Retired diplomat Robert Fowler made a splash in March when he voiced the widely held view that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s slavish support for Israel was driven by ethnic politics. Fowler told a Liberal Party conference on Canadian foreign policy that “the scramble to lock up the Jewish vote in Canada meant selling out our widely admired and long-established reputation for fairness and justice.”
But the numbers don’t add up. Just over one per cent of the population in the 2006 census, 315,120 Canadians, identified their origin as Jewish, either alone or combined with another ethnicity (the actual number of Jews is slightly higher but religion is counted every other census). Jews were the 25th largest group defined by ethnic origin, and only a handful of electoral ridings have a significant concentration of Jews. Of these ridings, just a couple have competitive races between Liberal and Conservative candidates.
Sure, it’s true that Jews have high levels of political engagement, are well represented in positions of influence and are a relatively prosperous minority group. But this should not be exaggerated. In fact, voting patterns suggest few Canadian Jews vote based on Ottawa’s policy towards Israel. There is actually an inverse correlation between pro-Israel governments and Jewish support. Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien, for instance, garnered more support from the Jewish community than either Harper or Brian Mulroney. Yet Harper and Mulroney were more supportive of Israel than Trudeau and Chretien.
The reality is pro-Israel Jewish lobbyists appear influential because they operate within a favourable political climate. They are pushing against an open door. How much power they really have can be seen when they confront an important source of power. There have been two major instances when that has taken place.
In 1979, at the instigation of Israeli PM Menachem Begin, short-lived Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark announced plans to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, effectively recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the city. Arab threats of economic sanction pushed the CEOs of Bell Canada, Royal Bank, ATCO and Bombardier, which all had important contracts in the region, to lobby Clark against making the move. An embarrassed federal government backtracked, more worried about an important sector of corporate power than the pro-Israel Jewish lobby. Similarly, in 1956, when Israel invaded Egypt along with Britain and France, Canada helped undermine the aggressors, by siding with the U.S. Fearing the invasion would add to Moscow’s prestige in a geo-strategically important region, Washington opposed it. Moreover, the rising world hegemon wanted to tell London and Paris that there was a new master in the Middle East. In helping to establish a U.N. peacekeeping force to relieve the foreign troops, Ottawa chose to side with Washington, not the pro-Israel Jewish lobby.
Rather than “Jewish votes” Harper’s “Israel no matter what” policy has more to do with mobilizing his rightwing, evangelical base on an issue (unlike abortion) that has limited electoral downside. Zionism is particularly strong among evangelicals who believe Jews need to “return” to the Middle East to hasten the second coming of Jesus and the Apocalypse. Last April, B’nai Brith’s Jewish Tribune reported on a Conservative MP’s speech to a major Christian Zionist event in Toronto. “Jeff Watson, Conservative MP for Essex, delivered greetings from Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The creation of the state of Israel fulfills God’s promise in Deuteronomy to gather the Jewish people from all corners of the world, he said.”
About 10 per cent of Canadians identify as evangelicals (including a number of cabinet ministers). The president of the rightwing Canadian Centre for Policy Studies, Joseph Ben-Ami, explains, “The Jewish community in Canada is 380,000 strong; the evangelical community is 3.5 million. The real support base for Israel is Christians.”
Rather than a search for Jewish votes, support for Israel has largely mirrored different governments’ relations to U.S. Empire. The federal governments most enthralled with Washington, Mulroney and Harper for instance, have been Israel’s biggest cheerleaders. Canadian policy towards the Middle East has generally been designed to enable U.S. imperial designs on a strategic part of the planet. And Ottawa’s longstanding support for Israel has been based on the idea that it is a valuable U.S. military outpost.
External Affairs Minister Lester Pearson, a staunch supporter of Israel and leading foreign policy decision-maker for decades, explained this thinking in a 1952 memo to cabinet. “With the whole Arab world in a state of internal unrest and in the grip of mounting anti-western hysteria, Israel is beginning to emerge as the only stable element in the whole Middle East area.” Pearson went on to explain how “Israel may assume an important role in Western defence as the southern pivot of current plans for the defence” of the eastern Mediterranean.
The power of empire has tilted Ottawa towards Israel and until there is a significant source of power in Canada (or internationally) backing the Palestinians it is likely to stay that way. Social justice, humanism and morality rarely motivate Canadian foreign policy. Instead, power is what drives foreign affairs and Palestinians have never had much of it. Long under Ottoman rule, then British control after World War I, the Palestinians were an oppressed and relatively powerless people. Palestinians also had the misfortune of living on land claimed by a predominantly European political movement: Zionism.
Historically, Ottawa has sided with colonial powers and opposed national liberation struggles. Canada opposed calls for the withdrawal of Dutch troops from Indonesia in the late 1940s. For decades Canada supported British colonialism in Africa while throughout the late 1950s it sided with France against the Algerian liberation movement. Into the 1970s, Ottawa backed Portugal as it waged a colonial war against the people of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. It took decades of struggle within Canada — and a shift in the international climate — for Ottawa to withdraw its backing for the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Considering this history, it’s not surprising that Ottawa opposes the Palestinian national liberation struggle. To focus on the Jewish lobby is to downplay Canada’s broader pro-colonial, pro-empire foreign policy.
I believe it is a mistake to view Ottawa’s support for Israel in isolation. That support should not be divorced from a wider foreign-policy discussion. The Palestinian solidarity movement needs to make its critique of Canadian foreign-policy more explicit. The movement will thrive as part of the struggle to shift Canadian foreign policy away from slavish support for empire.
In order to have any chance to do that we must democratize Canadian foreign policy, which more than other aspects of government policy, is dominated by a small elite.
Yves Engler is a journalist and the author of Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid.