Canada

A Silent Tribute Is Not What We Want For Our Memories

A great shot of my Zaidy, RCAF Squadron Leader Jack Cahan with his five grandkids from Remembrance Day, 2012

Watching the Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa, I was struck by the beautiful poetry of our Governor General’s words:

Freedom without peace is agony,
and peace without freedom is slavery,
and we will tolerate neither.
This is the truth we owe our dead.

Governor General David Johnston

In few words, he expresses deep truth. Freedom and peace must walk hand-in-hand. We cannot be satisfied with a world where one is absent or removed for the sake of the other, for such a world destroys the meaning of both. Freedom absent peace is neither free nor peaceful. The two are true partners.

Speaking with my grandfather (a retired RCAF Squadron Leader) later today, I let him know how proud and moved I was by his own words at a ceremony marking the day:

Reflecting on his remarks, I was warmed by the words he had to share with me:  it is comforting and important to know that this message is heard; that it is absorbed; that it internalized; that it is shared.

So as I observed my own solemn moment while watching the moment of silence during the ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, I was struck by an odd realization: A silent tribute is not what we should want. We should raise up our voices, shouting to the world: “We have not forgotten! We shall not forget! We will tell these stories with all of our might. We will share them with our children, that they might tell them for time eternal!” In that way, we shall ensure a peaceful freedom, and a free peace.

Of course, the moment of silent is an important symbolic measure. And it is almost always coupled with strong words of memory and memorial. But it cannot end there. Both silent reflection and active participation must go hand-in-hand, just like peace and freedom.

Later in his speech, Governor General Johnston quoted Rabbi Dow Marmur – father of my own teacher Rabbi Michael Marmur – speaking about the importance of memory to our identity as Canadians:

Without memory, there can be neither continuity nor identity.

Like Johnston and my grandfather, Rabbi Marmur himself recognizes the importance of embracing multiple values in pursuit of our goals. Moments of silent reflection are a part of our identity as Canadians when it comes to Remembrance Day, but these moments must also be matched by action to ensure continuity. It is our commitment to memory that plays a key role in uniting these values.

To say “we shall remember,” or “never again,” means not only to reflect, but also to engage and look forwards. It is an impassioned charge we say to ourselves, so that we may involve ourselves in a national project. Without a national memory, we risk forgetting ourselves.

On this day, and always, I must also reflect on how proud beyond words I am for my Zaidy and his exemplary model of service to Canada. His commitment to the Royal Canadian Air Force and to the Jewish War Veterans of Canada teaches what it means to place oneself in service of that which is greater than us all – our people and our values. He is a model of living a life dedicated fully to such service, and my family is so lucky to have him as our living patriarch.

On this, the most important of our national holidays, may we be moved to pair our silent reflection with our soaring voices, that we might have both peace and freedom, both continuity and identity.

Canada, Israel, Politics

If you really want to make someone look good, just call everyone else a Nazi

Originally published at The Times of Israel.

Via xkcd
Via xkcd

Sometimes things so apparent don’t seem apparent at first.” This hackneyed statement is what Richard Friedman wants us to believe when it comes to Canadian PM Stephen Harper and his relationship with Israel. What is apparent for Mr. Friedman, is that powerful forces of Hitlerian evil are still out to get the Jews, there is an international antisemitic conspiracy that has targeted Israel, and that Stephen Harper has apparently distinguished himself as a sort of courageous moral truth-teller who can save the Jews.

In an opinion piece here at the Times of Israel, riddled with dark allusions to Nazi Europe and the international quest to eradicate Jews, Friedman wants us to believe that the world is teetering on the edge of a neo-Holocaust, and that only the Canadian Prime Minister can save the Jews, comparing him to Danish King Christian X. Out of this worldview, Friedman has this to say:

What happened in Denmark proved that the Holocaust could have been prevented. If more European leaders had been courageous enough to stand up on behalf of their country’s Jews, it’s likely substantially fewer Jews would have been murdered.”

This may be historically true, though we can never know. That said, it holds no water as a precedent for a modern foreign policy. In this framework, Canada is supposedly Denmark, Harper is King Christian – the vanguard of the Jews – and the world has regressed to the dark depths of the 1930s. Jews are about to be murdered, and only Canada can save us.

While much can be said about Stephen Harper’s pro-Israel agenda, there is a peculiarity lurking in Mr. Friedman’s recent article. Previously, he has written that Jewish professionals in North America should “refrain from suggesting what Israel should or shouldn’t do,” and instead become what amounts to international Hasbara agents, “helping the media, general public, and… Jewish communities understand the context and rationale behind Israel’s decisions and actions.

Because Friedman isn’t willing to be openly critical of Israel and its policies, he instead turns his focus to the international sphere, praising or critiquing what others have to say about Israel. In his attempts to shelter Israel from any constructive criticism, he builds an association fallacy – essentially a reverse Reductio ad Hiterlum – where he refutes his imaginary opponents’ views by comparing them to views that would be held by Hitler, arguing:

There are powerful forces on the planet who would gladly continue Hitler’s work.”

Can we please talk about the Holocaust with a little more depth and less hyperbole? In the world of internet journalism, there is nothing easier than succumbing to Godwin’s Law when you’re really grasping at straws. Don’t like what someone has to say but can’t come up with any constructive critique? You can always call them a Nazi!

Apparently the opposite also holds true for Friedman. If you really like someone (for example, the Prime Minister of Canada) and want to make them look good, just call everyone else a Nazi. Because Friedman is among those who consider it verboten to say anything negative about Israel in the public sphere, it is much simpler for him to paint a picture of a world where there are evil Nazis out to get us, and lob anyone who disagrees with his view into that group.

But the hazards of doing this are exactly what Dr. Mike Godwin was pleading against when he formulated the law that bears his name. A few years ago, Godwin explained the origin of the now famous principle:

I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.”

Admittedly, Friedman isn’t labeling any one person a Nazi or comparing any specific person to Hitler. But his article is riddled with naive overtones of a battle against the evil forces of the Nazis and the redemptive forces of the Allies. His comparison simply doesn’t honor the complexities of Israel and international relations, nor the memory of the Holocaust as a catastrophic event without comparison. Friedman presents a crudely simplistic understanding of the Holocaust and antisemtism that doesn’t do justice to the reality of Israel’s place in the modern world. Does he really believe that Israel in 2014 – with its advanced army and unprecedented regional strength, not to mention its backing by the USA – can be compared to the state of Eastern European Jews before the Holocaust?

It is certainly true that antisemitism exists today, and in many places significantly so, but this is not 1938 Europe, and any attempts to define the world in this manner are quite simply unrealistic and ignorant. Just this week, Anshell Pfeffer – Haaretz’s military, international and Jewish affairs journalist – lucidly noted that the most pernicious form of antisemitism today does not come from some international cabal, but rather from deep within ourselves:

Anti-Semitism exists today on the furthest margins of Western society, in obscure sinecures, on the Internet, but perhaps most prevalently in our feverish imaginations.”

Pfeffer goes on to argue how antisemitism has transformed in the 21st century from the external injustices of “persecution and open vilification of Jews,” to something of an internal psychosis: “something we define ourselves, something we discover and too often invent where it isn’t at all clear it even exists.”

Perhaps Pfeffer’s argument is also somewhat naive and simplistic in areas, ignoring cases where antisemitism represents a true danger. But he is spot on in his assertion that when it comes to Israel, any notion of the “scourge of antisemitism” is no longer about something others are doing to us that we have no control over. Jews today have the ability to define our own lives – both in Israel and abroad. Any suggestion that there is an international threat to Jewish existence is not only shameful in its simplicity, but also in its implications for the discourse surrounding Israel and Jewish life. Pfeffer notes:

Our fear of anti-Semitism has begun to mirror the hatred itself in its irrationality and in the ways it hinders any serious debate.”

At this point, it should be noted that none of this critique of Friedman’s paradigm has even addressed whether Stephen Harper and Canada are deserving of his praiseful comparison to King Christian and Denmark. So just a few words in this respect:

Friedman argues that Harper is deserving of praise due “to the simple fact that supporting Israel… is right and just” simple fact, indeed. Friedman doesn’t define what he means by support. Is it just being a cheerleader on the international stage? Is it towing the line of whatever the Knesset has to say? It it being an international hasbara agent?

We are left assuming that this praise is based on Harper’s “understanding of Israel’s unique security dilemmas,” yet Friedman offers as flimsy proof only the news coverage in Canada of his visit to the region, which was supposedly reflective of “the depth of [his] emotional commitment and support.” This completely misses the hearty and open debate that took place in the Canadian media on the implications of Harper’s one-sided vision of what it means to be pro-Israel. (See here and here and here and here and here for just a smattering of what it means to have a little more nuance when it comes to speaking about Israel).

Unfortunately, Friedman also seems to have missed what the Israeli news had to say about Harper. Wouldn’t that be a much more significant indicator of Harper’s supposed “kingly” strength? While much of the media here got caught up in the pomp and circumstance of the PM’s visit, as anyone truly familiar with the place Canada plays in international politics these days can tell you, there was little to say about the substance of Harper’s visit, precisely because there was virtually none to speak of.

As I’ve previously noted, The sad reality of Harper’s visit was reflected most accurately in a steely oped from Ha’aretz, noting the ultimate insignificance of Canada’s role:

With all due respect to the Prime Minister of Canada, his relevance in the international community, his influence on what goes on in the Middle East and his ability to help Israel in matters of life and death are inversely related to the size of his country.”

Setting aside his seemingly ignorant grasp of the reality of Stephen Harper’s and Canada’s role in international affairs vis a vis Israel, Friedman should consider the implications of his Holocaust-oriented paradigm of Judaism and Israel. As the Executive Director of a Jewish Federation, he should know better than to reduce Jewish life and discourse on Israel to such simplistic understandings. As someone responsible for encouraging vitality in Jewish life, Friedman should be presenting an aspirational view of Judaism and Israel, rather than the dark, gloomy, and backwards-looking fear mongering he speaks of. Such a person would be much more worthy of the kingly appellation that he wishes to bestow.

Canada, Israel

Stephen Harper’s Canada: Israel’s Cheerleader

Originally published at The Times of Israel.
Photo Credit: Prime Minister of Canada
Photo Credit: Government of Canada

There is an apocryphal story that in the 1980s, when my High School was built, they were offered a million dollar choice by the Board of Education. The school was to receive $1,000,000 earmarked for one of two options: either the school could finance a football team, or they could landscape the entire property for decades to come. The two towering maple trees in the school’s atrium attest to their choice.

As a result, I’ve never really been acquainted with the institution of cheerleading. Lacking a football team at school, we had no cheerleaders. My university’s mascot – the Yeoman – didn’t really lend itself to a popular cadre of cheerleaders (though York’s women’s sports teams were somehow referred to as “yeowomen”). And they are (thankfully) mostly absent from professional hockey.

That said, I’ve recently been introduced to a new type of cheerleader. This is particularly fortuitous given the upcoming Super Bowl. As the lone Canadian at my school in Jerusalem, I have needed to brush up on some NFL particulars. Thanks to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, I’m now up to date on what it means to be a cheerleader.

Harper’s recent visit to Israel has been something of an anomaly to me. With US Secretary of State John Kerry conducting monthly shuttle diplomacy here, the US-brokered nuclear talks in Iran, and a daily focus on America’s lack of involvement in the situations in Syria and Egypt, it has been a largely American-centric year here in foreign affairs news.

Then all of a sudden, and with great fanfare, the streets of Jerusalem were draped with Canadian flags, welcome signs were rolled out at the hotels, and an entourage of 220 Canadians arrived in Jerusalem accompanying  Prime Minister Harper on his first official visit to the country. (For those interested in the intricacies of foreign relations, Google has informed me that 220 Canadians works out to approximately 198.79 Americans.)

But Harper’s speech before the Knesset, along with the messaging of his entire trip was largely nothing new. It lacked nuance, gave scant attention to Israeli-Palestinian relations, did nothing to advance Canada’s role as an international peace broker, and left little room for growth in this international relationship. Harper wanted Israel and the entire world to know how much Canada loves Israel, how we’re the best of friends, and how nothing can tear us asunder.

Yes, it was nice to hear about the deeply ingrained mutual respect our countries have for each other. Yes, it was wonderful to hear Israel spoken of in such a positive light from a foreign dignitary. Yes, it was exciting to hear my home and native land spoken of so highly from abroad. The Israeli press ate up the entire week-long spectacle, with Harper repeatedly gracing the front-pages of Israeli dailies. People were fawning over Canada. As the token Canadian amongst my circles, I suddenly became the expert on all-things Canada.

But something was missing. Depth. Nuance. Relevance.

I found Harper to be  mostly superficial in his description of the substance of Canada’s relationship with Israel. Couched in language of “light vs. dark,” “fire and water” and “good vs. evil,” Harper presented a rather simplistic understanding of Israel and the Middle East. It lacked the complexity, depth, and nuance that one would expect from a supposed international leader when it comes to supporting Israel. Jeffery Simpson, at the Globe and Mail, observed this about Harper’s worldview when it comes to Israel and the Middle East:

[It] leaves no room for nuance, balance or understanding of complexity, just a dualistic clash between good and evil, progress and darkness, stability and danger. Of course, this is not how other Western countries behave in the Middle East, including those who strongly support Israel. But it is now Canada’s way.

That said, there is room for someone who has this paradigm. There is a place for this type of player on the international stage. We need look no further than the upcoming Super Bowl for the model of this figure par excellence: The Cheerleader.

The entire worldview of the cheerleader is limited to two and only two potential outcomes: a win or a loss. What cheerleaders want most of all – more than dialogue, more than depth, more than nuance, more than constructive discussion, more than engaging international activism – is for their side to win. Yes, there is a role for the cheerleader, but it is not one of great substance.

Photo Credit: Government of Canada
Photo Credit: Government of Canada

Harper’s Mideast is a football game, with Canada newly enshrined as Israel’s cheerleader, jumping around wildly on the sidelines. Yes, there is certainly a role for the cheerleader, but it is confined to the sidelines.

Harper offered no substantial commentary on the main issues confronting Israeli society today that Canada might play a role in. Little of consequence was said about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the African refugee crisis in Israel, matters of religious pluralism, or environmental crises facing the country.

The sad reality facing Harper was not missed here in Israel. Ha’aretz noted this, with a steely grasp of the ultimate reality of Canada’s role:

With all due respect to the Prime Minister of Canada, his relevance in the international community, his influence on what goes on in the Middle East and his ability to help Israel in matters of life and death are inversely related to the size of his country.

Harper’s love for Israel may come from the depths of his gut. It may be a very real and true part of his identity and what he wants Canada to reflect. But in viewing Israel and the Middle East as a football match, with a zero-sum outcome of a win vs. a loss, Harper has overestimated Canada’s role. We are not the Quarter Back. We are no longer the internationally respected honest brokers of peace. Instead, Canada is dancing wildly from the sidelines, cheering and screaming, yet somehow inexplicably feeling as though we’re contributing to the outcome of the game.

Stephen Harper seems to have forgotten that cheerleaders don’t get to win the Super Bowl.

Canada

November 11

A great shot of my Zaidy, RCAF Squadron Leader (ret) Jack Cahan with his five grandkids from Remembrance Day last year.

A couple months ago we were learning about the creation of civil religion in Israel and how in the early days of the State, there was a need to create days of national importance to help forge a sense of nationalist identity. Our (British) teacher remarked how every country needs to do this in their nascent days, including the United States. Afterwards – in an attempt to stand my ground as the only Canadian in our class –  I remarked to him (with that typical Canadian quasi-inferiority complex) that Canada is different, that we’re not an über-nationalist country, and that we don’t really have any national holidays of this import. At least not anymore in 2013.

He responded: “But you have Remembrance Day.”

After 30 years of living intimately close to the holiday, through ceremonies at school, parades with my Zaidy (a Royal Canadian Air Force Squadron Leader, ret.), and years of wearing poppies, this simply hadn’t occurred to me. I had aways felt the significance of the day, but didn’t realized its paramount place in Canadian culture until I was almost 10,000 kilometers away from home.

Rick Hansen writes today in the Globe and Mail that “Remembrance Day is one of the most important days we have on our national calendar.” I would go further and say that it is the most important day on the national calendar. Certainly, for most, Canada Day is simply a day off in the middle of the summer with fireworks at amusement parks and little nationalist sentiments. Victoria Day is an excuse to get drunk at the cottage. Most Canadians likely don’t know what the real meaning of Canadian Thanksgiving is.

But Remembrance Day is ceremoniously observed in schools, houses of worship, and national halls across the country. There is unity and solemnity in observing the day and remembering our national heroes together. We mark ourselves with a common symbol in our communal observance. We recite the same words of memory and memorial. To be sure, it may be the only day on the Canadian calendar that is on the level of civil religious observance.

Observing Remembrance Day from outside of Canada has taken on new significance for me. It has become much more intentional – requiring a special effort to mark the day and remember what it stands for, since it doesn’t just happen around me anymore. I suspect this might be akin to how Israelis feel about Judaism when they leave Israel and go down into the diaspora.

While I don’t write about family that much on this blog, keeping matters more to commentary on religion, philosophy, and other such boring matters, today, in keeping with the “religious” spirit of the day, I will break from tradition…

I am so blessed to have been raised closely by my Zaidy, who has imparted a deep appreciation of the role of the Canadian military in shaping the lives of Canadians – and specifically of Canadian Jews. Far from a hawkish or militaristic inculcation, he has taught me to understand and appreciate the personal way that Canadians have fought for each other, and how incredibly important it is to recognize, mark, and honour these commitments and sacrifices.

I am even more-so blessed that my Zaidy – RCAF Squadron Leader (ret.) Jack Cahan, will be turning 90 this December, and that I was able to see and talk with him this Remembrance Day, from 10,000 kilometers away. I am so proud to be his grandson, and I hope each day that I can carry just a fraction of his dedication and honour with me.

Canada, Politics

It’s a cold day in hell; Brian Mulroney is here

Illustration by Anthony Jenkins | The Globe and Mail | 5.2009

“Popularity is meaningless unless you use it to do big and good things for your country and for the people of Canada.”

Wise words.

They’re from Brian Mulroney, speaking about Stephen Harper in an interview with Steve Paikin.

Yes, that Brian Mulroney.

Sure, the guy has a notoriously sleazy political record. But there’s something refreshing about a Tory who is willing to call out Stephen Harper and advance the notion that the government can be a force for greatness.

The Toronto Star’s article on Mulroney today also features off-the-record statements from Conservative staffers who lament that the Tories have few substantive accomplishments to show for their past half-decade in power.

And that’s the direction Canada appears to be heading in… great power wasted. To be sure, Tim Harper (no relation to Stephen) notes that “there is no overarching national debate over defining issues.”

I’m not wishing that Canadian politics become something akin to the political climate in the USA – with its assassinated politicians, gun-toting rallyers, and bombastic showboating – but I do feel a little jealous when confronted with the American desire to engage in national debates over issues of great substance.

That’s something we could learn from our fellow continental citizens.

Canada, Politics

Whichever candidate says 9/11 the most wins

Remember that episode of Family Guy where Lois runs for mayor? Remember how all she had say was “9/11” to get elected? I kind of felt like I was in the middle of that episode tonight.

Yeah, I went to the Thornhill candidates’ debate tonight. To my American friends who are unfamiliar with the Canadian electoral system, here’s a primer, courtesy of our friends at Wikipedia. The debate was, for the most part, enlightening in its boredom.

I’ll have a more detailed commentary on the debate tomorrow. For now, I’ll just share two things that I’m left thinking this evening:

1. If all community debates are similar to the one I attended, it’s no wonder voter turnout is so low. For the most part (with some notable exceptions), all the candidates did was egotistically tout their qualifications, attack each other, and spit out sound-bites (including Peter Kent using 9/11 as an ominous harbinger of the dangers lapping at Canada’s shores). To her credit, Karen Mock acknowledged that this was a reality of shorter debates and directed people to her and her party’s website for more details.

2. In Thornhill, if you don’t want to see the Conservatives’ Peter Kent elected, I now believe that there’s only one party to vote for, and that is the Liberal Party. I know (painfully) that many point to this as a sign of the unfortunate state of representative democracy in this country. It is sad. It is unfortunate. But the NDP and Green candidates just aren’t up to par. Only the Liberals are in a position to defeat the Conservatives in Thornhill, and this remains true on the Federal level as well.

More to come, tomorrow.

Canada, Journalism, Politics

In which I discover that the RCMP may be spying on me… and other interesting blog-related stats

A few interesting things I’ve noticed about my blog today:

1. Oh hey, I wrote my 200th post on this blog the other day and totally forgot about it! If you include my old blog (I used to write at Blogger… it was kind of like living in the projects), I’ve written 290 posts since November 27, 2004. That’s about 45 per year. Not bad, but I wish I had written more and written better.

2. With my recent posts about the Canadian Election (see sidebar for a complete list), my hits from Google have gone way up. Most people have been searching for information on Stephen Harper, particularly related to the Facebook Creeping fiasco. I pretty much tag Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff equally, so the fact that people aren’t arriving here by searching for Iggy makes me think a few things:

a) People don’t know anything substantial about Harper’s and the Tories’ (nonexistent) platform and are desperately searching for something. So desperately, that they’ll settle on whatever drek I have to offer.

b) People genuinely like Stephen Harper and are enthusiastically trying to collect as much as possible that’s been written about him. So enthusiastically, that they’ll settle on whatever drek I have to offer.

c) The RCMP is spying on me. No joke – this is a very real possibility.

In any event, that’s where we stand right now with this blog thing.
-J