Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee
“Canada and Israel:A Personal Perspective on the Ties That Bind”

“Canada and Israel:A Personal Perspective on the Ties That Bind”

13 April 2008


How many of you feel the world is quick to condemn Israel without taking the time to understand the reasons for its actions? How many of you feel that there are people who ascribe sinister motives to Israel’s actions when none exist?  How many of you feel that nothing Israel says is listened to, because so many people have stopped listening at all?

I know that many of you feel that way about Israel.

It also happens to be the way I feel I am perceived in some parts of the Jewish community.

I am grateful for the opportunity you have given me to clear up this misunderstanding.  It is good to be here, once again, in this great temple of learning and faith.

The personal ties that bind me to Israel run deep. My father was a Canadian diplomat and he served as one of Canada’s representatives on the UN Palestine committee that voted for a partition that the Jewish community accepted and the Arab world rejected in 1947. I was born that year and as my father was rushing out of the committee to get to the hospital, he was stopped in the hallway of the UN by a rabbi who wanted to know how the negotiations were going. My father said he couldn’t say, he couldn’t stop, his son had just been born, whereupon the rabbi gave him—and me—the first religious blessing I ever received.

Later as our Ambassador at the UN, my father was proud of the work he did with Abba Eban, Israel’s Foreign Minister in the negotiations around Resolution 242, which defines some of the elements of a peace to this day.

As for me, I’ve been to Israel half a dozen times and lived there on two separate occasions, once in 1988, when I was covering Intifada 1 for the BBC and again in 1999 when I was a guest of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba. Thanks to these good times, I count Israelis among my dearest and truest friends. I am, finally, the biographer of Isaiah Berlin, a liberal Zionist, whose impact on me as a man and a thinker is deeper than anyone except my own father.

So you can begin to imagine how I felt when a single remark, offered on a television program in the heat of my campaign for the Liberal leadership in 2006, led many of my Jewish friends, some in sorrow, some in anger, to brand me an enemy of Israel.

You’ll remember the circumstances.  Hezbollah was raining rockets down on northern Israeli towns and had taken Israeli soldiers hostage.  Like any state Israel has the right to defend itself, and it did so, with a sustained incursion into south Lebanon. During that incursion, civilians were killed in a place called Qana. 

I was asked what I thought about Qana.

Had I said that Israel had a right to defend itself, but had to avoid civilian casualties and disproportionate use of force, some of you might not have been happy but you would have understood what I meant.

Had I said, that Israel’s enemies—Hamas and Hezbollah—don’t play by the same rules , indeed don’t play by any rules at all, you would have known that I understand why it’s hard for Israel to play by the rules, though it must.

Had I said the other side systematically altered evidence about Qana to put Israel in a bad light,

You might not have agreed, but you would have understood.

What I actually said was that a war crime had been committed at Qana.

All hell broke loose. I was accused of everything, including intellectual anti-Semitism. Many Jewish friends and supporters, who knew how deep my affection for Israel actually runs, stood with me and stand with me still but others broke with me and have not returned.

No doubt about it, it was the most painful error of my political life. I meant only that in legitimately defending itself against a terrorist enemy, Israel may have failed to comply with the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war. But for every friend of Israel, the phrase I used carried the implication of a false and fatal equivalence—which I never intended—between Israeli actions and the despicable actions of their persecutors in times past and present.

At the time, I was saved, in a manner of speaking, by the characteristic partisanship of the Conservative Prime Minister who took the opportunity to suggest that most candidates for the Liberal leadership were anti-Israel in some way or the other. This was such an absurd allegation, so untrue, yet so entirely characteristic of his style, that it mercifully drew some attention away from my errors to his.

Memory of my remark still lingers, however, and it continues to shadow my relation to a community for whom I have always had deep affection and respect.  And it’s not just about me. I’m in a political party and colleagues dear to me paid a price for my mistake.

When you make a mistake in public life, it is tempting to let sleeping dogs lie. I just couldn’t. I’ve made mistakes before. This one was different. 

Since then, I’ve been reaching out to leaders in the community to re-establish dialogue. Thanks to the Canada Israel committee, I visited Israel last November travelling north to the border with Lebanon, to see for myself the Hezbollah flags across the border and the continued threat that Hezbollah poses to Israel`s security.

Politicians can’t hope to hold the trust of our fellow citizens unless we own up to mistakes and rebuild trust when mistakes put trust in jeopardy.

So I’m here to rebuild trust.

I’m also here to put the record straight.

It’s ridiculous to suggest that either I or the Liberal Party is equivocal on the subject of Israel.  Since the Liberal government recognized Israel in 1948, my party has never failed to strengthen the ties that bind one democratic state, built on the rule of law, to another.  We have never failed to respect the passionate chord of loyalty that connects Canadian Jews to the state of Israel.  We have never equated fairness between the legitimate claims of Israelis and Palestinians with remaining neutral between terrorists and democracy.

Canada can never remain neutral between Israel and those enemies—Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran—who deny Israel’s right to exist, deny the Holocaust and seek her  destruction.

As it happens, I went to Iran in 2005 to give a lecture about Isaiah Berlin.  While in Tehran, I saw the officially sanctioned anti-Zionist posters, some 70 feet high, hanging on public buildings and over the main squares. Months after I left, Ramin Jahanbegloo, the brave man who had invited me was arrested and spent horrible months in Evin prison. When he was released, he told me that when he was interrogated, the crimes he was accused of included inviting Jewish speakers to Tehran and having them talk about philosophers like Isaiah Berlin.

 So I don’t need to be reminded that Iran is a clear and present danger to the state of Israel and you don’t need to worry whether a Dion government, a Liberal government, will stand firm against the rising threat from Iran. We will stand firm.

Despite Iran’s provocations—in fact because of it—the struggle for peace in the Middle East must go on. We must prove the rejectionists, the enemies of Israel, wrong. We must prove that peace is still possible.

My party has always called for a two state solution in which Palestinians and Israelis agree on borders, share the land and live in peace, recognizing each other’s rights. If the Annapolis round of negotiations proves successful, Canada should offer its help to anchor the peace and make it permanent.

Assistance yes. Pressure never.  Israelis and Palestinians cannot be forced to make peace on terms that are not in their interest. Outside powers can help, but they cannot dictate. The Arab nations equally must end 60 years of rejection and acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

Our party will never support one-sided condemnations of Israel in the UN. The UN resolution on Zionism as racism was a disgrace. Those who compare Israel to apartheid South Africa don’t know what they are talking about.  Canada should take no part in human rights conferences that single out Israel for condemnation and ignore the human rights abuses of others. 

Equally, Israel should be held to the same standards of conduct, in relation to human rights and the laws of war, as any other state, neither more nor less. As old friends, Canada has a right to talk straight with our Israeli friends just as Israel has the right to talk straight with us. We aren’t perfect, Israel isn’t perfect. Nobody is, after all, except the Lord above.

I hope this sets the record straight about our Party and Israel.

A vigorous competition has opened up for the votes of the Jewish community.  This is as it should be.   The Jewish community speaks with many voices: orthodox and liberal, progressive and conservative, secular and religious.  The community is a community—it stands like a rock when its members are attacked–but it is also equally proud of its differences.  Groups repeatedly try to speak for the community, but as citizens you are too wise to let anyone monopolize your voice and your support.

So there is something strange about the news reports that the Jewish community is going to vote en masse for the Conservatives in the next election.  There’s even something a little arrogant in that assumption. I don’t believe you’ll vote for anyone en masse at the next election.  You will make up your mind, one family,  one person at a time.

As you make these choices, you may want to ask  whether the question of Israel is the only issue that will determine your vote. I know how much Canada matters to you.  For as long as I’ve been a liberal—and that’s 40 years—Jewish friends have been at the forefront of the battle for a progressive and compassionate Canada.     Members of your community are never missing in action when the fight is joined for decent housing, health care, justice for aboriginal Canadians or a clean environment.  You can’t walk into a hospital or a university in this city without witnessing, in the benefactions of your community leaders, the compassion, generosity and foresight of the Jewish people writ large.  

These great virtues are not the monopoly of any faith, but the Jewish faith has embodied them as well as any one.  These virtues are not the monopoly of any party either but ours has defended progressive social compassion as well as anyone. 

I can’t believe, given your reputation for justice and fairness that you’ll allow your political choices to be influenced by the slurs that are circulated about my party or about me.  Liberals stand with you, always have, always will.

Jewish community leaders sometimes confess to me that they feel marginalized in the hectic competition for political attention that has opened up among ethnic and religious groups in Canada.   They want to know whether the community still has the ear of the Liberal Party or whether we have begun to listen to other groups hostile to Israel. 

Thanks to the work of the Congress, the Canada Israel Committee, Bnai Brith, CJPAC and others, you can rest assured: your voice is heard. The Liberal party is listening.

But we do more than listen. We stand with you whenever multicultural tolerance fractures into hatred. When an orthodox religious school was fire-bombed in Montreal in September 2006, I was there, as were other colleagues, to express our horror and our solidarity. I was there when a mosque’s windows were broken in Mississauga in 2007 by some misguided hoodlums.  Last week, our party leader committed to a program of funding the security needs of all religious communities when Canadians return us to government.  No community should be required to pay to defend itself against deluded hate-mongers. No community should live in fear. No community should feel that it must defend itself alone.

The duty of all of us to stand up against hatred is clear. But there are other duties that are less clear. What duty of truth does a politician owe to the diverse communities who elect us?  Politicians are often accused of pandering to different groups, saying whatever they want us to say in order to secure votes. I was accused of pandering on the Lebanon war, though if I was, I managed the unique feat of alienating both the Jewish and the Lebanese community with my remarks.

So I’ve had to figure out what principles to stand for, when faced with diametrically opposing claims from the people I try to serve. I’ve learned that  it is no longer true, if it ever was, that all politics is local.   Our politics has gone global. Jewish Canadians follow developments in the Middle East as closely as they follow the goings on in Ottawa, but so do their Lebanese, Arab and Palestinian Canadian neighbours.  

The Middle East drama is not the only problem that can set Canadian citizens against each other. At various times, Bosnia, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Kosovo, Kurdistan have divided our citizens and forced Canadian politicians to take sides in conflicts some of us do not understand in places some of us may have some trouble finding on a map.

So what to do?  As citizens, as politicians, we cannot stay silent about these conflicts.  It is a good thing that Canadian Jews care passionately about Israel and that Palestinian Canadians care passionately about justice for their cause.  The problem for a Canadian politician is how to play an honest part in preventing these differences from causing conflict at home.

By trial and error—mostly by error—I’ve come to a few conclusions about how I should act. In reaching these conclusions I am guided by one of Winston Churchill’s wonderful remarks. He said politicians shouldn’t be sofas. We shouldn’t bear the shape of the last person to sit on us. We should keep our own shape, no matter what. We should have principles.  So what are they?

 The first rule is to be consistent. I must not defend Israel in this house of worship only to betray it in a mosque across town. I must not defend the rights of Palestinians to a state of their own in a mosque only to betray this commitment here in this great synagogue. I must be consistent.

A second rule is that I must not inflame discord with ill-chosen words. I must say what I mean and only what I mean. I must not pander to the forces of hatred and discord. When I do so, I betray my obligation to unite Canadians and not to divide them.

A third rule is that I must speak for Canada. I am not here to speak for any political group within Israel or anywhere else.  It is the national interest of Canada that must guide my actions as an elected representative. In relation to the Middle East, that means striving to prevent a wider and deadlier conflict in which Israel goes to the wall.  It means finding a way to stop more heavy weapons and missiles pouring into south Lebanon, weapons that could one day threaten Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It means finding a way to guarantee the full independence of the state of Lebanon. As for the Palestinians, it means working with them to create institutions that serve rather than exploit their people and create partners for a lasting peace.

Canada must speak out against the introduction of deadly rockets into Gaza. These bring with them a steady deterioration of security conditions for Palestinians and Israelis alike. There cannot be peace if rockets are raining down on Sderot. There cannot be peace if Israel’s only option of self-defence is punitive raids in Gaza.

There must be a better way. We must do what we can as Canadians to call the men and women of reason in the region to pull back from the brink and work together for the peace that Sadat flew to Jerusalem to find, that Hussein of Jordan spoke of and that Itzak Rabin died for.  That peace is still there, beyond the reach but not beyond the grasp of brave men and women.

I do not want to exaggerate Canada’s influence in this tormented region any more than I want to downplay it. We must simply be clear about who our friends are, and like good friends, tell it like it is.

The principles we keep to must be simple and clear to all.  Israel is a democracy. Canada is a democracy. We stand with democracies against terrorist groups wherever we find them. There are democrats in the Arab and Muslim world. We stand with them, too, against, terror and religious fanaticism. We stand with them because we know we will have no democracy anywhere unless we stand clearly against violence.

Let me conclude. I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t do without principles in politics. Here are mine: be consistent, say what you mean and only what you mean, speak for Canada and stand up for democrats everywhere.  With these as my guide, I believe I can do my job as a politician. And I can be a good friend to a country I respect and to a community whose good opinion matters deeply to me.

Thank you for your attention.