Jewish Canadians deeply divided over Israel, poll finds

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, like most Canadian political leaders, maintains uncritical support for Israel despite significant opposition to such policies from Jewish and non-Jewish Canadians alike. (Office of the Prime Minister of Canada)

Jewish Canadians are deeply divided in their opinions on Israel, and many are highly critical of it. Moreover, a majority does not see criticism of Israel as necessarily anti-Semitic.

Those are key findings of the first survey to ask Jewish Canadians about their views on the situation in Palestine.

The report on the survey – entitled “Two Jews, Three Opinions: Jewish Canadians Diverse Views on Israel-Palestine” – notes that Canada’s ruling elites justify their virtually uncritical backing of Israel by “claiming it is necessary to support Jews and oppose anti-Semitism,” treating Jewish opinion as “monolithic.”

However, the survey, according to the report’s authors, “refutes the claims by the Canadian government and political parties that they are defending Canadian Jews against anti-Semitism by uncritically supporting Israel.”

Key findings include that:

  • Almost two in five respondents (37 percent) have a negative opinion of the Israeli government, while half view it positively;

  • Almost a third (31 percent) oppose Israel’s military blockade of the Gaza Strip;

  • Roughly equal numbers oppose (45 percent) and support (42 percent) US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital;

  • More than a third (36 percent) view the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel to be reasonable, and more than two in five (44 percent) oppose the Canadian parliament’s condemnation of the BDS movement;

  • Almost a quarter (22 percent) think it would be reasonable to impose sanctions on Israel.

  • Almost three in five do not see criticism of Israel as necessarily anti-Semitic;

  • Half agree that accusations of anti-Semitism are often used to silence legitimate criticism of Israel

Disproportionate weight

The poll, conducted by research firm EKOS, surveyed a random sample of 359 Jewish Canadians in June and September last year. The results were released Tuesday.

It was commissioned by Independent Jewish Voices Canada and United Jewish People’s Order.

When politicians treat Jewish opinion as monolithic, the report states, “the purported views of the one percent of Canadians who are Jewish assume disproportionate weight,” especially over the 3.2 percent of Canadians who are Muslim, and 1.5 percent who identify as Arab.

Jewish opinions are nonetheless given such weight by political leaders “because Israel portrays itself as ‘the Jewish state’ and much of Canada’s support for Israel is couched in terms of supporting Jews and opposing anti-Semitism.”

The survey finds that most Jewish Canadians support Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s centrist Liberal Party (39 percent of respondents). The center-left New Democratic Party (NDP) secures support from 24 percent, while just eight percent support the Green Party. The right-wing Conservative party is supported by 26 percent of Jewish Canadians down from 52 percent in 2011.

Across the board, the survey found, Jewish Canadian Conservatives hold more strongly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian positions. Similarly, religious Jews tended to hold more pro-Israel views.

Is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic?

The survey reveals somewhat contradictory views among Jewish Canadians on whether criticizing Israel demonstrates prejudice against Jews.

There was a roughly even split over whether criticism that “specifically singles out Israel” is anti-Semitic, with 42 percent of respondents agreeing that it is and 38 percent disagreeing. One-fifth neither agrees nor disagrees.

There was also a strong consensus supporting the statement that “those who criticize an Israeli government policy are being anti-Semitic unless they also equally criticize other countries’ human rights violations.”

Sixty-three percent of respondents supported that statement, while 24 percent disagreed.

By contrast, 58 percent also agreed with the statement that criticizing Israeli government policies “is like criticism of any other countries’ policies and is not necessarily anti-Semitic.”

And, almost half (48 percent) agreed that accusations of anti-Semitism are often used to silence legitimate criticism of Israel, while 39 percent disagreed that was the case.

The report notes that these apparently contradictory results reflect how the use of “highly charged words or phrases” – such as “singles out Israel” and “equally criticize” – affect the answers given by Jewish Canadians.

Such loaded phrases “evoke images of unfairly targeting Israel” and therefore skew answers in a more pro-Israel direction.

Yet such emotionally manipulative phrases are a staple of pro-Israel advocacy and have been used “to attack the United Nations and Palestine solidarity groups by claiming they are ‘singling out’ Israel for blame, while not ‘equally’ blaming other countries with as bad or worse human rights records.”

“Calling Israel’s critics anti-Semitic is a powerful weapon, which pro-Israel groups regularly use to attack progressive movements, individuals and politicians,” the report states. “They have attacked churches, unions, academics, students and even Jews who dare to speak in defense of Palestinian people.”

Lobby out of touch

“Jewish Canadians’ critical of Israel perspectives are more aligned with those of the wider community than organizations like CIJA, B’nai Brith Canada and Simon Wiesenthal Center are willing to admit,” Rima Berns-McGown, a member of the Ontario provincial parliament, told The Electronic Intifada in reaction to the poll.

“Those organizations do not represent the Jewish community, only a shrinking portion of it,” Berns-McGown, a member of the NDP and a supporter of Independent Jewish Voices, added.

She observed that “the major parties do not reflect this yet,” but she sees change underway. She notes that despite getting strong right-wing pushback over her own support for BDS, she handily won election in her Toronto district.

Berns-McGown added that she also got “zero public blowback” for a video supporting the Independent Jewish Voices campaign to have charitable status stripped from the Jewish National Fund of Canada over its role in financing Israeli human rights violations and war crimes.

Diana Ralph, the lead author of the study and a member of Independent Jewish Voices, agrees that unrepresentative Israel lobby groups disproportionately shape official policies.

“Since the 1980s Canada has moved far from even appearing to be an honest broker on Israel-Palestine, to uncritical support for Israel,” Ralph told The Electronic Intifada.

“Clearly Prime Minister Justin Trudeau isn’t listening to Canadians, or even members of his own Liberal Party, about issues related to Israel-Palestine. And the Conservative party is at least as bad.”

Ralph noted that CIJA – the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs – “is one of Canada’s largest lobby groups with over 50 staff people who hold hundreds of meetings with members of Parliament and key political leaders every year.”

“However, we are starting to succeed in influencing the bases of the Green, NDP and even Liberal parties in Canada,” Ralph added.

The Green Party has already endorsed BDS, and the NDP leader last year had to invoke what Ralph calls “anti-democratic means” to prevent a vote on a strongly pro-Palestinian resolution.

And reflecting a generational shift, the Canadian Federation of Students last November voted to endorse BDS – a rebuke to Trudeau, who has regularly vilified the nonviolent movement for Palestinian rights.

Surveys commissioned by Palestine solidarity groups in 2017 found a major disconnect between the government’s unconditional support of Israel and the Canadian general public, and widespread support for BDS.

According to Ralph, the groups that commissioned the latest poll focusing on Jewish opinion plan to use the results to spark discussions in Jewish communities and synagogues, with lawmakers and policymakers and the general public.

Ralph said: “It is time for Canadian foreign policy to reflect the wishes of most Canadians and many Jewish Canadians who believe it is reasonable to impose boycotts and sanctions on Israel for its violations of international law and human rights.”

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Excellent article, an accurate summary of a ground-breaking study! Canadian support for Israel (and against Palestinian rights) is motivated far more by economic, political, and military interests than it is by any purported concern for protecting Jews. This study strips the veneer of humanitarian concerns from the Canadian government's claims of defending Jews from antisemitism.

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Ali Abunimah

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.