NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh speaking in the House of Commons.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh speaking in the House of Commons. Credit: ParlVu / https://parlvu.parl.gc.ca/Harmony/en/PowerBrowser/PowerBrowserV2/20231018/800/40016 Credit: ParlVu / https://parlvu.parl.gc.ca/Harmony/en/PowerBrowser/PowerBrowserV2/20231018/800/40016

When a group of MPs from all parties gathered in the House of Commons to discuss the conflict between Israel and Hamas on Monday evening October 16, a number worried about the spillover impact of the conflict on Canada.

This country has the fourth largest Jewish population in the world, at close to 400,000. Almost that entire community was shaken to its core when, on October 7, it witnessed the greatest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. 

There are many fewer Palestinian Canadians, about 50,000, but the Canadian Muslim population is close to 1.8 million and growing.

A good many Canadian Muslims have roots in such Asian countries as Pakistan and Bangladesh, not in the Middle East or North Africa. Not all feel a strong affinity with the Palestinian cause. But a great many do. 

When they witness bombs and missiles dropping on civilians in Gaza, a good part of the Canadian Muslim community shares the victims’ pain and agony.

It was against this backdrop that Canadian MPs met to have what all hoped would be a civil and constructive dialogue.

Concern for Canadian communities, taking a hard line

Liberal MP for York Centre in north Toronto, and recently appointed cabinet minister, Ya’ara Saks, opened the debate. 

She reflected on those in Canada who have personal connections to the violence unleashed by Hamas’ October 7 attacks.

“In my community and across Canada, constituency by constituency, people have lost loved ones or are facing the unbearable unknown of whether their children, parents or friends are alive. This is true both in the southern communities of Israel and places across that country, as well as within Gaza, as we speak. They each have names. They have families and people who love and miss them,” she said.

Saks, who is a dual Canadian-Israeli citizen, has been a severe critic of Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s far-right government. 

In the House, she talked about the emotional toll of both Hamas’ surprise massacre of civilians and Israel’s unflinching military response, which is still unfolding with devastating consequences.

“The pain is very fresh and raw. I know so many people who feel vulnerable and scared at this moment,” said Saks.

Saks condemned Hamas as a terrorist organization, whose actions were “unspeakable”, but was quick to add that “Hamas is not the Palestinian people”. 

The Toronto Liberal MP also talked about the Canadian victims of the October 7 attack, among them Netta Epstein, who threw himself on a grenade to save the life of his girlfriend, and peace activist Vivian Silver, who is officially missing and is likely a Hamas hostage.

Mostly, however, Saks wanted to convey a message of reconciliation among differing groups in Canada, in the face of severe trauma.

“Our communities have been deeply touched by these events … As we look forward, I still worry what will be in the coming days for Jews, Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians. I fear for the people of Gaza … I also worry for our communities here at home, for our children who are afraid to go to school and for our places of worship, which are afraid to be open. There are so many who fear for their safety,” said Saks.

The lead-off Conservative speaker, Deputy Leader Melissa Lantsman, who, like Saks, is a Jewish Toronto area MP, took a harder line.

She used the same kind of rhetoric to condemn Hamas as has her leader, Pierre Poilievre: 

“They are not militants. They are not a government. They are not a resistance movement. They are a sadistic criminal terrorist death cult, and … must be defeated.”

While some other MPs expressed a measure of concern for the more than two million innocent civilians in Gaza, Lantsman echoed the Israeli government’s position. 

She referred to Hamas’ own founding covenant and charter, which “calls for the complete destruction of Israel as an essential condition for the liberation of Palestine and the establishment of a theocratic state based on Islamic law.”

Lantsman then described the Israeli response as a “defensive operation.” Israel’s purpose, she said, is to “destroy Hamas and its military capacity in Gaza.”

Given the “genocidal aims of Hamas, as in their charter,” the Toronto-area MP added, “the pleas for restraint, compromise and peacebuilding are destined to fail.”

Less than 24 hours after Lantsman uttered those words, what could have been an Israeli missile strike or bomb hit a hospital in Gaza, killing more than 500 people. 

The Israeli Defence Force says it was not responsible for the blast. It blames an errant rocket fired by the small Hamas-allied group Islamic Jihad. 

World leaders, including the Canadian prime minister, and the US and French presidents, have expressed shock and outrage at the event.

Call for a ceasefire not vengeance

During the Commons debate, the New Democrats took an entirely different view from the Conservative deputy leader. 

Official New Democratic policy is that Canada is correct in upholding Israel’s right to defend itself, but, nonetheless, our government should now be calling for an immediate ceasefire. 

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh told the House that while “we condemn Hamas and the brutal murders of whole families and the taking of hostages … We cannot allow the world to use this terrorism to justify the human catastrophe unfolding before our eyes in Gaza.”

Singh said his party calls on Hamas and its allied groups to immediately release all hostages, but also wants Israel to end the siege and bombardment of Gaza and allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians.

The New Democratic leader added this warning:

“International law must be upheld and respected. Make no mistake, collective punishment is a violation of this law. Canada must insist that all those who broke these laws are held accountable, even those nations we have called friends … We cannot allow for the continuing dehumanization of an entire population.”

Like the Liberals and Conservatives, the New Democrats had a member with Jewish roots in the House for this debate, Winnipeg MP Leah Gazan.

Abraham (Albert) Gazan, Leah Gazan’s late father, was born in the Netherlands in 1938, to Jewish parents who had many relatives in Poland. After the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940 Abraham’s father escaped, eventually finding his way to Spain and from there to British Gibraltar and safety.

Abraham Gazan’s mother stayed behind with her baby, for whom she found shelter with a variety of Dutch Good Samaritans. 

Leah Gazan’s grandmother ended up in the Auschwitz concentration camp, while kind strangers hid and sheltered her son. In the camp, she worked as a slave labourer in a munitions factory. Miraculously, she survived. At the end of the war, Abraham Gazan’s family managed to reunite, and eventually moved to Canada.

In later years, Leah Gazan’s father related that among his many relatives in Europe he and his parents were the only family to survive the Holocaust as a complete unit.  

When she rose in the House on October 16, MP Gazan spoke as “somebody who is an intergenerationally impacted victim of the Holocaust, having grown up with no family because of war.” 

The Winnipeg MP referred to a comment the son of likely Hamas hostage and peace activist Vivian Silver made:

“I learned many valuable things from my father,” Gazan told her colleagues, “And I was very touched by Vivian Silver’s son’s comments about his mother … He said, ‘You can’t cure killed babies with more dead babies. We need peace.’”

Gazan then added:

“Vivian Silver’s son spoke about the fact that vengeance is not a strategy.” 

Many members took exception to Gazan’s characterization of the Israeli military response to Hamas’ October 7 attacks as vengeance.

A fellow Winnipeg MP, Liberal Ben Carr, raised the issue in the form of a question to Conservative MP Lantsman:

“A member from another opposition party talked about and characterized Israel’s response as one of revenge. I took exception to that. Does the member feel Israel’s response is one of revenge or one that is occurring in terms of its right to defend itself?”

Lantsman replied: “Vengeance would mean that Israel does proportionately exactly the same thing as what was done to Israel … That would mean that Israelis would engage in rape, decapitation and complete humiliation of their victims. That is not what a democratic ally and our friend Israel would ever do.”

The Muslim view

Toward the end of the debate, a Muslim Liberal MP spoke up.

Salma Zahid represents Scarborough Centre in eastern Toronto. As did other MPs, she expressed concern about rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. She referred to the murder of a six-year-old Muslim boy near Chicago as a case in point. 

“As a mother, I worry for the safety of my own children when they go out to eat, play basketball, or go to work. We are all worried,” said Zahid.

Zahid echoed the NDP in calling for a ceasefire and an end to the siege of Gaza:

“The innocent civilians of Gaza must not be victims of this conflict … There needs to be a humanitarian corridor and support for these innocent civilians including food, water and electricity … Canada must do all it can to ensure the safe and unimpeded access of relief via a humanitarian corridor. I urge Canada to be a voice for an immediate ceasefire …”

She then went further and raised the issue of Israel’s longstanding policies in the Occupied Territories, including the settlements on the West Bank which are deemed illegal by international law. 

Zahid tried to express what members of the Canadian Palestinian community have been telling her:

“When I speak to members of the Palestinian community, they are tired. They are in pain. They feel their future has been on hold for generations. They feel their freedom has been denied …  They just want what all of us want, what all of us take for granted: to be able to work, to walk their children to school and to be able to give the next generation a better future without security checkpoints and constant worry … They cannot see a better future for their children.”

The MP concluded by saying:

“Let Canada be a voice for hope.”

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...