The controversy around Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to the U.S. Congress this week was so fraught with partisan rancor – or at least with punditry alleging partisan rancor – that the theme at the AIPAC conference in Washington, which immediately preceded the prime minister’s address, was “all bipartisanship all the time.”
Democratic U.S. Senator Ben Cardin and Republican Senator Lindsay Graham opened the event Sunday morning with emphatic assertions that American support for Israel overrides all partisan politics. The message was repeated later in the day by top Democratic and Republican officials from the House of Representatives. Messages of cross-partisan rah-rah for Israel were featured in many of the conference speakers’ messages and on the massive 360-degree screens encircling the U.S. capital’s cavernous convention centre. The American ambassador to the United Nations made the same case.
As the country’s greatest ally in the raucous Middle East, Israel is somewhat akin in the American political culture to the U.S. military – one can criticize policies and politicians, but it is de rigueur to restate philosophical support for Israel as a great ally and for the right of Israel to defend its citizens.
This sort of bipartisanship has not always been the case in Canada, which has a very different perspective on foreign affairs and, sometimes, on Israel. But that has changed, according to a panel of Canadians who addressed the conference.
Shimon Fogel, chief executive officer of Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, moderated a session featuring Jonathan Kay, editor of The Walrus magazine and former comment page editor of the National Post, and Terry Glavin, a Victoria-based commentator and author.
“Israel has won the battle of ideas in Canada,” Kay said.
While many credit Prime Minister Stephen Harper with leading the change, both men see a deeper shift in public opinion. Glavin called it “tectonic.”
The change is due to a few things, the two commentators agreed.
Anti-Zionism comes in a grab bag with anti-Americanism, Kay said, and Canadian anti-Americanism is in freefall since Barack Obama became U.S. president and Stephen Harper became Canadian prime minister. (It’s hard to condemn Americans over, say, environmental issues when Obama vetoes the pipeline Harper backs.)
The rise of social media has also played a back-door role. The CBC was routinely criticized for being anti-Israel a few years back, but the social media backlash every time biased reporting occurred – aided by groups like Honest Reporting – has led to fairer coverage.
“I actually find the CBC’s coverage of Israel pretty good,” said Kay.
The 9/11 terror attacks also provided a major impetus for changing Canadian views of friends and enemies. But the Canadian military engagement in Afghanistan perhaps drove the major shift of opinion, said Glavin. Two generations of Canadians had not seen active wartime mobilization. The fight against radical Islam, in the form of the Taliban, changed perceptions of global issues, including Israel’s struggle against nominally different but ideologically parallel enemies.
Where anti-Zionism was most successful – on university campuses – most students now roll their eyes at the “trite and ritualized” debate on both sides, said Kay. In terms of professors supporting the BDS movement, he added, it is the “least consequential” academic organizations making the case. And gay rights groups opposing Israel are “underemployed” activists who have won most of what they were demanding.
Significantly, he continued, at the national level, the elements of the Liberal and New Democratic parties that once condemned Israel for every imaginable crime have been reined in by their parties. Notoriously anti-Israel NDP MP Svend Robinson is gone from the scene. His ideological successor in anti-Zionism, Libby Davies, has announced she will not seek re-election in Vancouver East, although Kay said she has already been “defanged” by party leader Thomas Mulcair, who Kay said makes no apologies for his support for Israel.
Glavin noted that the Arab Spring, which represented the rising of 300 million more or less enslaved people, made it “difficult to make the case that Israel is the big problem in the Middle East.”
Both men noted that the shift began with Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, under whose leadership Canada changed its voting patterns at the United Nations. The pro-Israel position accelerated under Harper, particularly after the 2011 election when the Conservatives won a majority and John Baird was appointed foreign affairs minister. Baird, who left politics this year, was greeted with a hero’s welcome at the AIPAC conference.
While Canadians are proud to be different than Americans on many fronts, the consensus on Israel that has reigned in the United States is now dominant in Canada, as well.