Mira Sucharov on ‘Israel and Canadian Jews’

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, a Canadian member of the Ameinu board, is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, Ottawa, and a columnist with Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.  The following is an abridged version of her article in the Autumn 2016 issue of Jewish Currents magazine (it is subtitled “How the Mainstream Community Marginalizes Dissent”):

. . .  COMPARED to their American Jewish counterparts, Canadian Jews on the whole are more traditionally observant and more strongly wedded to their Jewish identities. … Canadian Jews are more likely than American Jews to have visited Israel, have knowledge of Hebrew, and send their kids to Jewish day school. … Intermarriage rates are also lower, and owing to immigration patterns, Canadian Jews are a generation closer to the Holocaust.

While in some ways, organized Jewish life in Canada is a direct extension of American Jewish life — … there is a pressing organizational difference in how conformity about Israel is reinforced.  . . . Canadian Jews don’t even have an umbrella group corralling different points of view around a single advocacy table. Instead, since 2004, CIJA [the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs] and its Jewish Federation structure has proclaimed itself the single address for matters related to Israel and Jewish advocacy. Since CIJA derives its core funding from the Federation’s annual campaign, it has an aura of legitimacy in seeming to speak for “the Jewish community.”

On Israel and the Middle East, CIJA is uniformly hard-line: director Shimon Koffler Fogel has called the nuclear deal with Iran a “stunning diplomatic failure”; [and] CIJA accused UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in January 2016 of “excusing Palestinian terrorism.” (In fact, while Ban Ki-moon’s remarks in his January speech included an admission that “Palestinian frustration is growing under the weight of a half century of occupation and the paralysis of the peace process,” he was unequivocal about opposing “stabbings, vehicle attacks, and shootings by Palestinians targeting Israeli civilians — all of which I condemn,” he said.)

. . .  Given the tone that CIJA has successfully cultivated on Israel, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper emerged on the scene as Netanyahu’s best friend, Jewish Canadians were smitten. The 2011 elections saw the Jewish vote sway towards the Conservative Party (52 percent) from its previous Liberal home. By 2015, however, many Canadians, Jews included, had become tired of the “Harper style.” . . .

. . .  Harper and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu positioned themselves as best friends on the world stage. To conservative Jewish Canadians, this felt like a warm bath, while to progressive Jews seeking to push Israel on its settlement and occupation policies, Harper’s adoration of Netanyahu was irksome and unhelpful.

IF THE CANADIAN Jewish left is generally united in opposing Netanyahu’s policies, however, it is hardly unified.

Canadian Jews who don’t support BDS but count themselves as progressive on Israel have at least four organizational Jewish outlets with which to affiliate: Canadian Friends of Peace Now, Ameinu (headquartered in the U.S. and gradually gaining a foothold in the Canadian scene; I sit on their board), JSpaceCanada, and New Israel Fund-Canada. …

Karen Mock, spokesperson and program chair for JSpaceCanada, explains how her organization, founded in 2011, came about: “There was no safe place for progressive Jews who wanted to ensure the safety and security of the State of Israel to relay the message that there is more than one viewpoint about Israel in our community.” Mock is critical of Canadian Jews on the left who are quick to vilify Israel and seem unable to recognize when legitimate criticism of Israeli policy crosses the line into anti-Semitism. “I’m pro-Israel and I’m pro-Palestine and I’m pro-peace,” she says. There needed to be a “place to raise the voices of those who want peace and security, and human and civil rights for all.”

The main Canadian Jewish organization that supports BDS is Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV), which takes pains, at least on its web-based statement of principles, to call attention to the scourge of anti-Semitism. But in supporting BDS, including the demand for Palestinian refugee return and the use of the “apartheid” label to describe Israel, IJV doesn’t get much of a hearing in the Canadian Jewish press or in Jewish organizations, including progressive Zionist ones.

I am not a proponent of BDS and do not affiliate with IJV, but when IJV invited me to debate Israel critic Max Blumenthal in a public forum on the merits and drawbacks of liberal Zionism, I agreed. My synagogue, however, refused to publicize the event. And twice I’ve had editors of Jewish community papers in Canada send back an installment of my regular column in which I’ve quoted IJV’s head staffer, Tyler Levitan, too extensively.  . . .

As Canadian Jewish News editor Yoni Goldstein told me, “Even though we promote inclusion as a virtue, there are limits to how inclusive we’re willing to be. Abetting BDS and rejecting Israel’s future as a Jewish state crosses the line.” If members of IJV, Goldstein continued, “wish to separate themselves from the bulk of Canadian Jewry when it comes to Israel, so be it. Independence has its benefits, but the comfort of community is not usually one of them.” . . .

Depending on one’s personality and disposition, standing outside of what the organized Jewish community refers to as its “consensus” can either be a lonely or empowering experience. My own sidelining from a senior board position over my political views on Israel (an episode I wrote about in Haaretz) entailed a painful mixture of frustration, humiliation, and pride: I deeply resented the treatment I received but I took strength in the need, as I saw it, to continue to challenge the dynamic of political groupthink in the Jewish community.

IJV’s Tyler Levitan feels similarly. “It’s an awful feeling,” he said, “when the community in which you were raised considers you as persona non grata because of your political views. Being ostracized for embracing values I was raised with and that I strongly feel are in keeping with Jewish traditions has left me feeling betrayed, but at the same time, has emboldened me to make my views heard.” Those values? As Levitan describes them, “tikkun olam; treating your neighbours as you would want to be treated; the sacred value of each human life; struggling against discrimination and injustices of all kinds, regardless of who they’re committed against; speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves.”

Missing from this list, yet animating much of the center and right of the Canadian Jewish community on Israel and related matters, is a sense of Jewish particularism or tribalism. Can Jewish communal life survive without it? Language acquisition and maintenance, ritual practice, and the texture of cultural practice in many ways depend on a sense of group solidarity, and Canada’s Jewish community has consistently valued Jewish tradition, literacy and practice. But part of having a healthy tribe is also making room for multiple strands of opinion. When these issues involve questions of human rights, and when the human rights debate takes place against the backdrop of actions taken by the country we claim as our Jewish homeland, the discussion needs to be loud and robust. Imposed conformity won’t help alleviate human suffering. We also run the risk that the next generation, raised with a more universalistic and multicultural consciousness, might just abdicate altogether.

To read this entire article at the Jewish Currents website, click here

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