The Jewish Nomad: Playing the field when talking about politics is a tricky game

Ilana Zackon’s view of both sides of the field at Christie Pits in Toronto.

On the latest episode of Bonjour Chai, the weekly current affairs podcast I co-host for The CJN, we discussed whether gentile actors should play Jews, the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics and the aftermath of a Toronto school board scandal sparked by antisemitic teaching materials. 

It was an eclectic bunch of topics, for which we came to one conclusion: moderate voices are the toughest to find. At least when it comes to speaking out loud.

Political involvement wasn’t something that came up for me prior to becoming an adult. Growing up in Montreal meant hearing “Jews vote Liberal.” I never thought to question why.

Finding out how much of the Jewish community are now proudly supporting the Conservatives didn’t sink in until I moved to Toronto in the midst of a federal election. It still boggles the mind of the Montrealer that I’ll forever be.

A decade ago, in my late teens at theatre school, I had a close friend who was super-involved politically. My pal was aghast when I had no interest in looking at the news section of the Montreal Gazette. (Back then, I only cared about the culture pages, and the comics.)

He prodded me to pay more attention to the election and read up on all the parties. It was then I was introduced to the online Vote Compass run by the CBC, which asks a bunch of questions during each election, to determine which party best reflects your interests. 

I can’t even remember where Teenage Ilana landed on that spectrum. But after 10 years of being almost entirely surrounded by artists, I can say that my compass has generally pointed left.

And, to be honest, I never questioned those leanings… until the subject of Israel seemed to start coming up more often than before.

It was then I noticed how I didn’t quite fit into one box. 

Sure, I was a socially progressive hipster—but I was also a Jew, and a proud one brought up to love being a Zionist. 

If you asked me a year ago, I’d have proclaimed I was a lefty. But a lot can change in 12 months, which sunk in when I started feeling afraid to voice my opinions in artistic circles. I might still lean in the left direction. It’s just more nuanced now.

I also wasn’t too fond of supporters of the Conservative Party, and couldn’t get over how it gained so much support from Jews.

In my mind, those voters were inches away from supporters of Donald Trump. But I’m also willing to admit that I faded during the contemporary politics segment of my Canadian history class in high school. (I did better with retaining facts about the past.)

If I heard someone was a Tory, in fact, I’d inwardly sneer and maybe even look the other way. I even went through a period where I thought I couldn’t even be friends with somebody who voted Blue. 

But since I’m no longer an apolitical teen, it was during the past year of the Israeli-Palestinan conflict that I found myself overwhelmed and inundated with extremes. I ended up feeling less interested in picking a political side when I couldn’t fit into a singular box.

Today, either you’re fighting against the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream boycott because you can’t admit the Israeli government is unjustifiably building settlements on Arab land—or, on the other side, you’re so livid that the State of Israel exists that you refuse to support any products from that godforsaken place. 

Can you see why “progressive Zionist” became the term that I was most comfortable with?

When we started Bonjour Chai, I figured I could only be the most left-wing of the bunch. After all, I was flanked by Avi Finegold—an actual rabbi with an Orthodox ordination—and Conservative MP-to-be Melissa Lantsman, who left the podcast to run for office. (David Sklar, a fellow actor, took over the third microphone via Calgary.)

But it didn’t take long before I started wondering if I was the moderate one in the virtual recording room. Which was hilarious to me because, in other circles, I wouldn’t describe myself that way.

Well, I’ve come to realize that Avi and I are both lefties, only in different ways. He argues that environmentalism is a Jewish issue. I argue for authentic Jewish representation on screen. At this rate, we won’t run out of things to debate about.

What these exercises have left me wondering is why anyone would want to define themselves along a singular party line, now that I’ve learned politics can be a messy game. 

And, if moderate voices seem like they’re not being heard, try and take it from me. You probably just need friends to tell you to pay more attention—in every direction. 

Ilana Zackon can be reached at [email protected] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai