In politics, friendship is tricky business. When it comes to his government’s relationship to Israel, though, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper tries to keep things simple.
Last Sunday, Harper was feted at the annual JNF Negev Dinner in Toronto, where he was presented with the honor of a bird sanctuary in the Hula Valley in northern Israel to be built in his name. The dinner also coincided with the announcement of his first planned visit to the country to take place in the new year. Wearing all black, Harper announced to the guests that he was going to show them “love and affection” by playing a few classic rock songs for the crowd.
In his remarks, Harper spared no opportunity to laud Israel while criticizing its neighbors, referring to Israel as the “homeland of the Jewish people...a light of freedom and democracy in what otherwise is a region of darkness.”
He then waxed poetic. “We understand that the future of our country and of our shared civilization depends on the survival and thriving of that free and democratic homeland of the Jewish people in the Middle East.”
Powerful words, indeed.
In a video message broadcast to the 4,000 attendees, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated, “Stephen doesn’t follow the herd. He has stood up for the truth, time and time again. Stephen doesn’t want to be politically correct, he wants to be correct. He had the courage to stand up for what he believed.”
Bibi is onto something, certainly. If political correctness partly means pausing to choose one’s words and deeds to consider the ripple effect on others, then Bibi is right: Harper is not politically correct. It’s not clear whether he means non-democratic regimes or the people they govern, but referring to the entire region of the Middle East—except for Israel—as a “region of darkness” can’t bode well for inter-cultural understanding.
Bibi’s also right to claim that Harper truly believes in his own policy approach to Israel. Assuming that many or most Jews have become convinced that Harper is their man, courting the Jewish vote simply does not make sense as a vote-getting strategy. The number of Canadian ridings where winning the Jewish vote would make a difference is tiny. When it comes to Israel, Harper’s policies are more about ideological conviction than electoral calculation.
I can understand how Israel supporters would find Harper’s stance more than reassuring. I can understand how in Harper, they see a true friend, one who is loyal and unwavering, one who will go to the wall for Israel, and by extension, for them, as Canadian Jews.
What I remained perplexed by, though, is how different sets of Jews—even ones who feel so attached to Israel they speak only Hebrew to their kids; ones who spend their career researching, writing and teaching about the Jewish state, and ones who feel like Israel, with all its flaws and idiosyncrasies, is in their souls—conceive of friendship so differently.
Is it the mark of true friendship to remain mostly silent as Israel feeds its addiction to the settlement project? Is it the mark of true friendship to oppose the Palestinian bid for U.N. statehood—a symbol that evokes the only political solution, the two-state one, that would preserve Israel’s security and core identity as a Jewish and democratic state?
When a community is in the grips of a siege mentality, that sort of lockstep friendship may seem appealing. The question is whether the Canadian Jewish community can see beyond the walls of their perceived siege to entertain pragmatic, workable and longer-term solutions to this depressing and enervating conflict, ones which will ultimately be best for everyone.