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, 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, 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

Canada, Politics

“The middle of the road is only good for horse shit”

That’s funny. And often true. And it makes for a great headline.

More often than not, the status quo sucks, I believe.

It’s been a busy few days on the election-front, so on that note and in lieu of addressing some of the specific campaign promises being made by the parties, I want to stop and do some big-picture wondering.

I’m wondering right now as to what qualifies for middle of the road in Canada these days?

It’s a clichéd truism that governments campaign to the left and right of their party lines, but govern from the centre. To be sure, whatever governing Stephen Harper’s been doing these past few years, it has definitely at times felt to me like we’ve been dragged waist-deep through a pile of horse dung. Or is that Grade-A Canadian moose dung?

If the past five years have been reflective of Canadian centrism, then I want nothing of it.

What can we assume “Middle of the Road Canada” to be? Is there even such a thing? If there is, is it a good thing? Is it something like Middle-America? Turns out the exact middle of Canada is somewhere near Arviat, Nunavut, and my guess is that not a lot of electoral attention is being focused there. So is there an “average” Canadian that the parties are trying to appeal to?

I don’t think so. Sure, polling data suggests certain tactics, phrases, and campaign styles that resonate with the electorate, but that doesn’t mean there’s a singular typical voter.

I don’t think there’s a true “Middle of the Road Canada,” or a “Middle of the Road Canadian.” But there is a status quo and there are those that perpetuate it. I recently lamented that there’s been a dearth of inspiring Canadians as of late. I still think this is so. But we are still the country that gave the world insulin, the telephone, duct tape, walkie-talkies, Standard Time, and Superman, dammit! These things didn’t come about from embracing the status-quo or moseying on down the middle of the road (covered in shit, no less!).

The only “Middle of the Road Canada” that exists, I believe, is one where little gets done, boringness is a virtue, and apathy reigns supreme. Sound familiar? The “Middle of the Road Canadian,” then, is that apathetic voter (or non-voter, as it very well may be) that keeps this status quo churning. Little surprise, then, that the Conservatives are appealing exactly to this sentiment: Harper’s primary fear-based campaign tactic is indeed one of the necessity to “stay the course”.

I’m tired of staying the course. Staying the course means we get to keep on trudging through a pile of steaming horse shit. Staying the course means it’s less likely we’ll come up with the next insulin, the next duct tape, or the next Superman. Props do go to Jim Balsillie for proving the exception when it comes to the next telephone. But it’s a boring phone, and is still number five…

So right now, I’m interesting in finding which political party is doing its best to keep us out of the shit-covered middle of the road:

Harper’s Tories (sans platform) are running a locked-down, uninspiring campaign that has not yet presented any bold new ideas for Canada or Canadians.

Ignatieff’s Liberals, in their platform launched today (more on that, soon), have indeed presented some bold new ideas and governing policies.

And Layton’s NDP (no platform from them yet) are maintaining their own internal status quo.

It’s only a week and a half into the election and I haven’t cast my vote yet. I haven’t yet evaluated the parties on fully equal ground, since it’s only the Libs who have put out a platform (which says something in and of itself).

But if you’re planning your trip down the not so metaphorical Trans-Canada Highway, it’s often beneficial to take a look at a map before you leave. And right now, the Conservatives’ map is just going to get Canadians dragged through a whole load of horse shit again. The NDP’s map – as spiffy and Web 2.0 as it may be – has a tendency to malfunction, and I don’t particularly want to get lost in Biggar, Saskatchewan.

Right now – at this point in the campaign – if you’re judging by how much shit you want to avoid on your journey – which seems as good a reason as any to pass judgement – it’s the Liberals that have the best roadmap for Canada.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. These guys do. And so do these. And hey, even these guys kind of do (but probably not for long).

As an aside, a wise musician friend of mine once laid some wisdom on me with a charge to remember that “what you think is the status quo is always changing.”

So I will not be so myopic as to mark my ballot yet. Lord knows the Grits have been covered in their share of horse shit over the years. But at this point, it is getting easier to see where my big “X” might go.

Canada, Judaism - General, Judaism - Pluralism, Politics

Steven Harper could learn a lot at Yeshiva

To those who, in the upcoming election, might be compelled to base their vote on their religious affiliation:  If you are intent again to use a theo-political issue to trump your vote. (certainly, the Tories have done and are doing everything they can to convince you that this is a good idea), perhaps, first study some Midrash:

“Moses said: ‘I know that the Israelites are malcontents. Therefore, I will audit the entire construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)’. He began making an accounting: ‘These are the records of the Mishkan’ and he began reporting everything, the gold, silver and bronze, and the silver of the public census… He continued reckoning each item in the Mishkan in order, but forgot 1575 shekels from which the hooks on the pillars were fashioned, but which were not generally visible. He stood bewildered and said: ‘Now they will lay their hands on me, saying that I took it’, and he went back to recalculate. Immediately, God opened Moses’ eyes and showed him that the silver was used in the hooks on the pillars. He began to reply to them, saying: ‘and 1575 were fashioned into pillar hooks’ and the Israelites were immediately appeased. What enabled this? The fact that he sat and made an accounting…

…But why did he make an accounting?… It is only because he heard the cynics talking behind his back, as it says ‘And when Moshe left…they looked back at Moshe’. What did they say? R. Yitzhak said that people spoke positively. Then others would chime in: ‘Imbecile! He’s the one who controlled the entire enterprise of the Mishkan… gold and silver that were not counted, weighed, or numbered! Wouldn’t you expect that he be rich?’ When Moshe heard this, he said: ‘My word! When the Mishkan is completed, I will make an accounting’, as it says ‘These are the records of the Mishkan.’”

-Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 7

What’s going on here?

In short, the Midrash is teaching us that the fiscal cost of the Tabernacle – as a public project funded by the taxes of the Israelites – must be entirely accounted for in an open, transparent, and accessible way.

It’s also teaching us that Moses – as leader of the people – is answerable to the people. Even Moses, who speaks to God face-to-face in a way that no others do, must still face the people.

In a broader sense, it speaks about the virtue of transparency among leaders and the need to be open and answerable to the public.

Stephen Harper could learn a lot from Moses.

An egregious lack of transparency and accountability related to the purchase of military aircraft is exactly what led the Conservatives to be censured for Contempt of Parliament this past week. Of course, anyone with their finger on the pulse of Canadian politics knows that this specific issue is part and parcel of a greater patten of behaviour on part of the Tories; one that paved the way to the landmark ruling by (famed non-partisan) Speaker of the House Peter Milliken.

Certainly if we Jews acknowledge that Moses was expected to be held accountable to the people and to act transparently, we should bestow the same criteria upon Mr. Harper. Certainly if our Midrash teaches us the virtues of un-opaque leadership, we should value that in our national leader as well.

It is challenging for me to view how Harper and the Conservatives can be painted as an honest, transparent, accountable, and open government. Sure, there have been individual instances when they acted reasonable on these grounds. But the story of the Tories – as any learned political observer will tell you – is one of secrecy, opacity, avoidance of responsibility, centralized power, and tight-lipped relations with the Canadian people.

So to the Jews who will likely vote for the Conservatives on the grounds of their supposed dominance of the “support for Israel” (whatever that means) issue: if you value our rabbinic instructions as much as you value the Conservative’s platform (which, remember, didn’t exist when you voted last time…), perhaps you should reconsider the value of your vote.

P.S.: Not convinced that the Tories have a national Jewish-vote buying strategy in place? It isn’t just happening in Thornhill, it’s also taking place down the 401 in Montreal’s Mount-Royal riding.