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April 7, 2011

Canadian Jews and Zionism

The Canadian Charger

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Corey Balsam, a graduate student in the department of sociology and equity studies in education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), wondered aloud what it is about Zionism that gets widespread support in the Jewish Community, in Canada in particular.

Speaking at a seminar entitled Jewish Diaspora: So what's so attractive about Zionism anyway? At the OISE, Mr. Balsam recalled that he himself was once a Zionist; but he said that upon deep-felt reflection on the extreme situation in Israel, after visiting the country, he decided that he couldn't reconcile the situation in Israel-Palestine with human rights.

“I couldn't support Israel on the one hand and talk about human rights on the other,” Mr. Balsam said. 

He added that as Israel comes to be identified as an apartheid state, more Jews in North America don't want to be associated with it. In response to this dwindling support, the campus has become an important recruiting ground for Zionism in the Diaspora. Birthright – a ten day free trip to Israel for Jews in the Diaspora – is an important recruiting technique on campus.

Indeed, Mr. Balsam himself went to Israel as part of the Birthright program. He said continuity is the goal of this program, in order to ensure the next generation avoids intermarriage; and the program is enjoying a degree of success.

“Studies have shown that people who went (on a Birthright trip) are more likely to marry Jewish partners, have babies and support Israel.”

He credits organizations such as the Jewish National Fund (JNF) – a quasi-government non-profit organization – which was awarded the Israel Prize in 2002 for lifetime achievement and special contribution to society and the State of Israel - with enhancing Zionist support in the North American Diaspora.

Mr. Balsam said the JNF concentrates its efforts equally on fundraising and Zionist education.

“It has had a great deal of success triggering common fears and desires of Diaspora Jews.”

This includes instilling the concept that Israel is a transnational country of one people, so Jews in the Diaspora must stand up for Israel.

The religious aspect of Zionist education teaches students that Israel is the educational and cultural community of world Jewry, with Jerusalem being the focus of the holy land.

Jews in the Diaspora are taught that they must contribute money and lobby for the survival of Israel.

Mr. Balsam cited the success of the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA) as an example of just how successful Zionist fundraising in the Diaspora is.

“The Jewish Federation of North America is the largest philanthropic organization in North America, next to the United Way. JFNA raises $60 million a year in Toronto.”

He added that the JFNA is directly connected to the Jewish Agency for Israel – the number one Zionist agency in Israel.

Appealing to Jews' fears, similar to the way western governments – the US in particular – appeal to western citizens fears, so they will support the war on terror, is another important aspect of Zionist education.

“It's the idea of a safe haven: Israel as an insurance policy in case something goes wrong. They believe the Holocaust could happen again and they have to be vigilant against antisemitism, real and imagined. Keeping antisemitism alive allows them to continue to make sense of Zionism in the Diaspora.”

While early Zionists sought an escape route from antisemitism in Europe, Mr. Balsam said the fathers or Zionism such as Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau believed in the hegemonic white ideals of Europe and thus they modelled Zionism after European colonialism.

“Theodor Herzl saw the Israeli state in Palestine as an outpost against barbarism,” Mr. Balsam said.

At the same time, because Jews were discriminated against in Europe - where they couldn't own land at the time - Mr. Balsam said Zionism allowed them to become “white” in Palestine.

“It allowed them to climb the social hierarchy because they were on the borderline against the Arab world.”

This mindset persists to this day as we see the leaders of Canada's two top political parties condemning Israeli Apartheid Week and constantly claiming that Israel is a liberal democracy and the only democracy in the Middle East, notwithstanding the fact that Palestinians don't have the same rights as Israelis in Israel.

About 80 per cent of the land is reserved for Jews – Palestinians can't own it.

Many of the roads are restricted for Israelis only. Palestinians must remain in the villages where they were in 1948, with no right to expand, while Israeli settlements on Palestinian land are constantly expanding.

Meanwhile, the Zionist movement continues to make inroads in the Diaspora in North America. Mr. Balsam said that in the 1940's Zionism was marginal in the Diaspora communities of North America, where most Jews were leftist, working class and not that connected with Israel; but this all changed after the 1967 war.

“Jews around the world were captivated to stand behind Israel ... After 1967 the B'nai B'rith and Canadian Jewish Congress became more focused on Zionism.”

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