Who do CIJA and Honest Reporting really serve?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to members of the Christian press at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (FLASH90 PHOTO)

Benjamin Netanyahu remains the strongman of Israel. In Canada, he is King Bibi to adoring subjects. To doubt his leadership is lèse-majesté. The standard response to Netanyahu’s critics is to deny, denounce or disappear. There is little interest in a real debate here – indeed, there is real fear of one.

In February, I wrote a column for the Ottawa Citizen about the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which calls itself “the agent of the Canadian Jewish Community.” I described CIJA’s work as “commendable, even indispensable” – after all, who can argue with protecting Jewish schools and fighting anti-Semitism?

But I also inquired about its money, accountability and advocacy, particularly why it pushes Ottawa to embrace positions anathema to many in our community. This included, most recently, a full-throated endorsement of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which was condemned overwhelmingly by the United Nations. I wondered about CIJA’s founding CEO, Shimon Fogel, who was closely aligned with the Conservatives; like them, Fogel opposed the multi-party, anti-nuclear agreement with Iran that Canada now supports and the U.S. threatens.

CIJA was created mysteriously – it looked like a hostile takeover – out of the Canadian Jewish Congress and operates mysteriously.

CIJA was created mysteriously – it looked like a hostile takeover – out of the Canadian Jewish Congress and operates mysteriously. When it comes to explaining itself, CIJA, to paraphrase Robert Kennedy, “offers all aid short of help.” It receives (an estimated) $8 to $11 million a year, with no public scrutiny.

So what to do if you oppose CIJA’s lobbying but support it financially, through your annual contribution to the United Jewish Appeal? I suggested four steps. Demand that CIJA reflect a more progressive view on Israel. Demand that it emphasize education over advocacy. Demand a change in CIJA’s sclerotic leadership. Demand that Jewish federations allow donors to opt out of funding CIJA, or divert their support to other Jewish charities.

This was heresy. The CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa cited “misconceptions and mischaracterizations” in a breathless response flashed to major donors. “Mr. Cohen can have his own views on Israel. That’s OK,” she harrumphed, “but it is not OK when he advocates that Jews cut their donations to Jewish federations.” My views, apparently, are fine when I donate to the Federation, as I have for years. My views are fine when I address a meeting of the Federation’s prominent female donors, as I did last autumn. Now, they’re unkosher.

After my column appeared, I was contacted by a lawyer in Montreal who monitors CIJA closely. The organization “does not advocate for Canadian Jews but, rather, to Canadian Jews on behalf of Israel’s government,” he argued. He said he tried to engage CIJA “respectfully” on social media while warning of “the dangers of treating the community as a monolith acting in lockstep with the Israeli government.” His messages were ignored, he told me, and they blocked him on Twitter.

CIJA is a lapdog compared with Honest Reporting Canada.

But CIJA is a lapdog compared with Honest Reporting Canada, which “promotes fairness and accuracy” in coverage of Israel in Canada’s media. It called another recent column I wrote on Netanyahu and Donald Trump “anti-Israel”. (Like the Federation, it conceded that “Cohen is certainty entitled to his own opinions,” but argued clumsily that my piece “was devoid of serious argumentation.”)

The problem comes down to this: CIJA and Honest Reporting Canada revere Netanyahu and I don’t. Hilariously, Honest Reporting charged that I didn’t mention that Netanyahu has “strenuously denied the charges” of corruption against him. My mistake; perhaps I should have said that he welcomes them. Frankly, I was disappointed not to be called a self-hating Jew, the reflexive refrain from this crowd. But I was delighted with the old canard that criticizing Netanyahu is criticizing Israel.

I wrote Honest Reporting Canada, thanking them for publicizing my column and using it to raise money on Facebook for their organization. I’ll take a commission – in the form of an honest debate.


Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor and the author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours that Made History.