Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in Israel’s Knesset Monday and delivered a speech that was, predictably, a summation of his government’s unconditional defence of Israel’s right to exist in peace.
While Harper received thunderous applause, his speech was significantly disrupted by a couple of members of the Knesset. At home, while Harper’s position is deeply pleasing to Zionists, it has been condemned as a betrayal of Canada’s traditional “honest broker” role, our middle-of-the-road approach to this issue and many others.
There is no doubt that Harper’s government has moved the country’s foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction, but seeing this as an abandonment of a balanced approach requires selective hindsight. Was Canada’s position “balanced” when we maintained our “go along to get along” approach that saw us vote in support of endless rounds of anti-Israel resolutions, year after year, at the UN? No.
Since the formation of Israel, the Liberal party has governed Canada for some 20 more years than have the Conservatives, including Harper’s seven-plus years as prime minister. Looking at the three main parties, from left to right, it’s the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives. The Liberals are in the middle. It should not be surprising that the party’s position on any topic should, on average, be closer to the middle, or more “balanced” than a position taken on the same topic by the NDP or Conservatives.
In other words, our vaunted Canadian neutrality is a figment of the ideological imagination. It is a chicken-and-egg scenario to determine whether Canadians’ overall middle-of-the-roadness caused so many Liberal federal governments or whether our middle-of-the-roadness is the product of many years of Liberal governments. The question of identity is a complex one, but Canadians are perceived as polite, apologetic, and meek rather than aggressive. This is a perception that, most likely, has allowed us to act as peacemakers in the international arena where others have failed. (It also helps, no doubt, that Canada has never been strong enough militarily on its own to pose a threat to any government with which it may be working to resolve a conflict.)
On many fronts, Harper and his Conservative government have thrown into question what it has meant to be Canadian thus far, from social policy to arts funding to foreign affairs. But, as Canadian voters have given him a majority government, he and his party are obviously not the only ones interested in reshaping the Canadian identity and changing its role in the world.
Harper’s political opponents – and those activists who tend to side against Israel – insist that Canada is losing face internationally, that our long-husbanded reputation for not making waves is hurting us on the global stage. Keeping in mind that Canada remains a small power whose influence, such as it is, has always come through the world’s respect for our principled stands, not because we have the biggest army or the largest population, this may be true as regards our role as a peacemaker. However, the jury is still out on how it will affect our international standing to be a country that speaks out strongly and unequivocally in support of our friends.
The argument that “true” friends are unafraid to criticize and, therefore, Canada is not being a true friend of Israel in its supposedly unquestioning support (we are not privy to what happens behind closed doors) holds some sway, but, at this point, there is no shortage of people letting Israel know what it is ostensibly doing wrong. The international discourse is so lopsided and biased against Israel that, despite any disagreements with Harper we as Canadian Jews might have on any number of his domestic or foreign policies, it is hard not to be proud – both as Canadians and as Jews – that he is so publicly and steadfastly supportive of Israel, rather being a bit player in the European and American chorus of ambiguity.
Harper’s seemingly uncharacteristic Canadian lack of balance on this matter of international affairs appeals to us. Whether or not his lonely voice is having any impact – positive or negative – in re-balancing a wildly unbalanced discourse doesn’t even matter. It just feels good to hear it.