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Liberal candidate Irwin Cotler (C), speaks to supporters as he launches his election campaign in his Mont Royal riding of Montreal, April 10, 2011.Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail

The one thing Irwin Cotler never expected in his political career was to be forced to prove his commitment to Jewish causes and the state of Israel.

"It causes me deep, personal anguish," said the long-time human rights activist and former Liberal justice minister who is running for the sixth time in Pierre Trudeau's former riding of Mont Royal in Quebec. "The Conservatives utterly misrepresent my record and put me in the docket of the accused on the issues where I have been at the forefront."

Like several other Liberals across the country, Mr. Cotler finds himself on the defensive against what he decries as "the politics of fear" – a concerted Conservative campaign to woo Jewish voters in several key ridings by highlighting Prime Minister Stephen Harper's pro-Israel stand and painting the Liberals as soft, if not downright sympathetic, to terrorism in the Middle East.

"Where is the fear?" asked Saulie Zajdel, a popular former city councillor who is taking on Mr. Cotler for the Tories in a riding that is more than one-third Jewish. "Are we trying to scare anybody? We're trying to engage in the issues."

The Conservatives are making a deliberate push for Jewish votes as part of a broader outreach strategy for what is euphemistically called "the ethnic vote." Jason Kenney, the Tory Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, told The Globe and Mail that his party has seen "growing support in the ethno-cultural communities [that]feel like they have been taken for granted by the Liberals."

Accounting for only about 1 per cent of the nation's population, Canada's roughly 370,000 Jews may seem too small a political target to be worth such efforts. But what's at stake in the short term for the Tories, just a few seats shy of a majority, is at least six ridings – four of them in the crucial Toronto area – where a sizable Jewish minority could tip the balance in close races.

In the longer term, the Conservatives hope for more lasting gains in a traditionally Liberal community whose members have figured prominently in the political, business and cultural life of the country. "The change has been dramatic," said Peter Kent, the Conservative Environment Minister who snatched away the Thornhill riding north of Toronto (with a 36 per cent Jewish makeup) from the Liberals in 2008. "It didn't happen overnight, but it has happened and it's certainly significant."

Prominent Liberals don't disagree. "The Liberals lost their primacy with the Jewish community," said former senator Jack Austin from British Columbia, who was the country's first Jewish chief of staff under Mr. Trudeau. "And now they're contestants with the Conservatives."

Political, community and religious leaders caution that Jews don't vote as a block any more than any other groups do – and for many Jewish Canadians, important domestic issues trump Middle East politics. Yet Israel plainly weighs heavily. According to the Canadian Jewish Federation, 74 per cent of Jews in Toronto and Montreal have visited Israel – compared to 35 per cent of American Jews.

Some ridings seem unlikely to change hands in any case. Mr. Kent will almost certainly keep the Thornhill constituency in the Tory fold. Liberal Carolyn Bennett in the Toronto riding of St. Paul's also appears secure, as does Liberal Anita Neville in Winnipeg South Centre.

But at least three other ridings, long considered safe Liberal seats, could be in play.

In Quebec, Mr. Cotler's share of the popular vote dropped from 92 per cent in 1999 to 55 per cent in the last race, though he still enjoyed a 10,000-vote victory. In Toronto, Liberals Ken Dryden in York Centre and Joe Volpe in Eglinton-Lawrence both saw their strong wins in 2006 wither to thin margins of about 2,000 votes in 2008.

Mr. Volpe admits the decline of Liberal support in the Jewish community that makes up 18 per cent of his riding figured in his near defeat. "I'd be a liar and blind if I didn't say that," he said.

In the fall of 2009, the Conservatives targeted Jewish households in Mr. Volpe's and Mr. Cotler's ridings with taxpayer-funded mail-outs accusing the Liberals of participating in the "overtly anti-Semitic" Durban anti-racism conference in 2001 and being soft "on fighting terrorism."

Mr. Cotler compared the flyers to "a kind of Karl Rovian take-no-prisoners style of politics" – a reference to former U.S. president George W. Bush's hardball strategist – where "you demonize the individual and don't confuse people with the facts." He said that he attended the controversial Durban conference to take a stand against anti-Semitism, and that it was a Liberal government that put Hamas and Hezbollah on the terrorism list.

Jeff Itcush, the NDP candidate in the Mont Royal riding who teaches at the local Jewish high school, said the Tory strategy also raised hackles among some Jews who bristle at any notion of "single-issue" politics. "There are some people who are saying we want to make certain that the Conservative Party does not use Israel to simply divide the community," he said.

For several decades after the Second World War, few political bets were as safe as the Jewish vote for Liberals. Things began to shift dramatically in 2006 with the confluence of two events: Stephen Harper's election as Prime Minister in January, and the brief but fierce Israel-Lebanon war that summer.

During the 2006 conflict – and in the five years since – Mr. Harper has defended Israel's policies even when other allies like the United States and Britain have made the occasional criticism or called for compromise.

But the Lebanon war proved to be a political minefield for Michael Ignatieff when, as the front-runner for the Liberal leadership, he criticized Israel's bombing of a Lebanese village as a "war crime" on a Radio-Canada TV show. He later apologized and retracted the statement, but the damage was done.

Film producer Robert Lantos was the first of several prominent defectors from the Liberal camp during the summer of 2006, and he has remained a faithful Tory since. In a recent interview with The Globe, he praised Mr. Harper's "principled and courageous stand" in contrast to what he saw as Liberal "dithering for decades."

"We are fortunate to live in a country whose Prime Minister is Israel's closest friend," Mr. Lantos said. "That outweighs all other considerations from my point of view – and should for all Jews."

Mr. Lantos's renunciation of the Liberals was followed by similar moves from Heather Reisman – head of the Indigo chain who was also the former chair of the Liberal national policy committee – and her husband, businessman Gerry Schwartz of Onex Corporation, himself a former president of the party. Senior Liberals admit such high-profile defections hurt not only their public image in the Jewish community, but also their pocketbooks – fundraising reverberations that are still being felt.

Along with Israel, social and economic questions are key for many Jewish voters – and here, too, the Tories seem to be widening their appeal. "Israel is a large issue but it is wrong to say it is the only one," said Toronto Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich, whose Beth Sholom synagogue lies in the hotly contested Eglinton-Lawrence riding where he said the Tories have "gained a greater foothold."

"I suspect some of the gains are in part because the Conservatives, like most ruling parties, have become more centrist."

Back in Quebec, Mr. Cotler would like to focus on issues he thinks are of concern to all his voters – like health and senior care – and issues close to his heart like Darfur, hate speech and violence against women. But he bemoans the fact that the Tories have caught him in a "pincer movement" where he has to devote a lot of time convincing his Jewish voters he cares for them without letting other voters feel that's all he cares about.

Stalwart supporters like Roni Gandell acknowledges she is having trouble convincing some friends to stay loyal. "They're life-long Liberals filled with pangs of remorse," she said. "They're questioning, struggling with themselves."

Tory candidate Mr. Zajdel, meanwhile, is counting in part on support from the rapidly growing Sephardic community – a traditional religious group known for its strong small-c conservative leanings that he hopes to convert into big-C Conservative votes. At a recent Sabbath ceremony, a rabbi at one Sephardic synagogue used exceptionally strong language to praise Mr. Harper as a "prophet of Israel" – and urged his congregants to vote accordingly.

One of Mr. Zajdel's campaign leaflets features Mr. Harper – described as "Israel's best friend" – flanked by a large Israeli flag in the foreground and Canadian flags behind him.

"I'm so proud of Harper," said one man who shook Mr. Zajdel's hand at another synagogue. "My parents always voted Liberal – but I'm changing."

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