Everywhere he went in Israel this week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird would say: “Israel has no greater friend in the world than Canada.”
So much so that Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz joked at a reception for the Canadians Thursday night: “I think Canada’s an even better friend of Israel than we [Israelis]are.”
More Catholic than the Pope, some may say. More Jewish than the rabbi may be more like it.
In fact, Mr. Baird, still showing his boyish enthusiasm at 42, played on that perception. “I have a confession to make,” he told several gatherings: “I’m not Jewish.” After the laughter died down, he’d add: “But I do have a rabbi, and he’s accompanying me on this trip.” And he would proceed to introduce Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn – not just any rabbi, but an honest-to-goodness Chabad emissary based in Ottawa.
Chabad is an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic movement with an extensive outreach network. It provides homes away from home for travelling Jews and serves to educate Jews and non-Jews in the virtues of Orthodox Judaism.
For that reason, many in the secular-to-mildly religious crowds who met with Mr. Baird were distinctly uncomfortable at the notion of a Chabad rabbi in their midst. They don’t care for the movement’s outreach that smacks of proselytizing and they disdain the belief held by many that the group’s former leader, Menachem Schneerson, was the Messiah.
Rabbi Mendelsohn, who is public affairs director of Chabad in Canada, said he was well aware of the discomfort felt by many. Mr. Baird was aware, too, but he never showed it and continued to proudly introduce Rabbi Mendelsohn as his teacher. He made a point of visiting the largest Chabad community in Israel, Kfar Chabad, with him.
“One thing Chabad teaches us,” Rabbi Mendelsohn said, “is that we should rise to the highest spiritual levels possible, but that we should overlook less spiritual levels in others.”
Rabbi Mendelsohn spends a lot of time on Parliament Hill and says he has gotten to know Mr. Baird over the past few years.
But while Prime Minister Stephen Harper may trace his affection for Israel to his Christianity, John Baird is not a religious man. So what is it that draws him to Judaism and to Israel?
It’s not about playing politics, he insists. “There are 2,800 Jews in my constituency in Ottawa; I have 11,500 Muslims and Arabs,” he told one Israeli interviewer.
It’s all about values, he says.
“In this region [the Middle East]today there is only one liberal democracy, only one place that values and respects democracy, human rights and the rule of law. And that is our ally [Israel]” he told the Jerusalem Post.
He gave an example of the double standard by which Israel is often judged to the pro-Netanyahu Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom: “There was a political issue in Toronto, where they have quite a large gay pride parade, and they had a Queers Against Israeli Apartheid float. Outside of Israel, what is the record of any of Israeli neighbours on those [gay]issues?” he asked.
Mr. Baird disdains the moral relativism that, he believes, often equates Israel with some of its enemies. He likes to tell the story of when he first discovered this as a 24-year-old staffer for then-foreign minister Perrin Beatty in the short-lived Kim Campbell government in 1993.
Every day, the minister and his staff would get a briefing from a Foreign Affairs official and, one day, he said, the briefing referred to Katyusha rockets being fired against northern Israel by the militant Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“What should we do?” Mr. Baird recalled asking.
“’Nothing,” the official said.
“He told me it’s not that easy to tell the black hats from the white hats, so we keep quiet,” Mr. Baird said.
“I could not stay quiet,” he said. “I took a pad of paper and drew a white hat on one side and a black hat on the other. Under the white hat I wrote 'Israel' and under the black, ‘Hezbollah.’ “
“Under ‘Israel’ I wrote ‘free country, democratic’ and ‘our friend.’ Under ‘Hezbollah’ I wrote ‘centre of global terrorism’ and ‘our enemy.’
“I told the official: ‘We can certainly differentiate between the white hats and black hats, and I certainly know who I support.’ “
Mr. Baird’s Israeli audiences applauded enthusiastically wherever he told it.
This doesn’t mean that the minister is completely uncritical of Israel or its right-wing Likud party government, but he is much more diplomatic when discussing areas of their differences in public.
When asked this week about obstacles to Israelis and Palestinians resuming direct peace negotiations, Mr. Baird answered: “Unilateral action by either side is unhelpful, but the parties should return to the negotiating table without preconditions.”
It’s a formula that Israel itself uses: The Palestinians want Israel to stop expanding settlements before the parties resume talks over the territory to be divided.
As Shlomo Cesana of Israel Hayom wrote: “When he discusses the Palestinian issue, Baird sounds like he could have voted in this week’s Likud primaries.”