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Harper's once-iron grip on Jewish vote starts to slacken

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Joint news conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister in March 2

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It has long been the glory of Jews throughout the world that a numerically disproportionate number of them regularly supported liberal causes and liberal parties. This was true in apartheid South Africa, the segregated southern United States, Britain, Russia and, yes, Canada. Here, until 2011, a majority of Jews had always supported the intermittently liberal Liberal Party. The few prominent Jewish Conservatives were recognized as a rare species.

Why were so many Jews so often on the side of the oppressed? Having been the victims of unprovoked persecution down through the centuries, Jews presumably identified with the plight of other victims. Even as Western Jews gained acceptance and influence in the years after the Holocaust, their empathy for the underdog continued. There have always been embarrassing exceptions, but on the whole it was a proud record.

Among the least expected changes that Stephen Harper has wrought as Prime Minister has been the successful wooing of Jewish Canadians from the Liberal Party to his own, and from a generous progressivism to Mr. Harper's mean-spirited conservatism. It happened in the 2011 election, when Mr. Harper won his first majority. According to an Ipsos exit poll, 52 per cent of Jewish Canadians voted for the Conservatives, compared with only 39 per cent of other Canadians. The Liberals received 29 per cent of the Jewish vote, the NDP a derisory 16 per cent.

It was the first time that a majority of Canadian Jews had voted Conservative. Based on the pandering and lavish honours the Canadian Jewish establishment has showered on Mr. Harper, there is a widespread expectation that his party will do even better this time among Jewish voters. Of course, his unquestioning support for Israel's far-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu is echoed by a disappointingly large number of Canadian Jews, likely a majority.

But Jews have never been monolithic in their views on anything, to say the least, and so among them are fierce detractors of Mr. Harper. Some of these critics have grown increasingly discomfited by the homage the so-called leaders of the Jewish community pay him.

But most Canadians would probably not even know these honourable Jewish dissenters exist. Dissenting individuals and groups such as Independent Jewish Voices are largely shunned by the Jewish establishment, ignored by the mainstream media and dismissed as self-hating Jews by many heedless Conservatives. Now, for the election, some critics are fighting back, publicly, noisily and angrily.

Take lifelong social activist and progressive Zionist Ronnie Kaplansky (no relation), who is angry as hell at the Jewish establishment and won't take it any longer. Last week's issue of the Canadian Jewish News, a weekly paper that usually reflects the views of the Jewish leadership, carried an unusual full-age ad produced and paid for by Mr. Kaplansky, putting strongly his tough case against the Harper government. It's a courageous move, not calculated to win him new Jewish friends, as he perfectly well understands.

The ad notes Mr. Kaplansky's kosher credentials: He's both Canadian and Jewish. His parents once lived on an Israeli kibbutz. His sister is an Israeli who has always lived in Israel. And he's about to visit her for the seventh time.

Mr. Kaplansky's ad castigates CJN readers for their apparent indifference to the harm the Harper government has done to democracy and human rights in Canada, which he documents. In fact, he labels the Conservative Party as nothing more than the old "ultra-right-wing Reform Party." One might describe the Netanyahu government much the same way.

In an interview, Mr. Kaplansky told me that he is frustrated that Canadian Jews have embraced Mr. Harper as if nothing else matters but the Prime Minister's attitude toward Israel. Maybe that's why Mr. Kaplansky has only modest expectations for his initiative, and I fear he is right.

The "official" community spokespeople and institutions -- and who exactly elected them to represent all Jews? others ask -- have become more closed, more intolerant, than they have ever been. There is no room for even minor dissent from the established party line on Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu or Stephen Harper. You're either with them all the way or against them. Never mind how badly the Conservatives have undermined Canada's democratic traditions and institutions. They're on the Jewish/Israeli side. Nothing else apparently matters, as Ronnie Kaplansky observes.

Even when the Harper government has played politics with anti-Semitism, as it so flagrantly has; even when it recklessly labels as anti-Semitic those who merely disagree with it on the Middle East, as it has -- even then, the Jewish leadership remains steadfastly Conservative. But with friends like Mr. Harper, Jews need no enemies.

Real foes of anti-Semitism do not throw the term around recklessly. These Conservatives debase the currency of real opposition to real anti-Semitism. Is this good for the Jews, as my late mother always asked? Does it help build a more just and fair world? As everyone should know, there are few harsher critics of Mr. Netanyahu's repressive policies than Israelis themselves, including many prominent ones.

What happened to Canadian Jews? Is there not a single person among the Canadian Jewish elite who will honourably say to this government: I repudiate your right to play the anti-Semitic card for your own crass political purposes. You cannot have my vote this time.

Or has the great Jewish liberal tradition been cancelled entirely by Canada's Jewish establishment?


This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

Image: Flickr/pmwebphotos

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