noam, a synagogue known in good measure for its members’ attention to social justice issues.

Kamenetsky, who serves as chair of the synagogue’s Israel connections committee, considers himself a progressive, but notes that being right wing does not mean you cannot be an advocate for issues on human rights, the alleviation of poverty, and serve as an advocate for people with differences.

He’s also a Tory supporter and has been since Harper became the party leader. The former prime minister, he said, was a visible friend of Israel at a time when other world leaders were not.

Harper “did what he felt was right,” even though it likely cost him votes in the overall scheme of things. He recognized the threat posed by ISIS radicalism and made sure Canada did not avoid the issue by sitting on the sidelines.

Kamenetsky, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, said he shifted his support to the Tories because of Harper’s position on Israel and foreign policy generally.

As someone who spent his formative years in Israel and served in the Israel Defence Forces, he doesn’t believe the Liberals really understand what Israel faces. “I don’t think they get it,” he said.

Although he didn’t work for the Tories in the last election – “I don’t see myself as politically active” – he is paying close attention to the parties’ positions on international issues.

He doesn’t see big differences between Liberals and Conservatives on domestic issues so his vote “will have a lot to do with whether the Liberal candidate supports Israel and understands it.”

So far, he’s pleased with the way Canada voted at the United Nations in November during its annual run of anti-Israel resolutions. For that he credits Harper, whose position against the one-sided resolutions has influenced policy-makers and bureaucrats alike, he said.

You can count Jack Berkovitz among those voters whose Liberal affiliations goes back more than a generation. Both his parents, Holocaust survivors, voted Liberal. He generally voted Liberal, too, as a young man, but that changed in recent years as he moved his vote to the Tories, in part over their position on Israel and because he saw them as the party of good government.

Campaign signs for Michael Levitt and Mark Adler
Campaign signs for Michael Levitt, Liberal, and Mark Adler, Conservative

During the last election, the jewelry maven worked for Tory candidates Oliver and Adler in Toronto, and he talked up their prospects with friends and acquaintances.

Support for the Conservatives was strong among Orthodox Jews, he said, but in life, nothing is permanent, including political affiliations. He’s taking a wait-and-see approach to the governing Liberals, hoping they will be true to their word about their strong support for Israel.

No group can afford to alienate a government and be seen as permanent supporters of one or another party, so it’s best to swing your votes according to the party’s actions, he said.

University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman believes “that it comes down to the fact that there is no one Jewish vote.”

Going back decades, you could find Jewish supporters of federal and provincial Conservative parties, some even serving as party leaders, such as Sidney Spivak in Manitoba and Larry Grossman in Ontario. Jewish support for the federal Tories was in the 10 to 15 per cent range, and other ethnic minorities also stayed away from the Tories because of its perception as a “race-proud, Protestant, Anglo, conservative party.” Jews, who were on the lower end of the socio-economic strata, also were sympathetic to parties that promised a greater role for the state, he said.


But all that changed over the years, beginning with Tory prime minister John Diefenbaker in the late 1950s, who spoke the language of multiculturalism and opposed the idea of hyphenated Canadians. Meanwhile, Jews improved their economic position in society, felt more integrated and saw their interests better reflected in conservative policies, he said.

A noticeable shift to the Tories began in 2006, accelerated in 2008 and peaked in 2011, when the party received 50 per cent of the Jewish vote, he said.

That support likely dropped in 2015, though he acknowledged there is, as yet, no data to measure minority groups’ voting patterns for the last election.

Wiseman suggested that 35 per cent of Jews supported the Conservatives, slightly more than the 32 per cent of the vote the party received overall.

On the issue of Israel, Wiseman discounted the parties’ supposed differences on the Jewish state. That has been “exaggerated,” he said. “It’s more a matter of rhetoric than of policies.”

As to the future, that depends, he said. There are a lot of unknowns, including events involving Israel and domestic policies.

Nevertheless, “I don’t think Jewish support for the Conservatives will go back to 10 to 15 per cent,” he said.