Andrew Cohen is a journalist and professor of journalism at Carleton University. His most recent book is Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.
In its 75 years of nationhood, Israel has lived under a regime of unrelenting threat. Challenges to its security, unity and prosperity are as old as the country itself. Whatever the danger – invasion, war, terrorism, intifadas, boycotts, sanctions – it has come from beyond Israel’s borders.
No longer. The forces convulsing Israel over the past 10 weeks are made in Israel. They come from citizens protesting a religious, revolutionary government that wants to make the judiciary less independent, weakening the checks and balances that have protected minority rights. If Israel is in upheaval today, blame not marauding infidels, foreign armies or fifth columnists. Blame Israelis.
Oh, the irony. The power of its military, diplomacy and economy ensures Israel dominates the neighbourhood. As political scientist Steven A. Cook has noted, Israel has broadened relations with regional partners while ensuring Israel’s armed forces, brandishing nuclear weapons, are matchless. There is a mortal threat from Iran, yes. But Israel is less vulnerable than it was during the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, or any other time. “Israel is in a better strategic position than ever,” Mr. Cook argues. “And its sovereignty is beyond question.”
At home, though, Israel is roiling with insurrection. Its soul is under siege. Ehud Barak, the former prime minister, calls for “civil disobedience” if the new government passes its agenda; he says Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition is using “the tools of democracy in order to destroy [Israel] from within.” From afar, the Jewish diaspora watches this unravelling with a mix of acquiescence, incredulity, resignation, helplessness, fear and anger.
Among Canada’s 400,000 or so Jews, the response is muted. Some have voiced their opposition to Mr. Netanyahu’s plans through the campaigns of progressive Jewish organizations. From more centrist Jewish groups: silence.
It has come to this: In Israel’s hour of crisis, as thousands fill the streets, protesting the assault on democracy and human rights, mainstream Jews in Canada are unseen and unheard. They have been orphaned by timid, tepid leadership out of step with their views. This is the unspeakable silence of the Canadian Jewish establishment.
The emblem of that establishment is the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). It calls itself the “advocacy agent” of the Jewish Federations of Canada, an umbrella of organizations providing social services and advancing Jewish interests.
CIJA initially called itself “the exclusive agent” of Canadian Jews. Now, more modestly, it “represents the diverse perspectives of more than 150,000 Jewish Canadians affiliated with their local Jewish Federation.” That claim is dubious. Is every one of these 150,000 individuals “affiliated” with a federation (presumably as donors or volunteers) duly represented by CIJA? How does CIJA know? And even if all were aligned with CIJA, this would still represent less than half of Canadian Jewry, suggesting that CIJA – for all its hopes and boasts – is far less relevant than it admits.
Then again, CIJA has overstated its stature since it was created in 2011, when it absorbed the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and the Canada-Israel Committee. Discarding its “legacy name” like day-old bagels, CIJA dropped “Canadian” and added “Israel.” It insisted its restructuring had “the overwhelmingly support of the community.” Not necessarily. Bernie Farber, who was at Congress (as it was called) for most of his long, distinguished career in Jewish advocacy, calls it a hostile takeover of what was known as “the parliament of Canadian Jewry.”
For many Canadian Jews, the end of Congress was an affront, reflecting the agenda of wealthy Jews sympathetic to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. For me, it was a loss. Congress was founded by my great uncle, Lyon Cohen, among others, in 1919. He was president until 1934, supported by my grandfather, Abraham Zebulon Cohen. Although at first the CJC did little beyond establishing the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, Congress eventually became a spirited democratic voice led by prominent Jews in business, law, the clergy and the academy. Among them were Samuel Bronfman, Gunther Plaut, Reuven Bulka, Irving Abella, Dorothy Reitman and Irwin Cotler.
Prof. Abella, the late eminent historian, called it “a unique organization” with “no parallel anywhere else in the Jewish world.” It was a forum “where all the problems of Canadian Jewry could be debated,” including human rights, equity, immigration, free speech, social justice and interfaith dialogue. “No one doubted that when the CJC spoke, it spoke on behalf of all Canadian Jewry,” he said.
Today no one believes CIJA speaks for Canadian Jewry. It is not a parliament. Its officers are unelected. Its annual budget is secret. It is evasive (after pleasantly acknowledging my queries, none were answered.) The organization does admirable things, such as fighting antisemitism. It also champions Israel, about which, let it be said, its chief executive officer, Shimon Fogel, cannot utter a discouraging word.
Scour CIJA’s Twitter account, its news releases and Mr. Fogel’s interviews, and it’s hard to find a single criticism of the Netanyahu government (except, recently discovering intestinal fortitude, it denounced Israel’s hateful Finance Minister for urging the eradication of a Palestinian village.) CIJA presumably believes its subtlety and caution serves the community, whose views on the unrest in Israel have been unclear.
Now, though, we know more. A comprehensive poll by EKOS Research Associates finds that Canadian Jews overwhelmingly oppose changes to Israel’s high court and other proposed measures, such as banning gay pride parades and imposing gender segregation in public spaces. That is just one poll, commissioned by JSpaceCanada and the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIFC). Still, it provides “a fair baseline representation of Jewish community perspectives in issues of vital importance,” says Robert Brym, a sociologist at the University of Toronto who oversaw the survey.
If this is a correct reading of Jewish attitudes, CIJA is ignoring them, even as Mr. Fogel insists otherwise. “While marginal groups may heckle from the sidelines,” he told the Canadian Jewish News, “in fact, CIJA not only has the access but has used its privileged position to meet with senior Israeli leadership” in and out of government. Those recent meetings were preceded by other private interventions, he reported.
Mr. Fogel, who lacks the influence of the luminaries who ran Congress, suggests his quiet diplomacy is more effective than public pressure. His scorn for other Jewish voices – heckling from the sidelines – reflects an erosion of civility within the community. Relations are so fraught that CIJA has threatened, in writing, to sue the NIFC and JSpaceCanada for attributing statements to Mr. Fogel that he denies are his.
Mr. Farber, who was CEO of the CJC, says this level of rancour is unprecedented in Canada. “There were always differences, sometimes prickly, but it was always ‘Macy’s versus Gimbels.’ It was always kept within the community. There was an unwritten rule that we ought not air our dirty laundry in public. We kept things unzera, in Yiddish, ‘among ourselves.’”
Then, again, it’s understandable that some Jews are reluctant to speak out, even though Jews are acutely sensitive to injustice and have historically protested it everywhere, notably as leading participants in the U.S. civil rights movement. They were raised to revere Israel and to remember the Holocaust. They don’t want to give ammunition to antisemites. The rabbi of my synagogue, who presides over a large, conservative congregation, says that were he an Israeli, he would join the protests. From his pulpit, though, he argues Israel is “a liberal democracy” that will get by without his advice.
There are other explanations for this reticence. It may be our character, which is less assertive than Americans, Australians and Britons. It may be that shutting up is the price of access, be it in Ottawa (which has been less critical of Israel than other governments) or Jerusalem. It may be the absence of a lively Jewish press as a forum for liberal Zionist voices.
And what good, skeptics might ask, is rushing to the ramparts anyway? Do we think Jerusalem really cares? Actually, Mr. Netanyahu might listen to the diaspora and foreign governments, if they made enough noise – and some threats, too. Meanwhile, he pushes his illiberal project forward because he can.
It isn’t that there are no critics among prominent Canadian Jews. Former Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella has warned of the dangers to the independence of Israel’s judiciary. So has Mr. Cotler among about 175 jurists who have signed a petition. The NIFC and JSpaceCanada are rallying opposition and raising public awareness, vigorously and effectively, as are Canadian Friends of Peace Now. To them, CIJA and its silent partners are marginal while they are mainstream, and this is no time for nuance.
But where are other Jews – entrepreneurs, doctors, artists, professors? Where are the philanthropists declaring their alarm, as Charles Bronfman, the Canadian co-founder of Birthright, and other Jewish billionaires and foundations have in the U.S.? Where are rabbis as passionate as Micah Streiffer of Toronto, who says it is our obligation to speak up when Israel abandons basic values, a response that is the real expression “of our love”?
In 1965, a young Elie Wiesel visited the Soviet Union to observe the life of its three million Jews. That produced his haunting cri de coeur, The Jews of Silence. Curiously, he confessed that he was less concerned about Soviet Jews than the detachment of his American co-religionists, a lament that has an eerie contemporary resonance amid Israel’s moral crisis.
“What torments me most is not the silence of the Jews I met in Russia,” he wrote, “but the silence of the Jews I live among today.”