In late December, I attended my first international conference as a member of Parliament. The International Conference of Jewish Parliamentarians, sponsored by the World Jewish Congress, met in Jerusalem over a three-day period.
Irwin Cotler and I represented Canada, and we were joined by members of the U.S. Congress, members of the Knesset and parliamentarians from countries such as France, Belgium, Chile, Brazil, Ukraine, Romania and Hungary. As a group, we were able to meet with representatives from across the spectrum of Israeli politics, including those from different parties within the governing coalition and those in the opposition. We also met with members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s team and the leaders in the Foreign Ministry.
Engaging with both governing and opposition politicians and senior civil servants allowed us to look past partisanship and foster an open dialogue that allowed for substantive discussion on such issues as the peace process, Islamic State (ISIS), Iran, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and labelling requirements, and the relationship between Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora. We also had the chance to meet with some Israeli entrepreneurs and appreciate the genius of a tiny country that had more venture capital investment than any of its European neighbours in the last year.
During the course of the meetings, we had the opportunity as Jewish parliamentarians to discuss and learn from one another as to how we individually and our political parties and countries were handling such issues as BDS and the Iranian nuclear agreement from both a legislative and an advocacy framework.
A particularly noteworthy portion of the discussions related to the strong belief amongst Israelis that there is a true opportunity to improve relationships between Israel and several Arab and Muslim states. While there was very little enthusiasm for discussion with the Palestinian Authority, and almost no feeling that such discussions would lead to a lasting peace, the twin threats of ISIS and Iran have given Israel and many Arab and Muslim states a common enemy.
As such, the prospects for improved relations with Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and the creation of relationships with the Gulf States are opportunities that cannot be missed. These improved ties within the region could ease security concerns and foster greater security interdependence while strengthening the front against regional threats such as ISIS and Iran. Canada can and should be at the forefront of facilitating this dialogue.
Another thought-provoking thread of discussion revolved around the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews. I came away from the meeting noting that Israel has now revised its view of the Diaspora. At one time, Diaspora Jews were seen almost purely as a source of money and immigrants for Israel. But the Israelis we met took great pains to tell us this attitude has now shifted to the recognition of the importance of a strong Jewish Diaspora. There is an understanding amongst many Israelis that Israel, which is so conscious of national security, needs the message of pluralism and social conscience that comes from Jews in the Diaspora. Both of these are quintessential parts of the Jewish experience in countries like Canada.
But we in the Diaspora also need to be reminded of Israelis’ fears about national security. Given what Israelis live through on a daily basis and their knowledge of the military and counter-terrorism, the constant suspicion of threat is understandable. As the West faces new dangers from organizations such as ISIS, there are lessons we can also learn from the Israelis who manage to live normally in one of the most dangerous regions of the world.
As a Canadian Jew, I was keen to learn from other Jewish parliamentarians in the Diaspora about the challenges they faced in their own countries, both as members of a religious minority and on advocacy issues. Their challenges reminded me how fortunate we are to live in Canada.
I look forward to briefing my colleagues on these meetings and working with my colleagues from all parties to ensure Canada continues to take a leadership role against BDS and labelling requirements which single out Israel, continuing with Iran Accountability Week in May, and working to make sure that, where possible, we undertake concerted efforts to help Israel improve relations with other states.
Anthony Housefather is member of Parliament for Mount Royal