Much has been made of the challenges facing Canadians as the country engages in its 44th federal general election while still in the grips of a pandemic. For Jewish voters, the succession of holidays in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 20 election makes scheduling events like community forums with candidates extra confounding.
Nevertheless, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), along with partner agencies, will present a number of events across the country. Here in Metro Vancouver, there will be a virtual town hall on Sept. 14, 4 p.m., co-presented, as is tradition, with SUCCESS, the United Chinese Community Enrichment Services Society. Topics addressed will include racism and hate crimes; seniors’ care; post-pandemic economic recovery; immigrants and refugees; safe and healthy communities; and the sustainability of charitable and nonprofit organizations.
Two days earlier, on Sept. 12, a Richmond-focused virtual town hall will take place at 5 p.m., co-presented by CIJA and the Kehila Society of Richmond.
Tucked in between, on Sept. 13, is a national town hall, presented virtually from Toronto, again hosted by CIJA, this time in partnership with The CJN. All events are accessible from the website cija.ca/election.
Locally on Sept. 13, there is an all-candidates meeting on seniors issues for the ridings of Vancouver Granville and Vancouver South, co-hosted by Jewish Seniors Alliance. To register for it, visit jsalliance.org.
CIJA also has released a federal issues guide, outlining what it considers to be priorities on matters of domestic and foreign policy.
Among the recommendations is a request to supplement the Security Infrastructure Program, which provides funds to enhance security at institutions such as synagogues and community centres, with a program modeled after the Community Security Trust in the United Kingdom, which trains volunteers to provide patrols, situational awareness and threat prevention.
The guide urges amending the criminal code to make Holocaust denial an indictable offence and developing a standardized national social studies curriculum on antisemitism and the Holocaust.
The document, which is downloadable from the CIJA website, calls on the next government to address online hate through education and enforcement, including a social literacy campaign to “sensitize Canadians to the potent role social media plays in bullying, harassment, intimidation, dissemination of hate, and threats.” It calls for reestablishing provisions in the Canadian Human Rights Act to combat hate speech and strengthening Canadian tax laws to prohibit charities from promoting or inciting antisemitism or violent extremism.
The foreign affairs section calls on the government to ensure that Canadian humanitarian aid to Palestinians “goes where it is intended” and to oppose one-sided United Nations resolutions singling out Israel. It also calls on the government to demand that the Palestinian Authority stop the “paid to slay” program that rewards terrorism. It also calls for putting pressure on Iran until it “demonstrates meaningful improvements in comes into full compliance with its international obligations.”
Other CIJA recommendations include:
Implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “as an important step toward truth and reconciliation.”
Putting pressure on Eastern European countries “that have evaded their responsibility to pass meaningful restitution laws” for Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
Strengthening immigration and refugee policies particularly to support those targeted for their identity, such as Christians and Yazidis in Iraq, LGBTQ2+ people in Chechnya and Iran, and Rohingyas in Myanmar.
Reintroducing the question about religion in the census “to prevent continued underreporting of Jewish Canadians.”
Ending the three-month celibacy requirement for LGBTQ2+ blood donors.
The Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee (CJPAC) is also busy during the campaign.
CJPAC engages “Jewish and pro-Israel Canadians in the democratic process” and helps community members build relationships within the Canadian political arena. Their website, cjpac.ca, has links to all major political parties, as well as links to volunteering and getting involved in campaigns. There is a final volunteer training webinar available at noon Pacific time on Sept. 13.
For information on your riding, where to vote and a list of candidates, go to the Elections Canada website at elections.ca.
The last three weeks or so have been a trying time for the Jewish community both in and out of Israel.
An 11-day onslaught of terrorist missiles sent thousands to bomb shelters or to their building stairways while the Iron Dome took down 90% of the missiles from the sky. Some got past, however, and 11 Israelis, Jewish and not, died. The loss of innocent life – both Palestinian and Israeli – is heartbreaking.
In the Diaspora, we hoped that a tense political situation would not turn into something worse. When it did, we watched the videos of missiles launched, of buildings hit, of funerals held – and of a country protecting itself and its people.
We then braced for the public opinion backlash. While Israel defended itself from more than 4,000 missiles fired from civilian neighbourhoods into civilian neighbourhoods, we were told by news outlets and celebrities on talk shows and social media that Israel’s actions – in which it went to extreme lengths to target only terrorist assets – were unjust.
I believe that Israel has a right to defend itself. I believe that Israel has a place in the Middle East, and I see it increasingly accepted by its neighbours. I believe Israel has much to offer the world.
Zionist is not a dirty word. I am an unapologetic Zionist. I stand with Israel. I believe in our people’s history, collectivity, peoplehood and right to self-determination.
Grievances with government policy do not give licence to question Israel’s right to exist. I do not believe that anti-Israel equals pro-Palestinian; if it did, then those burning Israeli flags in the streets would be calling for peace, or for a two-state solution, not to “globalize the intifada.”
In Gaza, Hamas – a listed terrorist entity in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union – remains a barrier to peace. I believe Palestinians deserve better. I believe that Palestinians are entitled to equal rights and to self-determination. This is not at odds with my Zionism.
I believe that anti-Zionism, as defined by the International Legal Forum as “the prejudice against the Jewish movement for self-determination and the right of the Jewish people to a homeland in the state of Israel,” can itself be antisemitic and create a climate that allows antisemitism to fester.
Across the world, we are witnessing a horrific surge in antisemitism in connection with the conflict. In the United States, Jews have been chased down and beaten. In the United Kingdom, there were chants to “rape their [Jewish] daughters” and antisemitic incidents have risen almost 500%.
Canada is not immune. Recently, in Montreal, peaceful pro-Israel demonstrators were pelted with rocks. In May, Toronto experienced a 500% spike in antisemitic incidents compared to last year. Nazi symbols were spotted at anti-Israel demonstrations across the country, including in
aOttawa and London. In Vancouver, we saw a Jewish business owner being harassed and threatened, and an increase in hateful posters and graffiti. The recent spate of antisemitism has also spread online. There are numerous incidents of Jewish students bullied, businesses targeted, and many others harassed.
While my phone explodes with messages from family and friends asking how to respond to hateful social media posts and vicious videos and memes, it is easy to feel cornered. It is easy to assume that public opinion equals the right opinion, but a simple understanding of history reminds us that it does not.
We must speak out and push back against this rising tide of antisemitism.
We know that what starts with the Jews never ends with Jews. Combating antisemitism is not only about protecting Jews but also about protecting the very fabric of Canadian society. Thousands across Canada are joining the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) in calling for the federal government to convene an emergency summit on antisemitism – a forum to discuss enhancements to community security, education for youth about Jewish history, suffering and triumphs, and a Canada-wide campaign for social media literacy. Join our call to action at fightit.ca.
Neither Israel nor its supporters are perfect. Nobody is. The disproportionate criticism toward the Jewish state is unwarranted. Israel must, and will, stand by its principles, which are – not coincidentally – those same principles that gave rise to Western societies. As long as it does, I will stand with Israel, and you should, too.
Judy Zelikovitz is vice-president, university and local partner services, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
Signs shown at a recent rally in support of Palestine. (screenshot from cija.ca)
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs is calling on the federal government to expand supports for Jewish communal security after a surge of antisemitic violence and vandalism in Canada, and to launch an emergency summit on antisemitism.
Shimon Koffler Fogel, CIJA’s chief executive officer, made the request in a meeting with senior staff from the prime minister’s office and Liberal cabinet ministers and members of Parliament May 20. Later that day, he spoke at a virtual event billed as a national Canadian Jewish community briefing, called Learn, Mobilize, Act: Keep the Conflict Out of Canada.
“We are calling on the prime minister to convene an emergency summit on antisemitism that will include the political leadership at both the provincial and municipal levels, a true all-of-government effort, and establish a comprehensive program to combat Jew-hatred, the oldest and most enduring hate the world has ever experienced,” he said.
CIJA also wants a complementary program to the Security Infrastructure Program, “that enhances the capacity of our community to take ownership of our own security.”
He spoke just hours after Israel announced a ceasefire in its most recent battle with Hamas.
“As we express hope for a durable ceasefire to take hold and an end to the conflict there, we are painfully aware that the battle has moved to our country, to our communities from coast to coast,” Fogel said. “It’s been frightening but we dare not cower and hide. It’s been disturbing, but we dare not be intimidated from asserting our identity, who we are and what we are, and in doing so with pride…. Our adversaries seek not only to erase our ties to the land and history of Israel, they seek to erase the presence of Jews altogether.”
He lauded the additional attention to racial justice that has emerged in recent years. “But, along with the good of that movement has come a contaminated strain that reduces everything to a simple equation of the oppressed and the oppressor, and Jews have been declared the poster child of the oppressors, so they must be rejected and vilified,” said Fogel.
Joel Reitman, co-chair of CIJA, opened the event.
“Over the past two weeks, we have watched with shock as our fellow Jews in Israel have been subjected to attack at the hands of Hamas, a terrorist organization bent on the destruction and the obliteration of the Jewish state of Israel and the murder of Israelis,” said Reitman. “Our sorrow and compassion is extended also to Hamas victims in Gaza, where Hamas has embedded its terrorist infrastructure within densely populated areas, deliberately putting the people of Gaza in harm’s way and where one-third of Hamas missiles have fallen, taking many innocent lives.
“Our outrage has deepened as the violence on our television screens has spilled over into violence and threats of violence directed against the Jews in our streets, in our communities, online and in our places of business, our schools and our houses of worship,” continued Reitman. “Never has it been more clear that Jewish people, whether we live in Canada or in Israel, must stand as one. Never has it been more clear that the ancient hatred of antisemitism does not distinguish between a Jew in Tel Aviv at or a Jew in Toronto. We are all targets…. We will not be intimidated. We will not be discouraged. We will call out the perpetrators of violence and we will call on our many friends to stand with us and we will act together. Together with our fellow Canadians right across this country, we say, enough. We know where antisemitism leads if left unchecked. We know what must be done to stop it. And, together, stop it we will.”
Naomi Rosenfeld, executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council, said it has been a scary few weeks to be a Jew.
“With all this hatred and fear,” she said, “I hope that we all remember three things. One, it has never been more apparent why we need Israel and why we need a strong Jewish state. Two, if any of you have been going through any of the things that I’ve mentioned, please know that you are not alone. We stand together, a community here to support one another through each of these events. And, finally, as a national Canadian Jewish community, we must remain strong and resilient. We will not cower to fear and we will not hide our true identities and who we are.”
Dr. Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University and an author of several books on Zionism, spoke of being a parent of two members of the Israel Defence Forces and the betrayal he felt to read a letter signed by 180 rabbinical students comparing the racial reckoning in the United States in recent years directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We’re told again and again, especially by my friends in the United States, too many of my Jewish friends in the United States, that this is a racial issue between the white Israelis, the white privileged Israelis, and the brown Palestinians,” said Troy. “And we are told that the cause of this latest conflict is Israeli provocations.… We all know that the underlying cause of this is the refusal of Hamas, the refusal of Islamic Jihad, the refusal of the so-called moderate Palestinian Authority to accept the fact, 73 years after the establishment of the state of Israel, that the state of Israel exists.”
Jeff Rosenthal, the other co-chair of CIJA, asserted that “Jews and only Jews have the right to define what constitutes antisemitism.” He said, “We’ve always known that there is no distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Our lived experiences and the experiences of our forefathers and ancestors confer a unique alertness to this threat.”
He called on viewers to mobilize and directed people to the Action Centre on the website cija.ca.
Martin Luther King III and Arndrea Waters King delivered the keynote address at the Action Summit to Combat Online Hate, April 14 and 15. The son and daughter-in-law of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. have both been deeply involved for many years in fighting racism, antisemitism and all forms of discrimination.
The summit was organized by the Canadian Coalition to Combat Antisemitism, an initiative of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and funded by the Government of Canada.
King reflected on the legacy of Black-Jewish alliances in the civil rights movement and quoted his late father’s words: “Rabbis of Jewish congregations took their places on the frontlines as the Old and New Testament ethic of social justice flamed with a fire that had once transformed the world.”
King has worked in Israel and Palestine, educating young people to advance nonviolent resolutions to conflict.
“It was a wonderful experience and everywhere I went I experienced great hospitality and kindness from the people of Israel,” he said. “My father and mother, Coretta Scott King, were very concerned about the spread of antisemitism, racism and all forms of hatred, prejudice and bigotry, particularly among young people. Both of my parents made a commitment to doing everything that they could to help educate people about their shared vision for greater interracial understanding, cooperation and goodwill. Long after my father was assassinated, my mother continued to speak out against antisemitism and remain active in building the Black-Jewish coalition of social justice and human rights in Atlanta and throughout the world.”
Waters King worked for years at the Centre for Democratic Renewal, an organization that monitors and reports on hate groups, also delivering a broad range of educational programs to combat hate groups in the spirit of nonviolence that empowered the American civil rights movement.
“I have learned that the proponents of hate never sleep and our struggle against racism, antisemitism and all forms of bigotry and prejudice must remain ever-vigilant. What we can and must do is declare war on the ignorance that fuels hatred and the only known and proven cure for ignorance is education.”
King spoke about the advent of technologies over the past decades that hate groups have used to disseminate their messages. “But let’s remember that this communications revolution we have all lived through also gives us powerful tools to combat online hate,” he said.
The summit also featured keynote presentations by Katharina von Schnurbein, European Commission coordinator on combatting antisemitism, and Steven Guilbeault, federal minister of Canadian Heritage. More than three dozen others participated in two days of sessions, lectures, workshops and panel discussions. The Kings’ presentation is available online at actionsummit.ca.
B.C. Premier John Horgan opened the commemorative event. (screenshot)
A uniquely British Columbian virtual commemoration of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, took place April 8, convened by the Government of British Columbia in partnership with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region.
Premier John Horgan opened the event.
“On Yom Hashoah, we remember the six million Jewish lives that were lost during the Holocaust. We also remember and honour the millions who lost their lives or were murdered because of their ethnicity, sexual identity or disability,” said the premier. “Today, we also pay tribute to Holocaust survivors and, as that community grows smaller, it’s all the more important that we work together to carry that message forward – that we will never forget and it will never happen again, especially in light of the ongoing threats of violence and discrimination Jewish people are facing worldwide today.”
Horgan noted an incident in Victoria where a Chabad centre was defaced with antisemitic graffiti a day earlier.
“These are the types of acts we must stand together and fight against with a united voice, regardless of where we come from, regardless of our orientations or ethnicities or our faith. We must stand against antisemitism and racism whenever we see it,” said Horgan. “As we light the candles at Yom Hashoah in remembrance, we must remain vigilant and, as we take action today and honour those who lost their lives and those who have struggled since the Holocaust, we must again remember that we cannot repeat our past.”
Michael Lee, MLA for Vancouver-Langara, also spoke.
“As the living memory of the Holocaust fades, the important act of remembering and coming together each year grows in importance,” he said. “It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we never forget and such a thing never happens again, because, sadly, this is not just about remembering history, but about standing together today against the racism, bigotry and antisemitism that still exists in our world.… As a community, now and every day, we must stand against these acts of hate and bigotry.
“Today, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we are reminded of why it is so important to come together, to reflect and to ensure that the past is not forgotten. We must remember both the parts of this dark, dark history that we must not let be repeated and the acts of heroism that took place amid such tragedy. Even during a period of humanity’s darkest chapters, there was still good in the world, people who risked their lives to hide and save others from the Shoah. Amidst the horrors and atrocities, there were tales of love, hope and bravery, including with the many righteous among nations, people who demonstrated that light can triumph over darkness. Today, we reaffirm our commitment to never forget; remember the victims, the survivors and the heroes; and we pledge to build a better world in their memory.”
Dr. Robert Krell, founding president of the VHEC, lit six memorial candles. The premier lit a seventh candle “to honour the millions of Roma, Slavic, LGBTQ2+ and people with disabilities who lost their lives.”
Krell, speaking on behalf of Holocaust survivors, noted that 1.5 million of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust were children. An estimated 93% of Jewish children in Europe were murdered, which makes his survival extremely remarkable. The fact that both his parents survived, when more than 80% of Dutch Jews were killed, is additionally miraculous.
“I had lost all grandparents, uncles and aunts,” Krell said. “One first cousin remained. The war left its mark and I bear a special responsibility to remember what happened and try to derive lessons from that unfathomable tragedy. The tragedy was unique in its objectives, its focus and its ferocity. Jews were extracted wherever they resided, whether Paris, Prague or Vienna, whether city or countryside or the isles of Rhodes or Corfu. The enemy pursued us and tortured and murdered without mercy, without exception.”
While Dutch citizens remember the Canadian military’s role in liberating that country, Krell also noted Canada’s failure to save European Jews before the war.
Krell also addressed the issue of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism. Around the world, he said, 34 countries have adopted the definition, as has the province of Ontario.
“As a survivor who has been deeply involved in Holocaust remembrance and education, it strikes me as unconscionable not to accept the IHRA definition to assist us all in recognizing the signs and symptoms of the scourge of Jew hatred,” he said.
Yom Hashoah fell the day before the federal New Democratic Party convention that was to consider a resolution rejecting the IHRA definition. The matter never made it to the floor, but another resolution condemning Israel passed by an overwhelming margin.
“It is my hope that we will soon see the provincial government’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism,” said Krell.
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom also took up the issue of the antisemitism definition.
“The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism is, I think, the tool that guides us in our work to combat anti-Jewish sentiments,” he said. “I want to urge our provincial government to join other jurisdictions in embracing the action that is required to combat both historical and contemporary hatred of the Jewish people.”
He added: “When we think of the death of a human being, we mourn the loss of the body and the soul, but, in my work, standing with too many grieving families at graveside, it is not the body that we miss most, that is merely the vessel for the soul, the part of that person that is unique in all the world,” he said. “That’s the part that we fall in love with and are forever changed by. The soul of another leaves an imprint on our heart. So, today, we remember six million murdered Jewish souls, their lives that have been extinguished, their dreams unrealized, their loves and relationships gone forever. We pray that those dear souls are comforted and embraced under the wings of God’s presence and that now, remembered so publicly, will never be forgotten.”
Moskovitz then chanted El Moleh Rachamim and a version of the Mourner’s Kaddish that includes the names of the Nazi death camps.
In addition to the B.C. event, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre also partnered on April 8 with the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto, the Azrieli Foundation, Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, Facing History and Ourselves, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre, March of the Living Canada and UIA in a Canada-wide Yom Hashoah online program that included survivor testimony from individuals across the country and a candlelighting ceremony.
A day earlier, the VHEC partnered with the Montreal Holocaust Museum for a virtual program focusing on the importance of remembrance in the intergenerational transmission of memory. Survivors and members of the second and third generations spoke about their experiences. Video recordings of all three events are available at vhec.org.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, vote on March 23. While the prime minister’s party won the most number of seats in the Knesset, he will still struggle to form a government. (photo from IGPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu makes a stunning deal with lawmakers to abandon his post and replace Reuven Rivlin as president of the country when the president’s term expires later this year. An agreement to pardon Netanyahu around corruption charges he currently faces is part of a deal that leads to Netanyahu ending his run as the country’s longest-serving leader. With “King Bibi” finally in a sinecure of symbolic eminence, the polarized Knesset manages to cobble together a coalition and stave off the fifth round of elections in two years.
This was one of the most fantastical possibilities mooted in a webinar presented by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) March 25, just two days after Israelis voted in the fourth of a series of elections during a two-year period of instability.
The panelists were CIJA’s chief executive officer Shimon Koffler Fogel and Adir Krafman, the agency’s associate director for communications and analytics. They sifted the entrails of the convoluted election outcome.
While ideological schisms divide Israeli politics, as does the secular-religious divide and other fractures, Fogel and Krafman concurred that the elephant in any discussion of the next Knesset is Netanyahu. CIJA is a nonpartisan organization and Fogel emphasized that the panelists, and moderator Tamara Fathi, were not advocating any outcomes, merely commenting on possibilities.
And the possibilities are almost endless. The vote sent 13 parties into the 120-seat Knesset. Some of these are not even parties, so much as umbrellas under which different factions coalesced for electoral purposes, so the mosaic of the chaotic chamber could refract in countless ways. But, while there are myriad permutations of possible coalitions and strange bedfellowships, Fogel, Krafman and most commentators in Israel and abroad think the most likely outcome is a fifth election. That is how difficult it would be for either side to patch together 61 members of the Knesset to govern.
Krafman presented graphic evidence of the challenges the pro- and anti-Netanyahu factions face in reaching that magic number. The pro-Bibi side likely has 52 dependable seats; his opponents probably have 57. That means an anti-Netanyahu coalition could form with the support of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, which holds seven seats. For Netanyahu to eke out 61 seats would require the backing not only of Bennett but also of the four seats won by the Arab party Ra’am. Such a partnership would be historic and would have been almost unthinkable in the recent past. But Netanyahu of late has been making amenable noises toward Arab Israelis in general and to the Arab parties in particular. However, even if the prime minister and his unlikely allies in the Arab sector made a deal, it could upend the consensus on the other side, as some on the right would probably balk at joining a coalition that includes Ra’am.
Ra’am is one of the big stories of the election. Exit polls indicated the party would not make it over the 3.25% threshold to win any Knesset seats. That created a scenario where Netanyahu and his probable allies were seen as almost certain to form a government.
But, as actual counting took place through the night and into the morning, it became clear that Ra’am would cross the minimum support for representation. Instantly, the calculations shifted.
If Ra’am were to enter a coalition government, or even if it merely supported a government from the sidelines, it would be a turning point in the role Arab parties play in Israeli politics. Ra’am has already upended conventional Arab approaches to politics. The umbrella of Arab parties, recently running under the banner of the Joint List, has always played a spoiler role. They are oppositionist and anti-Zionist groups that are as much protest movements as conventional political parties.
Perhaps learning a lesson from the outsized power of small, right-wing and Jewish religious parties, Ra’am adopted a more pragmatic and transactional position than their former allies in the Arab bloc. The leader, Mansour Abbas, has not ruled out supporting a coalition or playing a role in government. Like smaller Jewish parties, he would be expected to come to coalition discussions with a shopping list of demands, such as more funding for projects and programs that benefit his constituents.
Ra’am’s success makes it an unqualified winner in the election sweepstakes. Fogel and Krafman discussed other winners and losers.
“The first loser, I think, is Netanyahu,” said Fogel. “Despite his party winning the most number of seats, 30 seats out of 120 in the Knesset, [he] is still not able to form a government.”
That might have been survivable if other parties that are Netanyahu’s likely backers did not also come up short.
“The other two losers are other right-wing parties,” Fogel added. Naftali Bennett, whose Yamina took seven seats, and Gideon Sa’ar, whose New Hope party took six, had hoped to siphon off a larger chunk of Likud’s votes.
“Both of them really failed to do that, winning only a handful of seats,” said Fogel.
It is a profound statement about tectonic changes in Israel’s ideological fault lines that the Labour party, which took seven seats, and another left-wing party, Meretz, which took six, are viewed as having had a good night. In the days leading up to the vote, there were questions whether either party would overcome the minimum threshold. The Labour party was the indomitable establishment political party for the first three decades of Israel’s existence.
Another loser, Fogel said, was Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party. Lieberman is a right-wing but avowedly secularist politician. He ran a campaign promoting separation of religion and state and against Charedi privileges. His message may have backfired: while turnout was down overall from the last election, Charedi voters turned out in greater numbers, possibly in reaction to Lieberman’s message.
The discussion turned again to what may be the most likely path for a right-wing government, which could be the exit of Netanyahu. There are centrist parties, Fogel said, that do not have issues with Likud policies so much as they do with the prime minister personally. With him gone, a bloc of anti-Bibi members might engage with Likud under a new leader and form a centre-right coalition.
As unlikely as this scenario might be, it would stave off another unsavoury development.
Any hope of forming a Netanyahu-led coalition probably depends on support from the extremist grouping called Religious Zionism. This new umbrella of racist, misogynistic and homophobic extremists, which holds six seats, would taint any coalition as the most far-right government in Israel’s history. (Click here to read this week’s editorial.)
Whatever happens – whether someone can manage to hammer together a government, or whether exhausted Israelis will trudge to the polls for a fifth time – there are serious issues facing the country.
“There are some pretty daunting challenges out there,” Fogel said. “Most especially on the economic side. We see that some other countries have already begun to emerge [from the pandemic] with a fairly robust recovery. Israel isn’t there yet…. There is a sense of urgency that they do have to get an Israeli government in place that is going to be able to effectively address these issues and it’s not clear that the election result will offer that to Israelis, so I think it makes a situation, if anything, more desperate.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the start of a cabinet meeting this past January in Jerusalem. The two outside flags are the Moroccan national flags, placed there to celebrate the fact that Israel and Morocco had just established diplomatic relations. (photo by Haim Zach/IGPO via Ashernet)
The Israeli elections, which take place March 23, are not turning on conventional ideological schisms, according to two top observers. Rather than a left-right divide, the ballot question for most voters is yes-Bibi/no-Bibi.
Lahav Harkov, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, and Chemi Shalev, senior columnist and U.S. editor for Haaretz, analyzed the possible outcomes in a virtual event presented by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs March 2.
Israel is in its fourth election cycle in two years, an unparalleled time of political turmoil. Harkov said she tends to err on the side of optimism but expects a fifth election before too long.
“I don’t see how we get out of this mess,” she said.
Shalev concurred, using a sports metaphor. “There is a saying in soccer, or football,” he said. “You play soccer for 90 minutes and, in the end, the Germans win, meaning no matter what you think during the game, the result is always that the German team wins and, in soccer, it’s usually true. In Israeli politics, it is also usually true.”
In each of the past three election campaigns, Shalev said, media and opponents of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu convince themselves he is headed for defeat. Then the votes come in and coalition talks begin and he holds onto office.
True to script, said Shalev, polls suggest Netanyahu’s support is faltering, estimating his Likud party will take about 28 of the 120 Knesset seats, down from the 36 he holds now. But, as much as Netanyahu will face an uphill climb to cobble together 61 votes to form a working coalition, his opponents face even steeper challenges.
Netanyahu, nicknamed Bibi, has led Likud since 2006 and has been prime minister since 2009. Having also served for three years in the late 1990s, Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history and his doggedness in holding on to power has earned him another nickname: King Bibi.
Shalev depicted Netanyahu’s manoeuvrings after the last vote, in March 2020, as a sheer political masterstroke. Benny Gantz led Kahol Lavan (Blue and White), a centre-left coalition whose principal promise was to keep Netanyahu from another term. When coalition talks appeared doomed and another election inevitable, Gantz entered into a power-sharing agreement that delivered another term to Netanyahu and, in the process, exploded the Blue and White coalition. The broad spectrum of centre-left politics that had come together under Blue and White disintegrated and some of those voters have drifted off to the right and may never return to the left, said Shalev.
Gantz is running again but, while the question last election was whether he could best Netanyahu, the issue now appears to be whether he can garner the 3.25% threshold needed to eke out any Knesset seats whatsoever.
In fact, many parties are hovering in the polls around the cutoff mark, which could be a defining factor in the outcome. The Labour party, once the indomitable force in national politics, is on the ropes. Likewise, another erstwhile force on the left, Meretz, could also be wiped out of the Knesset. On the other hand, the smaller parties that do cross the electoral threshold will have outsized influence on whether Netanyahu hangs on or whether another leader can topple him.
Netanyahu’s political survival will depend on the ability of small right-wing parties to pass the electoral threshold to enter the Knesset and help him get to 61 seats. Among the parties Netanyahu would need to depend on are Yamina, led by Naftali Bennett, which is seen as an ideological heir to the defunct National Religious Party.
He would probably also need to rely on another new entity, called the Religious Zionist Party, which iss in an electoral agreement with two other small, far-right factions. The RZP, which tends to represent settlers and Charedi voters, is in partnership (for this round of elections, at least) with Noam, a party whose primary issue is opposition to rights for LGBTQ+ Israelis, which party adherents equate with the “destruction of the family.” The third party in the triumvirate is the extremist party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), which Harkov said is a descendant of the outlawed movement of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Kahane was an anti-Arab politician whose speeches in the Knesset were usually boycotted by all other members, leaving him to speak to a room consisting only of the speaker and the transcriptionists. In 1985, the Knesset passed a law banning parties that incite racism, effectively outlawing Kahane’s Kach party. He was assassinated in New York City in 1990 by an Egyptian-born terrorist.
While Kahane and his compatriots were shunned in their time, Harkov noted that Netanyahu intervened with the smaller right-wing parties, encouraging them – including Otzma Yehudit – to band together to help them collectively pass the electoral threshold.
“If they had not run together, they probably wouldn’t have made it into the Knesset,” she said, adding that tens of thousands of right-wing votes would have been effectively wasted.
Harkov added that she found it “interesting and sad” that, in the first of this four-election cycle, Netanyahu encouraged the small right-wing parties to run together and this caused a huge scandal, given the extremism of Otzma Yehudit.
“When Kahane was in the Knesset, everyone would walk out, no one would listen to Kahane speak when he would have his racist rants in the Knesset,” Harkov said. “Now, the prime minister is encouraging them to be in the Knesset.”
She credits an exhaustion with politics for the lack of outrage over the alliance this time around.
Shalev agreed. Israelis have had more than enough, he suggests.
“I have never seen such fatigue and, if I venture something about the elections, [friends] all look at me as if I’m a lost case,” he said.
Where the fault lines in Israeli politics were once left versus right, that paradigm is at least temporarily inoperable. The Israeli left is in disarray and Netanyahu’s greatest challenges come from the right, including several former allies. Gideon Sa’ar challenged Netanyahu for the Likud leadership last year and was soundly defeated. Frozen out by the prime minister, he left the party and formed New Hope.
“Policy-wise, they’re not that different from Likud,” said Harkov. “Sa’ar is quite right-wing.” He is pinning his hopes on voters seeking more of the same with less of the corruption surrounding the incumbent, who is under indictment on a number of bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges.
The second-largest party in the current Knesset is Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid. This more centrist, secular grouping could bridge some of the divide and make Lapid a possible successor to Netanyahu, but, like all scenarios, would require a coalition-building process akin to a jigsaw puzzle. While there are factions that would be happy to support Netanyahu and others that would support anyone but Bibi, the divisions are exacerbated by internal grievances and personality clashes.
Given the moving parts in any coalition talks, Shalev predicted a potential “outrageous scenario.” Netanyahu has been courting Arab voters and, with the Arab Joint List in disarray, he hopes he can dislodge some votes from those quarters. However, after the election, he would face a new challenge. Cobbling together 61 members might require recruiting Arab parties, which would likely be met with flat-out rejection by the far-right and religious parties Netanyahu would also need to hold. Likewise, religious and secular factions that might agree on supporting a particular candidate for prime minister might balk at joining a coalition with one another. In other words, while there might be 61 members ready to support Netanyahu, they might refuse to do so if it required sitting alongside ideological enemies. Every potential prime minister faces a similar dilemma.
A recent high court decision threw the issue of religious-state separation and the influence of the ultra-Orthodox on national policy and life into the headlines. The ruling recognizes conversions by Reform and Masorti (Conservative) rabbis in Israel (but not abroad). While this re-ignition of the divide between secular and religious Israelis is significant, it may or may not have a major impact on voters. Yesh Atid is avowedly secular, as is Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Whether they will gain any political traction from the issue is a mystery.
While overseas observers assume the big political issues in Israel are the Palestinian conflict, Iran and national security, Harkov and Shalev say voters are more focused on bread-and-butter topics, including the pandemic and pocketbook issues. But the biggest question of all for voters, they both agree, turns on personality – primarily that of Netanyahu and voters’ feelings toward him.
Harkov believes Netanyahu has benefited from the Abraham Accords. It also won’t hurt him that Israel leads the world in the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine.
A particular challenge that a reelected Netanyahu would face is building a relationship with the new administration in Washington. Netanyahu bound his fortunes so personally to Donald Trump that Shalev believes it is impossible to build a meaningful connection with the Biden administration. Netanyahu was not an outlier on this front, he noted, citing opinion polls that suggested Israelis, were they able to vote for a U.S. president, would have supported Trump by a massive landslide.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been confronted by two viruses: COVID-19 and, in its wake, the rampant spread of online hate.
As much of the world has been forced indoors, our time on the internet using social media has increased, which has advantages. We have found new ways to engage, stay in touch with our loved ones, and maintain and transform our connections to our workplaces and the world.
But the same technologies that have allowed us to keep connected have also served as springboards for the spread of online hate and conspiracy theories, which form the perfect Venn diagram of antisemitism. Since the pandemic broke, we have witnessed the emergence of ludicrous conspiracy theories accusing Jews of being responsible for the spread of COVID-19 or of profiting from the havoc. As a community that has consistently encouraged compliance with public health measures, we may be tempted to dismiss these outlandish conspiracy theories as nonsense. It is a type of nonsense, however, that spreads quickly and remains a cause for great concern.
Recent history has taught us that what begins online as the absurd mutterings of a few haters can, and too often does, turn into real-world violence. What we witnessed in Pittsburgh, Christchurch and Halle can certainly happen again. The threat is even greater today because people are spending more time online while also under considerable financial and emotional stress, a combination that makes people even more susceptible to messages hate-mongers are peddling.
Curbing online hate has been a priority for the Jewish community – and, therefore, for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs – for nearly a decade. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have remained on high alert, monitoring the emergence of antisemitic and hateful activity and bringing it to the attention of law enforcement and social media platforms.
Recently, we launched Stop the Transmission! (cija.ca/stop-the-transmission), a campaign powered by CIJA and funded by Canadian Heritage through the Anti-Racism Action Program. The campaign has provided practical tools and tips to hundreds of thousands of Canadians to identify and slow the spread of conspiracy theories, misinformation and deliberate disinformation.
We have also engaged directly with social media giants and are proud to have collaborated with our colleagues at the World Jewish Congress to urge Facebook to ban Holocaust denial, one of the most pernicious forms of Jew-hatred, from their platform, an action they took earlier this year.
We continue to call on social media companies to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, the most widely accepted definition in use today, including by the Government of Canada, who adopted it as formal policy in its 2019 Anti-Racism Strategy. In response to the global collective effort of our community, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, said “the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism has been invaluable – both in informing our own approach,” and that Facebook would “continue to refine” its “policy lines as speech and society evolve.”
A continuing aspect of our work is advocating for governments to advance policies to address online hate directly. Federally, we continue our call for a national strategy on online hate that includes clear, harmonized and uniform regulations that apply to platforms and providers operating in Canada, as well as an independent regulator to enforce them. You can help by visiting notonmyfeed.ca and taking action.
CIJA is also working with Canadian Heritage to host the Action Summit to Combat Online Hate, scheduled for April 14-15. You can pre-register at cija.ca/action-summit. The summit will feature discussions with experts, law enforcement, industry leaders and community groups like ours. The goals are to create greater understanding of the issue and develop concrete actions to address it.
Even once the pandemic is over, our migration to the digital world will endure. We, therefore, must stay committed and united in our efforts to combat antisemitism and other forms of hatred online.
Judy Zelikovitz is vice-president, university and local partner services, at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
Rosh Hashanah is a time of new beginnings, a time to reflect on a year gone by and on the new year ahead. As is often the case with new beginnings, it is also a time of uncertainty. Last Rosh Hashanah, we wished one another a sweet year, unsure of the future but hopeful of things to come.
As we herald the arrival of this new year, we do so understanding that we control far less than we had thought. Normally, the uncertainty that comes with a new start is imbued with hope for the possibilities ahead. This year, however, it is uncertainty itself that dominates. As 5780 draws to a close, we have learned that we must seek what we can rely on: the strength of our community and our resolve to face these unprecedented challenges together.
In 5780, the challenges were many, and our community met them with an empowering, inspiring and united response.
When urgent help was needed, social service agencies and not-for-profits mobilized, delivering food, providing services remotely and offering support to those who needed it most. Jewish federations shifted their focus to emergency fundraising campaigns to meet the immediate needs of agencies on the frontlines, ensuring that the changing needs of our most vulnerable were met.
When COVID-19 hit, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver immediately released $505,000 in emergency funds to meet these urgent needs and continues working with donors to generate additional funds for community recovery. CIJA advocated for the inclusion of not-for-profits in government support programs, such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, and helped ensure that Jewish schools were eligible. Volunteers mobilized by the thousands, responding to calls for assistance, helping the many seriously impacted by COVID-19.
Our community was tested in other ways, as antisemitism, the crafty shapeshifter that is always on the move, found new outlets during the pandemic. With Statistics Canada reporting a rise in antisemitic incidents through 5780, our community from coast to coast continued to unite, offering support where it was needed most. Indeed, this was the year we learned the many ways we could help and, for far too many, how to reach out to ask for help ourselves.
As we renew our talk of new beginnings at the conclusion of a year defined by uncertainty, many wonder: how can we plan for the year ahead?
For 5781, we must change our approach and, instead of planning according to dates on a calendar, look at our character for the coming year. As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz z”l, wrote, “This does not mean, however, that, on Rosh Hashanah, one should make plans for the whole year. That would be impossible…. What one should do on this day is form a general picture of what ought to be the character and direction of this year.”
For 5781, we can accept the uncertainty of what is to come and focus on the knowledge that we can rely on the tested strength of our community. And that continued strength is up to us. We can commit to volunteering our time and, if we can, donating our money. We can commit to finding creative ways to give back and offering support to those experiencing hardship. Instead of planning large events or travel, we can plan to lean on our community when in need and support it every way we can. We can plan to check in on those who are vulnerable, to be more understanding of ourselves and others, and to be more present when given the gift of company among our loved ones.
As we reframe what planning looks like for 5781, it can be difficult to determine how best to dedicate our efforts. There are many good causes that need our help. Instead of being overwhelmed, be reassured that, for whatever assistance you can offer, there is a worthy cause, organization or initiative looking for someone just like you. Federations are great starting places. Check out your local campaign and learn what their various service agencies and not-for-profits are doing.
Though much of the past year has been uncertain, Rosh Hashanah presents us with a chance to start anew. We can still hope for and work toward a better tomorrow. The coming year will be defined not by our individual wishes and schedules but by our collective character and commitment to our community. Planning for uncertainty may seem counter-intuitive, but history has shown that we have the capacity to come together and overcome even the darkest of times. As we look ahead to 5781, amid all the unknowns, one thing remains certain: our community will continue from strength to strength.
Judy Zelikovitzis vice-president, university and local partner services, at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
“We were saddened, horrified and deeply angered by the murderous terrorist attack in Christchurch, which was clearly motivated by hatred of Muslims that was at least in part fomented online,” Martin Sampson of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) told the Independent. “This is another disturbing example of how terrorists and mass murderers make use of social media – both before and after attacks – to spread their heinous message.”
On Friday, March 15, 50 Muslims were murdered by a white nationalist terrorist at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. On Oct. 27, 2018, 11 Jews were murdered at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn. Both perpetrators had been active in spreading hatred online. In the case of Tree of Life Synagogue, the shooter had written a post announcing his intentions hours before the attack.
“This issue has been of interest to us for some time,” said Sampson. “We included it as a core federal priority in our Federal Issues Guide, which was released in September of 2018. The horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in late October, and the fact that the assailant had been highly active in promoting antisemitism on social media – it is reported that he posted more than 700 antisemitic messages online in the nine months or so prior to the attack – underscored the urgency of the issue and the need to increase awareness about the connection between online hate and offline violence. This is why we launched notonmyfeed.ca.”
The goal of CIJA’s #notonmyfeed campaign is to reduce the spread of online hate speech. “In any democratic society that values freedom and individual rights, no right is absolute,” said Sampson. “Striking a reasonable balance between preserving free speech and protecting Canadians from those who systematically demonize and slander entire communities is a challenging, complex task, but not an impossible one.”
CIJA is calling for a comprehensive response that addresses hate in a variety of forms, not just antisemitism, he said. “We can preserve free speech while protecting Canadians from those who deliberately promote hostility – and even glorify violence – against entire communities.”
Sampson said there is a direct link between online hate speech and violence. “In countless cases – such as in the case of individuals who have been radicalized to participate in terrorism or hate crimes – online propaganda has been a significant factor,” he said. “This is a complex issue. Understanding it and developing tools to counter it is why we are calling on the government of Canada to take the lead by launching a national strategy to tackle online hate, working in partnership with social media platforms and internet service providers.”
Some people contend that, if online hate speech foreshadows offline violence, there may be some value in monitoring it, rather than forcing it underground. As well, if kicked off one social platform, those inciting hatred can just move to another one.
“In cases of ignorance, inappropriate statements or offhand comments that are bigoted, counter-speech is clearly the best response, and these types of online behaviours are not the focus of our calls for a national strategy to tackle online hate. In cases of propaganda being systematically produced by extremists – particularly when it includes the glorification of violence – allowing it to continue can in some cases pose significant risks to public safety,” said Sampson about these concerns. “Moreover, allowing such behaviour to take place on social media platforms often violates the basic terms and conditions of those sites. Social media platforms should enforce their own existing policies.”
The movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel over its treatment of Palestinians is controversial, with some seeing it as a legitimate tactic opposing human rights abuses and others seeing it as a form of discrimination rooted in antisemitism. “It is neither the focus of our policy position on online hate, nor can I perceive any scenario in which BDS would be implicated or affected by a national strategy to tackle online hate,” said Sampson, when asked whether BDS was one of the intended targets of CIJA’s campaign. “To be clear – we strongly oppose BDS and work to expose and counter the real agenda of the BDS movement, but that is a very separate challenge and completely distinct from our call for a national strategy to combat online hate.”
Asked if CIJA has any plans for addressing hate speech in the Jewish community itself, Sampson said, “Our position on online hate is that a national strategy should address hate in a variety of forms, not just antisemitism. This is why we have mobilized a coalition of communities, including the Muslim community, to join us in this effort. We believe every online account should be held to the same standard, regardless of the identity of the person who runs the account. When it comes to the Jewish community, we strive to set an example in how we manage our social media accounts, allowing debate and diverse opinions in the comments section of our posts, while having a zero tolerance policy toward bigotry and hateful comments.”
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.