GUEST VOICE: Community needs unity, not uniformity

Jewish Defence League protesters outside the home of pharmaceutical magnate Barry Sherman on Aug. 26, 2015. PAUL LUNGEN PHOTO

Democratic engagement is not an absolute phenomenon. Emerging democracies, with relatively little experience in the practice of free and fair elections, often serve as the backdrop for violence, intimidation, and voting irregularities. That is why the international community will frequently volunteer election-monitoring teams to help guide the process. 

The ultimate goal is to entrench the kind of political process that is common in advanced democracies like Canada – where the political system and cultural norms regulate electoral behaviour to ensure the highest standard of conduct. Candidates are vetted to ensure suitability; campaign spending rules strive for a level playing field; and the comportment of candidates, political parties, and the electorate are expected to foster respectful, if passionate and intense, discourse throughout the campaign. 

Those values, cherished by all Canadians, are most evident when breached. Recently, a cascade of noxious and disturbing personal attacks has been circulating, targeting members of our community who are simply exercising their rights as Canadian citizens. There is no space within the bounds of legitimate political debate for the slanderous misrepresentations that have been made against some of our community’s most committed members.

Election campaigns are a unique opportunity to engage in the democratic process and to play an active role in shaping our country. The active involvement of Canadian Jews in our democracy predates Confederation and continues to this day; Jewish activists, donors, candidates, members of Parliament and cabinet, and officials in all political parties make a rich and positive contribution to the democratic process and to our beloved Canada. 

CIJA, the advocacy agent of the Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, is a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of Jewish life in Canada. Federal law prohibits CIJA from commenting directly on recent assertions that raise questions about particular candidates and parties. However, we can reaffirm our desire to see our constituency develop a strong relationship with and presence in all political parties. We embrace our community’s diversity, which is a sign of strength and vitality. Our goal is to advance the community’s public policy interests with all political parties, enhancing unity – not uniformity – among Jewish Canadians.

We strongly encourage Jewish Canadians to engage fully in the democratic process and to get involved in the federal election to the greatest extent possible. You can learn more about the issues in CIJA’s “Federal Election Issues Guide.” We urge you to reach out to local candidates on the issues that matter most to you, and take action by supporting your party or candidate of choice, which the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee (CJPAC) can help facilitate.

We should all be supportive of fellow community members exercising their fundamental democratic rights. Intense political debate is natural, but it must be constructive and respectful. Disparaging, personal attacks have no place in this discourse. They undermine our community’s interests, foment divisiveness within Canadian Jewry, and contaminate the political process with a level of vitriol that should never be injected into the campaign.

Political engagement across party lines is legitimate and should be celebrated. No one should be discouraged from participating in the democratic process based on his or her point of view on any given issue. Equally, if not more importantly, intolerance of a pluralistic approach to the public policy debate and party preference challenges core Jewish values. 

Our tradition is replete not only with the accommodation for multiple views but also the protection of, and, indeed, promotion of diversity of opinion. While subscribing to the democratic principle of “majority rules,” Jewish law obliges attention to the value of diversity and the critical role of minority opinion. This is true with respect to halachic decisions relating to ritual issues – and it extends in an explicit way to governance at the communal level – the election of “tovei ha’ir” (community council). But nowhere is it expressed more explicitly than in the case of judicial consideration of a capital case – and there are profound lessons to be learned from the Talmud’s basic rule in this matter. 

If a court unanimously arrives at a guilty verdict in a capital case – without a single dissenting view – the accused must be set free. Inherent to this law is an idea that is directly applicable to this discussion: our tradition respects consensus, but is suspicious of unanimity. We should all take that lesson to heart – celebrating the spirit of true unity that derives precisely from diversity and that eschews uniformity. 

As a community we need to internalize that lesson – true unity derives from diversity, not uniformity. 

And, finally, since we have your attention, please consider this: on election day, don’t vote alone. Assist others to exercise their rights. Whether driving a neighbour to the polling station, or encouraging a young Canadian to vote for the first time, it is important that we all have the opportunity to support the party and candidate of our choosing. 

Shimon Koffler Fogel is the CEO and David J. Cape is the  chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.