Tories eyeing traditionally Liberal ridings; Concerted effort to woo Jewish voters. Conservatives’ ’tilt toward Israel’ is appreciated by community, but ‘the Liberal brand remains strong’
The Gazette (Montreal)
Fri 12 Sep 2008
Byline: IRWIN BLOCK
Jewish voters, especially those in the Montreal area, have traditionally voted overwhelmingly for Liberal candidates.
However, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are making a concerted effort to change this pattern, part of a drive to replace the Liberals as the majority voice in multicultural ridings.
Though it was planned before the election call, Public Security Minister Stockwell Day was in town this week for the launch of developer David Azrieli’s book, Rekindling the Torch: The Story of Canadian Zionism, and a who’s who of the Jewish community was there.
Day was effusive in his praise for Azrieli’s book, as well as for Zionism and Israel, and the crowd loved it.
"I’m here because I profoundly believe it is the right thing to do, to support Israel," he told about 300 at the Gelber Centre in Snowdon Tuesday night.
Day could not resist praising Harper for his tough position on Hamas when, in December 2006, he became "the first world leader to say we will never negotiate with any political entity whose goal is the destruction of Israel."
This earned his biggest applause, and based on conversations before and after the speech it is evident community members appreciate the tilt toward Israel under Harper.
This shift, notes McGill University Middle East scholar Rex Brynen, began under the Paul Martin Liberals, when Canada began to change its voting on long-standing UN resolutions.
Says McGill political scientist Harold Waller: "Harper’s four-square stance behind Israel during the 2006 war with Hezbollah was probably the clearest manifestation of that support."
Frank Dimant, executive director of B’nai Brith Canada in Toronto, praised the Conservatives for boycotting the forthcoming UN anti-racism conference known as Durban II.
"Canada was the first to say it will not participate in what is going to be another hate fest against the Jews and against the Jewish state," Dimant said.
Day’s department has also approved more than $1 million to beef up security at community synagogues, mosques and community centres. Of 38 recipients, all but six are to Jewish institutions, including six in Montreal
All this may translate into more votes for Tory candidates, but Waller and other seasoned observers say they do not expect such a massive shift in traditional support for the Liberals in the eight ridings with substantial Jewish voters for any of them to lose.
One main reason, says Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation in Côte St. Luc, is the presence of Irwin Cotler, the incumbent in Mount Royal, former Liberal justice minister, and a lifelong human rights advocate and Zionist.
"It is difficult for anyone to argue that anyone is more supportive of Israel than Irwin Cotler," Poupko said.
But at the book launch, I met a garment manufacturer who described himself as "a first-time Tory."
"I still like the Liberal candidate (Cotler), but I want to vote Conservative because for the first time someone stood up for Israel," he said earnestly.
As for Cotler’s Conservative opponent – Rafael Tzoubari, a Yemenite Jew born in Israel, an engineer and real-estate developer – this man said, "he doesn’t have a chance."
Carolyn Steinman, a former Progressive Conservative candidate in Mount Royal, believes in the Tories, but said of Cotler: "Irwin is a sweetheart, he’s great."
Cotler, one of the guest speakers at the event, agreed in an interview that Harper "has been steadfast in his support for Israel." He said his own record on the Middle East "stands for itself" and added he was elected to represent a multitude of values and aspirations, from the environment to poverty.
"It’s not a zero-sum game. I have been very strongly in favour of representing Palestinian or Arab rights when they are aggrieved," Cotler said.
He mentioned his advocacy for Omar Khadr, facing terrorism charges in Guantanamo; Maher Arar, detained and tortured in Syria; and support for "the legitimate claims of the Palestinians."
Cotler also said Liberals and Conservatives agree on basic points – a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with secure and recognized boundaries for Israel.
The Canadian Jewish Congress has identified Montreal-area ridings with significant Jewish voters as Lac-Saint-Louis, Laval-Les Îles, Notre Dame de Grace-Lachine, Pierrefonds-Dollard, Saint-Laurent-Cartierville, Westmount-Ville Marie and Outremont.
Many will be watching to see whether New Democrat Thomas Mulcair can hold on to the seat he won in a September 2007 by-election, when he defeated Liberal candidate Jocelyn Coulon.
The NDP "simply had a better candidate," observed Alex Werzberger, president of the Coalition of Outremont Hasidic Organizations, which counts for almost 2,000 votes.
The Jewish community "was not very excited" about Coulon because of controversial articles he had written about Israel. "Though the Orthodox community is not as Zionist-minded as other Jews, when someone poops on the community nobody likes it."
As for Liberal candidate and actor-director Sébastien Dhavernas – "nobody knows him. It will take a while to find out what he is about," Werzberger said. (The Conservatives are running Lutzim Laloshi, an Albanian-born software engineer.)
Mulcair is "a known quantity," and "the Liberal brand remains strong in Jewish and Orthodox communities."
"This time around I think the candidates are going to have to fight for their votes."