Political differences are no longer ‘unzera’ – between us

Bernie Farber

With the dissolution of organizations such as Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and the weakening of other groups like B’nai Brith Canada, the once open-hearted Canadian Jewish community has retrenched. Eschewing progressive initiatives of the past, where the fight for human and civil rights was paramount, today, legitimate concern about the security of the State of Israel has become the sole focus. As a result, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with his strong support for the Jewish state, has successfully used this fear as a wedge and helped cement a shift in Jewish voting patterns, moving them rightward.

To be clear, all three political leaders support the State of Israel. And there are many Canadian Jews who identify as progressive Zionists and remain fully engaged with the Jewish state. However, this isn’t the same as supporting the present Likud party. Yet today, support for Israel is being portrayed by many as support for Israeli government policy, even if progressive Canadian Jews disagree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision.

This issue has divided the community like no other, especially as we head toward a federal election. Don’t get me wrong: politics and Jews have always had a love/hate relationship. For decades, Jews relished arguments of any political nature. Indeed, during the heyday of CJC, shouting matches between community leaders on the left and right were commonplace, but they were always kept unzera, amongst ourselves.

Harper has cleverly changed that channel. Today, Jews who are seen as not supporting Harper are publicly shamed to a point that many prefer silence than to engage in political discussion. After all, to be labelled a Jew who is anti-Israel for refusing to support the Tory government is a badge few want to wear.

Recently a Montreal Gazette opinion piece written by an admitted Jewish Liberal lamented the fact he was being treated as a “one-issue” voter. Many Jews, I believe, silently share his concerns.

Yet our Jewish neighbours to the south seem to struggle less with the use of Israel as a divisive community wedge. In fact, the vast majority of American Jews remain Democrats, despite attempts by the American Jewish right to paint President Barack Obama as anti-Israel. Why?

The answer is at once simple and complex. In a nutshell, many American Jews have ancestors who came to North America well before the Holocaust and were, therefore, less directly affected by it, while many Canadian Jews are only one or two generations removed from the attempted genocide of the Jewish People. Thus there remains an existential angst among many Canadian Jews when it comes to the State of Israel as the last bastion of protection for the Jewish People. As a son of a Holocaust survivor, I understand, and even somewhat relate to, this fear.

Today’s political antics have changed our community. Never-before-seen visceral and venomous attacks have surfaced publicly. Jewish philanthropist Barry Sherman was lambasted by a former publisher of a Jewish magazine for having the audacity to support Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. When the editor’s fulminations were made public, the extremist Jewish Defense League shunned appeals from the mainstream Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and picketed Sherman’s home during a fundraiser for Trudeau.

In the end, all of these machinations may very well have a salutary effect on the Canadian Jewish community. While there was a definite shift to the right among Jewish voters in the last election, the seeds for that shift are no longer in play. Many in the community are simply fed up with the community being used as a political pawn, which will, I believe, influence this October’s vote. Remember: at least half of our community did not vote Tory in the last election.

Whichever way it goes, one thing is for certain: it’s no longer business as usual for the once-progressive Jewish community. Things have changed, and while the pendulum may be swinging back, I am not sanguine about it ever reaching the same balance we once had.