As the New Democrats leap leftward, questions linger about what that might mean when it comes to supporting Israel
Thomas Mulcair may have been ignominiously rejected as leader of the federal New Democratic Party, but he’s being fondly remembered in the Jewish community for his support for Israel and ensuring that the party remained a welcoming place for Jews.
Mulcair, who will remain party leader until a replacement is named, lost a confidence vote at the party’s recent convention in Edmonton. Party members were angry that his tack to the centre of the Canadian political spectrum led to the party getting walloped at the polls, and many withdrew their support.
Meanwhile, the left wing of the party stole the spotlight in Edmonton, introducing the Leap Manifesto, aimed at moving the country away from the use of fossil fuels.
Prominent proponents of Leap include the husband-and-wife team of Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, both vocal critics of Israel, with Klein, a best-selling author, advocating boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) and labelling Israel an apartheid state. Lewis, whose father, Stephen, served as Ontario NDP leader and whose late grandfather, David, was once the party’s national leader, has been touted by some as a potential leadership candidate to succeed Mulcair.
Whether the New Democrats go down the road laid out by Klein and Lewis remains to be seen. But last week, observers lauded Mulcair as an important figure in Canadian political history.
Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the community’s primary advocacy organization, recalled Mulcair as “a consistent and unconditional friend to the Jewish community in Canada and their concerns on the advocacy agenda.
“He has maintained and even strengthened the process through which Jack Layton sought to bring the NDP into the consensus on the Middle East and Israel,” Fogel said. He was “determined to show that the NDP was a welcome place for the Jewish and pro-Israel community.”
Mulcair also lent his support to issues such as Holocaust remembrance and countering terrorism, and he maintained “a full and meaningful relationship” with Jewish community advocates, he added.
In June 2010, Mulcair refused to agree with critics of Israel’s blockade of Gaza or agree with claims of some in the NDP that Israel is an apartheid state.
Around the same time, Mulcair slammed NDP MP Libby Davies for her position on BDS: “To say that you’re personally in favour of boycott, divestment and sanctions for the only democracy in the Middle East is, as far as I’m concerned, grossly unacceptable.’’
However, during the Feb. 22 parliamentary debate on a Conservative motion to reject BDS, Mulcair and the rest of the NDP, citing free speech concerns, voted against it.
Myer Siemiatycki, a professor in the department of politics and public administration at Ryerson University, believes “history is going to be kind to Mr. Mulcair.”
Mulcair continued Layton’s success in Quebec, demonstrating “it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. He helped establish the NDP as a going concern in Quebec.”
Of notable impact for Jews was that Mulcair “added to the pantheon of significant political figures who have made a breakthrough for the Jewish community in Canada,” Siemiatycki said.
He is the first leader of the Opposition who has Jewish children, Siemiatycki noted, referring to Mulcair’s Jewish wife, Catherine Pinhas, and their family.
His family never became an issue in the campaign. “That tells you something about the integration of Jews in the Canadian political system,” said Siemiatycki, who holds the Jack Layton Chair at Ryerson, which was established in 2012 in honour of the late NDP leader’s contribution to public service.
University of Toronto professor Nelson Wiseman also noted that Mulcair is married to a Jew and pointed out that the party’s position on Israel did not vary much from the one adopted under Layton and previous leaders going back to Audrey McLaughlin.
As for concerns that with Mulcair’s departure and the high profile assumed by proponents of the Leap Manifesto that the party might swing to a position critical of Israel, Wiseman disagreed. The party continues to support a two-state solution. However, he added, there’s been a shift in public opinion in Canada over the years. “There isn’t the same resolute support of Israel in the broader public as in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said.
Young people in particular now increasingly see Israel as a powerful domineering state, he said.
Nevertheless, Wiseman said, the Middle East did not come up at the recent Edmonton conference and isn’t mentioned at all in the Leap Manifesto.
As for suggestions the party might turn to Lewis as a potential leader, Wiseman again disagreed. He pointed to a recent Mainstreet Research poll for Postmedia in which 598 party members named Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who has defended the oil industry and dismissed the Leap Manifesto “in the most derogatory terms,” as having the highest favourability ratings among prominent party figures.
Eleven per cent of the New Democrats polled said they would support Lewis as party leader, even though he has said he has no interest in the job.
Wiseman said he doesn’t believe discussions about Leap will amount to anything and that Lewis is not a viable leadership candidate. “Do you think Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein are going to win in Quebec?” he asked.
JSpaceCanada, a left-leaning Zionist pro-Israel organization that supports a two-state resolution to the Mideast conflict, disputed the contention that the left of the political spectrum is somehow synonymous with anti-Israel sentiment.
“There is nothing whatsoever about Israel in the Leap Manifesto. The signers of the manifesto include a lot of respected names, some of them not even particularly associated with the left, [such as] Roy McMurtry, Robert Bateman, Leonard Cohen.
“Many Jews on the left are strong supporters of Israel and Zionism. The fact that some are not does not equate with a worldview that only those to the right of the political spectrum support Israel and that those on the left can be presumed to be anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel. To tar the entire NDP with the same pro-BDS brush wielded by some on the left is to do a disservice to those in the party that have spoken out strongly against the vilification of Israel and the delegitimization of the Jewish State,” JSpace stated in an email.
“As far as we are aware, the issue of Tom Mulcair’s strong and unwavering support of Israel was not even mentioned at the leadership review,” JSpace added.
Meanwhile, in an email to its supporters earlier this month, the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center pointed out that delegates attending the NDP convention in Edmonton “quashed a motion to support the anti-Israel BDS campaign in closed-door committee session. Since the committee proceedings were private, no numbers on the vote were released, but there appears to have been little support for the motion, as it failed to reach the convention floor.”