Yair Szlak is the chief executive officer of Federation CJA (Montreal). Adam Minsky is the president & CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. Ezra Shanken is the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. This column was jointly authored by and submitted on behalf of Canada’s 12 Jewish Federations.
It’s a stunning statistic. Nearly nine in 10 Jewish Canadians say “caring about Israel” is either essential or important to their Jewish identity, according to a 2018 poll by Environics. Commissioned by Canada’s Jewish Federations, whose boards are elected to represent local Jewish communities, the study is the most recent and comprehensive poll of Canadian Jewry.
The data confirm that Israel remains a unifying feature of what it means to be Jewish in Canada today. The reasons are understandable. Seventy-five years ago, the establishment of a Jewish and democratic state in the ancestral land of the Jewish people completely transformed the Jewish condition.
Within that unity, there has never been uniformity when it comes to the policy choices made by Israel’s elected leaders. Every Canadian, regardless of political stripe, knows what it means to love one’s country and yet disagree – often vehemently – with the government of the day. This is especially true at times when politics touch on issues that speak to the country’s very identity.
For Israel, home to a hyper-democratic culture of activism, ferocious debate has marked some of the greatest turning points in the country’s history. In the 1950s, the issue was whether Israel should accept reparations from post-Holocaust Germany. In 2005, many Israelis protested (and others counterprotested) the removal of 8,500 Israeli citizens from Gaza. These debates, among many others, were painful and even traumatic. But the democratic mechanisms of what is arguably the most resilient country in the world ultimately prevailed.
Today, many Israelis are exercising their democratic rights by protesting the current government’s proposed judicial reforms. The same polarization sweeping Western democracies has come to the fore in Israel. Heated rhetoric on both sides obscures an important truth: The policy issues at stake are much more complicated than partisans would have us believe. Indeed, noted Canadian legal scholar and former justice minister Irwin Cotler – who opposes the judicial reforms – has criticized the brinkmanship rhetoric that’s emerged.
“When you get that type of overreach in the indictment of the proposals, then you end up in a situation where one side, the government, says it is trying to restore democracy, and the other side says this is the end of democracy,” Mr. Cotler said in a recent interview with the Times of Israel. He argues that neither claim is accurate, and what’s needed instead is “engagement without that kind of apocalyptic language.”
As the Canadian Jewish community watches with concern as Israelis debate their future, nuance is essential. For Canada’s Jewish Federations – the largest, most representative organizations of Jewish communities from coast to coast – it means embracing two imperatives.
First, at a time of polarization, we must model how to hold difficult conversations that advance unity and understanding, rather than division. To cite just one example, in Toronto, UJA Federation recently convened a session of leading rabbis and Jewish educators from across the diverse spectrum of Jewish life to unpack this issue together. The views we heard reflected a broad range of perspectives, revealing the many nuances of the conversation across the community. It included those who are vocally opposed to the proposed Israeli reforms, those who feel that (as non-citizens of Israel) it’s not the role of Canadian Jews to prescribe the policy choices of Israelis, and others whose views are somewhere in between these two positions.
The conversation was candid and passionate, but also respectful and unifying. Leaders emerged with a greater understanding of each other and a realization that, in a community as diverse as ours, these issues are being felt in different ways. For a big-tent organization like the Federation, representing the community at moments when consensus is elusive means creating meaningful space for good people to disagree with one another – not voicing one viewpoint to the exclusion of others. This is precisely the pluralistic approach that our advocacy agent, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), has taken with the full support of Canada’s Jewish Federations.
Second, effective engagement means speaking to Israelis in ways that they can hear. To paraphrase Michael Oren, a historian and former Israeli parliamentarian and ambassador: The only pressure Israelis can’t resist is an embrace. As Canadian Jews, our connection with Israelis is more than the affection of friends. It’s the affinity of family. When a family member is struggling, it’s time to lean in and engage face to face.
This is why Canada’s Jewish Federations have for months been in direct dialogue with Israeli officials across the political spectrum, via CIJA and partner Jewish organizations around the globe. We’ve been candid in sharing our concerns about the polarization in Israel and how it is affecting the Canadian Jewish community. And we’ve been open and unequivocal that the ideals of Israel’s Declaration of Independence – which affirm Israel’s character as a Jewish state that will ensure “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants” – are sacrosanct.
The founding vision of Israeli democracy is at the heart of who we are as a Canadian Jewish community. And for the nine in 10 Canadian Jews with a deep affinity for Israel, recent months have underscored just how much we care about our extended Jewish family – and what we need to do to model a politics of unity, not uniformity.