With 13 parties in the Knesset – and several of those umbrellas encompassing a variety of factions – patching together a coalition will be a challenge. It may not be possible at all, meaning Israelis would see their fifth election within a little more than two years.
Whatever pileup of strange bedfellows eventually manages to form a government, one particular possibility should be especially disconcerting.
To enhance their chances of passing the electoral threshold, three far-right parties united under the banner of Religious Zionism and succeeded in taking six Knesset seats. The Religious Zionist party, led by Bezalel Smotrich, seeks to annex all (or part, depending on which faction you listen to) of the West Bank and adheres to a familiar litany of Israeli far-right policies.
For this round of elections, they partnered with another small faction, called Noam, whose platform ostensibly seeks to create a halachic theocracy. In practical terms, the party is obsessed with homosexuality and seeks to delegitimize LGBTQ+ Israelis and roll back legal protections and equality. In addition to attacking gay people, the party has equated Reform Jews with Nazis and Palestinian terrorists who “want to destroy us.”
The third rail in this extremist triumvirate is Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), which is a descendant of the outlawed racist party Kach, led by the American-born fanatic Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in 1990.
When Kahane was in the Knesset, before a law was passed to bar overt racists from elected office, all other members of the assembly would walk out when he rose to rant against Arabs. In an eerie echo of the Nuremburg Laws, Kahane sought to legally prohibit sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews, among other far-reaching extreme positions.
An indication of the shifts in Israel’s body politic over the decades is evidenced by the fact that the incumbent prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, worked behind the scenes to get these small extremist factions to cooperate in order to reach the electoral threshold. While previous prime ministers – and every other member of the Knesset at the time – refused to listen to the hateful rhetoric of Kahane, this prime minister helped ensure his ideological successors would be represented in the Knesset.
It is bad enough that these ideas will be given a legitimacy they do not deserve by mere dint of their advocates being members of the Knesset. As a small rump of crazed zealots, they should be ignored and shunned. Instead, they will play a central role in the determination of who (if anyone) forms the next government.
It is worth recalling an incident in Austria, in 2000, when the xenophobic, racist and arguably neo-fascist Freedom Party, led by Jörg Haider, entered into a governing coalition in that country. The government of Austria to which Haider belonged was sanctioned and condemned by governments worldwide and other member-states of the European Union ceased cooperation with Austria’s government.
While the Abraham Accords have reduced Israel’s diplomatic isolation dramatically, the country still faces unjust judgment in the court of global opinion. If a new governing coalition includes a segment of enthusiastic homophobes, misogynists, racists and ethno-religious supremacists, a universe of denunciation would rain down on the country. And rightly so.
In what may be an irony of historical proportions, that ugly scenario could be prevented by another stunning development on the other end of the political (and ethno-cultural) spectrum.
A new Arab party, called Ra’am, has bolted from the conventions of the Arab political sector and adopted a pragmatic approach. Rather than the purely oppositional stands taken by the other Arab parties for decades, Ra’am seems prepared to play the game that small Jewish parties have excelled at. In a fractured political culture, the tail often wags the dog. Ra’am, led by Mansour Abbas, seems to understand the opportunity this presents. Strangely, this Arab religious party could find common cause with Jewish religious parties on issues like funding for parochial education and other community needs (as well as its apparently virulent hatred of homosexuality).
As the horse trading begins in earnest this week to patch together a quilt of some ideological consistency in the Knesset, Ra’am is sitting in one of the most enviable positions of potential power, possibly able to extract all sorts of treasures out of a leader desperate for their crucial four votes. The only thing they have explicitly ruled out is any situation that would enable groups like Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam.
How ironic it would be if Israel were saved from its own worst angels by an Arab political party that learned its capacity for power from watching the fringe elements on the other side of the Knesset.
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.
The violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (photo by Tyler Merbler/flickr)
Elect a clown, expect a circus. That has been a recurring meme over the past four years. As the reality show that is the Donald Trump presidency staggers into its final few days, the full fruit of the president’s years of bellicosity and violent language expressed themselves at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6. Incited by the president, who repeated his utterly baseless claims of a stolen election, thousands of people marched on the seat of America’s democracy, smashed windows, stormed the building, threatened lawmakers and defaced and desecrated the premises.
Some observers, including many Republicans, expressed shock at a turn of events that was almost entirely predictable. After years of the most irresponsible rhetoric imaginable from the so-called leader of the free world, and after two months of undermining the most sacred facet of American democracy, the peaceful transition of democratically elected administrations, violence was a surprise only to those who have not being paying attention – or who observe through ideological blinders.
It seems to be a turning point. A growing, though still far too small, number of Republicans are finally saying they have had enough of the outgoing president’s petulance and possibly criminal irresponsibility. Listening to some, it appears they were looking for an opportune moment to break with their leader, and the violence – which killed five people – provided the ideal opening.
It is not enough for apologists to pretend that these elements are in any way peripheral to Trumpism. He has encouraged, abetted and refused to condemn the most evil strains in the American body politic, from the Ku Klux Klan to Proud Boys, referring to “very fine people on both sides” at Charlottesville – when one side was white supremacists with a sprinkling of neo-Nazis and anti-democratic thugs. Faced with the destruction his words and his supporters wrought at the Capitol, Trump uttered the least a president could possibly say, calling on the rioters to go home, while also repeating the lies that led to the violence in the first place. Then he added: “We love you. You’re very special.” He just can’t help himself.
Among the insurrectionists at the Capitol were overt Nazis, including at least one wearing a shirt with “Camp Auschwitz” emblazoned on it and another with the acronym “6MWE,” meaning “six million wasn’t enough.” These are the very special people Trump loves. Jews and others who were taken in by an embassy move and other ostensibly “pro-Israel” acts should know now the fire with which they were playing.
There must be accountability. At the top, those who abetted and encouraged the worst actions of the past years should be held criminally liable, if that is the extent of their culpability. At a lesser level, those who tacitly or explicitly permitted what has happened – Republican senators, congress members and party officials – will ideally suffer at the ballot box at the next opportunity. Among ordinary people, including some in Canada who have expressed support for this extremist and white nationalist approach, we should seek introspection around how we may have been drawn into a political disease that we should have recognized for what it was – yet let proceed along a path that almost inevitably led to the loss of human life and the shattered glass at the U.S. Capitol last week.
We might also hope that leaders of other countries will look at the American case as an instruction in the dangers of oratorical brinksmanship, division and scapegoating. One of Trump’s greatest allies, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is in an election (again) and it will be illuminating to see if his style softens at all. In Europe, where far-right populism is seeing a resurgence, perhaps the warning shots from Washington will inspire a little more moderation.
Barring more violence on Inauguration Day, God forbid, this chapter will soon be behind us. Joe Biden was not everyone’s first choice for president, he was more of a compromise pick. Based on decades of experience, he has been charged with picking up the pieces of a society shattered by four years of negligent and confrontational executive leadership. It doesn’t hurt that he has a grandfatherly demeanour and a history of consensus-building. While the outgoing president will not attend the swearing in – more proof that he abhors the core principles of democracy – beside Biden will be Kamala Harris, the first woman and the first Black and Asian person to assume the vice-presidency.
No humans are perfect. The Biden-Harris administration will make mistakes and we will criticize them. But we can rejoice in the arrival of a new future, led by people of goodwill, intelligence and moderation, who know the difference between right and wrong, between neo-Nazis and very fine people.
Since time immemorial, no matter what calamity occurred in the world, if there was a problem plaguing humanity, Jews were used as the convenient scapegoat.
Earlier this year, as the coronavirus pandemic spread across Europe and then throughout North America, conspiracy theorists claimed that Israel and Jews around the world were secretly involved in spreading and even engineering the deadly disease. While these conspiracies are baseless and seem almost comical at first glance, thanks to the power and ubiquity of social media, even the most bizarre falsehoods can find fertile ground and poison the minds of millions of people almost instantaneously.
Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to rage across Canada and the world and, though the claim that Jews are behind COVID-19 remains utterly fictional, that hasn’t stopped a dangerous new crop of antisemites from spreading their toxic bigotry.
Not only is Canada not immune to the age-old virus of antisemitism, but British Columbia has also been infected. As was reported in the Georgia Straight, an anti-mask activist in Vancouver, Marco Pietro, who organized and participated in a number of rallies protesting coronavirus restrictions and policies, released a Holocaust denial video on social media. The two-minute-long video features Pietro saying that the Holocaust is a myth perpetrated by fake survivors to scam money out of the wider, unsuspecting public. He also claimed that Mein Kampf – Adolf Hitler’s antisemitic manifesto – didn’t contain any objectionable material, and that the coronavirus pandemic is a plot used by Jews in a quest for control. Pietro also said that concentration-camp survivors are liars and accused “a bunch of Zionist Jews” of “setting up” Hitler.
Meanwhile, on Nov. 15, a speaker at an anti-mask rally in Vancouver condemned “satanic, talmudic” people. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network (CAHN) reported that the No More Lockdowns group (which now goes by the name “Human Rights Movement”) produced an event in Vancouver organized by antisemitic conspiracy theorist Raoul Taylor van Haastert, who has decried the “Zionist media” and stated “our WWII history is a lie.” CAHN’s report cited Vancouver neo-Nazi Brian Ruhe, who, in an antisemitic post that went viral, shared his beliefs about “Rothschild-Zionist-communist control” that is being covered up, claiming that Jews control the media.
Let there be no doubt, there’s no evidence whatsoever that the Jewish people or the state of Israel are behind the coronavirus pandemic or any of these other odious libels. Conversely, the evidence supporting the Holocaust’s veracity is so overwhelming and indisputable that, to deny its occurrence, far from being a legitimate disagreement on historical facts, is rather merely an attempt to deny the Jewish people’s collective suffering at the hand of the Nazis to further an antisemitic agenda.
Most British Columbians would rightly brush off Pietro’s and Ruhe’s words as illogical rants of mad men, but, tragically, as bothersome and as offensive as their statements are, antisemitic acts are at or near all-time highs across Canada, including in British Columbia.
Earlier this year, B’nai Brith Canada’s annual audit of antisemitism logged more than 200 such incidents in British Columbia alone, ranging from harassment to vandalism. In one such incident, for example, Camp Miriam, on Gabriola Island, was vandalized with graffiti, including a swastika and other images. The image and symbol that represented the Nazi regime that murdered six million Jews in Europe less than 100 years ago is today being used to attack young Jewish summer campers. One can only imagine the long-lasting psychological damage inflicted on young people as a result of such an incident – and multiply that by more than 200 incidents last year alone.
Such antisemitic conspiracy theories, as espoused by Pietro, Ruhe and others must be forcefully repudiated and condemned by all. Thanks to social media, even the most bizarre lie can have a worldwide impact, and that’s why it’s so critical to take a public stand against antisemitic hate and propaganda. As history has taught, while antisemitic words are bad enough, the paramount concern is that they can often morph into violence. Enough is enough.
Mike Fegelman is the executive director of HonestReporting Canada (honestreporting.ca), a nonprofit organization working to ensure fair and accurate Canadian media coverage of Israel.
After the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, many Jews were quick to celebrate that Harris’s husband Doug Emhoff is Jewish. Indeed, it is a win given the sharp rise in antisemitic expression and white supremacy we’ve seen in the United States, and which is bleeding over into Canada.
Jews often celebrate when someone like us makes it into a position of some influence. This time, it isn’t any particular achievement of Emhoff’s but, rather, his proximity to someone powerful.
Harris represents so many firsts: the first woman, the first person of South Asian and of Black heritage, and the first person married to a Jew to reach the vice-presidency. Her family is a positive representation of the dream of the United States, where anyone can become anything and where, crucially, diversity is a strength.
In open and free democracies, intermarriage is inevitable. If we are to live and work alongside each other, we will fall in love with each other. This isn’t a bad thing. Given how many people seem to hate Jews, it is nice that some people actually love us. I realize intermarriage is a perceived threat to Judaism; fears of assimilation are very real. And yet, Emhoff is proudly Jewish. His identity is not threatened by the multiple identities of his partner – they celebrate the many elements of who they are and where they come from.
Since the election, there have been many pieces published about how nice it is to see one’s intermarried family represented in the White House. Jewish communities have spent the past several decades trying to stop intermarriage. These efforts have failed and have even driven some Jews and their loved ones away from Judaism.
If we care about Jews and Judaism, including challenging the multiple threats we face, this kind of infighting really needs to stop. It’s time we embrace our pluralistic and diverse families, celebrate all those who wish to be and do Jewish, and recognize that there is so much in Judaism that is beautiful and meaningful, joys that can be experienced by all who are part of the wide web of Jewish families.
Rabbi Denise Handlarskilives in Toronto. She is the author of The A-Z of Intermarriage, published by New Jewish Press, and the leader of the online community Secular Synagogue.
It has been a particularly reflective and momentous week. The U.S. elected Joe Biden as its 46th president and Kamala Harris as vice-president, the first Black woman and first woman of Asian and Indian descent elected to that high office. Around the world, there were nearly audible sighs of relief and cries of jubilation as the count trickled in and it became clear that president-elect Biden had cleared the 270 Electoral College threshold, even as the counting of ballots continues and results are not certified until early in December. More solemnly, this week was the commemoration of the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht and of Remembrance Day. And, right at the dawn of this emotional week, we learned of the passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Britain’s former chief rabbi, Sacks died of cancer on Shabbat at age 72.
Formally called chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Sacks held the role from 1991 to 2013, during which time his scholarship in philosophy helped him elucidate Jewish theology to general audiences as a regular guest on BBC Radio. He was admired and his death lamented by leading figures in British society, not least the heir apparent to the throne, Prince Charles. He was good friends with now-retired Anglican bishop George Carey, who was the head of the Church of England, strengthening interfaith relations.
Sacks’s time in leadership was not without controversy. He has been viewed by some as too accommodating of orthodoxy and not adequately inclusive of progressive or liberal strains of Judaism. Sacks skipped the 1996 funeral of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, the leading figure in Reform Judaism, drawing rebukes from liberals. In contrast, a book Sacks authored, The Dignity of Difference, implied that all religions and streams therein are equally valid, a thesis that was deemed too ecumenical by some British Orthodox Jews. One rabbi accused him of “heresy.”
In other words, Sacks leaves behind a mixed legacy, though few among us in this generation have left such a lasting mark on contemporary Judaism. The sort of centralized religious leadership that British Jewry and others in Europe have is unfamiliar to North American Jews. But anyone in a position of responsibility in the Jewish community knows the perils of presuming to speak on behalf of all – or most – Jews. Anyone in a job like Sacks’s would draw admirers and detractors. Chief rabbi is, of course, not a political role, but it must be a profoundly political one nonetheless, to elicit an accusation of heresy.
The concept of heresy seems to have seeped from the theological into the political realm in recent years. Fanaticism and extreme loyalty have always played a part in politics. But, in the highly polarized situation we see in the United States and many other places, differences of opinion are magnified into civilizational, even existential, divisions. This certainly seemed to be the case in the U.S. elections. Not everyone likes the incumbent President Donald Trump but, to paraphrase a beer commercial, those who like him like him a lot. While Biden won the support of a vast majority of Jews, surveys suggest that somewhere between 20% and 30% of American Jews voted for Trump’s reelection, a higher vote for a Republican than in many of the last presidential elections. The vehemence of opinion on both sides – some decry Trump as antisemitic while others claim he is the most pro-Israel president ever – would be confusing to the proverbial Martian.
We are assimilating this news in a week where we reflect on the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust, the world wars, the bloody history of the 20th century and all the conflict and misery and bloodshed it wrought. The 21st century seems similarly full of divisions and conflicts. Political polarization in democratic countries, as well as growing authoritarian tendencies in several democracies, call for a response.
Biden ran as a unifying figure bent on restoring a sense of moderation and respect to public discourse. Whether one individual can alter the trajectory of a divided society will be seen as the president-elect navigates a narrowly divided House and Senate to shepherd his legislative vision into reality. The unexpected tightness of Republican-Democratic splits in both chambers may exacerbate his challenge. A small tail of far-left Democrats and of far-right Republicans could wag the dog that is their respective party. On the other hand, this challenge could present an opportunity, if there are those willing to fight for what is right and to compromise across the aisle when appropriate and necessary. Such a shift from the failure of bipartisanship in recent years would be monumental indeed. But it could effectively reduce the influence of extremes.
Perhaps what these disparate events illustrate is that conflict – from the cataclysmic to the mild awkwardness of politics at the Shabbat table – is innate to humans. But so is confronting conflict and difference intellectually and with open hearts. Seeking moderation and compromise has lost currency in the age of social media and 24/7 cable news. Nuance is blurred and enlightenment darkened by ideological certainty.
We should seek understanding wherever we might find it and avoid elevating mere mortals to unattainable standards or demonizing them beyond all reasonable recognition. In our spiritual and political realms, in our daily work and home life, we can all commit to some additional humility, to deeper listening and to finding wisdom wherever it might be, even in unexpected places.
It will take about two weeks to verify and count the mail-in ballots from Saturday’s B.C. provincial election. The province saw a 7,200% increase in voting by mail this year, a result of the pandemic and educational efforts to make people aware of what was perhaps the safest option for casting a ballot.
There is no doubt about the overall outcome. The New Democratic Party, under returning Premier John Horgan, won a majority government handily. The NDP increased its vote share in every part of the province and the opposition Liberals, under Andrew Wilkinson, who resigned in the aftermath, had its worst showing in almost three decades. The mail-in ballots will determine the outcome in a small number of close races, but it will not alter the big picture.
Some are complaining that two weeks is a long time for the elections branch to complete the process. However, we do not know the level of complexity involved in validating and counting the vast number of mailed votes. But it seems reasonable to take time to ensure such important work is done properly, rather than quickly.
What we should not lose sight of, regardless of what party we supported, is the small miracle of the election itself. Many or most of our ancestors came from places where free and fair elections followed by a peaceful and orderly transition of power were unfulfilled dreams. Startlingly, in what had been viewed globally as the bedrock model of democracy itself – the United States – we are bracing for one of the most uncertain moments in political history next Tuesday. Polls show that the incumbent president is headed for defeat. But polls were deeply wrong about this candidate four years ago. More importantly, there are concerns about his willingness to leave office if defeated – and even about potential intimidation of voters at the polls and violence in the aftermath of the election.
As Canadians, we should feel fortunate and grateful. As earthlings, we should wish and work for a world where all people are as free as we are to choose those who govern us and to do so with confidence, knowing that we will be physically safe and our elected officials will respect our choices.
Premier John Horgan sent Selina Robinson a message: “A mensch is a good thing, right?”
Robinson, the NDP government’s minister of municipal affairs and housing, is seeking reelection in the riding of Coquitlam-Maillardville. She sees herself as the Jewish maven around the cabinet table.
“I said yes, who called you a mensch?” Robinson recalled. “He just wanted to double-check.”
As she and other New Democrats campaign toward the Oct. 24 provincial election, Robinson and fellow cabinet member George Heyman spoke with the Jewish Independent. (In this issue, we also speak with Jewish candidates and spokespeople for other parties.)
As minister of housing, Robinson takes pride in the development of a major initiative called Homes for B.C.: A 30-Point Plan for Housing Affordability in British Columbia. Her ministry engaged with housing groups, renters, developers, economists, local government officials, planners and other thinkers. Then they convened people in a “World Café,” an engagement exercise in which people from different perspectives sit at a table and must come to agreed-upon recommendations on a topic.
“It was from that that we picked the best ideas and so it really came from all sides of the housing sector rather than pitting them against each other,” she said, acknowledging that she had to convince some to buy into the process because bureaucracy is not always amenable to novel approaches.
She cited two particular areas that she wants to “kvell about.” BC Housing, the agency that develops, manages and administers a range of subsidized housing in the province, is building housing on First Nations land.
“The feds, I don’t think, are building a lot of Indigenous housing and they’re supposed to,” she said. “No other province has stepped up to do that.… You’re a British Columbian and you need housing … if it’s land on reserve, it’s land on reserve – we’ll build housing.”
By providing housing in First Nations communities, it also helps people remain at home, rather than moving to the city, where housing is even more expensive and possibly precarious, she said.
“I’m very proud of that,” Robinson said.
The other point of pride is, Robinson admitted, “a geeky piece of legislation.” When she stepped into the role as the government’s lead on housing availability and affordability, she recognized that there is no data on what kind of housing exists and what’s needed.
“Local governments are responsible for land-use planning and deciding what kind of housing goes where – this is going to be multifamily, this is going to be single-family – but, if you were to ask them, how much do you have, how much more multifamily do you need, they couldn’t tell you, because nobody was collecting the data.”
She brought forward legislation that mandated local governments to do a housing needs assessment every five years to identify whether more housing options are needed for different age groups and types of families.
She also cited the government’s development of social housing, through the allocation of $7 billion over 10 years to build 39,000 units. So far, 25,000 units are either open, in construction or going through the municipal development process.
“My biggest worry is that the Liberals [if they are elected] will cancel all of those that are still in the development stage because they did that in 2001 when they formed government,” she said. “We’re so far behind the eight ball because they did that. I’m not saying it would have fixed everything, but, if there were another 5,000 units of housing out there, it wouldn’t be as bad as it is because there would be another 5,000 units.”
Every Friday, Robinson lights Shabbat candles and then shares a reflection on social media about her week.
“Lighting the Shabbat candles just grounds me in my identity,” she said. “I make myself take 10 minutes on a Friday at sundown to stop and to clear my head and to remind myself why I do the work. It’s not for the pay. It’s not for any of that; it’s not worth it. It’s who I am, what are my values and what’s important to me? What did I hear this week that reminds me of why this work is important?”
Robinson admitted she’s being partisan in saying that she believes NDP values are Jewish values.
“From my perspective, taking care of the world – whether it’s the environment, the people and all that’s within it – is our collective responsibility,” she said, adding with a laugh: “I think all Jews are New Democrats who just don’t know it yet.”
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George Heyman, minister of environment and climate change strategy, is seeking reelection in the riding of Vancouver-Fairview. He is a son of Holocaust refugees, who escaped the Nazis with the help of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who illegally issued visas to about 6,000 Jews, many of whose descendants now live in Vancouver.
In 2019, Heyman took a family trip to Poland, which broadened his awareness of his family’s history and where he met family members he never knew he had. The Independent will run that story in an upcoming issue.
Speaking of his record in government, Heyman expressed pride in bringing in CleanBC, which he calls “a very detailed, independently modeled set of measures to get us to our 2030 target and beyond.”
He also said the government “completely revamped the province’s Environmental Assessment Act, incorporating the principles of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Collaborating with the First Nations Leadership Council, the government adapted the legislation to bring in affected local communities at the beginning of a project, before a proponent spends millions of dollars then has to go back to the drawing board due to local concerns.
“We’ve been investing in clean technology, we’ve approved transit plans that were stalled for years that the mayors of Metro Vancouver thought were critically important,” Heyman added. “We’re going to see the Broadway [SkyTrain] line commence to relieve the tremendous congestion on the Broadway corridor, both on buses and on the roads. And we’ll be working on ultimately being able to work with UBC and the city and the federal government to extend that to UBC.”
The government, he said, updated the Residential Tenancy Act to address tenants who were being threatened with eviction for suspect renovations and that saw people getting notices of rent increases as high as 40% because of loopholes in the act.
“We closed those loopholes, we held rent increases to the cost of living unless there is a legitimate demonstrated need to do renovation and repair and it’s fair to receive some compensation rent to pay for that,” he said.
Like Robinson, Heyman cited the construction of affordable housing, as well as supportive housing, to get homeless people off the street and provide them with services they need. He said the government has created 20,000 childcare spaces in the province “with significant fee reductions for families as we work our way toward a $10-a-day program.” Increased staffing in schools, mandated by a Supreme Court decision during the previous regime, is also an accomplishment, he said, as well as adding more investments in new schools for seismic upgrades, fire safety and heating and ventilation systems.
On the opioid crisis, Heyman acknowledged a surge in deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. “While there is much more to do, we managed to flatten the level of deaths up until COVID hit,” he said.
Also parallel to the pandemic was a realization of “the terrible state of many of our long-term-care homes.”
“We saw that deteriorate under the previous government,” he said. “With COVID, we saw the results of that. We saw people dying because workers were having to go to two or three different care homes, increasing the risk of infection, simply to cobble together a living. We took measures to allow our healthcare workers to work in one institution without suffering the loss of pay and we’re also investing in more beds and more equipment for long-term-care homes.”
New Democrats have been governing in a minority situation with the support of the Green party since 2017. Horgan called the snap election on Sept. 21, facing criticism for breaking fixed election date legislation and going to the polls during a state of emergency.
Rachael Segal is media spokesperson for the BC Liberals. (photo from BC Liberals)
Facing a campaign unlike any other, with shaking hands and kissing babies prohibited by social distancing protocols, all parties needed to reimagine how they would reach voters. Rachael Segal, media spokesperson for the BC Liberals, had to figure out how to get her party’s message to British Columbians.
“We can’t have a media bus, so, as the person responsible for media relations, how I connect with media now is very different than how I would do it in a normal campaign,” she said. “I’d be on the bus, I’d be with the leader.”
Instead, the leader is often driving himself to the modest-sized events that typify the 2020 campaign. Instead of facing a phalanx of TV cameras and radio mics, party leader
Andrew Wilkinson speaks to a pooled camera, with his message then shared among the media consortium. It’s an experience all parties are dealing with. But the leaders, as well as candidates in 87 ridings across the province, still have to communicate their positions.
“Obviously, Andrew still needs to get out there and get his message out there,” said Segal. “We’re making announcements daily, just like we would on a campaign normally, they’re just different.”
Wilkinson, a medical doctor as well as a lawyer, is particularly sensitive to the health risks and safety of his team, Segal said.
Segal, who grew up in Kerrisdale, is the official campaign spokesperson for the party during the election and is second-in-command at party headquarters when in non-campaign mode. As senior director of the party, her role is a loosely defined collection of responsibilities that she describes as “basically whatever hole is there, I try and fix it.”
One of her primary responsibilities is stakeholder relations, which means meeting with particular community groups and connecting them with the leader and other members of the legislature.
“Andrew and I have done Shabbat dinners, we’ve done Rosh Hashanah meals, we’ve done tons of Jewish community events,” Segal said by way of example. She also hosts the party’s podcast and started a young professional women’s group “to try to engage the 30-to-50-year-old women demographic, which is the largest swing demographic in British Columbia.”
Segal came to the role in April 2019. She already had a long resumé in education, politics and media.
She attended Vancouver Talmud Torah elementary and Magee high school and received her undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria, where she was the first president of the Jewish student organization when Hillel House opened there. She served as national president of the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students before graduating from UVic in 2005. She then went to the University of Leicester, in the United Kingdom, for a law degree, followed by a master of laws from Osgoode Hall, in Toronto.
She worked on Parliament Hill for Conservative MPs David Sweet and Scott Reid, as well as Senator Linda Frum, and was a senior policy advisor overseeing corrections and the parole board for then-minister of public safety Steven Blaney.
While studying in Toronto, Segal worked full time as an on-air legal and policy correspondent for Sun News, until that network shut down. She worked in criminal law and then civil litigation for a time but found it not her speed and returned to media, joining Toronto’s Bell Media radio station News Talk 1010. She returned to Vancouver in 2018 and covered as maternity leave replacement for the B.C. regional director of the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee. She joined the BC Liberal party staff three days after that position ended.
“This election is really about who British Columbians can trust to lead them through economic recovery,” said Segal. “When we think about the ballot question, that’s really what British Columbians are voting on. Who do they trust to lead them through the next stage of this pandemic from an economic perspective? We have an incredible team who are all very experienced. We have former ministers, we have doctors, we have lawyers, we have just a really diverse and interesting team of very smart people.”
Given significant turnover – seven cabinet ministers have opted not to seek reelection – Segal questioned who would be on the frontbenches of a reelected NDP government.
“The question is, what does an NDP cabinet look like in the next government and do they have the bench strength to be the best party to lead this province economically?” she said.
Segal takes seriously her position as one of the few Jewish individuals on the campaign team.
“It’s a real privilege to be able to represent the community within this political sphere and it’s something I take very not lightly,” she said.
Of her job on the campaign and her slightly less hectic role the rest of the time, she added: “My job is pretty different, wild, fun. Every day is a new adventure. It’s pretty great. And we have such an incredible team, so they make it all even better.”