Political differences among Jews aren’t new, observers say

The three main party leaders at the Munk Debate on Foreign Policy

It’s funny. On the national stage, Canada’s relationship with Israel – and which party is best positioned to maintain it – barely became an issue. In interviews with The CJN in our last issue, each of the party leaders proclaimed their support for Israel, for a negotiated peace agreement with the Palestinians and their opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. 

Yet on the campaign trail, in a few select ridings where the Jewish vote might make a difference, candidates traded barbs over which party can best be trusted to have Israel’s back. The Conservatives referred to their record of backing the Jewish state when times got tough, and when it wasn’t necessarily a popular position to take. Liberal and New Democratic candidates in Mount Royal, Eglinton-Lawrence, York Centre and Thornhill, among other ridings, argued there is barely any daylight between the parties’ positions on Israel.

Tory candidates pointed to some Liberal candidates’ problematic position on Israel and noted how in the past, the Liberals hadn’t always voted for Israel at the UN. Liberal candidates responded that the Tories ought not make Israel “a wedge issue.”

Other issues have divided Jewish voters, including refugee policy and the whether Muslim women should remove the niqab when taking the oath of citizenship.

At one point in the campaign, a small group of protesters, organized by the Jewish Defence League, gathered outside the Toronto home of Honey and Barry Sherman as they hosted Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in a fundraiser for the party and for York Centre candidate Michael Levitt. They were protesting what they called the Liberals’ dangerous policy on Iran and the fact a prominent Jewish family would host him.

So is there a wedge developing in the Jewish community based on political orientation? Not according to a handful of observers who believe differences over parties’ positions on Israel and the Mideast won’t have a lasting effect.

The community isn’t monolithic – there’s no one view on which party to support in any election – so political disagreements won’t prevent joint action on a host of other issues, whether it be reacting to events in Israel, tackling poverty or supporting Jewish eduction, they say.

Shimon Fogel was at the centre of some of the political jockeying during the recently concluded campaign. As CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), he received requests from partisan officials eager for him to endorse their party’s record on Israel. But he declined, citing legal constraints on charitable organizations.

Yet political differences in the community are nothing new. “These different perspectives had emerged long before Honey and Barry Sherman decided to host an event for Michael Levitt and the Liberals,” he said. “It didn’t create cleavages that didn’t exist before.” What’s more, he added, “different perspectives are not inherently a bad thing. The Jewish community benefits from a whole range of different views.” 

As to suggestions Jewish unity might suffer due to politics, “I reject that assertion absolutely,” Fogel said. “CIJA is a big table. We have people representing a wide spectrum of political views. I see nothing but warmth and mutual respect around our table.”

Nelson Wiseman is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and has tracked voting trends among different Canadian groups. After the last election in 2011, Ipsos queried more than 39,000 voters at exit polls and found “the most striking shift was among Jews to the Conservatives.”

The data looked at a variety of ethnic and religious groups, and found that while the Tories received nearly 40 per cent of the vote overall, a gain from 36 per cent in the prior election, about 52 per cent of Jews backed the Conservatives, up 20 percentage points from 2008. (Jews comprise about one per cent of Canada’s population.) By contrast, only 12 per cent of Muslims voted Conservative, while 46 per cent supported the Liberals and 38 per cent backed the NDP.

Wiseman believes some of the Tories’ Jewish support stems from their strong stand vis-a-vis Israel. In the 2011 election, then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff alienated some Jews by suggesting Israel committed a war crime in a bombing in Lebanon. (He had also authored a piece in 2002 calling for an imposed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, enforced by foreign troops.)

Jews moved to the Conservatives in part over differences on the Middle East, but also because their socio-economic situation improved over the years, Wiseman said. For some, the Tories, who had been seen as the party of the Anglo-Saxon establishment, is now more welcoming for Jews, who are themselves much more established.

Differences over the Middle East were not at play to the same extent in the recent campaign. The Liberal and NDP messages of support for Israel drew Jews back to those parties, though not to the their historical levels, but enough to perhaps swing a vote in ridings held by Tories, he suggested.

Wiseman noted that at the Munk Debate, the issue of Israel was raised by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, but Trudeau quickly “shut that door,” and the issue wasn’t pursued. For most Canadians, it’s not a factor at all, and for Jewish Canadians, it was less of a factor than in previous elections.

Issie Lyon, chair of the co-ordinating committee of JSpace, a progressive Zionist group, does see a divide in the Jewish community. “Many feel they have to support Harper because of his strong support for Israel, regardless of his domestic policies and everything else he’s done,” Lyon said. “There is a sizable portion of the Jewish community that says we have to take into account what he’s done domestically and others who say it’s not particularly good for Israel because of his blind support.”