Selling sanctuary

At Beth Tzedec, the Israel narrative gets a special gloss


On a snowy Toronto Thursday evening, Bathurst south of Eglinton in front of stately Beth Tzedec Synagogue is the scene of a high-stakes drama whose significance resounds more than 9,000 kilometres away.

Behind the snowbanks in front of the building, a crowd of nearly 100 – mostly 20-something males – wave flags and chant “IDF!” (Israel Defense Forces) and “Jewish pride!” Someone hands me a pamphlet that encourages me to the join the Jewish Defence League.

But this gaggle of Israel defenders has its back to the synagogue and the folks streaming in. The focus of their attention is on the other side of the street – half a dozen silent counter-demonstrators grossly outnumbered by Toronto police. “Jews in solidarity with Gaza” and “Stop the massacre,” their homemade signs say.

Yes, this is an evening of symbolism and narrative. For the 5,000 inside the sanctuary, the star of the show is historiography – the establishment of a timeline that leads directly to a rationale for the current pummelling of Gaza’s people.

Emcee Julia Koschitzky reminds the audience of the many other moments Israel has been challenged to “defend itself”: 1949, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, 2000, 2005 “and now 2009.”

“We’re not fighting only our own war, but the war of all free and democratic nations of the world,” Koschitzky says.

Few impulses for peace are evident here at the home of Toronto’s largest community of conservative Jews. Indeed, the mood provides distressing signs of how inflamed opinion is.

The hard line is aided and abetted by Peter Kent, the Conservative government’s minister of state for foreign affairs, and Liberal MP Joe Volpe.

When Kent stands to wave, the crowd rises as one to salute him. He later offers Canada’s “unequivocal support” for “Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks by Hamas.”

But despite the backing of Canada’s two largest political parties, the audience seems to believe that Israel is misunderstood and that hostile forces out there are intent on holding the country to a different standard than other nations.

This sense of vulnerability is entrenched in tonight’s narrative, despite Israel’s astounding military might and powerful allies. Therapists might call it a cognitive distortion.

To emphasize the defensive nature of Israel’s actions, organizers present a video depicting a make-believe attack on Canadian cities. “Pretend they’re here shooting at you,” the video asks. “What would you do?”

It does make the point: rockets screeching out of the sky cause terror, whether in Sderot or Thornhill. But there is no attempt to contextualize the hostilities – or to question whether Israeli peace and security can be achieved through counter-insurrectionary warfare.

Israeli consul to Toronto Amir Gissin tells the gathering (the meeting is being webcast to cities across Canada as well as southern Israel), “We’re fighting two wars.” Everyone can be soldiers in that other battle, he suggests – one as important as that being fought in the hostile back alleys of Gaza City.

“There is a clarity about who is the aggressor, but we need to do more. Tell the editor which articles you like and which ones you don’t like. Tell them the effort to isolate Israel is not working.”

Despite the siege mentality, the climate at Beth Tzedec is upbeat, owing to the belief that this adventure, unlike the calamitous attack on Lebanon in 2006, is going pretty well. There’s even a bit of cockiness, especially on the part of Alon Pinkus, the former Israeli consul-general in New York, who has flown in for the occasion.

Pinkus, a frequent talking head on far-right Fox TV, summons the force of an F-16 fighter to dismiss the disproportionate response argument. “If it were about quid pro quo, Israel would launch 3,000 missiles on Gaza or blow up pizza parlours. If there were proportionality, there would be 120,000 dead people in Gaza.”

He also suggests that the current invasion is as much psychological as military, and about much more than rocket attacks, referring ruefully to the Palestinians’ sense of “bitterness and entitlement.”

“It’s worth bombing Gaza to get them to realize that Israel is there to stay,” Pinkus says with an air of triumph – and the audience offers an ovation in agreement.

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