Harper honoured at Tel Aviv U

Prime Minister Stephen Harper receives an honorary PhD from  Tel Aviv University. [Jason Ransom/PMO photo]

TEL AVIV — On the final stop of a packed three-day itinerary in Israel, Prime Minister Stephen Harper received an honorary PhD from Tel Aviv University (TAU) and participated in a short question-and-answer session in which he reiterated Canada’s views on “trouble spots” Egypt, Syria and Iran.

Harper,who was first offered the degree back in 2008, joked that he was pleased that “you waited so long,” and that “I didn’t do anything in the meantime to jeopardize this award.”

The degree was conferred for Harper’s “exemplary conduct as a prominent world leader who promotes freedom, human rights and the rule of law.”

TAU president Joseph Klafter said, “At a time when voices are calling for a boycott on Israeli academia… Mr. Harper is voting with his feet.”

The mood in the room was friendly and fun, a light-hearted interlude following a serious three days of talks and visits to holy sites before Harper left Israel for Jordan. Participants began by loudly singing both the Canadian and Israeli national anthems.

Barbara Seal, national president of Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University (CFTAU), announced the inauguration of a new chair at the university in Harper’s name, contributing “to science and scholarship, and the innovative research challenges facing both Israeli and Canadian society.”

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said he was “touched that you have chosen to end your visit to Israel in one of the world’s most creative cities, top party cities, gay-friendly cities. These titles all represent our core values of pluralism and tolerance. We are proud to host a leader who, in the name of these values, defends Israel even when defending Israel is not a popular thing to do.”

He added that as a “great friend of Israel and the Jewish People,” Harper is “indeed mishpachah.”

“Today we can even call you doctor,” joked Huldai, “and make you the dream of every Jewish mother.”

He urged Harper, who last night serenaded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline and other songs at a state dinner, to sing along as he whipped out a recorder and played Auld Lang Syne.

Harper himself rolled with the mood, quipping that although his mother is not Jewish, “I can tell you two things: when I tell her that I am now a doctor, she will be very happy, and she will still expect more.”

The question-and-answer session was moderated by local media personality Leah Zinder. After asking a few general questions about the economy, she asked Harper about Canada’s official policy regarding the current situations in Egypt and Syria.

“Our government’s take on both of these may be a little bit different from what some are used to hearing,” Harper said.

In Egypt, Harper noted that while there was initially a great deal of international enthusiasm, “We in Canada were a little more cautious… and that caution has borne out” as the world witnessed “the use of certain democratic tools to achieve what was in fact… an authoritarian Islamic state.”

Now, the global community must “pressure the Egyptian government to move in the right direction… in a way that will strengthen and reinforce the forces of progress and modernization.”

When Zinder reminded Harper that she’d also asked about Syria, Harper sighed, saying, “Oh, boy.”

“The nature and scale of the suffering going on in that country is almost incomprehensible,” he continued. As he moves with his delegation into Jordan tomorrow, he said he’ll be visiting “some of the refugee camps where Canada’s trying to help… deal with these problems.”

But, he said, we mustn’t view the conflict as just “a Syrian issue.” This is no longer, if it ever was, simply a revolution to overthrow a brutal regime. “It has clearly become, over time, a sectarian war backed by and part of a wider sectarian conflict in the region.”

The true conflict is between a “Shia government backed by Iran,” and opposed by “a Sunni insurgency that is increasingly extreme and dangerous, backed by countries… from that side of the spectrum… I don’t see how the victory of either of those forces could be in the interest of Canada or Israel or anyone else.”

Finally, on the issue of Iran, he reiterated views he already shared Jan. 20 evening at the Knesset.

“I’ve been very vocal about this for many years,” said Harper. “[Iran] is an extremist fundamentalist regime with a violent and hateful ideology. It wants to possess nuclear weapons. It tells the world it wants to possess nuclear weapons for the purpose of using nuclear weapons. This is truly frightening… particularly for Israel, which is the target of its hostility , but not the sole target.”

While Canada appreciates the diplomatic measures taken by the UN Security Council, Canada must also “keep our eye on the ball,” not “become victims of our own wishful thinking.” Until Iran has halted its nuclear program, Canada will not lift its sanctions and indeed, “we will be the loudest in the international community demanding that full sanctions be reinstated.”

Speaking to The CJN after the question-and-answer session, Toronto Rabbi Philip Scheim of Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Congregation, part of a boisterous delegation of Canadian community and religious leaders, called Harper an “inspiration” to Canada’s Jewish community, “reminding us of the ever-present possibility of speaking the truth and sharing the feelings of one’s heart, no matter what the political consequences may be.”