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True North

Since the 2006 election of the conservative politician Stephen Harper as prime minister, Canada has become arguably the most pro-Israel country in the world

Jordan Michael Smith
August 09, 2011
Benjamin Netanyahu and Stephen Harper on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, on May 31, 2010, the day Israeli commandos stormed the Mari Mava.(Geoff Robbins/AFP/Getty Images)
Benjamin Netanyahu and Stephen Harper on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, on May 31, 2010, the day Israeli commandos stormed the Mari Mava.(Geoff Robbins/AFP/Getty Images)

One night in August 2006, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer was speaking at a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal’s Israel Emergency Campaign in a Toronto hotel. Before an audience of 2,500, Krauthammer extolled the virtues of those leaders who were supporting Israel in the conflict then under way with Hezbollah in Lebanon. He singled out for praise Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was showing great leadership in openly siding with Israel, he said. At the mere mention of Harper, who was not in attendance, Krauthammer’s audience suddenly burst into furious applause, as though its collective gratitude for the prime minister had finally been articulated for the first time.

As prime minister, Harper has transformed Canadian foreign policy toward Israel and the Middle East. Abandoning Canada’s longstanding posture of even-handedness in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the country has become arguably the most pro-Israel country in the world. From being the first world leader to cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority in 2006 when it was taken over by Hamas, to speaking out against growing global anti-Semitism, Harper has embraced Israel as has no Canadian leader before him. “It is hard to find a country friendlier to Israel than Canada these days,” gushed Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in 2010. “No other country in the world has demonstrated such a full understanding of us.”

While Harper’s pro-Israel bona fides are not in doubt, his motivations have been less clear. In political terms, Harper may not stand to gain much by adopting such a passionately pro-Israel stance. In a country of nearly 34 million, Canadian Jews number only 315,000—and that figure is declining. In fact, Jews were the only ethnic group in Canada to show a decline nationally according to the 2006 census, a trend that shows no sign of reversing. In contrast, the number of Canadian Muslims is expected to nearly triple in the next 20 years, from about 940,000 in 2010 to nearly 2.7 million in 2030, according to the Pew Research Center. There are also nearly 500,000 Canadian Arabs, a somewhat overlapping group. Clearly, if there is an emerging demographic to be captured for partisan purposes, Jews are not it.

Of course, sheer numbers are only one measure of a minority’s clout. “Canada’s Israel lobby is every bit as powerful as America’s,” says John Mearsheimer, co-author of the controversial book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, even though Canada’s national elections are publicly funded, making financial contributions far less important in the Canadian political system than in the United States. Brent Sasley, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Arlington who studies Canadian ethnic demographics, agrees that Canadian Jews have been more successful lobbyists than their Arab and Muslim counterparts but argues that historical factors above all are responsible. “Put simply, Jews have had a much longer history of acclimatization into the Canadian economic, social, and political environment,” Sasley has written.

But Harper seems to be acting out of personal conviction. According to Gerry Nicholls, who worked with Harper at the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative economic organization, from 1997 to 2001, the future prime minister was praising Israel in those days, too. “Though our group didn’t really deal with foreign policy, he was always very clear that he believed Canada should be a loyal, true ally of Israel,” says Nicholls. “There was no political calculation then, no votes to be had.”

For all Harper’s undeniable success in making himself attractive to a broad coalition of voters in Canada, he also emerged from a very distinct social and political milieu that might be more familiar to Americans than to many Canadians. Though born in Toronto, Harper moved soon after high school to work in the oil industry in the western province of Alberta. He received his bachelor and master’s degree in economics at the University of Calgary there, and he represented the local riding, or county subdivision, in parliament. Though most Americans think of Canada as a European-style social democracy, Harper’s Alberta in many ways shares a political and economic climate in tune with pro-business U.S. states. Buoyed by oil reserves, the province follows behind only Texas and Delaware in measures of economic liberalization in North America, according to one study. Alberta also boasts Canada’s strongest support for loose gun laws, opposition to same-sex marriage, and support for the death penalty. In 1997, Harper called Canada “a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term.” In 2003, Alberta’s right-wing Premier Ralph Klein sent a letter to President George W. Bush expressing support for the Iraq War. Harper and another prominent conservative Albertan, Stockwell Day, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2003 calling Canada’s position to opt out of the war a mistake, a position that was highly unpopular in other parts of the country.

Harper’s strong feelings for Israel can be seen as consistent with his distinctly conservative background and worldview. He believes Israel is a bulwark of democracy and Western civilization warring against terrorists in a region governed by brutal autocrats. The prime minister said at an Ottawa conference on anti-Semitism in 2010 that he supports Israel “not just because it is the right thing to do, but because history shows us, and the ideology of the anti-Israel mob tells us all too well, that those who threaten the existence of the Jewish people are in the longer term a threat to all of us.” Harper’s support for the current leadership of the Jewish state is perfectly in line with his other beliefs, then, that share similarities with the Republican Party’s agenda in the United States. Shrewd politician that he is, however, Harper is fully aware that many of Canada’s liberal laws—on health care and abortion, for instance—are untouchable for any party aspiring to majority status. On Israel, by contrast, the prime minister has been able to transform Canadian policy with very little opposition.

Harper began steering Canada in a pro-Israel direction soon after taking office in early 2006. During that summer’s skirmish between Israel and Hezbollah, the prime minister defended Israel’s right to defend itself, blamed Hezbollah for the war and civilian deaths in Lebanon, and rejected widespread calls for an immediate ceasefire. In 2008, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations presented Harper with its inaugural International Leadership Award for boycotting the Durban II Conference, a U.N. conference against racism, and for consistently siding with Israel at the United Nations. Harper said in 2008 that global anti-Semitism was rising and that “anti-Israeli sentiment, [is] really just a thinly disguised veil for good old-fashioned anti-Semitism, which I think is completely unacceptable.” Most recently, in May, Harper maneuvered to keep a G8 statement from specifically calling for talks based on a return to Israel’s 1967 borders, plus land swaps negotiated with Palestinians, an idea pressed by President Barack Obama. Haaretz reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called Harper to veto inclusion of the language, though Harper’s office denied the claim. In early 2010, Harper’s Junior Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Kent declared that any attack on Israel would be assumed to be an attack on Canada, a statement Kent clarified as reflecting the prime minister’s personal feelings.

The changes in Canadian foreign policy have not gone unnoticed by Israel or its critics. Al Jazeera aired a documentary last year titled The Other Special Relationship on the Canada-Israel alliance. After Canada recently lost a bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, Harper suggested it was because of the country’s stalwart defense of Israel.

For the prime minister, however, it was a small price to pay. “Whether it is at the United Nations or any other international forum, the easy thing to do is simply to just get along and go along with this anti-Israeli rhetoric,” Harper said. “As long as I am prime minister, whether it is at the U.N. or the Francophonie or anywhere else, Canada will take a stand whatever the cost.”

Jordan Michael Smith, a Canadian writer living in Washington, has written for the Forward, Jewcy, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Newsweek.

Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon.