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, Politics

Sad Canadians

Wasn’t this the party that campaigned on a platform of transparency, accountability, and a promised end to government scandals?

Whether you call it cowardice, obstruction of justice, a brilliant political move, or an exercise in partisan smugness, Stephen Harper’s refusal to take any responsibility for the Afghan detainee scandal on the part of the ruling Conservatives is, at the end of the day, just sad.

In the face of overwhelming evidence suggesting that this has been a long known issue, it looks like Harper might pull out the prorogation card again. So call this whole sad issue whatever you want, but ultimately one thing is clear: for Harper and his Conservatives, when confronted with unbelievably difficult issues involving ethics, political ramifications, and basic human sanctity, they would rather run and hide rather than dealing with them like mature adults.

What would a mature adult do? For one, they should probably read this:

Canada, Israel, Politics

Identity Politics

Where was the Toronto Star three months ago, when I needed them to back me up? Now, after facing a small amount of backlash for my repeated arguments that the Conservative Party of Canada was able to win in my riding of Thornhill by attracting the votes of Jews who would vote for whichever party looked like they supported Israel more, Thomas Walkom – National Affairs Collumnist – has penned an article on ethnic voting and identity politics that backs up the very arguments I postited. Here’s an excerpt:

…In a world where no single party can command a majority of MPs, individual ridings become even more significant. And among some voters in some ridings, support for Israel is a make-or-break issue… Identity politics predates Confederation… In ridings where there is a significant Jewish population, this matters. Kent, for instance, may back Israel as a matter of deeply held principle. But if he did not, this might well hurt him in Thornhill, a riding that he narrowly won last year…

While this is pretty much a closed issue that I hadn’t intended on revisiting, the situation in the Israel and Gaza has brought it to light again. So thanks, Thomas. I couldn’t agree with you more!

Canada, Music, Theatre

“Stephen, the arts is the economy, stupid…”

So says Karl Pruner, president of ACTRA Toronto to PM Stephen Harper. Well said, Karl.

In the midst of Harper’s sniper fire at Canadian Arts and Culture, it is easy to forget that arts and the economy are greatly intertwined. See what I mean here and here and here. And especially here. Or maybe if you want a clear visual of the inseparable ties between the arts and the economy, just whip out your wallet. Find a twenty dollar bill and take a look at the back of it…

Harper and the Conservatives have created a black and white scenario where it’s arts and culture vs. the economy. This is typical conservative polarizing at its worst. But let’s pretend just for a moment that this is actually how life works… The Arts vs. The Economy… What would you choose? Actress Leah Pinsent, has this to say:

“We don’t visit Rome, Japan or Africa to learn about their economies. We go to experience their culture… It is culture, not economics, that truly makes a nation. If we as Canadians are left only with other people’s stories .. then what can we be proud of? There will be nothing left to be proud of…”

The only thing that Pinsent misses is that the arts are part and parcel of the Canadian economy. And yes, the economy should clearly be of paramount importance. But arts and culture – like every other industry – are entitled to be supported by the very government and country that they themselves support. Canadian music and theatre are no more part of a niche industry than the Ford auto plant in Windsor is. Pruner bluntly evokes the question that I’ve been pondering:

“Why is it we talk about investing in the auto sector, investing in the energy sector, and handouts to the arts? Are we tired of this? I think so.”

So while Harper would like you to believe that “ordinary folks don’t care about arts,” (his words) let’s stop pretending that arts and culture aren’t intermingled in the genetic makeup of Canada’s economic infrastructure. Let’s stop pretending that this is a black and white issue and that Harper’s already made the right choice for us. And while we’re at it, let’s stop pretending that there’s such thing as an “ordinary” Canadian. Because there isn’t, anymore than there’s such a definable thing as “Canadian arts” or “the Canadian economy.”

Mr. Harper: Canadian arts, the economy, and Canadians themselves are complex things, not reducible to single lines in a budget as you would have the electorate believe. Try expanding your mind a little.

Canada, Music, Politics, Theatre

Penniless for the Arts

An addendum to my previous post on Arts funding in Canada. Lest you think I’m just a raving “artsy” lunatic upset that government “handouts” are being scaled back due to “budget” constraints… look at this August 2008 report from the Conference Board of Canada. The Conference Board is an economic and corporate research organization. They are not a government organization. They are not a lobby group of any sort. They are objective and non-partisan. This is what they have to say:

The Conference Board estimates that the economic footprint of Canada’s culture sector was $84.6 billion in 2007, or 7.4 per cent of Canada’s total real GDP, including direct, indirect, and induced contributions. Culture sector employment exceeded 1.1 million jobs in 2007.

I’m not a numbers guy (remember I failed math), but this is pretty compelling. Arts and culture industries play a vital role in attracting people, business, and investment, and in distinguishing Canada as a dynamic and exciting place to live and work. Apparently these just aren’t issues the Conservative party seem to be concerned about.