Aug. 20, 2006. 01:00 AM
David Gelberman has thought of himself as a Liberal his whole life, but that has changed, he declares, because of the Prime Minister. "Thank God for Stephen Harper," says Gelberman, 57, his eyes fixed on the television news from Israel.
"It’s about time someone had some cojones. Most other politicians are wishy-washy."
There are enthusiastic nods from his customers, smoked meat sandwiches in hand, at Wolfie’s Deli, on Sheppard Ave., which Gelberman runs with his wife Gila and father-in-law Wolf Zimmerman. "I was always a Liberal," says Gelberman, looking natty in a straw hat, black shirt and gold jewellery. "I was only a Liberal. Will this affect the way I vote? Absolutely. I will vote Tory from now on."
More nods from the men at the table where he has joined in the conversation. Harper is not so scary, says a customer named Joseph (he declines to give his last name), who organizes trade shows. He too, has been a Liberal supporter. "But I’m going to change that."
On the same day that British investigators exposed a massive terrorist plot to blow up as many as 10 transatlantic flights, the men see even more reason to support Harper and his position that Israel’s military action against Hezbollah guerrillas was a "measured response."
Harper made his pro-Israel views known quickly, issuing a statement the day after Israel sent its forces into Lebanon. Meanwhile, the Liberals’ perspective remained unclear. Five days passed before interim Liberal leader Bill Graham said the government’s position was a "grave error," one that threatened Canada’s reputation as a peace broker and mediator. Leadership candidates offered a range of opinions.
In the meantime, high-profile Jewish Liberals, including Onex Corp. President Gerry Schwartz, his wife, Indigo Books & Music CEO Heather Reisman, and film producer Robert Lantos, publicly expressed support for Harper’s stance and, in the case of the latter two, tore up their party membership cards, if not in fact, then in their minds.
At a July 26 rally in Toronto to support Israel, Lantos received a standing ovation when he thanked Harper for his government’s "principled support" and said he was tossing off his "lifelong federal Liberal hat."
But support for Harper among Jews is wider than a few influential business leaders. Across the community there are rumblings of discontent with the Liberals. Whether it’s deeper than the rift on the issue of Israel and will lead to a clean break on the part of Jewish voters remains to be seen. As Michael Marzolini, chair of Pollara opinion research, says: "People are not going to do a whole lot of party switching during a leadership campaign. Though once they get their act together … "
Historically, Canada’s Jewish voters have stood with the Liberal party, voting them in at a rate 20 per cent higher than the national average during the 1970s. That support has fallen in recent years to 8 to 10 per cent above the average. Jewish voters remember that the Liberals under Trudeau appointed Canada’s first Jewish cabinet minister, Herb Gray, in 1969, and they have favoured the party’s progressive social policies.
For years, left-of-centre parties were at the vanguard of promoting pluralism and religious and ethnic tolerance, says Conrad Winn, head of Compas research firm. But now, he says, "almost everyone accepts these pluralist ideas, and you see a reversal in centuries-old patterns of attitudes toward Jews."
Polls show that instead of showing hostility toward Jews, churchgoers and Christians show the most support for the religious rights of Jews in Canada and also the strongest support for Israel, says Winn. "Right-wing voters are more favourable to Israel and Jews than left-wing liberals."
Which could make the Conservative party more appealing to mainstream Jewish voters — the Tories already find support among observant Jews. And support from figures like David Frum and his sister, Linda, who has held fundraising events for Harper, is well known.
Winn also notes that unlike U.S. President George W. Bush, Stephen Harper is not demonstrably religious, and that makes it easier for Liberals of all faiths to embrace him. "Christian Liberals and Jewish Liberals resemble each other in that they are not terribly comfortable amidst the trappings of religion," he says.
What can’t be overstated is the visceral connection between Canadian Jews and Israel. "Israel is our Jewish homeland," says Rabbi Sharon Sobel, executive director of the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism. "It’s where Jews can be Jewish … we send money, our youth, our congregations."Now, Jewish Canadians find their loyalty to Israel has led them to ways of thinking they would not have dreamed possible a decade ago. One of those is entertainment lawyer Michael Levine, who has represented Liberal leadership candidates Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff, as well as the late Pierre Trudeau.
"I have always been a leftward-leaning liberal … always believed in the peace process. I represent a kind of secularized, culturally Jewish, not deeply religious person who loves the fact that I live in a civic nationality, not an ethnic nationality, that my neighbours can be Palestinians and Haitians and Chinese and we have grown up together.
"But there is a part of me that cannot forget history — that Jews were massacred by Christian Europe because they did not have a homeland," he continues. "I am profoundly supportive of a Jewish homeland."
`There may be aspects
of social justice the Conservatives are expressing better’
Roy Tanenbaum, rabbi
Levine asks: "How do you make peace with the one who is trying to destroy you? It leaves me more aggressively in favour of the policies of Israel than I have ever been in my life."
"I hope what you hear is the enormous pain of a person who prefers negotiation and diplomacy and the peace process and who hates taking on an ethnic-nationalistic point of view."
Levine adds he is not changing party loyalties: "I remain a very strong social liberal." But in addition to supporting Harper’s position, he’s mindful of "the huge political risk he has taken. Jews are a tiny proportion of the population of Canada."
For some, the Conservatives’ position on the latest Middle East crisis is an incentive to examine other Tory policies. Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum finds he is revisiting his long-held allegiances toward parties that best reflected his interest in social justice. Traditionally that’s been either the Liberals or New Democrats.
"I lean to the left side of the political spectrum," Tanenbaum says. "Today I’m reassessing whether that is the key issue and if it’s true that only the left is interested in social justice. There may be aspects of social justice the Conservatives are expressing better."
Meanwhile, the public expressions of support for Harper and/or defections by people like Schwartz, Reisman and Lantos are bound to have an impact on Jewish voters, says Winn. Schwartz has been one of the Liberals’ most powerful fundraisers, largely responsible for bringing in an unprecedented $12 million for Paul Martin’s leadership campaign in 2003.
Though Jewish voters are small in numbers — Canada’s Jewish population is about 380,000 — their loss, if it is that, will be felt in other ways, says Ed Morgan, University of Toronto law professor and president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. "There is intellectual leadership — academics, policy types, the cultural and intellectual influence … "
Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich, president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis, has made informal comments on the war from the pulpit and has written a letter of thanks to the Prime Minister’s Office. He has suggested that others in the Jewish community do the same.
Flanzraich says he has observed in the Jewish community a "sense of distance" from the federal Liberals dating from former prime minister’s Jean Chrétien’s government. "Their position on Israel was one of moral relativism, that neither side was more wrong or right than the other."
In the past, continues Flanzraich, who is also senior rabbi at Beth Sholom Synagogue, there was no "credible national alternative" to the Liberals. What we’ve seen with the federal Conservatives is a greater sensitivity toward faith communities and recognition that faith communities are a tremendous source of social capital" (such as food banks and out-of-the-cold programs).
"I can tell you, there is an overwhelming appreciation for the Prime Minister’s position, that he has articulated a perspective we have long sought."
But not all of Canada’s Jewish community or the 150,000 or so who live in the Toronto area, are of one mind on foreign policy, or even on Israel. "They are as divided as the Israeli cabinet," says former Liberal pollster Martin Goldfarb.
Smadar Carmon immigrated to Canada from Israel four years ago. "I came here because I didn’t want to be in a country torn by war," says Carmon, a mature student at Humber College. "I actually feel betrayed by (Harper)."
A member of the small organization Jewish Women Against the Occupation, which has an email list of about 300, says of the Prime Minister: "This person does not have any heart and he’s definitely not thinking. I’m interested in human rights, and he has to be totally out of touch with human suffering."
She argues that Canada risks losing its reputation as a peacemaker. "It could lead to Canada being attacked like the U.S. and Britain, countries that are war-making."
Another organization, the United Jewish People’s Order, has written to Harper saying that Israel’s use of force in Lebanon is "morally repugnant," not only because of the disproportionate number of civilian deaths but also because it fuels terrorist acts. "It’s nice to see he is supportive of Israel … but the only response now should be an immediate ceasefire," says David Abramowitz, co-president of the order. "We have to stop the bombing and start talking."
Harper’s stand may not prove a tipping point for Jews when it comes to voting in a federal election. Pollster Goldfarb is careful to say that, while he agrees with Harper on Israel, that’s as far as it goes. "I’m with him on his stand in the Middle East. It’s a principled stand, defending democracy … I’m not with him on same-sex marriage, softwood lumber, transfer payments, childcare, lots of things, especially domestic issues where Harper is making a mistake …
"But I think Harper captured the hearts of many Jewish people because, in his defence of Israel, they see someone who understands their own anguish for Israel."