Canada Votes: A forshpeiz…

Canadians head to the polls on Sept. 20, and there’s some displeasure in Jewish circles that the vote takes place on Erev Sukkot.

For some, the timing is a reminder of the 2019 election, which fell on Shemini Atzeret, a day on which observant Jews are prohibited from many activities, including marking a ballot.

While it’s happened before that elections fell on a Jewish holiday, the 2019 vote was the first time Jews took the issue to court, arguing that by refusing to move the date of the election, Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer was disenfranchising thousands of Torah-observant Jews.

Canada’s Federal Court agreed, ordering the Chief Electoral Officer to reconsider his refusal to move the date. But the CEO said moving the date was “not in the public interest,” and he listed the many ways in which observant Jews could be accommodated, including advance polls and mail-in ballots.

This time, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) says the timing “will have implications for Jewish Canadians.”

CIJA said it communicated to Canadian officials its concerns about an early-autumn federal election “potentially conflicting with the High Holidays. We will continue to work with Elections Canada to protect democratic participation for all Jewish Canadians.”

B’nai Brith Canada noted that the timing of this year’s election means that observant Jews will lose a few hours of voting at the end of the day and will be unable to participate in the ballot scrutineering process. However, said Bnai Brith, unlike in 2019, none of the four advanced voting days will fall on a Jewish holiday (one is on Shabbat, as it is each year).

CIJA and B’nai Brith Canada say they will soon issue their election guides.

While there’s no such thing as “the Jewish vote” in Canada, it’s no longer a point of debate that Jews tend to vote Liberal federally, likely attracted by the party’s stance on immigration, diversity and tolerance—values Jews have traditionally held close.

There was one blip—the election that brought Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to a majority in 2011. An Ipsos Reid exit poll after that election found that 52 percent of Jewish voters had supported the Conservatives, 24 percent the Liberals and 16 percent the NDP. Doubtless, Jewish voters were drawn to Harper by his repeated and unabashed support for Israel.

If accurate, the poll reflected an “enormous shift in voter preference among Canadian Jews,” pronounced the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson that September.

But by the time the Environics Institute’s 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada was issued, Jewish support seemed to swing back to the Liberals. The survey found that 36 percent of Jews supported the Liberals, 32 percent the Conservatives, and 10 percent the New Democratic Party.

“In the case of Canadian Jews, support is driven partly by the degree to which federal parties are seen to support Israel,” the survey found.

Given where Jewish-Canadians live and vote, the trend toward voting Liberal may well continue in the upcoming election.

Prior to the last election, the blog Multicultural Meanderings identified 14 federal ridings in which Jews accounted for at least five percent of the population (PDF link). That’s significant, given that Jews form only about one percent of Canada’s total population.

Those ridings are: Thornhill (37 percent Jewish); Mount Royal (30.7 percent); Eglinton–Lawrence (22 percent); York Centre (19 percent); Toronto-St. Paul’s (14.7 percent); Outremont (11 percent); Notre-Dame-de-Grâce–Westmount (10.6 percent); Don Valley West (8.8 percent); Pierrefonds–Dollard (8.5 percent); Winnipeg South Centre (7.6 percent); Saint-Laurent (7.4 percent); University–Rosedale (7 percent); Willowdale (6.6 percent); and Richmond Hill (5.2 percent).

All but one of those, Thornhill, are currently held by Liberals.

As in every election, there are Jewish and Israel-related issues in 2021.

Just last month, the government hosted a day-long national summit on antisemitism in the wake of an alarming spike in attacks on Jews coinciding with the Israel-Hamas conflict in May.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told participants that his government “will always stand” with the Jewish community against antisemitism, and that Canada “stands firm in its support for Israel’s right to live in peace with its neighbours within secure boundaries, and for Israel’s right to defend itself.”

Following the summit, the government released a list of actions to combat antisemitism. They included:

  • Engaging with Jewish communities on the government’s next anti-racism action plan when the current one expires;
  • Exploring potential adjustments to programs designed to “dismantle white supremacist groups, monitor hate groups, and take action to combat hate everywhere, including online;”
  • Improving digital literacy and tackling misinformation.

The Liberals used the summit to tout their achievements on fighting antisemitism, including adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism; boosting funding to the Security Infrastructure Program (SIP) for added security measures at synagogues, schools, and communal facilities; and appointing former justice minister and human rights advocate Irwin Cotler as Canada’s first Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Anti-Semitism.

The Liberals have taken heat, however, on two prominent fronts when it comes to Israel: Their voting on Israel-related matters at the United Nations, and reinstating funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA.

In 2019 and again last year, Canada voted in favour of a UN resolution affirming Palestinian self-determination. Canada was criticized for its support of the measure, which included East Jerusalem and its Jewish holy sites as “occupied Palestinian territory.” Jewish advocacy groups also decried it for failing to affirm Jewish self-determination “in the indigenous and ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.”

Canada had voted against the same measure since 2006, and its about-face was seen as dramatic. Many observers said Ottawa could have shifted to neutral by abstaining.

The government called the resolution “a reflection of our longstanding commitment to the right of self-determination for both Palestinians and Israelis,” and “the need for all countries to do what they can to support the successful creation of a Palestinian state, living in peace and security with its neighbour Israel.”

As for UNRWA, the Liberals reinstated funding to the embattled agency after Harper’s Conservatives slashed it because of the organization’s ties to extremist groups.

Last December, Canada announced $90 million in new funding to the agency over three years, bringing the Liberals’ overall commitment to UNRWA to about $200 million.

The Liberals have said they will not end or freeze funding even after reports have shown that teaching materials at UNRWA-run schools in the Middle East are rife with anti-Zionist and antisemitic content, and that UNRWA teaching staff have made antisemitic comments on social media.

In April 2020, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, then a candidate for the party’s leadership, told The CJN he would end funding to UNRWA by the mid-point of a Tory first term “unless it is significantly reformed. It cannot under any circumstances provide support to terror organizations or their affiliates. It also cannot create dependencies, which serve as a deterrent to lasting peace and deter resettlement efforts in other parts of the world.”

O’Toole has said Canada-Israel relations have “weakened and wavered” under the Liberals, and he has pledged to move Canada’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

It will be interesting to see whether Jewish support for the NDP will slip this time, given that the party now supports sanctions against Israel. At their virtual convention last spring, New Democrats voted to support a ban on trade with Israeli settlements and for an arms embargo against Israel “until Palestinian rights are upheld.”

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh explained that to find a solution to the Mideast conflict, “some pressure is required. And that’s something I support.” He rejected suggestions that the passage of the measures could open his party to accusations of antisemitism. “I have a really strong commitment to fighting antisemitism,” he said.

The 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada found that among Jewish NDP supporters, only nine percent thought the party was not supportive enough of Israel (47 percent said its support for Israel was “about right,” and 27 percent it was too supportive).

Jewish support also declines with age, the study suggested. Eighteen percent of respondents aged 18-29 said they support the NDP, compared to eight percent over the age of 74.

As for the Green Party of Canada, perhaps no other head of a federal political party has taken as many body blows in a comparably short interval as has Annamie Paul, the only female and Jewish leader of a major federal political party.

The list is long: Accusations of being soft on Israel’s actions in the Gaza conflict, leading to the defection of one of three Green MPs to the Liberals, and, relatedly, Paul’s refusal to disavow an aide who said unnamed MPs would be defeated and replaced with Zionists; financial cuts, staff cutbacks, challenges to Paul’s leadership and even her membership in the party itself.

Last month, she said the previous weeks had been “incredibly painful” for her and her family, and that she had considered quitting “many times.”

Even as a candidate for the leadership, she recalled earlier, her loyalty to Canada was questioned, and she was accused of taking bribes from Israel and leading a Zionist take-over of the Green Party.

Paul said that in her term as leader, she has made only two statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It’s a question of whether I will be judged for my actions and what I have actually said, or whether other things which I’m very proud of and also took a toll, like the fact that I’m a Jewish woman, enter into play.”

Being critical of Israel “is not antisemitism,” Paul said.

The survey of Jews in Canada found Jewish support for the Greens at two percent.

Paul will run in the riding of Toronto Centre, setting her up for a rematch in the riding she failed to win in a byelection last October, when she came in second to Liberal newcomer Marci Ien after former finance minister Bill Morneau resigned the seat. Paul garnered a healthy one-third of the votes cast.

Other Jewish candidates to keep an eye on include:

  • Melissa Lantsman, who’s carrying the Tory banner in Thornhill after Peter Kent, who’s represented the riding since 2008, announced he would be resigning. Lantsman will face Liberal Gary Gladstone, who lost to Kent in the 2019 election by a 10,000-vote margin.
  • Ya’ara Saks won Toronto’s York Centre riding for the Liberals in a byelection last October following the resignation of Michael Levitt, who became CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre (and who, in turn, defeated Conservative Mark Adler in 2015). This time, Saks will face Joel Etienne, an Orthodox Jew who ran for the Canadian Alliance in 2000 in Eglinton-Lawrence. Etienne finished third against then Liberal incumbent Joseph Volpe.

Other Jewish incumbents and candidates to watch:

  • Mount Royal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather; Winnipeg-area MPs Jim Carr (Liberal) and Marty Morantz (Conservative); Julie Dabrusin, the Liberal MP for Toronto-Danforth; and David Graham, Liberal MP for Laurentides-Labelle in Quebec.

  • Documentary film producer Avi Lewis will be the NDP candidate in the southern British Columbia riding of West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country.

  • And Toronto lawyer and entrepreneur Tamara Kronis is the Conservative hopeful in the Vancouver Island riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith, where she will face incumbent Paul Manly, one of two current Green Party MPs.