This article is an update of a study of the Canada Israel Committee (CIC) published in the Journal of Canadian Studies, 1992-3. It benefited by extensive comments from Professors John Sigler, Joseph Debanné, David Farr and Diana Ralph, and Rt. Hon Robert Stanfield, Ian Watson, and Bahija Reghai. I have discussed the Israel Lobby with about 20 foreign affairs officials, 2 former Prime Ministers, 3 former Secretaries of State for External Affairs, 8 Members of Parliament, 6 Senators, and 3 officials of the Canada-Israel Committee.
Dr. Lyon is Professor Emeritus Political Science, Carleton University. He was a Rhodes Scholar, and obtained his D.Phil. from Oxford University. He served in the RCAF from 1940 to 1945.
He held posts as Foreign Service Officer, Department of External Affairs in Ottawa, Canada and in Bonn, Germany. He is the author of five books on Canadian foreign policy, trade and defence.
Canada’s relations with the Arab/Muslim world are second in importance and difficulty only to its relationship with the United States. The one serious threat to Canadian citizens now stems from the mounting anger of Arabs and other Muslims, fomented largely by Israel’s long-standing occupation of Palestine. The Mid-East conflict has for sixty years been the principal issue on the agenda of the UN General Assembly, a body in which Canadians like to shine. Trade with the Middle East, while modest, is largely in manufactured goods, the sort favoured by Canadian exporters.
Canada’s foreign policy, however, fails to reflect these concerns. Its votes in the UN General Assembly and other international bodies are closer in support of Israel than those of any other nation apart from the United States and its five Pacific satellites. Prime Minister Harper’s personal statements are more biased towards Israel than those of any other leader(1) This imbalance does not accord with the advice of the men and women employed by Canada to determine and implement its interests in the Middle East. It is also opposed by an increasing number of churches, unions, and other bodies concerned with peace and justice in Palestine.
Who makes Canada’s Mid-East policy? A ranking of influence by a panel of foreign affairs officials placed the Canadian Jewish Community first at
compared to 5.40 for each of the Prime Minister and the Department of External Affairs. The Canadian/Arab Community at 1.80 was ranked sixteenth out of the eighteen estimated influence inputs. (2) Although the Arab Community has become better organized in recent years, interviews with senior officials and case studies suggest that there has been little change in this ranking.
There is of course nothing illegal or immoral about lobbies, even those operating in the interest of foreign entities. A significant number of ethnic groups do in fact lobby for their countries of origin. (3) Canada’s Israel lobby is simply by far the most powerful and effective. It has become customary to refer to it as ‘the Lobby’, and I shall follow that practice. The Lobby claims to act on all Canada-Israel matters on behalf of an estimated two- thirds of the three hundred and fifteen thousand Canadians of Jewish origin.(4)
For obvious reasons, the American-Israel lobby is far larger, more powerful, and better known than its Canadian counterpart. (5) There are further significant differences and I shall begin with them. American Jews number about three percent of the population whereas the Canadian equivalent is a more modest one percent. American Jews, having arrived earlier in North America, are more integrated into the general population and less united in support of their government’s Mid-East policy. Canadian Jews, in the words of Professors Taras and Weinfeld, ‘are more Jewish.’ Other authorities have said they are more conservative. (6) ‘Is there,’ asked Gerald Caplan, another prominent Jew, ‘any act of Israel that will shame the leaders of Canadian Jewry into saying enough is enough?’ (7)
The biggest difference in the tactics followed by the two lobbies lies in their degrees of openness and use of threats. Because the role of Congress in making foreign policy is much greater than that of Parliament, and party discipline is weaker, the American lobby focuses on individual members of Congress, none of whom can take refuge behind a party line. Because cabinet solidarity matters more in Ottawa, the Canadian Lobby makes a greater effort to focus on every minister. Lobbying, moreover, is more acceptable in the American political culture and can be more open and hard hitting. A reputation for wealth, ruthlessness and success is in fact an asset whereas in Canada lobbies operate more discreetly and soft- pedal their influence. American elections are more frequent than in Canada; this makes raising funds more difficult, thus increasing the vulnerability of candidates to lobby pressure. Lobbying in the United States, however, is subject to greater legal restriction than in Canada. One authority goes so far as to say that, because of tighter organization, it is more effective in Canada. (6)
All in all, lobbying in each country is probably about equal in effectiveness. Elections afford each Lobby the greatest opportunity to exercise influence. Although most Jewish Americans have voted Democratic, and Canadian Jews Liberal, neither are formally aligned and votes can be swung if a party adopts what might appear to many Jews to be an anti-Israel approach. Jimmy Carter, in making an exceptional effort to bring peace to the Middle East, angered Israel and its American Lobby. As a result, Carter lost almost half his Jewish vote between 1976 and 1980, a loss which contributed to his defeat in the 1980 election. Sydney Spivak, chairman of the Canadian Lobby’s 1998 policy conference, threatened a similar outcome when Joe Clark, then Secretary of State for External Affairs, criticized Israel’s suppression of Palestinian rights.
A particular triumph for the American lobby was the defeat in 1984 of Charles Percy, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As Tom Dine, executive director of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs committee) — the predominant US-Israel lobby — boasted to a Toronto audience, ‘All the Jews in America … gathered to defeat Percy. And the American politicians got the message.’ (8)
A comparable Canadian case was that of Dr. Frank Epp, an outstanding scholar and President of Waterloo University. In 1979, Epp ran as a Liberal in what was considered the safe Liberal seat in Waterloo. However, his desire for a more balanced approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict was falsely depicted by the Lobby as ‘anti-Semitic’ a charge the Lobby frequently uses to discredit critics of Israeli government policies. In Epp’s case, the attack culminated in a full-page advertisement on election eve. In a constituency containing several thousand Jews, Epp was defeated by a mere 155 votes.
In the Toronto riding of Saint-Paul’s, with about 20,000 Jewish voters, the 1979 election featured a Conservative promise to move the Canadian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Conservative candidate, Ron Atkey, won. In the election the following year after Prime Minister Clark had abandoned his promise to move the embassy the seat swung back to John Roberts of the Liberals.
In 1984 a Manitoba court ruled that unfair lobbying could have caused the defeat of Conservative candidate Luba Fedorkiw in Winnipeg North. Fedorkiw accused the Jewish advocacy group, B’nai Brith, of having defeated her by suggesting she was anti-Semitic and levelling the false charge of ‘Jew-baiting’ against her. She was awarded $400,000 in damages.
The Lobby concentrates on the ten constituencies where most of the Jewish and Arab/Muslim populations are located. Proportionally more Jews, however, go to the polls and are more likely to make a difference. It should also be noted that a substantial minority of the Arabs are Maronite Christians who are indifferent to the fate of the majority of Arabs.
A trickle of Jews had begun to enter Canada early in the 18th century but was still insignificant in 1897 when the founding of the Zionist Movement augmented the political significance of the Jews in both Europe and North America. A few influential Jews made individual approaches to government leaders to gain permission for more Jews to enter Canada. They achieved little success. In the 1930s, Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s government began shutting the door to Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. King’s deputy minister for immigration even opined that ‘None is too many’ and on the eve of the Second World War, a boatload of the refugees was denied permission to land. (9) This outrageously racist attitude appears to have been widely shared by the public as well as the prime minister.
The war, however, and the revelation of the slaughter of six million Jews[sic], transformed the situation. Sympathy for the Jews became nearly universal. Any criticism of the newly-created state of Israel came to be branded ‘anti- Semitic’, one of the ugliest terms in our political vocabulary. Canada’s prominent role in the creation of Israel was accepted with little room for protest (10)
The Israel Lobby took formal shape in 1967 when the three major Canadian Jewish organizations, the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Canadian Zionist Organization and B’nai Brith, established the Canada- Israel Committee (CIC) to act on behalf of Israel. This is an umbrella organization with no individual members. It was intended to monopolize public statements on Canada-Israel matters but officials of B’nai Brith, notably Frank Dimant, frequently disregard this rule. CIC policy is determined by a 35-person council representing the founding organizations and several smaller bodies based in the large cities. It meets about once a year, its executive much more often.
The CIC reported in 2000 that it had a seven-person office in Ottawa to deal with the federal government and another seven persons in Toronto to conduct media relations and research; one person was stationed in Montreal to handle regional lobbying; and a further two in Jerusalem. The CIC did not reveal its budget but it was estimated to be at least $11,000,000. The Lobby certainly commands far greater wealth than opposing entities, and far easier access through its extensive business connections to members of the cabinet and other senior decision-makers. Representatives of Arab/Muslim groups are rarely able to secure senior- level appointments in government while these are more attainable for the Lobby. Changes in Canada’s Middle East policy go to Cabinet, while other foreign policy changes do not necessarily need to meet this requirement, one that clearly favours the Lobby.
The Lobby adopted a more effective if heavy-handed approach in 2002 when a group of exceptionally wealthy Canadian Jews reached the conclusion that the CIC was failing to give Israel adequate support. Led by Israel (Izzy) Asper, Gerald Schwartz, Heather Reisman, and Brent Belzberg, the group established the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA). This council raises substantially greater funds than other Jewish lobby groups and employs professional lobbyists. Although professing to collaborate with the CIC, B’nai Brith and the Canadian Jewish Congress, the new body was not welcomed by them. One senior CIC official complained that the CIJA is ‘a group of self- appointed persons who have very little linkage with the Jewish (grass roots), and who have their own private agendas.’ (11) When the councils differ over policy, it is the CIJA — the one with the ‘big bucks’ that generally prevails.
In its first year, the CIJA sponsored several conferences and more than doubled the number of sponsored ‘study’ visits to Israel. They included, among others, 23 federal politicians with spouses and seven university presidents. The CIJA claimed to have won the ear of those who make decisions, and thus gets credit for a sharp shift towards Israel in Canada’s international posture.
The Lobby’s tactics are not unlike those of other lobbies. It supports Canadians who support Israel and criticizes those who don’t. It caters to decision-makers who seem open to persuasion. It addresses articles and letters to the media. It supplies information to journalists, provides speakers, and sponsors seminars and conferences as well as subsidizing tours of Israel. The Lobby’s primary attention, of course, is paid to the officials and politicians who make or influence the decisions of interest to Israel. They are entertained and briefed frequently. As one deputy minister put it, they are ‘all over us, from minister to desk officer.’ The Arab- Canadians, he explained, do much the same, but the Lobby ‘does it better’.(12) He could have added that Jewish-Canadians have easier access to high places. The Lobby does not employ explicit threats but knows that MPs and others can count, and the fate of Frank Epp has intimidated many others. Libby Davies, the NDP member for Vancouver-East, says MP’s live in what she calls ‘a climate of fear’ on issues dealing with Israel-Palestine.(13)
The Lobby also seeks to shape the future by extensive activity in the universities. Officials are placed in all the major institutions to foster Hillel clubs that promote communal sentiment among Jews and beyond by means of talks and debates. A separate body,’StandWithUs’, provides students with financial assistance to gain training in how to fight what the Lobby considers ‘anti-Israel’ actions. Its activity has contributed to serious strife and extensive publicity in two universities. In 2002, at Concordia, the administration blocked Arab and Muslim students from attending a planned speech by Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Israeli leader. This resulted in anger over perceived discrimination that led to a riot of 2,000 protesters. The speech was subsequently cancelled. At York university, in February 2009, the administration itself fostered turbulence by excessive measures to halt peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstrations.(14) In other universities, notably Toronto, McMaster, Ottawa, and Carleton, the Lobby has backed the administrations in their attempts to ban pro-Palestine activities such as the annual Israeli Apartheid Week.
Professors are prominent among the Canadians treated in whole or in part to ‘study’ visits to Israel. About a dozen such visits have been partially sponsored each year by the ‘Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East’ (CPPME), an organization professing to be neutral and sponsored in large part by the Social Science Research Council, a body financed from the federal government treasury. The Israel portion of the CPPME ‘study’ visits, however, is sponsored by the World Zionist Organization, and members are likely to be expelled if they fail to accept the party line. (15)
The Lobby professes independence but has solicited and obtained advice from Israeli officials. Former Israeli Ambassador Alan Baker, who finished his four-year posting in 2008, was exceptionally bold in his public statements of Israeli policy.(16) That is in line with an ordinary ambassadorial function. However, Baker went a step further and told Jewish Canadians how they should manage their affairs. For example, he urged the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) in public to pass a by-law that would make its relationship to Israel advocacy ‘professional, serious and practical’ and, implicitly, less democratic.
The overall success of the Lobby is best illustrated by Canada’s votes in the annual UN General Assembly’s assessment of the 60-year long Mid- East crisis. The Canadian delegates have often been embarrassed when the lights on the score panel reveal their country to be one of a minority of eight, along with Israel, the United States and its five Pacific satellites, voting against any resolutions deemed critical of Israel and its policies. Even Britain displays stronger criticism of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories despite the fact that the U.K. generally tries to stay in line with American policy. After his retirement, William Barton, Canadian ambassador to the United Nations from 1976 to 1979, expressed the dismay characteristic of Canadian representatives: ‘We were generally identified along with the United States as the most pro-Israel delegation in the UN … most of our delegates felt that this was not in the best Canadian interest.’ (17) Barton elaborated that Canada had voted not on the merits of the case but for political considerations determined in Ottawa.(18) Under Prime Minister Harper, Canada has further hardened its opposition to the majority of UN members’ criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Canada has also stood out in the two UN conferences on racism held in Durban. At the first, it denounced and then cast a solitary negative vote against the majority resolution in the Durban conference. At the second, its opposition was made even more emphatic by refusing to attend. Canada’s bias is further demonstrated by its solitary negative position in the Human Rights Council, and by refusing to accept the International Court of Justice’s ruling by a 14-1 vote that the wall being constructed by Israel, partly on Palestinian land, is illegal. The wall effectively cuts off one part of the West Bank from the other, dividing families, villages and farms. Earlier, Canada had been the first to suspend aid to Palestine after its democratic election resulted in victory for Hamas, the radical party most critical of Israel. Canada’s tilt towards Israel is also evident in conferences of La Francophonie where it has been the single participant to vote against a resolution favouring Palestine’s right to declare independence without waiting for negotiations with Israel.
Canada was even slower than the US to recognize the right of the PLO to speak for the Palestinians. When it did, it did so with a minimum of cordiality. Canada continued to show marked favouritism towards Israel. The president of Israel, for example, was accorded the rare honour of an invitation to address a joint session of both Houses of Parliament, whereas it was only after a struggle that a PLO official was invited to speak to a Senate committee. Canada’s official rhetoric fails to recognize that the Palestinians and Jews are equal in humanity. Its formal statements of objectives in the Arab-Israel dispute regularly lead off with ‘the security, well-being and rights’ of Israel, but not of the Arab countries. Israeli casualties are presented in more tragic terms than those of Arabs. Palestinian suicide bombings are characterized as cowardly and despicable while Israeli war crimes, such as the massacre of over one hundred Lebanese civilians in Qana in 1996 and the killing of many hundreds of civilians during Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009, are passed over lightly or ignored. Prime Minister Harper and other ministers habitually refer to Israel as an ‘ally’ which it is not formally, and which implies that another is an ‘enemy’.
Arab-Muslim governments and the PLO do heed Canada’s UN voting pattern and official statements. Even before Canada recognized the PLO at the ambassadorial level, lesser officials had engaged in informal chats with PLO observers, helping them understand US statements and how best to respond to them. In the view of Palestinians, however, such behaviour did not excuse Canada’s habitual pro-Israel posture, as its then foreign minister, Peter Mackay, discovered during his first ministerial-level conversations in Palestine in 2007. Arab extremists, moreover, increased their threats against Canadian lives, and Canada was specifically cited as a prime target in Al-Qaeda communiqués. Although Canada has not suffered the loss of life to terrorism inflicted on the US, Britain and Spain, the RCMP have laid charges against four young Arab Canadians believed to have been plotting attacks on Canadian buildings.
The clearest success of Canada’s Israel lobby was the cancellation in 1970 of Canada’s invitation to the UN to hold in Toronto a major conference on combating crime. All three levels of government had favoured the invitation until it was realized that, according to UN rules, the PLO would be entitled to attend as an observer. The Ontario and Toronto governments then reversed their acceptance and the issue became heated in Ottawa. Jewish-Canadians were not alone in thinking that it would be abhorrent to receive ‘terrorists’ at a conference on the prevention of crime. Threats of violence against PLO observers, even one of assassination, were heard in Lobby circles and the police worried about the measures required to guarantee conference security. The Department of External Affairs (DEA) continued its battle in order to honour Canada’s commitment to the international community but lost. The conference was held in Geneva with little ado. At one stage the cabinet had decided to proceed with the conference but it then reversed its position. One of Trudeau’s senior cabinet ministers at the time has speculated that this resulted from a call from ‘Montreal’ threatening to cut the substantial Jewish contribution to the Liberal’s national fund. The minister added that he had never seen Trudeau so agitated. (19)
A similar reversal came under a Conservative government in 1988 when Joe Clark was Secretary of State for External Affairs. In an address to a Canada-Israel Committee banquet, Clark joined most other governments in condemning Israel’s breaches of international law in its suppression of the first Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza. Especially provocative was his complaint that Israel had manipulated food supplies to exert pressure, and his tribute to the peaceful disposition of the three Arab countries he had just visited. This was taken to imply that they were more interested in peace than Israel. The conference was outraged and responded with booing, a partial walkout and the singing of the Israeli national anthem. Loud applause greeted the suggestion from the chair that revenge would come at the next elections.
Prime Minister Mulroney, who had not read the text in advance, hastened to inform Jewish leaders that Clark had spoken only for himself. Clark hurried to address a Jewish-Canadian audience to assure the ‘community’ that Canadian policy had not changed and that Canada would ‘protect, defend, and endorse the State of Israel for ever.’ Such an extraordinary assurance, combined with a lack of progress towards a more even-handed treatment of the Palestinians, did little to appease the Lobby in its attitude towards the Department of External Affairs and its minister. Even though the public response to Clark’s address was favourable, his successors were cautious when they recalled the anger that had swept through much of Canadian Jewry.
A questionable Lobby victory came in the general election of 2008. The Liberal leader, Stéphane Dion, ordered a duly nominated candidate in Winnipeg, Lesley Hughes, to step down, claiming that she had expressed anti-Semitic views in an article written a decade earlier. Dion explained, along with a spokesman for the Canadian Jewish Congress, that he was acting under pressure from B’nai Brith. Hughes, however, had no difficulty demonstrating that the article in question was in no sense anti-Semitic and that her record over the years had shown consistent support for valid Jewish interests. The public overwhelmingly endorsed Hughes. (20)
Another revealing incident occurred in 1991 when Norman Spector was appointed Ambassador to Israel to replace Michael Bell, an experienced diplomat who had barely completed half his term. The reason for Spector’s posting, offered by both Prime Minister Mulroney and Spector, was that there had been a policy against posting Jews as ambassador to Israel. The appointment was said to be ‘affirmative action’ to remedy this discrimination. In fact, there had never been any such policy(21) but the appointment certainly pleased the Lobby. In Tel Aviv, Spector explained to a delegation from the Canadian Jewish Congress that his function was to repair the damage created by his minister, Joe Clark, because of the latter’s criticism of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Spector pushed through a free trade agreement with Israel that had been strongly opposed by DEA and the Department of Trade and Commerce. Since it was the only such agreement in the area at the time, and had only modest trade implications, it was regarded by Israel’s Arab neighbours as a strictly political measure and was resented by them. Back in Ottawa, Spector falsely accused his DEA colleagues of having lied in order to frustrate the negotiation of the agreement.
Another trade issue had a different outcome. In 1978, Ontario had passed legislation to block the Arab-Muslim boycott of firms trading with Israel, and all three federal parties promised to introduce similar legislation. Trade and Commerce Minister Herb Gray was an enthusiastic supporter of the Lobby. However, he yielded to business pressure to ignore the demand for the anti-boycott legislation. Firms wanted to continue to trade not only with Israel but with all other countries in the region, even though some individual firms, both Jewish and non- Jewish, contribute substantially to the Lobby.
Although it has no formal links with the Lobby, the Evangelical branch of the Christian church — about three million strong in Canada lends great strength to the Lobby by its interpretation of the Bible. In its view the second coming of Christ will take place in a Jewish Palestine where, according to many Evangelicals, Jews must at that time control all of the ‘Holy Land.’ As a result, Evangelicals tend to zealously support Israel and its occupation of the West Bank. They are exceptionally strong in Alberta, where they may have influenced Prime Minister Harper, who himself is an Evangelical.
Several bodies oppose the Lobby. One of the most obvious is the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations (NCCAR) that speaks for most of the Arab-Canadian population. Although now approximately as strong numerically as the Jewish Canadian community, Arab/Muslim-Canadians are generally far less wealthy and much less cohesive. NCCAR maintains two representatives in Montreal and several volunteers in Ottawa. It works to promote Canada-Middle East relations, and lobbies for peace with justice in the region.
Other significant groups are the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF, which represents over forty organizations), and the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC). Both command articulate leadership and are gaining in influence as Arab/Muslim-Canadians advance in numbers, political sophistication and resolve. A newer group, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), comprises Canadians of all backgrounds. However, all these organizations remain far less influential than the Israel lobby.
The most serious challenge to the Lobby comes from within the Jewish- Canadian community itself. A rapidly increasing number — perhaps one- third of the community is now critical of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. For understandable reasons it is not easy for Jews to criticize Israel, which many see as their biblical home and their promised refuge. Survivors of the Holocaust cannot be expected to take communal bonds lightly. The charge ‘anti-Semite’, or ‘self-hating Jew’, is especially hard to face. The Jews who do speak out against Israel’s occupation include some of the most talented members of the Jewish community. They are now led by an umbrella organization named Independent Jewish Voices, which is seen as a growing threat by the Lobby.
Less influential but still significant are voluntary organizations in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and elsewhere that are dedicated to challenging Israel’s military occupation. One is the Ottawa-based Middle East Discussion Group (MEDG). Despite its disarming name, it was established thirty years ago by a group led by the Rt. Hon. Robert Stanfield, Professor John Sigler and others, with the purpose of correcting the pro-Israel bias in Canada’s Middle East policy. Its membership now includes several dozen of Canada’s most distinguished academics, journalists and a number of ex- Ambassadors who have served in the region or in the UN. The MEDG keeps abreast of events in the Middle East and has presented briefs to the government. A growing number of other groups are now voicing opposition to Canada’s policy and have considered sanctions against Israel. These include churches (notably United, Unitarian, Anglican and Roman Catholic) and unions of which the largest and most vocal is the Ontario branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE ).
At least one authority contends that Canada lacks sufficient influence to render the ME peace process a significant element in its foreign policy(22). This overlooks the fact that Canada has substantial influence in Washington, and Washington is the one capital that could impose a Mid- East settlement. Acting alone Canada might well accomplish little, but in concert with like-minded nations such as the Scandinavians and American supporters of a just ME peace, it could make a difference. However, there is little evidence that Canada has tried to influence Israeli or American policy(23). Norway, with but a sixth of Canada’s population, initiated the negotiation of the Oslo Pact, the most serious attempt thus far to resolve the long-standing ME crisis.
Canada’s influence was demonstrated at the very beginning of Israeli nationhood when Supreme Court Justice Ivan Rand dominated the UN commission that recommended the partition of Palestine, leading to the legal creation of Israel. Lester Pearson, then the most influential diplomat in the UN, was instrumental in steering the relevant UN resolution through the General Assembly without adequate provision for the displaced Palestinians. Samuel Bronfman, at the time president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, stated that ‘Canada has played the most important role in partitioning Palestine.’ (24) David Horowitz, the representative of the Jewish Agency in the UN negotiations, concurred that ’ Canada more than any other country played a decisive part in all stages of the discussion of Palestine.’ (25) Leading Canadian historians agreed, and prominent Zionists called Pearson the ‘Balfour of Canada.’ Pearson attained even greater recognition in 1967 when he earned the Nobel Prize for initiating UNEF, the peacekeeping force that helped to end the Suez Crisis. Canada also led in establishing UNRWA, the relief and works agency that helps refugees in the Middle East, and subsequently took over the chair of the relevant multi-national working group.
Canada’s extraordinarily strong support of Israel is partially explained by the editorial bias of its media, which face intense pressure to conform. Almost half of Canadian newspapers and the popular television network, Global, were owned by the Asper family. The late Israel (Izzy) Asper, billionaire founder of the CanWest media empire, was a prominent leader of the Lobby. Although not a practising Jew, he travelled frequently to Israel, became a friend of its leaders and supported its policies. Israel, Asper once told a Toronto audience, ‘was an isolated island of democracy… in a sea of terrorism, corruption, dictatorship and human enslavement. Palestinian leaders … in their deadly campaign to destroy Israel … are aiming their bombs at innocent civilians or blowing up planes over Lockerbie…’ (26) Given such views, it is not surprising that the Asper employed his media to urge Canadians to treat Arab leaders as ‘gangster terrorists’, and disciplined the editors and journalists of his papers who strayed far from his beliefs. (26)
Leonard Asper, who took command of CanWest on Izzy’s death in 2003, shares his father’s beliefs but expresses them more moderately. In a prepared text he attributed what he sees as the pro-Muslim bias of most journalists to left-wing views, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and failure to recognize Israel as a bulwark to protect Jews. He complains that most reporters writing about the Middle East are ignorant, lazy and prone to accept ‘Arab coddling.’ (27) The Asper bias shows not only in CanWest reports and editorials, but also in the near-exclusion of columns and letters critical of Israel. In 2002, Montreal Gazette reporter Bill Marsden stated ‘we do not run in our newspaper op-ed pieces that express criticism of Israel and what it is doing in the Middle East.’ (28)
In 2004, the Reuters news agency complained that CanWest altered its reports on the Middle East, substituting the word ‘terrorist’ for different words used by the wire service(29) to describe Arabs. In another example, a 2006 study concluded that an Israeli child killed by Arabs was 83.3 times more likely to be reported than a Palestinian child killed by Israelis in the headlines or lead paragraphs of Canwest’s National Post.(30)
There appears to have been no systematic survey of media coverage of the Middle East. The Jerusalem-based correspondents of the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, as well as French-language Quebec newspapers, generally offer a more balanced approach to Israel-Palestine issues. The CBC has usually been objective, much to the dismay of the Lobby. But under relentless pressure in recent years, CBC television has tended to steer clear of reporting that might offend the Lobby. Many Canadians obtain their information from American media, much of which reflect the pro-Israel slant best characterized by Fox News. While the Lobby generally can take comfort from the editorial slant of the Canadian media on Middle East issues, it is often less pleased by the more objective analysis passed on to the government by Canada’s ten embassies in the area. Prime Minister Harper and his associates tend to take the same line as the Lobby, regarding foreign affairs officials as ‘Arabists’ who can largely be ignored.(31)
Since prime ministers play a decisive role in determining Middle East policy, it may be in order to consider some of their quite different attitudes. Mackenzie King disliked Jews and even expressed some admiration for Hitler. (32). He was uneasy about Lester Pearson’s exceptional activity in the new-born United Nations but did not block his promotion of the partition resolution that gave birth to Israel. Pearson enjoyed full support from Prime Minister St. Laurent. Pearson attributed his sympathy for Israel to his Sunday school teaching and also found most Arab spokesmen brash. In later years he conceded that Canada had been unfair to the Palestinians (33)
Pierre Trudeau strongly resented the pressure of the Lobby and of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.(35) Trudeau recounts in his Memoirs how Begin, during a visit to Canada in 1978, threatened to turn Jewish voters against the Liberals unless Trudeau supported Conservative Leader Joe Clark’s promise to transfer the Canadian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trudeau refused, noting that Jerusalem was ‘defined by the United Nations as one of the occupied territories.’ (36) Later, in an interview when he was opposition leader in 1979, Trudeau said ‘Zionist’ pressure groups in the U.S. and Canada were undermining the prospects for Middle East peace. He added that Canadian Jewish leaders who had pressured the Conservatives to transfer the Canadian embassy to Jerusalem, and who urged much tougher legislation against an Arab economic boycott of Israel, had hurt Canada economically. Moreover, he said, ‘they have opened the way to a growing anti-semitism.’ (37)
In his brief tenure as prime minister, Joe Clark came to realize the political and legal impropriety of moving the embassy to Jerusalem. He abandoned the policy, adopting the views of Robert Stanfield, his predecessor as Tory leader whom he had appointed to study and report on Canada’s Middle East policy. Stanfield became a strong supporter of Palestinian rights, insisting that ‘when the Israelis do something wrong, we should be prepared to say so.’ (38)
Prime Minister Mulroney was much more pro-Israel and much more susceptible to Lobby influence. He stirred up a storm of protest in the Arab world when he praised the Israelis for ‘showing restraint’ after they had killed twenty Palestinians and wounded dozens of others in the suppression of the first Intifada. IrvingAbella of the Canadian Jewish Congress praised him for his ‘visceral attachment to Israel.’(39)
However, no previous Canadian prime minister has matched the near total support for Israel offered by Stephen Harper who has adopted the ‘Israel-right-or-wrong’ approach of the Israel Lobby and shown minimal concern for Palestinians. He described Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon as ’measured’ despite the fact that over a thousand civilians were killed by Israeli bombs and shell-fire. In his effort to win over Jewish voters, Harper approved the distribution of political pamphlets suggesting Liberals are anti-Semitic because of their lack of unconditional support for Israel. He has also moved aggressively to cut funding for aid and human rights organizations considered too sympathetic towards Palestinians.
In Israel itself the strength of the Canadian lsrael lobby is widely known and appreciated. Canadians are among the most popular foreigners in Israel. In part this is due to our pro-Israel votes and statements in international bodies. Yet it probably owes more to the fact that Canadians, per capita, have been the most generous towards Israel, notably in building legal university structures and subsidizing illegal settlement activities. ‘Canada Park’ is the name of a prominent recreation area situated between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. (Mention is seldom made of the three Palestinian villages ploughed under to make way for the park after the Six-Day War). Trade with Canada has been enhanced by our free trade agreement. Israelis with knowledge of the history of their country recall Canada’s role in its creation and also its lead in peacekeeping. Pressure from Canada for a just (and legal) peace settlement would probably be more acceptable than from almost any other country apart from the United States.
A clear indication of the price Canada has paid in the international arena for its pro-Israel stance was its failure in 2007 to be elected to the UN Security Council. It had previously been elected every ten years to fill the two-year seat reserved for a western member, and cherished this influential position. Canada is currently running again for a council seat but its pro-Israel stance is considered to be jeopardising its chances. As one UN official said, ‘If Canada is to play a constructive role, it has to re- establish its credentials as a fair and balanced interpreter of the developments that affect both sides.’ (40)
A Senate committee report issued on June 19, 2007, warned that Canada’s uncritical support for Israel in the United Nations Human Rights Council had led to the isolation of Canada. Prime Minister Harper vowed that Canada would not be ‘bullied’ into changing its position ‘ whatever the diplomatic or political cost.’ However, the obvious decline in our influence was regretted by many of the architects of Canada’s foreign policy who believe we should be pushing harder for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Palestine in return for a binding guarantee of Israel’s security.
Canada can hardly be said to lack influence or interest in the Middle East, but in what matters most to the Palestinians — their freedom and independence — we lag far behind every other western country. Our extremely pro-Israel posture may please the Lobby but it is contrary to Canada’s interests, those of the United States, those of the United Nations, those of Palestine, and those of Israel itself.