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January 21, 2010

Israel in Ottawa

The Canadian Charger

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Few politicians would dare ignore an organization like the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), which Chief Executive Bernie Farber says has more clout in the halls of power than most minority groups even though it represents only 360,000 people across the country.

"We have come to a point in the 21st century where at least in the halls of government, and I think very much in the mainstream of Canadian life, we are viewed as part and parcel of Canadian polity," Farber says.

That influence, Farber says, comes from a willingness to speak out on human rights issues affecting all minorities, not just the Jewish community.

However, the CJC – an umbrella group of Jewish organizations across Canada – has narrowed its focus in recent years, according to at least one of its longtime members.

"They seem to be spending more time in relation to Israel than in relation to anything else," says Abraham Arnold, who has been active in the CJC for more than 50 years.

Arnold, a member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to the Jewish community and human rights work, laments what he sees as the evolution of the group from a messy grassroots organization to a "top-down" group that does not encourage the same level of debate he remembers from past, raucous plenary meetings.

While obviously gaining in influence in the halls of power by putting forward an increasingly strong and singular voice, Arnold says, such gains come at the cost of waning influence at the grassroots level and an increasingly tenuous connection to its roots. "They wanted to be more than a Zionist organization in 1919 (when the CJC was founded), " he says.

Not surprisingly then, the Harper government has been and continues to be a strong supporter of Israel on most issues.

Witness Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney's speech at the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism, hosted by the Israeli government, in Jerusalem, December 16 – 17.

Mr. Kenney began by acknowledging the large Canadian delegation attending the forum, which included several prominent members of parliament, as well as most of the major Canadian Jewish organizations.

Citing Mr. Harper's recent visit to sites of the Mumbai massacre and anti-Semitic graffiti in Calgary, Mr. Kenney characterized these events as examples of a new anti-Semitism.

“What Prime Minister Harper witnessed in Mumbai, what happened at the same time in Calgary, were practical expressions of the new anti-Semitism. Even though Canada is celebrated around the world as being a successful model of mutual coexistence and tolerance, we too have seen a troubling increase in incidents of anti-Semitism. B’Nai Brith Canada publishes the authoritative registry of anti-Semitic incidents in Canada. In 2008, they received reports of 1,135 incidents of anti-Semitic instances, the highest number recorded in 28 years of the study, an increase of 8.9% over 2007. Statistics Canada reports that 15% of all hate motivated crimes target Jews who only constitute 1% of our country’s population- and that two thirds of hate crimes that are targeting religious communities were targeting members of Canada’s Jewish community.”

It would be interesting to see statistics on hate crimes for other Canadians.

In his speech, Mr. Kenney said the Harper government's zero tolerance approach to anti-Semitism led it to eliminate government funding for organizations such as the Canadian Arab Federation, which Mr. Kenney said is anti-Semitic, and KAIROS, a social justice group with ties to a wide range of Canadian churches. 

“We have defunded organizations, most recently like KAIROS, who are taking a leadership role in the boycott. And we're receiving a lot of criticism for these decisions.”

In response to this criticism, Mr. Kenney wrote a letter to the Toronto Star claiming he did not accuse KAIROS of being anti-Semitic and it's stance toward Israel was not the reason for cutting off its funding.

Rather he said, contrary to his remarks in his speech, that KAIROS's funding was cut off because it did not meet “current priorities” regarding foreign aid programs, without explaining what those “current priorities” are.

Moreover, in his speech he goes on to say that Canada was the first government in the world to remove funding for the Palestinian authority following the election of Hamas.

However, he fails to address the effect this is having on the Palestinian population, as Hamas – the government elected by the people – struggles to provide essential services for the Palestinian people in the occupied territories.

The Harper government, if nothing else, has been consistent in its support of Israel at multilateral organizations like the Francophonie and the United Nations. Mr. Kenney noted that the Harper government has consistently opposed anti-Israel resolutions at these organizations' meetings, including the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“Frequently in the past two years, we can no longer remember every Human Rights Council, I’m sure many of the members are glad to see us go, but during our initial three-year membership, on issue after issue after issue, on resolution after resolution, Canada was the only country, or one of the only countries, to consistently oppose unbalanced anti-Israel resolutions.”

One has to wonder, if these “unbalanced anti-Israel resolutions” are, in fact, just that, why either the rest of the UN members on the Human Rights Council, or the overwhelming majority of the members, didn't share the Canadian government point of view.

Historian John English said the Harper government's strident support of Israel, has damaged Canada's international image.

“Ironically, the zealous pursuit of Jewish votes in Canada, accompanied by outrageous suggestions of Liberal anti-Semitism, has destroyed Canada's reputation as a balanced and sensible voice on Middle Eastern issues,” Mr. English said.

Like many of the assertions in his speech, Mr. Kenney characterizes as anti-Semitic, what many consider to be legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy.

“And of course, ours was the first government in the world to withdraw from the tainted Durban II process. We did that because our analysis was that it was like the impossible to repeat, to avoid a repetition of some of the notorious expressions of anti-Semitism that we all saw at Durban I and we believe that our decision was vindicated.”

However, in his address to opening of the Durban 2nd preparatory committee, in Geneva, on October 6, 2008, Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights contradicted Mr. Kenney's position when he said: “I found no substance to allegations of anti-Semitism at WCAR (World Conference Against Racism).”

Mr. Kenney also had the presence of mind to provide a rebuttal to the expected criticism the one-sided Harper government policy as an unabashed supporter of Israel, was bound to receive.

“Now some have said that our government, in taking these positions, have some abandoned Canada’s traditional position of neutrality or balance in international affairs. That we have somehow undermined Canada’s international credibility and reputation on the world stage by taking these positions. I suppose these are the people who believe that there is some neutrality between tolerance and hatred, between terrorism and counter terrorism. Our government believes that in point of fact, we are reclaiming and giving new real expression to our historically grounded values. Canada was involved in the creation of the human rights process at the United Nations and we do not believe that those institutions, that the principles of the UN Declaration on Human Rights were meant to be perverted and used against democracies, were meant to be used by regimes who prey on an ancient hatred in order for their own political reasons.”

It would be nice if all these complex issues were, in fact, as straight-forward as Mr. Kenney has presented them in his speech.

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