Billboard Judaism, Canada, Politics

At the Close of Chanukah, Canada’s Jewish Question Remains Key

At the risk of beating a clearly not quite yet dead horse, I need to talk about the relationship between the Canadian Jewish community and the current government. For those playing the home game, I’ve penned some critical/emotional analyses a few times before:

Most recently about the Conservative government’s use of public funding to target the Jewish community with a partisan smear campaign against the Liberals.

Earlier, about the Toronto Star’s examination of Harper’s Identity based Politics and the dangerous precedence it sets.

During last year’s election, I wrote about and critiqued the sudden shift in voting trends among Jews in my home riding of Thornhill.

And then I followed that up with my astonishment at the Thornhill Jewish community’s support of MP Peter Kent solely on the basis of how much he “supported” Israel.

Personal politics aside, the increase in institutional association between the Jewish community and the Conservative government has troubled me. I felt (and do now, to an even greater extent) that the government was stepping vastly out of its bounds in creating a political environment predicated on religious identity. And I was (and am now, to an even greater extent) dismayed with much of the Jewish community’s myopic predilection to support whichever Canadian politician was more vocal in support of Israel.

I’ve taken some flack for these arguments, which is understandable. As I’ve thought about it more and reflected on what I’ve written, I also admit that a few times I may have conflated the Thornhill/Toronto Jewish community with the greater Canadian Jewish community. They are not one and the same. However, in much the same way that the pulse of the American Jewish community can be felt in New York, you can get a sense of the state of the Canadian Jewish community by scrutinizing Toronto and Thornhill (and to an extent, Montreal).

Which bring us to this week’s observance of Chanukah, a celebration of Jewish independence against political and religious oppression by the state. How appropriate.

Canada’s newspaper of record, The Globe and Mail (which I should note is a centrist/moderately conservative paper in political alignment), recently published an article by Gerald Caplan on the very same issue I’ve been harp(er)ing on for over a year: What exactly is it with Stephen Harper and the Tories’ obsession with the Canadian Jewish community?

Caplan is quick to note that “it wasn’t always this way.”

You should read the article. It provides a broader context to the current state of affairs and sheds a little more light on the issue than has been covered by the pundits. It’s certainly more revealing than anything you’ll see in the Canadian Jewish media. A short excerpt:

“Why is this Conservative government so determined to woo Jewish support? Why is it so reflexive, so mindless, in its support for Israel? Given their single-minded pursuit of ethnic voters, politics seems a more plausible explanation than conviction. Yet Jews constitute only 1 per cent of the Canadian population and are a factor in only a tiny number of seats. Most Jews vote Liberal and while some have defected to the Conservatives over Israel, most still will. So the unseemly Conservative embrace just doesn’t add up.”

And what about the reflexive Jewish embrace of the Conservatives?

Last week, the Orthodox Union and NCSY created an award, the “Outstanding Award of Merit,” and bestowed it upon Stephen Harper. As reported in the Canadian Jewish News article covering the event, Harper received the award due to him being “a role model for all Canadians.” Well he is the Prime Minister, isn’t being a role model to Canada kind of his job? Shouldn’t getting to be the PM be his reward? According to Rabbi Glenn Black, the CEO of NCSY, and a gentleman I once conducted a personal interview with on the state of Canadian Judaism, Stephen Harper is worthy of this recently invented award

“because of his consistent support of the Jewish community… There has never [before] been a prime minister… who has been steadfast in their support of righteousness and freedom… Israel is a lone democracy in a sea of hatred… [Harper] understands his role is to stand up against the power of evil.”

Well there you have it, folks. According to the largest Jewish movement in Canada, the barometer for how “Outstanding” and “Merit”orious a Prime Minister you are is how much you support Israel.

But wait! Lest we conflate support of Israel with support of the Jewish community (something nobody would ever do, right?), along comes Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, who said to the crowd: “We’re… proud to be part of a government that has taken a zero tolerance approach towards anti-Semitism.” One can rightfully assume that Kenney’s comment was in reference to the CPC’s misguided belief that the Liberals somehow have a less-than “zero tolerance” approach to antisemitism. What, do the Liberals oppose some forms of antisemitism?

(As a humourous aside, I should note that a search of www.ou.org for “Outstanding Award of Merit” only links to an article about cookie recipes for Pesach. Could it be that the OU’s headquarters know that this is ultimately the bestowal of empty platitudes in an attempt to crawl further into bed with the government?)

For a moment, let’s set aside the fact that given Canada’s diminishing role in international affairs, no single party can claim the highest level of support for Israel (whatever that means). Let’s also momentarily dispense with the fact that, as Caplan noted in his Globe article, “by any conceivable standard, we Canadian Jews are surely among the most privileged, most secure, most successful, most influential minorities in Canada and indeed in the entire world.” Having rid ourselves of the weightiness of these actualities, we’re left with two resounding questions:

Even if one political party could claim greater support of Israel and the Jews, should they?

And should the organized Jewish community jump into bed with a domestic political party solely on the grounds of a single yet nuanced and complex foreign affairs issue?

As I’ve noted before, I believe the answer to both questions is a loud “no!” Truly, we must not allow for the blind conflation of religious beliefs and political voting patterns. In Canada, the line between Synagogue and State is being dangerously blurred. It’s clear others agree with me, and are starting to be a little more vocal. If you’re not convinced yet, let’s use the Chanukah narrative to learn a little more.

Our observance of Chanukah instructs us that we need to resist government intervention in matters of private and communal religious life. It also teaches us we need to be weary of those within our community who rush to support political parties for the sake of short-term gains. Let’s not forget that the war wasn’t just an external one against Antiochus, it was also a civil war within the Jewish community. As Adam Bronfman at Jewcy writes:

The Jews at the time of the Maccabees were struggling with how much influence they should allow from the Hellenistic culture which surrounded them… In this regards the story also tells a tale of oppression from within. Some Jews were assimilating completely into the Hellenism of the dominant culture…Chanukah is a tale of Jewish struggle, demonstrating both the internal and external battles our community has contended with.

I recall hearing a rabbi say once that while the institutional separation of synagogue and state needs to be closely guarded, politics and religion can enjoy a more nuanced and symbiotic relationship. The Maccabees were surely aware of this. Are we?

Canada, Journalism, Judaism - General, Philosophy, Politics

Old White Jewish Men

Last Friday afternoon, B’nai Brith Canada sent out a news release. They do this often. Stuff happens in the Jewish community, and they send out a news release. Stuff happens in the Christian community, and they send out a news release. Someone farts at York University, and they send out a news release. While the many emails from “JEWISH CANADA” can become annoying at times, I ultimately commend them for remaining diligent in their communication efforts – they do a much better job than many other Jewish organizations.

But. Last Friday’s email was different. The title was:

United Church of Canada Resolutions Insult to Grassroots Canadian Jews

Hmm. Something jumped out at me. Angered me a little. Can you spot it? Moving on, the first sentence in the email read as follows:

B’nai Brith Canada, the voice of the grassroots Canadian Jewish community, was disappointed to learn that resolutions that enable United Church Conferences, Presbyteries, congregations, and community ministries to boycott the Jewish State of Israel, if they so choose, were unanimously passed at the United Church of Canada’s (UCC) 40th General Council.

How about now?

B’nai Brith is many things. They’re a Jewish advocacy organization. They’re an Israel advocacy organization. They’re a human rights advocacy organization. Their newspaper in Canada claims to provide “the real story – and the story behind the story – from a Jewish perspective,” though more often than not, that appears to be code for the Right Wing perspective. I should also say that they run a number of summer camps, and Jewish camping is more than important to me. They are indeed many things, but they are certainly not grassroots.

What is grassroots? For starters, labeling an organization as grassroots implies that there is a movement behind the organization. It implies that a collection of people – the roots – have come together independently to identify as a group with a shared philosophy. What is the B’nai Brith movement? Visit the “About Us” section of the website, and you’ll learn that:

B’nai Brith Canada is the action arm of the Jewish community. We believe in:

1. Reaching out to those in need
2. Fighting antisemitism, racism and bigotry;
3. Promoting human rights and peace throughout the world.

What is B’nai Brith’s philosophy? Their ideology? Their social perspective? These are things we would expect to know about a movement. How many people today will claim that they are part of the B’nai Brith movement?

The term also implies that the movement and its related organizations evolved spontaneously and naturally as a response to some stimulus. B’nai Brith – at least in the USA – certainly had a grassroots origin, with German-Jewish immigrants gathering to do something about the squalor in which Jews were living at the time. But now they have evolved into something beyond this grassroots origin. They do wonderful work, representing their constituents and advocating on behalf of certain Jewish views, but they are far past the days of being a small, grassroots movement. To be sure, they are part and parcel of the Jewish establishment. Meet your friends Federation, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, and the State of Israel.

Labeling a group grassroots is also a way to highlight the differences between that group and its accompanying movement, and other organizations governed by more traditional power structures. A quick glance at B’nai Brith and B’nai Brith Canada’s websites is more than enough to show you that they are intimately familiar with “traditional power structures,” as the names and pictures of their leadership look like they came from a Facebook group called “old white Jewish men.”

The labeling of B’nai Brith Canada as grassroots is a curious move by the organization. For one, it is an abrupt change – they’ve never called themselves this before. Last Friday’s email was the first appearance of this adjective. Why, all of a sudden the need to add this term in August 2009? (8.28.09 Update: Turns out they have called their constituency grassroots a few times before. Mostly in press releases.)

I take great issue with this. It’s an attempt to make it look like they aren’t facing declining relevance like the rest of the organizational Jewish world. It’s an attempt to make it look like they don’t have a member base that’s almost entirely made up of people who were born before 1950 (not that there’s anything wrong with people born before the invention of the VW minibus). It’s an attempt to make it look like they attract the same type of people that Obama attracts.

There’s a term for what B’nai Brith is doing. It’s called Astroturfing. And in the political, advertising, and PR world, this is a BIG no-no. By calling themselves grassroots, B’nai Brith Canada is trying to project an image of something it isn’t.

Let me re-iterate: B’nai Brith does many wonderful things, many vital things for the Jewish and broader communities in Canada and the US. But they are not grassroots. To try and present this image is dishonest and unfair.

I’m also left with a few final questions from B’nai Brith’s email of last Friday…

Is there a difference between “grassroots” Canadian Jews and “regular” Canadian Jews? And if so, is the Canadian Jewish community insulted and disappointed en masse, or is just the “grassroots” Jews? And if so, is B’nai Brith really the voice of the entire “grassroots” Canadian community?

This is where B’nai Brith shows their true colours. You can’t just blanket label a group of people as grassroots. At the end of the day, I’m left wondering what B’nai Brith Canada’s “grassroots” movement is all about…

Judaism - General, Life, Music, Politics

Leonard Cohen’s “psycho-religious” Jewish Journey, Part II

This is a brief follow up to an earlier post about Leonard Cohen‘s incredible Jewish Journey and status in my books as an all around kick-ass dude.

It seems The Forward generally agrees with me that this is a man who should not be ignored. In an article this week, the Jewish paper covered an interesting incident that transpired outside on of his Radio City concerts.

Turns out that instead of a camp-out for tickets, it was the myopic and hypocritical anti-Israel throngs who were making noise outside of Radio City, in an attempt to boycott his concert (did they have tickets? Was it really a boycott if they never had tickets?) and hold a rally, all in a vein attempt to get Cohen to cancel an upcoming concert date in Israel.

I’ve got three things to say:

1. Cohen is exactly the kind of person who these protesters should be encouraging to go to Israel. He is unsatisfied with the status quo, is an ardent supporter of a two-state solution and equal rights, and regularly uses his music to rouse the populous out of dormancy. They should charter a jet and send his ass into Jerusalem right now.

2. Political ponderings aside, the Forward article makes an interesting (and very brief) statement about the differences between Canadian and American Jewry. Check this excerpt out:

Born and raised in Montreal, where he attended Orthodox day schools through high school, Cohen is one of a trio of iconic figures in the city’s intensely ethnic Jewish culture, along with late novelist Mordecai Richler and poet A.M. Klein. All three became towering figures in Canada’s general culture through writings that were deeply suffused with their Jewish experience, in much the same way as American writers such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Unlike the Americans, however, the three Canadians remained deeply engaged with Judaism and the Jewish community throughout their lives.

3. Any article that includes the phrase “a live psychodrama of his psycho-religious career” is worth reading. Check it out.