New Burnaby MP ready to go
Robinson’s replacement is interested in Israel’s Parliamentary system.
PAT JOHNSON SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH BULLETIN,
JULY 30 2004
Bill Siksay’s first trip abroad was a three-week visit to Israel in 1978. As a university student, he visited the holy sites and experienced the attractions of the Middle East.
It was a formative experience, Siksay says now, reflecting on that visit as he looks forward to his new role helping set policy and make laws as the recently elected member of Parliament for Burnaby-Douglas. Siksay, Svend Robinson’s longtime constituency assistant and the controversial New Democrat’s replacement as MP, took away from that trip an enthusiasm for Israel’s religious and ethnic diversity, its democratic traditions and the vibrance of the Knesset.
"I had gone with certain assumptions about Israel, not knowing a lot about Israel, but [with] certain assumptions about the Jewish state and this kind of unitary state and whatever," Siksay told the Bulletin. "When I got there, I was just blown away by the diversity of Israel. Talking about … multiculturalism. I think Israel is a place that struggles with issues of diversity big-time and has made interesting decisions and is a very interesting place in terms of the diversity and the multiculturalism and the religious diversity … I was blown away by all of that."
Siksay would go on to divinity school, helping to open the debate in Canada’s largest Protestant denomination about ordaining openly gay men and lesbians. Though he wouldn’t become an ordained minister himself, his partner is the minister at St. John’s United Church in Vancouver’s West End, and Siksay said his political activism has had something of the "pastoral" about it.
His interest in the Holy Land stems at least in part from his Christianity, Siksay acknowledged, but it also comes from a fascination with the Israeli political system. The NDP has as a plank the adoption of proportional representation in Canada and Siksay sees Israel’s system as one of the most instructive.
"The other thing that impressed me on that trip and always stayed with me was visiting the Knesset," he said. "I’ve always seen it as a model of democratic legislatures in the world. The diversity of opinion that gets represented in the Knesset, the kind of coalition-building that has to happen there. For me, in the debate around proportional representation in Canada, I always see the Knesset as a model. I know sometimes people use it in a negative way like [unstable coalition governments] in Israel or Italy but I’ve always seen that as a strength of Israel and it certainly, it seems to me, never complicated Israel taking a strong stand when the country felt that its interests were threatened in any kind of a way…. It may not be the exact model that we want to adopt here in Canada, but I think it impressed me back in 1978 as a very democratic and very, very interesting legislative Parliament."
Though Burnaby-Douglas may not have a large Jewish electorate, it has drawn the attention of some Jewish activists over the years, due to Robinson’s activism on behalf of the Palestinian cause and his often forceful denunciations of Israeli policy.
Siksay has been one of Robinson’s closest staff members for the better part of two decades and he makes no effort to differentiate himself from Robinson’s record.
"You don’t work for someone for 18 years and not agree with them," said Siksay. "In terms of how I might raise [issues], I might do it differently than Svend because, personality-wise, we’re different."
As Robinson did in previous interviews with the Bulletin, Siksay noted that there is a segment of the Jewish community that agrees with strong criticism of Israel and Siksay acknowledged that he has supported Robinson in those stands. But the new MP said his own religious training and his different personal style will likely color his interventions on the Middle East issue.
"We do have a different style and different experience levels with some of the major issues and some of the difficult, more controversial issues of the day," said Siksay, while expressing support for Israel’s basic rights.
"I strongly support Israel’s right to exist," he said, adding that the Jewish-majority nature of the state is a matter of reality. "I think there are diversity issues within Israel as well, but I understand that [Israel’s Jewish identity] is the history and that’s the strong tradition of Israel and I have a strong appreciation for that as well."
On the recent International Court of Justice ruling against Israel’s defensive barrier along the West Bank, Siksay expressed regret that the violence has brought the situation to such a level that Israel feels the necessity to raise the barrier.
"In some ways, I think the wall is a tragedy and I wish that folks in Israel didn’t see it as necessary as I know that many people do see it as necessary to their security," Siksay said. "It’s a very difficult situation and I think a tragic one that that kind of [response] has been seen as necessary."
Siksay thinks people living in peaceful Canada can become inured to the terrorist violence we see on television, and insists that public figures need to stand up and repeatedly condemn attacks against civilians. He sympathises with Canadians who have family or spiritual connections to the region and live in fear of the next terrorist attack.
"Strong statements need to be made about terrorism and targeting of civilians," he said. "That’s unacceptable. I know that people sometimes feel that we’re becoming kind of inoculated against it, that we don’t understand the disruption that it causes and, too, that we don’t understand the frustration that sometimes leads people to take those kinds of actions … I personally, in some ways, feel very far removed, living here in peaceful Canada, but know that is something many Canadians live with daily because of their concern about family and about their own safety when they travel."
On one issue, Siksay deferred comment. He said he did not have a full enough understanding of the issues around a Palestinian "right of return" to make an informed comment.
"I do support a Palestinian state with secure and clear boundaries, as I support the state of Israel with clear and defined and secure boundaries as well," he said. "But as for the right of return, I’m probably not as up to speed on that issue as I should be."
An issue he has given much time and thought to, he said, is anti-Semitism. During seminary and in the years since, Siksay said, he has worked extensively on the issue of Christian anti-Semitism and the steps the church should take to ameliorate the tenacious history of Jew-hatred.
"For me as a Christian and as a member of the United Church, it’s always been important to raise the whole issue of how Christian tradition has contributed to anti-Semitism; how, in some ways, very basic Christian beliefs have contributed to that over the years and to challenge those [anti-Semitic expressions] in the church, where they still can take hold."
He vows to do the same now in Parliament. And he hopes to return for a second visit to Israel.
"I’ve always wanted to go back because I found it such a dynamic place," he said.
Pat Johnson is a Vancouver journalist and commentator.