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Getting Israel advocacy right in Canada

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Getting Israel advocacy right in Canada

by Joel Reitman, J. Post, Nov. 13, 2013

With few exceptions, the level of anti-Zionism that routinely rears its head in European Leftist politics has failed to come to Canada.

As Jewish activists from around the world depart from Jerusalem with the closing of the annual General Assembly, a degree of pessimism is only natural in light of alarming trends throughout Diaspora.

Incidents of violent anti-Semitism continue to make news in Eastern Europe and in advanced democracies like Australia. Religious freedoms face growing assault in Europe, whether it’s a German court banning brit milah or a Polish law prohibiting kosher slaughter.

As a Canadian, I attended the GA with pride – given that Canada is widely perceived to be Israel’s most reliable friend. But challenges remain. In particular, the merging of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism has led to the disturbing reality that those who would never boycott Jews as individuals advocate such measures against the Jewish state.

This constitutes a dual threat; while targeting Israelis for economic punishment, anti-Zionism aims to limit our own freedoms as Jewish Canadians.

We may live in Toronto and not Tel Aviv, but we see our destiny as indivisible. The day it becomes illegitimate to publicly stand with Israel in Canada is the day Jewish Canadians are no longer fully free to live as Jews.

While these challenges are not unique to Canada, the way in which Canadian Jewry has responded is worth sharing.

FIRST, 10 years ago, after extensive research and intensive reflection, we launched an educational approach called “Shared Values.” Shared Values is about tailoring our message to the interests and worldview of our target audience: non-Jewish Canadians in positions of influence.

By emphasizing the values Israelis and Canadians share – openness, pluralism, family and democracy – we open the door to discussing more substantive pro-Israel messages that require Canadians to first understand Israel’s culture, love of family and commitment to freedom.

This strategy has played a significant role in building the Canada-Israel relationship. It helped inspire the “Brand Israel” initiative undertaken by the Israeli government, as well as the approach adopted by the Israel Project with whom we shared our research.

Shared Values works. It has even become the definitive model for pro-Israel advocacy around the world.

Second, we have worked to ensure that support for Israel in Canada reflects no single political ideology. It is widely known that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are pro-Israel. But Canada’s left-of-center parties have shown extraordinary support for the Jewish state, too. On the key issues – including increasing Iranian sanctions and disavowing BDS – Canada’s Liberal and labor parties have been remarkably supportive of Israel.

With few exceptions, the level of anti-Zionism that routinely rears its head in European Leftist politics has failed to come to Canada. Our objective is to ensure that the Canada-Israel relationship remains strong regardless of who is in government, and that support for Israel never becomes a wedge issue.

THIRD, WE are working to deepen bilateral ties beyond politics – an effort that has gained momentum. Recently, the Association of University and Colleges of Canada signed a five-year accord with the Association of Presidents of Israeli Universities, paving the way for faculty and student exchanges, joint research projects, and academic partnerships.

The same is true in various economic sectors where we have broadened the set of pro-Israel stakeholders by extending bilateral ties into new areas.

Fourth, we have empowered the Jewish community to counter anti-Israel boycotts through pro-Israel “BUYcotts,” which mobilizes Canadians to support Israel with their consumer choices. This has created a direct incentive for Canadian businesses to sell Israeli products and has enabled the Jewish community to take constructive action against the BDS movement.

We are proud that “BUYcott” has become a Jewish Canadian export and is now used by pro-Israel activists in the United States and around the world.

Fifth, we are emphasizing that the Jewish community has been an historic contributor to Canada’s development and continues to be a leader in Canadian civil society. In so doing, we speak to our fellow Canadians not just as Jews but as Canadians. This is crucial in an ongoing threat to the freedoms of the Quebec Jewish community in the form of a proposed provincial law to ban the wearing of religious symbols, including the kippah, by government employees.

We are strategically opposing the so-called “Charter of Quebec Values” by emphasizing that it undermines the very social unity it seeks to enshrine. In making the case against the Charter to Quebec media and government, we speak as Quebeckers who have called Quebec home for more than two centuries, not as a besieged minority seeking to change Quebec society.

The Jewish community has earned accolades for offering a sober, reasonable and compelling case against restrictions to religious freedom.

As Jewish Canadian advocates, we often say we can’t afford to do what feels good; we need to achieve meaningful results. The above educational initiatives have certainly borne results – and I offer them in the hope that they will prove similarly useful for our extended Jewish family throughout Diaspora.

The writer is a board member of the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the Canadian Jewish community’s central advocacy organization. The above is adapted from his November 11 remarks before the Knesset Aliya, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee. 

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