Stephen Harper’s China trip, like last month’s India visit, is largely about fishing for ethnic votes back home. That’s foreign policy for you.

If you doubt it, consider a piece in The Times of India while he was there. Ashoke Chatterjee, a leader of India’s crafts council (a huge economic sector), wittily recounted his efforts to get a visa for a Vancouver meeting: a year-long process of sending exhaustive “bio data,” copies of his visas for Britain, the U.S. and the European Union, non-refundable costs, references — and, finally, an “illegibly signed” letter from a Canadian official: “I do not consider you to be a genuine temporary resident who would leave Canada. This application is closed and the decision is FINAL. … It will NOT be reconsidered.”

He eventually appeared in Vancouver by satellite and thanked our government for help in “avoiding airport stress, airline food, jet lag, carbon footprint — the gifts of avoiding Canada.” In a letter to The Times, the Canadian minister involved, Jason Kenney, didn’t even bother replying on the facts. No votes were at stake.

Now there are Jewish votes to be fished for, too, especially in certain ridings. But I’d argue that the Tory effort here goes well beyond the usual ethnic vote gouging, which all parties do. In Mumbai, Stephen Harper visited a Jewish cultural centre that was attacked during last year’s massacre. Tory flyers have gone out calling Liberals anti-Semitic. So what else might be involved?

It seems to me this government has a meanness problem. Or, as they say in politics, a perception of meanness problem. Yesterday, we learned it had killed funding to a “multi-faith group” that “helps the world’s poorest countries cope with the ravages of global warming.” It recalled the time it did the same to a group that helped poor people mount legal challenges. Wednesday, a judge criticized the Tory push for harsher sentencing because it satisfies “a primal desire for punishment” without increasing safety.

On Afghan torture, the Conservatives just don’t seem to care. You see it in their body language during Question Period, when they angle away from the speakers. You also see it in the mean (I’d say) faces and tone of ministers John Baird, Jason Kenney and Peter Van Loan. They’ve been compared to the Liberal “rat pack” of the 1980s, but those guys were more outraged than mean.

What do you do when you have a meanness problem? You might act as George W. Bush did and call yourself a “compassionate conservative.” Or you can play the Jewish card.

Since anti-Semitism is now symbolic of all racism and persecution, denouncing it can act as a sort of shortcut to prove compassion: I oppose anti-Semitism, therefore I can’t possibly be mean. It’s like a “get out of meanness jail free” card. It may be sincere or cynical; what I’m talking about is its political function. Asked yesterday in the House about defunding the multi-faith group, John Baird said his party opposed anti-Semitism at the 2001 Durban conference. It was bizarrely irrelevant, but he played the card. (Twice, actually.) Jews themselves sometimes play the Jewish card when they equate criticism of Israel to the “new anti-Semitism,” so as to reject it.

But you can also play the Jewish card against the Jewish card, as Avraham Burg did in his recent book, The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise From its Ashes. He is a former head of the World Zionist Organization, a former speaker of Israel’s Knesset and was (briefly) even interim president of Israel. He says the world has grown more “Jewish” — in its concern over human rights and other justice issues — but many Jews and Israelis have grown less so, by insisting on their own rights even when it means trampling on those of others, such as Palestinians. What’s nice about the way he plays his hand is that he doesn’t use that Jewish card to shut down discussion but to pry it open.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.