Photo by Sebastian Scheiner / CP Photo
I had to think long and hard about writing a piece on my impressions of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's trip to Israel.
After all, when I merely posted a few articles about the trip, some mildly critical, to my Facebook page, the avalanche of comments, emails and telephone calls taking me to task took my breath away.
So let me begin with a simple statement: Stephen Harper's giant hug of the Jewish state is welcome and historic.
The PM spoke with uncharacteristic passion about his support of Israel as a bastion of democracy in an otherwise very difficult area of the world. Coming from leaders outside of Israel, these statements are vital and carry an important and necessary credibility.
Many Canadian Jews were ecstatic. They revelled in Harper's unconditional love. In fact, Harper's support for Israel as a key policy objective has led many in the Jewish community to the Conservative party. His Israel sojourn is the talk of synagogues and Jewish gatherings.
With more than 200 individuals joining the PM on his trip as part of a mostly taxpayer-funded cheering section (among them many rabbis and communal leaders), stoking the positive feelings was not difficult. But, alas, murmurs in dark corners began to turn into full-throated criticisms in Israel as well as back home in Canada.
For example, in Israel's left-leaning and well-read Haaretz newspaper, columnist Barak Ravid acknowledged that Harper's speech to the Knesset (Israel's parliament) included "important and correct things" but also "completely ignored the occupation or settlements, expressed only weak support for the establishment of a Palestinian state and even granted Israel the right of a veto on this matter."
Harper's speech, Ravid warned, "will be remembered mostly for the things he did not say and for the truths he chose to sweep under the carpet. This is not how a true friend behaves."
To be sure, others pointedly defended the PM. Writing in the right-leaning Jerusalem Post (Israelis love their politics and their newspapers), guest columnist and my old personal friend David Weinberg noted that Harper's speech "articulated a moral worldview and an approach of principle that calls out the hypocrisies, and shames the injustices, of what passes today as ‘politically correct' policy regarding Israel."
In Canada, reaction was mixed at best. The Globe and Mail was critical of Harper's refusal to speak candidly on the building of yet more Jewish housing in the Occupied Territories.
The Toronto Star, like the Globe, also acknowledged Harper's necessary support of Israel as "a prosperous, advanced, stable nation in a region fraught with turmoil where human rights and the rule of law are more aspirations than realities." Yet, it singled out Harper for using the trip more as a photo op - a "million-dollar" photo op, for those who believe Conservative MP Mark Adler's "joke" at Judaism's holiest site - rather than a serious foray into advancing peace in the troubled region. Adler wanted to be photographed at the Western Wall with Harper and told handlers trying to exclude him, "It's the re-election! This is the million-dollar shot."
In my view, the Ottawa Citizen's Andrew Cohen, a moderate and progressive academic, got it right. He noted that Harper talks about "sophistication in our policy with Israel. Yet he fills Canada's official delegation with evangelical Christians, a score of rabbis (many Orthodox) and prominent Canadian Jews who support the Conservatives - as if they speak for all Canadian Jews. They don't."
Even the more Tory-friendly Jonathan Kay wondered in the National Post if even the large Zionist community in Canada might find "the Tories' Israel zeal to be disturbingly manic."
I fully believe that Harper's love for Israel is genuine. However, I also understand why many Canadians believe that my community is simply single-mindedly supportive, enthusiastic or even rapturous when it comes to our PM and his support of Israel.
Others wonder what has happened to the Jewish community that had social justice and human rights as part of its historical agenda.
Still more now see our community becoming so increasingly parochial that we take little, if any, interest in anything Canadian. Indeed, even our newly minted advocacy arm, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, has omitted Canada from its name.
I get these views, but even when they come from well-intentioned friends, they are wrong. My community is far more diverse than those fortunate enough to be handpicked to fly with the prime minister to Israel and back.
Given the myriad feelings this trip has evoked, the changing nature of Canadian Jewry and our deeply held sacred values, it behooves us to do some real soul-searching and honestly assess our role as the Canadian Jewish community.
Bernie M. Farber is senior vice-president of Gemini Power Corporation, where he works in partnership with First Nations building sustainable industries on reserves. He is the former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, a writer and human rights advocate.