Justin Trudeau has been stalwart in supporting Israel during the current crisis, despite divisions within the Prime Minister’s Liberal caucus. Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives are unequivocally pro-Israel. The NDP, though more ambiguous in its position, also condemned the horrific attacks by Hamas of Oct. 7.
But Canada is changing, politically and demographically. Some who defend the rights of Palestinians use language that is plainly antisemitic. People are saying hateful things during pro-Palestinian demonstrations. For supporters of Israel and of Jews everywhere, the future darkens.
“Overton window” is a term used to describe the range of permissible discourse on a given subject. On the question of Israelis, Palestinians and the future of both peoples, that window in Canada has traditionally been narrow: Most Canadians support a two-state solution that would see Israel and a Palestinian state co-existing peacefully.
Among the national political parties, Conservative leaders are especially fierce in defending Israel. While they also support the right of Palestinians to live peacefully in their own state, their first loyalty is to the Jewish people.
This is largely true for leaders of the federal Liberal Party as well. In the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks, Mr. Trudeau declared Canada’s “steadfast” support for Israel, and its right to defend itself against Hamas.
But 23 Liberal MPs (plus eight NDP and two Green MPs) signed a letter urging Canada to support a ceasefire in Gaza, which would leave Hamas effectively unpunished. Mr. Trudeau, while not calling for that ceasefire, does support humanitarian pauses to aid Gazan civilians. Canada abstained on a vote in the United Nations urging a ceasefire, after trying but failing to have the resolution amended to include a condemnation of Hamas.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, while also condemning Hamas, supports a ceasefire. And in the Ontario Legislature, one former NDP MPP was prepared to go much farther.
On Oct. 10, Hamilton Centre MPP Sarah Jama issued a statement that made no mention of the Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians, but instead talked about Israeli violence against Palestinians “rooted in settler colonialism,” and called on Israel to “end all occupation of Palestinian land and end apartheid.”
Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles evicted Ms. Jama from caucus for insubordination. But Ms. Stiles is now facing intense criticism. At least one NDP MPP and one MP disagreed with the leader’s decision. Several riding associations have also protested. It may not be long before the NDP, and perhaps even the Liberals, become more equivocal in their support for Israel, and more vociferous in defence of the rights of Palestinians.
Canadian political parties often tailor their foreign policy to court votes at home. There are about 335,000 Canadians who identified as Jewish in the last census, a number that has changed little over the years. Canada’s Arab population numbers 690,000 or about 2 per cent of the population, twice that of Canada’s Jews. That population has grown by 171,000 in five years. Political parties may start to tailor their position on the Middle East to reflect this demographic reality.
People have taken to the streets in support of the rights of Palestinians. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But when demonstrators and others call Israel an apartheid state, call Jews “settlers” or chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – presumably of Jews – their actions cross the line.
Then-prime minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative, put it well in his address to Israel’s Knesset in January, 2014. Calling Israel an apartheid state, he said, “is the face of the new antisemitism. It targets the Jewish people by targeting Israel and attempts to make the old bigotry acceptable for a new generation.”
We can fault the actions of the Israeli government in the West Bank and Gaza; we must condemn Islamophobia every bit as fiercely as antisemitism. We can and should worry about innocent civilians put at risk by Israel’s determination to root out Hamas in Gaza, once and for all.
But let’s not forget what the Jews have lived through and died from. The right to resist is their right as well. When we pray for peace, let that peace be for a safe and secure Israel as well as for Palestinians. And those who ask us to reflect on the words we use should reflect on their own words as well.