up north

How Do Canadian Jews View Israel?

For all the talk of the Jewish vote in the recent U.S. elections, I can’t help but wonder how Canadian Jews are conceiving of their own political commitments towards Israel. Canada’s Jews have a more traditional profile on most ethnic and religious measures than their American counterparts. And last year’s Canadian federal election cemented the different political profiles of the two communities as Canadian Jews tilted rightwards.

Morton Weinfeld, professor of sociology at McGill University and longtime analyst of Canadian Jewry recently told me Canadian Jews, by many common metrics—ritual observance, visits to Israel, Jewish education, marrying other Jews, etc.—are more “Jewish,” as he put it, than American Jews. They are also more religiously traditional by denomination.

Among other differences, according to Weinfeld, Canada has a higher proportion of Holocaust survivors than does America, as well as a higher proportion of Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, where attitudes tend to be more traditional. Canadian Jews are also a relatively newer immigrant population compared to American Jews. One out of every four Jews in Canada was born elsewhere, compared to one in ten in the United States. All these factors lead Weinfeld to suggest that a newer and more traditional immigrant group—and one still directly touched by the Holocaust—may mean a more insecure group.

What does all this say for Canadian Jewish attitudes to Israel? Unfortunately the data is lacking. Canadian Jews simply haven’t been surveyed to the extent of their American co-religionists.

But we do know that Canadian Jews have recently seen a striking shift in their traditional party allegiances. In the last Canadian federal election, the Liberal Party—long the party of choice for Canadian Jewish voters–lost significant ground to the Conservatives, with 52% of Canadian Jews voting Conservative.

Even longtime Liberal MP Irwin Cotler lost the Jewish vote for the first time in his Montreal riding, thanks no doubt to the kinds of scare-tactic campaigning that Republicans would use in the 2012 U.S. election.

What explains the shift? Most analysts attribute it to Prime Minister Harper’s vocal support for Israel. Unlike for Americans, Canadian voters can be more comfortable in the knowledge that basic social democratic values will not be wildly compromised if they abandon their traditional support for the Liberals. Universal health care is well entrenched, same-sex marriage has been legalized, higher education is affordable, and despite what appear to be small tempests now and again, abortion rights are protected. So perceived support for Israel can more easily be cast as a swing issue.

Still, for all these differences, I can’t help notice that so much of Canadian Jewish institutional expression comes directly from the United States. Jewish Federations of North America is headquartered in the U.S., and with some minor exceptions, all rabbinical seminaries are U.S.-based. The major Jewish summer camping movements are all based in the U.S., as is Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. These organizations might do well to give more thought to how to engage the Canadian population in the kind of deep and broad dialogue on Israel that Americans–with the higher prominence of progressive organizations on Israel–have begun to do.

Perhaps the apparent differences between Canadian and American Jews on matters related to Israel will soon level off as the aging immigrant populations are replaced by native born sons and daughters.

But we still need to ask whether a more insecure ethnic community should lead to a more hawkish stance when it comes to Israel’s Palestinian policies. The question of political loyalty is often pitched at a presumed siege mentality. If Jews believe that Israel is under imminent threat from Iran, and if they picture a withdrawal from the West Bank as resulting in the kind of rocket fire Israelis have had to endure from Hamas in Gaza, then it follows that true friendship may very well be seen to equal a lack of criticism–coupled with rhetorical support–for an array of Israeli policies.

Ultimately, the question boils down to the concept of political friendship. Who is the better political ally: one who supports the friend in everything they do, or one who pushes that friend towards improving his or her lot? Right now many Canadian Jews have been led to believe that criticism means abandonment. With this view, the road to peace may be long indeed.