Not surprisingly, Thomas Mulcair won the NDP leadership last month, replacing Saint Jack Layton as the man social democrats hope can rally left-of-centre voters to defeat Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
Here’s hoping he’s successful, but as I argued in an earlier post, it seems unlikely that he will be, because the left is as divided today as the right was in the 1990s, with a rapprochement nowhere on the horizon. Or as Winnipeg NDP MP Pat Martin famously told The Hill Times earlier this month, “If we don’t unite the progressive vote, Stephen Harper will be prime minister until he gets bored.”
(Taking a different tack, the inimitable Chantal Hebert argues that Mulcair’s feistiness makes him the strongest opposition leader Harper has faced so far. She reminds readers that he arrives in time to face the PM in 2015, near Harper’s 10-year mark in power, when many prime ministers – e.g., Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney – wear out their welcome with voters and lose the fire in their belly. She also recalls that no one thought Harper would ever be prime minister, having been written off as a transitional leader of a reunited Conservative party.)
As has been widely noted, NDPers clearly chose Mulcair, a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister, because they think he can win. They put aside what many see as his tenuous ties to the party and his previous statements against the oil sands (which, as right-wing media pundits have noted, are sure to alienate many Albertans), as well as his reputation for surliness. They hope he can consolidate the party’s massive 2011 gains in Quebec while gaining enough support elsewhere to push it over the top.
But some on the left of the NDP, such as longtime B.C. activist Murray Dobbin, are mourning how its members “could collectively have let Thomas Mulcair, the right-wing Liberal, pro-Israel, political bully become head of their party.”
A similar sentiment was expressed by erstwhile NDPer and longtime left-wing activist Judy Rebick, who had this to say about Mulcair’s victory: “My view is that the NDP has elected an old-style patriarchal politician who has the same politics vis-a-vis Quebec as the pre-Jack NDP, seeing sovereigntists as bitter enemies instead of potential allies, is more of a liberal than a social democrat and who will move the party to the right especially on international issues, including free trade and Israel, two issues at the centre of Harper’s agenda.”
What bothers me most about a lot of left-wing criticism of Mulcair is that much of it centres on his general support for Israel, which gives the impression that a willingness to reflexively condemn the Jewish state is somehow a litmus test of progressive values or left-wing bona fides.
Moreover, it implies that supporting Israel is itself inherently conservative, which, of course, might surprise Labor and Meretz party supporters in Israel itself, to say nothing of Peace Now supporters there and elsewhere.
But I suspect there’s a good reason for why Mulcair “gets” Israel.
While I can’t speak to what he believed before he married his wife, Catherine Pinhas, in 1976 (or even to what’s truly in his heart of hearts, for that matter), I think Mulcair’s unwillingness to reflexively criticize Israel and his refusal to see Israel as a left- or right-wing issue has something to do with the fact that Pinhas is Jewish.
Like interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, whose wife Arlene Perly Rae is also Jewish, Mulcair is close to someone who understands that while Israel is not beyond criticism, it’s re-emergence as the Jewish homeland after 2,000 years fulfils a national yearning that is central to Judaism.
Both Mulcair and Rae seem to have absorbed this lesson from their Jewishly connected spouses, instead of seeing Israel through the erroneous postcolonial prism that seems to dominate left-wing thinking on the Middle East.
As the Canadian Jewish News reported after his leadership victory, Mulcair has said that the history of his wife and her family is central to his reasons for supporting Israel.
“My wife, Catherine Pinhas, who was born in France and whose family is of Turkish origin, is a descendant of the Sephardim who were expelled from Spain in 1492,” Mulcair said in French at a 2008 gala event hosted by Tribune Juive, a French-language Quebec magazine of Jewish and Israeli culture.
“When we here think of 1492, we think of Christopher Columbus and his arrival in America. But for Sephardi Jews, 1492 evokes their expulsion from Spain by the Catholic monarchs. One of the most gracious gestures I have ever seen in politics took place in 1992, when King Juan Carlos I of Spain went to a Madrid synagogue to ask for pardon.”
He added: “My in-laws are Holocaust survivors. Their history is part of my daily life. That’s why I am an ardent supporter of Israel in all instances [French for all the different institutions that make up a country or other entity] and circumstances.”
In other words, he understands why Jews value Israel so much.
Mulcair’s 2008 statement has been widely mistranslated, including by the (oddly named) anti-Israel group Independent Jewish Voices, to imply that he’s unquestioningly supportive of Israel in any and all situations, right or wrong. However, a comment posted on the IJV’s own website that contains what a commenter claims is Mulcair’s position on the Middle East – it speaks of Canada being an “honest broker” in the region, condemns Israeli settlements as violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and generally criticizes the current federal government as one-sided on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – hardly seems like a carbon copy of the Conservative position.
IJV also accuses Mulcair of fighting to mute NDP criticism of Israel for its 2008/09 invasion of Gaza, for joining Rae and Harper and their parties in censuring NDP MP and Deputy Leader Libby Davies for saying Israel’s occupation of “Palestine” began in 1948, and for condemning Israeli Apartheid Week on Canadian campuses.
Again, none of these things ought to be litmus tests of progressive values. Israel had legitimate reasons for invading Gaza. Libby Davies often speaks without thinking. And Israeli Apartheid Week should really be renamed Middle East Bloodshed Promotion Week, because that’s what it’s really all about, as I argue here.
Whatever else Mulcair can be criticized for – bullying, brusqueness, political opportunism, being a Liberal – it’s politically brave of him to stand up on the left and proclaim himself a supporter of Israel’s right to exist and of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And I think that loving his wife has something to do with why he’s gone out on a limb to do so.