Joe Roberts

Israel is on fire, where are Canadian Jews?


Israel is on fire. The election of an extremist, hard-right governing coalition has led to a flurry of proposed legislative and policy changes that will lead to the gutting of Israeli democracy. Violence in the occupied Palestinian Territories is spiraling out of control and one of the most vile extremists of this new class of ministers has called for a village of 8,000 Palestinians to be “wiped out”. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu enjoyed a Roman holiday with his wife. The architect of this new government, it is fitting that Israel’s own self styled Nero was playing in Rome while his country burns.

In the US and UK, a chorus of voices from all political stripes and religious backgrounds have emerged to speak out in opposition. Even those who have in the past steadfastly held the line that criticism of Israel in the public sphere is unacceptable or ill-advised are finding their personal red lines crossed. They are jumping into the fray. What is notably missing is the powerful organizations in the world’s fourth-largest Jewish community. Where are the Canadian Jews?

In Israel, a wide-reaching protest movement has emerged driven by many issues — in support of democracy, against the occupation of the Palestinian territories, to hold the PM accountable for impending corruption charges — but all in opposition to the dismantling of the social contract that built the Jewish State. What began on a Saturday ten weeks ago as 60,000 taking to the streets of Tel Aviv became 100,000 the next. Then 120,000. This crescendo of resistance now results in daily protests with 1 in 5 Israelis reporting they’ve joined protests in cities, suburbs, and villages in every corner of the country. That’s 18.5% of the tiny nation’s population. If these protests were in the Canadian context, that would be nearly every man, woman, and child in Quebec pouring into the streets.

The courage of Israelis has been inspiring. Police water cannons, riot-clad officers on horseback, even stun grenades haven’t deterred peaceful protestors from fighting for the soul of their country. To the contrary, it’s only driven more Israelis off the fence and firmly onto the side of the public opposition. In Canada, the biggest and most powerful Jewish organizations have been generally mum seemingly in the hopes the escalating violence and social upheaval will magically go away. It isn’t and it won’t. The powerful dynamics driving this crisis in Israeli society are here to stay.

Establishment Canadian Jewish organizations are woefully unrepresentative of the concerns in the Jewish communities they serve. A recent JSpaceCanada/New Israel Fund of Canada EKOS survey found that only 13% of Canadian Jews think Israel is headed in the right direction. The same survey found overwhelming opposition in the community to every major policy proposal included in the coalition agreements signed by Israel’s governing coalition. Rolling back of LGBTQIA2S+ rights, barring Palestinian citizens of Israel from serving in the country’s parliament, expanding settlements/annexing the occupied territories, overhauling the country’s judicial system, and gender segregation in some public spaces are all on the table for this government – and all of them are vigorously opposed by Jewish Canadians by wide margins.

A few brave Jewish Canadians who are deeply intertwined with Israel have found their voice. In an open letter signed by Canadian jurists, including seven former justices from the Supreme court of Canada and former Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler said that the proposed judicial reforms “will weaken democratic governance, undermine the rule of law, jeopardize the independence of the judiciary, impair the protection of human rights, and diminish the international respect currently accorded to Israeli legal institutions.” A group of seven Canadian Jewish organizations penned a statement calling for “Canadian Jewish leaders, institutions, and the government that represents us in foreign affairs to aid Israelis fighting for liberal democracy and to reject extremism, even when it emanates from sitting Israeli ministers.” They have responded with silence and closed door private meetings. How will history judge such timidity in the face of such an existential crisis for the Jewish people?

The Talmud Bavli says, “Anyone who is capable of protesting injustice in their home and does not, is responsible for the outcomes of their neglect.” Legacy Jewish communal institutions can get their house in order by joining the individuals and organizations who have already taken up the mantle of fighting for democracy, human rights, and justice. They can find their voices of protest now, or they can wait until it is far too late — at that point the outcome of their neglect is their responsibility.

About the Author
Joe Roberts is a foreign policy analyst with a focus on MENA, a veteran political strategist in both the US and Canada, Board Chair of JSpaceCanada—the pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy voice of Canadian Jewry, and Chair of Meretz Canada. Roberts spent 10 years in executive positions in the Jewish Federation system across North America. He has completed studies at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, London School of Economics and Political Science, and the Harvard Kennedy School.
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