Canadians at odds with their government on Israel

As the future of Israeli Jews and Palestinians spirals down into an inevitable and inexorable apartheid struggle, Canadians are being denied their fundamental right in a democracy. That is the right to an honest and frank debate about one of the most important issues faced by the international community -- the ongoing illegal occupation of Palestinian land and the brutal suppression of Palestinian human rights. 

It's not that Canadians don't care or don't try to inform themselves. It's that both the media and federal governments are loath to even talk about it. With these two institutions maintaining a steadfast silence there can be no genuine debate. And so we betray both Israelis and Palestinians by condemning them to a future of violence.

For the past 40 years the governments in Ottawa have revealed an abject cowardice when it comes to any effective action to promote peace. While on the books Canada is committed to a "two-state" solution our total failure to act means that that this solution is now hanging by a thread. The most recent madness coming out of the Netanyahu government is the "land grab" law -- its popular name in Israel. It empowers the state to legalize the illegal settler outposts retroactively and could be used to annex the West Bank. It will, if ever used, have catastrophic results.

At least that is the opinion of most commentators in Israel, across Europe and among EU governments -- even Germany. In Canada the best we could do was a buried 152-word Global Affairs news release five days after the fact saying our government is "deeply concerned" and calling the law "unhelpful." It is pathetic and irresponsible. 

Surveying attitudes

It is hardly new but we can now say with some certainty something we could not say until yesterday with the release of a new public opinion survey, conducted by EKOS and Associates, exploring Canadian attitudes towards Israel and Canadian government policy. The poll was commissioned by a coalition of organizations and individuals (including me).

The survey is critically important because the carte blanche, pro-Israeli government policy of federal governments (Conservative and Liberal) is built on a foundation of untested assumptions about Canadian attitudes. The conventional wisdom, conveniently promoted by the government, the Israeli lobby, and many in the media, is that Canadians are massively sympathetic to Israel.

That's convenient but quite false. Rather than expressing an uncritically positive view of Israel, Canadians demonstrate the opposite. Of those expressing a view, 46 per cent expressed a negative view while 28 per cent expressed a positive view (26 per cent had neither). As with all the survey questions, when results were broken down by party preference, Conservative Party supporters were radical outliers in favour of Israel with a 58 per cent positive view. The average for supporters of the other four parties was 11 per cent positive and 63 per cent negative.  

When asked whether or not they thought the government was biased towards Israel or Palestinians, 61 per cent said pro-Israel and 16 per cent said pro-Palestinian (23 per cent detected no bias). Again, remove the Conservative voter from the mix and 74 per cent of other-party supporters see a pro-Israel bias and 9 per cent pro-Palestinian.

With supporters of the Liberals, NDP, Bloc and Green Party all obviously open to a shift in government policy towards justice for Palestinians, what are they afraid of? The answer is easy: Israel enjoys a plethora of well-funded and aggressive lobby groups in Canada ready to mount instant and personal campaigns against any criticism of Israel. B'nai Brith Canada, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the World Zionist Congress, Canadian Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, and Jewish Federations across the country have huge influence over politicians, government officials, universities and media.

A powerful lobby

Any politician or political party that dares raise any criticism of Israel can expect over-the-top denunciations that, no matter how ridiculous, force them to defend themselves -- and inevitably leave some with doubts. One example was B'nai Brith's attack on the Green Party's former justice critic, Dimitri Lascaris (another sponsor of the EKOS poll), with this website headline: "Green Party Justice Critic Advocates on Behalf of Terrorists." Lascaris was the main advocate for having the Green Party support the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) campaign.

CIJA in particular has enormous resources -- a staff of 50 spread across the country, and very deep pockets -- with which it can monitor media, demonize critics, promote policies to politicians and their advisers, and offer free tours to Israel to opinion-leaders. These lobby organizations all create the same false narratives: that Israel is democratic, that the BDS campaign seeks to destroy Israel, and, perhaps most offensive and intimidating, that any effective criticism of Israel is part of the "new anti-Semitism." 

One of the most encouraging revelations in the new survey is the fact that the vast majority of Canadians reject this notion. When asked, "Is criticism of the Israeli Government necessarily anti-Semitic," 91 per cent of respondents said no. Strip out the Conservative voters and the number is 98 per cent. Though the sample of Jewish respondents was small, a clear majority of religious (78 per cent) and ethnic Jews (93 per cent) rejected this idea.

CIJA's credibility with politicians and the media is based on its completely unsupported claim that it speaks for Canadian Jews. This poll at least suggests just how shaky that claim is. It is not surprising that CIJA, with all its resources, has never conducted (or at least released) a poll on Canadian Jews' attitudes towards the Israeli government or towards Canadian Middle-East policy. What are they afraid of? Our survey suggests the answer. Any poll would reveal a deep divide in the Jewish community regarding Israel and that would undermine CIJA's influence.

In the meantime the Liberals and the NDP should overcome their unfounded fear of lobby groups and listen to their supporters. The Green Party just released the results of its poll of members on the issue: 90 per cent backed "Measures to pressure the government of Israel to preserve the two-state solution." In other words, government sanctions. It's a start. Now, will the NDP poll its members and change its policies?

Murray Dobbin has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's State of the Nation column.

PMO Photo by Adam Scotti

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