Word games: What our federal government’s Israel-Palestine policies say about its democratic values

In his 2013 address to the National Jewish Fund, Prime Minister Harper vocally embraced Israel as “a light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness,” insulting outright all other nations in the Middle East. When asked about settlements during his visit to Israel earlier this year, Harper refused to “single out the state of Israel” by offering any criticism, and was again quick to paint the region with the same orientalist brush, alluding to forces of terrorism and darkness.

On the books, our official foreign policy is less plauditory; the Foreign Affairs website states Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands are illegal, and refers to the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights as “occupied territories.” But Canada was the first nation to withdraw from the second UN World Conference Against Racism out of concern it would “scapegoat the Jewish people,” and blocked Palestine’s bid for statehood at the UN. This discrepancy hasn’t gone unnoticed: a group that includes former Israeli ambassador to Canada, Alan Baker, wrote to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, requesting the website be changed, saying, “parts of this policy statement appear to run counter to the Canadian expressions of support for Israel and its positions.”

This past spring, Independent Jewish Voices hosted a debate at the University of Ottawa on whether Israel exists as a Jewish state, a democratic state, or both. Political science professor and author Mira Sucharov argued the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Sucharov advocated a “robust multiculturalism” approach, which her debating partner, American journalist and author Max Blumenthal, argued isn’t possible given the state’s refusal to recognize any minority groups.

Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, lists over 50 Israeli laws that are discriminatory toward minority groups. Blumenthal claims another 39 have been introduced this year alone. Sucharov is quick to point out that a number of laws are discriminatory in effect and not in intention, but acknowledged legal reforms are necessary.

British-Israeli journalist and author Jonathan Cook claims Israel touts itself as a Jewish democracy “as though the former justifies the latter.” Following an event hosted by the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations in March, Cook said, “The problem I had with what Stephen Harper was saying was [his] fealty to Israel as a Jewish state, as though this an entirely non-controversial issue. If you went to Britain and said, ‘I support Britain as a Christian state,’ there’d be outrage.”

A naturalized citizen himself, Cook points out that Israel actually has two separate citizenship laws — Jewish residents can become citizens through the law of return, while the estimated 1 in 5 non-Jewish residents fall under the citizenship law of 1952. “There is no Israeli nationality,” explained Cook, “as this would create equality through a common nationality for all Jews and non-Jews.”

Arab-Israeli member of the Knesset (MK) Ahmad Tibi aptly joked, “Israel is indeed both a Jewish and a democratic state. It’s a democratic state if you’re a Jew, and a Jewish state if you’re an Arab.”

Minority opposition votes in the Knesset accomplish little, and legislation can be pushed through the approval process quite efficiently. In Canada, minority demographics and political parties are officially recognized and heard as part of regular parliamentary proceedings. Israel’s discriminatory laws would never fly here. We hold our democracy to a higher standard. At least, we like to think so.

The strategic value of putting Israel on a pedestal, while alienating other nations in the Middle East, remains unclear. As Canada’s Muslim population outnumbers its Jewish population threefold, more votes stand to be lost than gained for Conservatives. Harper’s motivations, therefore, may be more ideological than political.

During Harper’s address to the Knesset, he said, “It’s a very Canadian thing to do something for no other reason than because it is right […] regardless of whether it is convenient or popular.” But Harper’s track record on any number of things — climate change, the long-form census, freedom of the press, missing and murdered indigenous women — shows a clear preference for convenience over morality, while recent omnibus bills and electoral scandals suggest Harper’s disregard for “popularity” is disregard for democracy itself.

At the debate, Blumenthal held that all citizens, of all nations, have a responsibility to ensure the quality of their democracy.

“We need to avoid essentializing Israel as uniquely unjust. The way I see it is that Israel is the most severe image of ourselves, and a warning of what we could become […] if we’re not constantly vigilant. And if we don’t embrace truly democratic values against the likes of Stephen Harper.”

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This text originally appeared in print in the September-October issue of THIS Magazine.

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