Please support our coverage of democratic movements and become a supporting member of rabble.ca.

In the election of 2011 the Conservatives did terribly in the 22 ridings of Montreal and Laval.

In the predominantly francophone east and north of Montreal, and in Laval, they generally finished in fourth place, behind the NDP, Liberals and Bloc.

In the central and western Montreal ridings, where there is a large population of non-francophones, Harper’s Conservatives did a bit better.

They managed mostly third place finishes, ahead of the Bloc Québecois.

In the case of Harper’s star candidate in the Lac St Louis riding, former Canadian Football League Commissioner Larry Smith, the Conservatives even earned a respectable third, not too far from the winning Liberal, but still behind the NDP.

But they only snared a second place finish in one Montreal area riding: the riding of Mount Royal.

The candidate there was former City Councilor Saulie Zajdel, who was arrested on Monday and charged with various corruption-related offences.

This is how ethnic vote targeting works

Zajdel came quite close in 2011.

He lost to victorious Liberal Irwin Cotler by fewer than 2,000 votes.

The one time city politician did as well as he did by scooping up the majority of Jewish votes, in a riding where Jews usually make up nearly half of those who vote, though only about 40 per cent of the population.

Cotler won because of the continued loyalty to the Liberals of other ethnic communities — including the Caribbean, Sri Lankan and Philippine communities — in this very diverse riding.

In one sense, this was an unlikely riding for the Harper Conservatives to target.

It had been Pierre Trudeau’s riding, and had been Liberal since the 1940s.

The closest a Conservative ever came was in the Diefenbaker landslide of 1958, when the Mayor of the tony suburb of Town of Mount Royal, Reginald Dawson, lost by less than a thousand votes.

In more recent times, the Liberal majorities have been enormous, normally well north of 50 per cent.

The Conservatives focused on Mount Royal as part of their “Jewish strategy,” a strategy that won them a number of seats in Toronto.

Ethnic segmentation of voting blocs is one of the less noble aspects of Canadian politics, but a well-established practice nonetheless.

It may come as surprise to some to learn that the NDP and its predecessor party. the CCF, once won a significant part of the Jewish vote.

During the 1930s, when antisemitism was still respectable, the CCF was virtually alone among national political parties in standing consistently and quite strongly against it.

At the formation of the NDP in 1961, its first leader was then Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas.

Its second leader, David Lewis, was the first Jewish federal party leader in Canadian history.

And when he was elected Premier of British Columbia in 1972, the NDP’s Dave Barrett was the first Jewish head of a provincial government.

The Liberals, more recently, were the party of choice for Canadian Jews. They were mindful, in part, of the fact that Trudeau happily appointed Jews to significant positions in the cabinet, on the Supreme Court and to the Bank of Canada, when previous Prime Ministers — in a perverse and cowardly “Gentlemen’s Agreement” kind of way — would not.

Things have changed.

The Conservatives have managed to attract Jewish votes with a policy that is — to a fault — blindly uncritical of Israel and everything its government does.

They did not quite succeed in unseating Cotler that way; but they did far better in Mount Royal then elsewhere in Montreal, or in most of Quebec, for that matter.

Conservatives needed to expunge memories of Social Credit populist xenophobia and antisemitism

The current Conservatives who emerged from the merger of the Reform /Canadian Alliance Parties with the Progressive Conservatives have had more than electoral motives for engaging in what more than one wag has called a “Jew-washing” exercise.

The Reform Party grew out of the old Social Credit movement, and that movement’s ideology was at once anti-banker / big capitalist and anti-socialist / trade union.

That sort of syncretic populism, that borrowed a bit from the right and a bit from the left, was quite common in the 1920s and 1930s.

In its extreme form, it became fascism.

In Canada, admittedly to a lesser extent than in similar parties Europe, there was a big dollop of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment in Social Credit’s political message.

And Jews were a particular object of at least some Social Creditors’ aversion.

The Jews were castigated for two seemingly contradictory reasons: because they were part of the worldwide financial conspiracy against hardworking farmers and small businessmen, and because they were part of the international socialist / communist conspiracy.

By the first decade of the 21st Century, the Harper Conservatives wanted to completely and utterly obliterate that deeply buried xenophobic and antisemitic history.

As a start, they made a great effort to show that today’s Conservatives are open to all who share their small government, family values, tough on crime agenda.

Demonstrating that has been one of current Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s main jobs, and he has done it well.

Kenney has argued — with some truth, it seems — that the loyalty of so-called “ethnic” communities to the Liberals was based more on habit than shared values or rational self interest.

Many “ethnic Canadians,” Kenney says, favour lower taxes, reward for hard work and enterprise, strong measures against crime, and the pursuit of muscular and even militaristic patriotism. If we connect to them on that basis, we’ll get their votes, Kenney has told his fellow Conservatives.

But for the Jewish community there has been another, singular and more fundamental, issue: Israel.

Harper, Kenney, et al., saw the Liberals’ and New Democrats’ attachment to the honest broker tradition of Canadian foreign policy – to which previous Progressive Conservatives had generally subscribed – as an opening for them.

The Harper Conservatives proudly announced that Canada’s priority was no longer to seek to play the role of peacemaker in the Middle East (or elsewhere).

The current Conservatives frequently and truculently proclaim that they reject what they call “ethical relativism” in foreign policy, especially when it comes to the Middle East.

They say, simply, that the Israelis are Western style democrats, while Israel’s enemies are Islamicists and terrorists, inimical to “Western” (and thus Canadian) values.

There is no equivalence between the two sides, say the Harper folks: we are on the side of the good guys, full stop.

Shrewd calculation and near-pandering yields electoral results

This approach was very effective in 2011.

For many Jews, even those not hugely invested in the Middle East situation, to hear complete and unqualified support for Israel from any Western government, let alone a Canadian government, was quite novel, and very appealing.

It won them over, and made them forget (if they ever remembered it) the nearly forgotten antisemitic history of the political movement they were now ready to support in large numbers.

In Toronto, the enthusiastic cheer-leading of the National Post, which has become something of the official journal of at least a significant part of that city’s Jewish community, didn’t hurt either.

In Montreal, candidate Saulie Zajdel brought the added benefit of being a true local ward-heeler of the old school.

He was a street corner politician with his ear to the ground, while Irwin Cotler was a McGill professor and globe-trotting human rights activist.

Zajdel’s near win in a seat the Liberals’ had so recently won with monstrous majorities made the Conservatives believe that next time Mount Royal would be theirs.

They would then have at least a foothold in Canada’s second largest city.

That’s why they put the former Montreal City Councilor on the payroll — on Heritage Minister James Moore’s payroll, to be exact — and made him a sort of shadow MP, doling out patronage and favours like the true old-time machine politician he was.

That trick was too obvious, and didn’t last. When critics blasted the Harper Government for using public funds to install an alternative MP to the duly elected member they had to cut Zajdel loose.

But they still had hopes for Zajdel in the Mount Royal riding come 2015.

And now?

Well, now the job seems to be open.

It is also an open question as to whether the Jews, or any ethnic community, will be so easily seduced by such obvious pandering next time. 

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...