John Baird, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, has resigned today from the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He leaves a big gap in the Conservative party and also in federal politics, but no one will miss him more than those who support Israel.
When Baird was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in May 2011, the move was mocked by his critics who said that he was too aggressive and too undiplomatic for this role. Baird, however, went on to confound his critics by shining in his new role, just as he had done in every government portfolio before that.
Baird distinguished himself when he stood up for LGBT rights internationally, in places like Russia and Africa. This stand ruffled feathers among some conservatives, but it reaffirmed his government’s principled foreign policy, and Baird’s refusal to “go along just to get along”.
Baird’s strong language against Russia’s attack on Ukraine stood out internationally, compared to the tamer Americans and Europeans. He eloquently supported the Iranian people against the Iranian Islamist regime. He took a firm stand against Syria’s bloody dictator, Bashar Assad, and against the ISIS Islamists. While the Canadian opposition cowardly refused to support the fight against ISIS, Baird rightfully noted that fighting Islamic extremism is the “greatest struggle of our generation”.
There is no doubt however that those cheering Baird’s departure most noisily today would be the antisemites who hated his sincere friendship with the Jewish people and Israel. He has been vilified by antisemites both at home and in the Palestinian Territories where extremists attempted to bombard him with eggs and shoes two weeks ago. Baird shrugged such attacks and did not waver.
In November 2012, Baird delivered a keynote speech at the Jewish National Fund’s annual Negev Dinner, titled “Why Israel holds such a special place in my heart”. In this speech he strayed away from standard diplomatic language to speak about his personal feelings towards Israel. Baird told his audience:
The heavy spirit, the knotted stomach, and the paralysis of shock I felt as I learned details of the horrors of the Nazi era have been ingrained in my soul; they shook me to my core and have become part of my DNA. […] My scar is merely figurative. It will never be as deep, or as real as the one that left its mark on a man I recently met in Boston…a Holocaust Survivor…a man who was thrown into the depths of hell and climbed back…a man, who like all European Jews, was targeted for merely existing. […] This gentleman approached me and told me something I’ll never forget. He clasped my shoulder from behind, slowly took my hand with both of his…looked me in the eye, and said “I wish there were more people like you before the war.” I have never been prouder to be a member of Stephen Harper’s team; I have never felt a greater honour. […] Yes, the horrors of the Holocaust are behind this one man. But the hatred that caused it, has cast itself in a new form. Rather than target him personally, it targets the Jewish state.”
Baird’s support for Israel isn’t a cynical ploy to attract Jewish votes, as some of his critics like to say. Sadly, in Canada like in most of the world, there are more votes to be gained from demonizing Israel than from telling the truth about it. Also most Jews in Canada, like in the United States, are left-leaning. No, Baird’s support for Israel is real and deeply heartfelt. He is known and loved by supporters of Israel throughout the world, from India to the United States, and everywhere in between.
We can try to be consoled by the fact that Harper is just as strong a supporter of Israel as Baird is, and that Harper’s other most senior minister, Jason Kenney, and a potential successor to Harper, is also a supporter of Israel. The reality however is that Baird will never be fully replaced as Minister of Foreign Affairs or as friend of Israel.
I wish him well for his future, and I, like many others, will miss him.