NATIONAL

THE JEWISH PROBLEM

Parties are fighting for Jewish support—even if it means less than ever

JOHN GEDDES October 30 2006
NATIONAL

THE JEWISH PROBLEM

Parties are fighting for Jewish support—even if it means less than ever

JOHN GEDDES October 30 2006

THE JEWISH PROBLEM

NATIONAL

Parties are fighting for Jewish support—even if it means less than ever

JOHN GEDDES

Liberal MP Anita Neville had a tough Thanksgiving break. Home in Winnipeg, she found herself under fire from constituents over Liberal leadership frontrunner Michael Ignatieff’s statement that an Israeli airstrike last summer that killed 28 civilians in Qana, Lebanon, was a war crime. Neville is not only a Jewish politician whose riding has a sizable Jewish population, she also cochairs a caucus group called Liberal Parliamentarians for Israel. Asked how many Jewish supporters she thinks the uproar will drive over to the Conservatives, she said it was too early to tell. “It’s hard to get a reading right now, while I’m caught in the vortex of this,” Neville said. “I’m hoping they’ll stay with me, but I don’t know how many of them will. A good deal will depend on who the leader is.”

That hardly sounds like an endorsement of Ignatieff. As it happens, Neville was already a declared backer of long-shot contender Ken Dryden. But her frustration over Ignatieff’s remark was echoed across leadership camps, and into the ranks of party officials who remain neutral in the race. The gravity with which they view the controversy underscores the importance of Jewish organizers, fundraisers and strategists inside the party. And it reminds Liberals of how Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been assiduously working to pry Jewish supporters away from their traditional Liberal home. Last week, he didn’t limit himself to slamming Ignatieff—labelling “virtually all” the Liberal leadership hopefuls “anti-Israel.” Liberal opinion is clearly more varied and shaded than Harper’s partisan jibe would have it. Those internal divisions have repeatedly broken through to the surface recently. Liberal MP Irwin Cotier’s wife quit the party over the Ignatieff remark; controversial leadership candidate Joe Volpe’s strong support for the way Israel prosecuted the Lebanon war cost him the support of his one-time campaign manager, MP Jim Karygiannis; and Liberals squabbled over the Lebanon issue at their summer caucus retreat.

Leading Jewish Liberals pounced on Harper’s blanket denunciation as a chance to reaffirm their pro-Israel bona fides. Neville

HARPER’S BID TO GET JEWISH LIBERALS TO SWITCH ISN’T JUST OPPORTUNISTIC, IT’S SYSTEMATIC

and Senator David Smith—a veteran Ontario organizer and a key Ignatieff backer—demanded the Prime Minister “immediately and unequivocally apologize and retract” the antiIsrael charge. But Harper’s bid to get Jewish Liberals to switch is not merely opportunistic, it’s systematic. He nurtures relationships with Jewish lobby groups. Last summer, the Conservative party highlighted his staunchly pro-Israel stance during the war in Lebanon in a fundraising letter. This week, Harper is slated to speak at an awards dinner held in Toronto by B’Nai Brith.

The near panic among top Liberals at the prospect of Harper siphoning off Jewish support might appear to be disproportionate.

After all, Jewish Canadians made up only 1.1 per cent of the population according to the 2001 census. Just four Jewish MPs, all Liberals, won seats last January, down from six in the previous election. Meanwhile, other religious communities are rapidly rising in numbers and influence; the Muslim share of the

population doubled to two per cent between 1991 and 2001. A handful of Muslim MPs have gained profile in recent months, with Harper even reaching across party lines to appoint Liberal Wajid Khan as his special adviser on South Asia and the Middle East. As well, the clout connected with Jewish fundraising networks may be waning, the result of political financing rules that shift emphasis away from pursuing large donations from small groups, on to mass appeals to bigger pools of small contributors.

But party organizers continue to regard Jewish support as a major prize. “Jewish people give more on a per person basis than any other group,” said one senior Liberal official. And then there is organizational experience and volunteer energy, especially in urban ridings—where Harper is hungry for a breakthrough. But can he drive a wedge between Jewish voters and Liberals mainly over Israel? Neville argues that Liberals have, if anything, grown more sensitive to Israel in recent times—witness the new voting stance adopted at the United Nations under Paul Martin in late 2004, when Canada started aligning with a small group of countries, including the U.S., against what manyjews view as one-sided UN resolutions against Israel.

Senior Liberals were working the phones last week to remind Jewish supporters of that recent history, and the party’s older close bonds with their community. While they pleaded privately for calm, Ignatieff accepted an invitation to visit Israel next month on a trip organized by the Canada-Israël Committee. Neville is going, too. She won’t be the only Liberal hoping the leadership candidate with the proclivity for provocative statements doesn’t, for once, make any news. M