Last week Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Canadian delegation began their inaugural visit to Israel. The visit, which included laying a cornerstone at the Hula Lake Nature and Bird Park in the north, galvanizes an immense shift in Canada’s position on Israel and the Middle East. We have discussed the Conservative shift on the Middle East several times before, but this week we want to concentrate on Harper’s historic address to the Knesset in particular.
On 20 January, Harper addressed Israel’s Knesset and opined the reasons why Canada and Israel have formed such a formidable bond. He claimed that “The friendship between us is rooted in history, nourished by shared values, and it is intentionally reinforced at the highest levels of commerce and government as an outward expression of strongly held inner convictions.” We’ve heard Harper’s platitudes before, but this time he delved into the economic bonds that unite both countries. These include a free-trade agreement with Israel and the elimination of tariffs on industrial products and some foodstuffs.
After warming the audience with reflections on Israeli-Canadian economic ties, Harper stated that “it is right to support Israel because, after generations of persecution, the Jewish people deserve their own homeland and deserve to live safely and peacefully in that homeland.” As we’ve said many times before, we support a vibrant and democratic Israel, but what’s more disconcerting is Harper’s emphasis: “Let me repeat that: Canada supports Israel because it is right to do so.”
So what does this mean for Canadians who criticize Israeli policy? Harper continued by saying, “It is, thus, a Canadian tradition to stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is convenient or popular.” From a diplomatic perspective, what is most perplexing is the Prime Minister’s claim that “we refuse to single out Israel for criticism on the international stage.” In effect, Harper has pledged Canada’s unconditional and unwavering support for Israel. In a strange way, Harper’s comments on Canada’s view of Israel transmute into a curious comment on moral relativism and the emergence of “the old disease of anti-Semitism.” And one part of the speech bears citation in full:
“People who would never say they hate and blame the Jews for their own failing or the problems of the world, instead declare their hatred of Israel and blame the only Jewish state for the problems of the Middle East. As once Jewish businesses were boycotted, some civil-society leaders today call for a boycott of Israel. On some campuses, intellectualized arguments against Israeli policies thinly mask the underlying realities, such as the shunning of Israeli academics and the harassment of Jewish students. Most disgracefully of all, some openly call Israel an apartheid state. Think about that...Of course, criticism of Israeli government policy is not in and of itself necessarily anti-Semitic. But what else can we call criticism that selectively condemns the only Jewish state and effectively denies its right to defend itself while systematically ignoring—or excusing—the violence and oppression all around it?”
It’s startling to hear the Prime Minister’s tacit assumption that criticisms of Israeli policy “thinly mask” anti-Semitism. Does this mean that Israel’s governing power is infallible? By the standards outlined in his speech, is it ever morally acceptable to criticize Israel on the international stage? To be sure, there are critics of Israel who are blatantly anti-Semitic in their writings, while there are others who contest Israel’s very existence. These are often pseudo-intellectuals, whose opinions are grounded in emotion rather than a sound reading of history and critical assessment. On the other hand, a number of significant and cogent contributions from Israeli historians and journalists have excoriated Israeli policy, particularly policy on the Palestinians. Historians like Ilan Pappé, Hillel Cohen, and Shlomo Sand have all offered scathing critiques of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and other Arabs. Israeli journalists, such as Hirsh Goodman, have also chimed in. Are these Israeli writers masking anti-Semitism with “intellectualized arguments against Israeli policies”?
While each of these writers may not come from the same political or cultural background, they agree, as we do, that the existence of Israel is unquestionable. Collectively, their work also demonstrates the multitude of voices and opinions that are present in Israel today. North American media rarely differentiate between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Eli Yishai’s Shas, or other parties in the Knesset. Yet, Israeli society is not a monolithic entity that shares all the convictions of Israel’s conservatives. Like any state, the political landscape is complex and issues, like the security barriers that zigzag parts of the territory, polarize society. However, Harper’s speech—emblematic of his government’s entire position on Israel—effectively pits Israelis against “the others,” reducing this complexity to a neat, specious dichotomy. Roughly fourteen minutes into Harper’s address, at which point the Prime Minister mentioned how some openly call Israel an apartheid state, two Arab-Israeli MKs shouted at Harper. One yelled that Harper “should sit there, sir”—pointing to where Netanyahu’s Likud Party sits. That Israeli-Arab Member of the Knesset (MK) Ahmad Tibi left the chamber fifteen minutes in to Harper’s speech highlights this political complexity. Later, the CBC interviewed Tibi who explained his actions, saying that Harper was "biased" and "unilateral."
In the world of international relations, friendship is not tantamount to unequivocal moral support. Harper’s position, however well intentioned the Conservatives think it is, has effectively negated Canada’s historic role as a pragmatic intermediary in the search for peace and prosperity in the Middle East.