Skip to main content
federal election 2015

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a speech to the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy Parliamentry dinner in Ottawa, Tuesday Febuary 6, 2007.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

When Stephen Harper's majority government was formed in the 2011 election, perhaps no other community was as pleased with the outcome as Canada's Jews. After decades of giving their overwhelming support to the Liberals, a record number turned out in 2011 to vote Conservative and were rewarded with a government that was among the most sympathetic ever to the interests of the Jewish community, especially to its support for Israel.

In this election the two main opposition parties have closed ranks on the Israel issue to such a degree that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau could silence Mr. Harper in the recent foreign-policy debate by pointing out that there was little or no difference between the parties' support for the Jewish state.

But while the three largest parties may be closely aligned on this issue, the country's Jewish community is more divided than ever over which party should be elected. Harsh words, fear mongering and caustic tactics have become the norm, bringing even some of the community's violent fringe members into play.

Accusations of a radical Muslim conspiracy, for example, usually the preserve of a few Jewish extremists, have moved in recent weeks into mainstream discourse. Michael Diamond, a prominent Jewish businessman and philanthropist, posted this week to a broad readership that "in electing a Liberal government we are increasing the risk of giving power to those who may be tied to radical Islam."

"I've never heard such extreme rhetoric being used" between community members, said Yoni Goldstein, editor of the weekly Canadian Jewish News, the community's largest-circulation newspaper.

In Montreal, Michael Hollander, a resident of the closely contested riding of Mount Royal, opened his door one evening to some Conservative canvassers asking if their candidate could count on his support.

After telling them he wasn't interested, one of the canvassers tapped on the Jewish mezuzah affixed to Mr. Hollander's doorpost and reportedly said, "Okay, but remember what you are" – meaning: a Jew who should vote for the Conservatives. Mr. Hollander was furious and wrote a critical comment piece in the Montreal Gazette bringing the incident to light.

In Toronto, members of the Jewish Defence League (JDL) protested outside the home of one of Canada's richest men, Barry Sherman, chairman and CEO of Apotex Inc., who was holding a $1,500-a-head fundraiser for Mr. Trudeau.

One of the leaders of the JDL, which follows the teachings of the late extremist U.S. rabbi Meir Kahane and whose fellow organizations are banned in the United States and Israel, was invited to join the Prime Minister on his first visit to Israel in 2014. The group probably thought it was doing Mr. Harper a favour by protesting against his Liberal rival.

Julius Suraski, JDL's "events co-ordinator" who had accompanied the Prime Minister, spoke at the opening of a JDL chapter in Montreal earlier this year of how proud he had been when Mr. Harper addressed the Knesset in Jerusalem. Some of the "events" Mr. Suraski has planned in Canada have included protests against legal Palestinian groups that sometimes have turned violent.

"Someone in the PMO approved this guy on the guest list," said Harold Troper, a University of Toronto historian and author or co-author of numerous books on anti-Semitism including None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948. "It's unbelievable."

"The Conservatives are playing with fire," said Bernie Farber, a former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress. "Until recently, the JDL was on the extreme fringe of the Jewish community. This government has given them undeserved credibility."

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) took over from the Canadian Jewish Congress in 2011 and became the Jewish community's dominant lobby group. Often closely identified with right-wing, pro-Israel policies, and described by some as a shill for the Conservatives, CIJA has been sharply critical of the JDL's activities. CEO Shimon Fogel said he was asked to supply a list of Jewish community leaders for possible inclusion on the trip to Israel, but insisted that Mr. Suraski's name "did not appear on the list I forwarded to PMO."

It is CIJA, more than any other group, that speaks for the Jewish community in Canada, and not all of the community is happy about that.

To find out how that happened, you have to go back to 2006– epicentre of the earthquake that would rock the Jewish community and realign Canada's political parties.

The year began with both Mr. Harper and the militant Palestinian movement Hamas being elected to head their respective governments. Mr. Harper wasted no time in condemning Hamas and vowing that Canada would never truck with its government, a move that pleased Israel. Six months later, Mr. Harper described Israel's heavy bombing of Lebanon as a "measured response" necessary for Israel's self defence against the militant Lebanese movement Hezbollah.

"Those things captured the attention of some pretty influential Jews," Prof. Troper said.

Chief among them were Gerald Schwartz, head of Onex Corp., and his wife, Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books & Music Inc. Mr. Schwartz was among a group of prominent Jewish family leaders who signed an open letter in a newspaper thanking the Conservatives for their support for Israel.

In contrast, interim Liberal leader Bill Graham criticized the Prime Minister for not trying to play a mediating role in the Lebanese conflict, and Michael Ignatieff, a candidate for the Liberal leadership, put his foot in his political mouth by suggesting Israel may have committed war crimes.

"That Ignatieff comment, mentioning 'Israel' and 'war crimes' in the same sentence, really caused a furor," Prof. Troper said.

Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Reisman, both long-time Liberals, bolted the party and told everyone they were supporting Mr. Harper's Conservatives. "While some people may view Mr. Harper as tilting the balance in favour of Israel," Mr. Troper said, "these people saw him as somebody who finally gets it, who has reset the balance."

What followed was a wholesale changing of the guard in the Jewish community, with institutions such as the 92-year-old Canadian Jewish Congress and the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC) being replaced by more conservative bodies such as CIJA.

"The Conservatives had always viewed Congress as a well-oiled machine that supported the Liberals," said Mr. Farber, himself a one-time candidate for Ontario's Liberal Party.

Frank Dimant, the outspoken CEO of the B'nai Brith organization, retired. And his newspaper, the Tribune, a closed-circulation weekly that espoused a maverick right-wing ideology, was shut down.

The leadership of the Jewish community's other newspaper, the Canadian Jewish News, changed and Mr. Goldstein, 34, the paper's new editor and a former columnist with the National Post, introduced a more diverse range of contributors.

Mr. Fogel, 54, came to CIJA from the CIC with a reputation as a religious right-winger. He went to work telling the Jewish community they should back the party that best supported Israel and that, in 2011, was the Conservatives. Exit polls indicate that some 51 per cent of Jewish voters did – probably five times the number who usually vote Conservative.

"When I was growing up in Montreal – and I grew up in a very Orthodox family," Mr. Fogel said, "the idea that a Jew would support the Conservative Party was really an anomaly."

But in 2011 it became "kosher to identify with the Conservative Party," he said.

At a recent Toronto area debate among representatives of the three main parties, there was little daylight between the positions of the speakers when it came to anything related to Israel.

"That's why I got involved," said Hal Berman, the NDP candidate for York Centre and a palliative-care physician. "To show that the Conservatives aren't the only pro-Israel party."

There are considerable differences on domestic security matters such as wearing niqabs, reporting "ethnic brutality" and forfeiting citizenship for terrorist crime. As there is in the Jewish community, Mr. Fogel acknowledged.

Indeed, Mr. Farber said, the Conservatives' use of these issues may be intended to attract votes from security-conscious communities, but "it could well have a boomerang effect when it comes to Canadian Jews.

"Within the community, people see these things as rights issues more than security issues," he said. "They wonder: Will we [Jews] be next in line?"

Interact with The Globe