We returned from vacation after the call for Canada’s October federal election. Like many, help I wasn’t ready to engage. Yet, after seeing a slew of the Conservative Party’s Harper-Libman campaign signs planted in the lawns of homes around my neighbourhood, I’ve been thinking about it almost nonstop.
I’ve been grappling with questions about my fellow Jewish voters in the riding of Mount Royal and about the wider conditions that shape their political motivations.
I grew up in a Jewish home in which I was taught that being Jewish meant supporting liberal-leftist politics. With grandparents who survived the Holocaust, the lesson was that the best way to ensure that such atrocities were never visited upon Jews again would be to support politics that promised equality for everyone.
That my grandparents were members of the Communist Party, that American Jews marched for civil rights and voted Democrat, and that Canadian Jews were strong supporters of Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals and multiculturalism were oft-cited pieces of evidence to support this lesson.
As I developed an academic interest in these questions, I learned that things were more complex. Yes, North American Jews had supported liberal-leftist politics since the Second World War, but this was only half the picture.
As the liberal civil rights movement gave way to Black Power and to calls for more radical reforms in the late 1960s, for example, many Jews disconnected from U.S. progressive politics. Around the same time, when other North American racial or ethnic identity groups began demanding that their minority status be recognized, many Jews disliked being viewed as privileged members of the establishment.
But the pre-eminent wedge between Jews and liberal-leftists has arguably been Israel and its relationship to global politics.
While Israel’s Six Day War victory in 1967 pushed liberal-leftists to question their conception of Israel as a beleaguered democracy, the existential stress caused by that war brought North American Jews to strongly connect with Zionism. And, though Israel’s conduct in conflicts like last summer’s Gaza War, the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu, and Bibi’s opposition to President Obama’s Iran deal trouble liberal-leftists, many North American Jews understandably see Hamas, Iran, and now ISIL as threats not only to Israel but to global stability.
Tensions between Jews and liberal-leftists, especially surrounding Israel, contain the seeds of a second lesson taught in the Jewish community — when Jews are in trouble, democracy and freedom are in trouble. And, when liberal-leftist policies like today’s BDS movement against Israel appear to neither be bringing security to Jews nor peace to the world, this lesson encourages Jews to protect themselves and move to the right. This echoes in Canada’s election today.
Sure, liberal Justin Trudeau and his Mount Royal candidate Anthony Housefather say that for Liberals, supporting Israel matches Canadian values. Yes, Tom Mulcair’s leftist NDP demonstratesunprecedented comfort with Israeli interests. But, in understanding the pre-eminence of Lesson No. 2 to Canadian Jews today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Israel doctrine and his alliedemphasis on global security are unparalleled. And, in Mount Royal, the prime minister’s earlier mastery of that lesson already brought a majority of its Jewish residents to vote Conservative in the 2011 election.
By making this such a prominent feature of his political discourse, Stephen Harper isn’t changing the attitudes of today’s Jewish Canadians to try to win their votes. It’s the attitudes of many Jewish Canadians today that will possibly bring more of them than ever before to vote for Stephen Harper’s party.
Overall, Mount Royal is very much up for grabs. Though my own assessment of the conditions, and certainly my own preferred childhood lesson, will keep my vote headed in a relatively liberal-leftist direction in October, many of my fellow Jewish voters will deliver theirs rather differently this time around.
Avi Goldberg is a sociologist. He teaches at Vanier College.
Originally published in the Montreal Gazette – August 11, 2015