Building support for Israel the Canadian way

As Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives for his first official visit to Israel, he will be rightly celebrated as the leader of Israel’s staunchest national ally. On multiple occasions, Canada has demonstrated an exceptional willingness to avoid moral equivalency, to distinguish between what Churchill famously referred to as the “firemen and the arsonists”.

In international forums like the UN, the G-8 and La Francophonie, in domestic decisions related to funding of NGOs that oppose Israel’s right to exist – under Prime Minister Harper’s leadership, Canada’s Government has consistently and meaningfully demonstrated its support for Israel’s right to affirm its Jewish identity and to ensure the safety of its citizens.

But Prime Minister Harper’s visit to Israel begs the question: why Canada? Canada’s economic, academic, and cultural ties to Israel are not significantly different than those of many other countries. The Jewish and pro-Israel community of Canada is not so dramatically better organized than Jewish communities in other countries. Israeli public diplomacy is not more intense in Canada than it is elsewhere. Jewish voters are not more numerous, nor are they more influential in Canada than in countries like Great Britain and France. 

The difficult reality is that Canada’s primacy as Israel’s greatest supporter says as much about the challenges that Israel faces internationally as it does about the principled and exemplary leadership that Prime Minister Harper has provided on this file since he was first elected in 2006. 

And as we move forward in 2014 and beyond, whether in the enforcement of controls on Iran’s drive towards becoming a nuclear power, or in securing support for Israel in the face of a possible failure of the current negotiations with the Palestinians, Canada’s support alone will not be enough. The international Jewish community, together with the Government of Israel, must find effective ways to secure increased support for Israel in Europe, Asia, and around the world. 

While we do not presume to have the complete answer to this challenge, we are persuaded that the critical element to the relative success of pro-Israel advocacy in Canada has been the adoption of what is known as the “Shared Values” approach to Israel advocacy. This approach is grounded in the basic premise that most people know very little about Israel and Israelis, and therefore care little about the difficult challenges that Israel faces in the turbulent Middle East.

Since 2003, Israel’s supporters in Canada have worked to show Israel and Israelis as fundamentally like Canadians – caring about health care, education, services to the elderly, the arts, and infrastructure – and only reluctantly spending money on defensive strategies like the security barrier out of an urgent need to protect their families from violence.

In this framework, we do not simply fight boycotts where they appear, but rather work to strengthen and expand practical bilateral ties across government, business, and civil society. Organizations and individuals who aren’t interested in the conflict are very much interested in Israel’s contributions to the world. If we increase these ties and demonstrate their benefits to all, efforts to isolate Israel through boycott remain symbolic and ineffectual.

In this framework, support for Israel and her long search for peace can also mean supporting the Palestinians’ national aspirations, as long as those aspirations are not expressed as a zero sum game premised on Israel’s policies or even existence as being the primary obstacle to peace.

Thanks in part to this approach, all Canadian political parties today express solid support for the core premise that Israel, like all other countries, has the right to exist in safety and security within internationally recognized and defensible boundaries. There is a national consensus in Canada that like all other peoples, the Jewish people has a right to a national homeland. Without question, Stephen Harper established a new benchmark regarding Canada’s support for Israel and orientation to Middle East policy in general – one not predicated on political expediency, rather on a set of principles anchored in moral clarity. But it is in large part the Shared Values approach that has allowed other political parties to hew to the policies articulated by the Harper government. The Conservative government’s policy has become normative Canadian policy and it is this broad-based multi-partisan support that helps create an environment in which Prime Minister Harper’s leadership has been able to evolve and thrive.

On the occasion of Prime Minister Harper’s visit to Israel, the Canadian Jewish community expresses its deep pride in our Government’s exceptional leadership and steadfast friendship for Israel. Today, Canada stands amongst Israel’s greatest friends. Together, the leadership of our sister-communities world-wide can help create a global climate that fosters the emergence of other, equally committed national leaders. 

Canada should always stand in support of Israel. Together, we must endeavour to ensure that it does not stand alone. 

About the Author
Based in Ottawa, Shimon Koffler Fogel is President and CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) - the advocacy agent of Canada's Jewish Federations.