What’s next? A discussion of the weekly Torah portion?
Or maybe a daily page of Talmud study?
Perhaps morning and evening prayers?
It seems that debate in Canada’s House of Commons has had a decidedly Jewish tone to it lately.
There are an estimated 315,000 Jews in Canada, representing less than one per cent of the total population, and there are only three Jews in the House of Commons, representing about one per cent of MPs.
But in the last week or so, Jewish themes have intruded on proceedings to an odd degree, and I must say that it’s all been a bit much.
For me, the message has been clear: Jewish MPs should stop using their Jewishness for partisan purposes, or perhaps they should tell their party leaders and whips to not pressure them into doing so.
First, on June 14, during a marathon voting session on amendments to the Conservative government’s controversial omnibus budget bill C-38, Natural Resources Minister and rookie Tory MP Joe Oliver rose in the House of Commons to say he saw former Liberal cabinet ministers Wayne Easter, the current MP for Malpeque in PEI, and Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry raise their hands in an apparent Nazi salute aimed at Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“There was no ambiguity. When I saw it, I said ‘disgusting’ in their direction several times and they did not ask what I found so offensive,” Oliver, a Jew who represents a Toronto riding with a large Jewish population, said June 18 in a complaint to Speaker Andrew Scheer.
If that wasn’t enough, Oliver – who, in fairness, may have been quite tired from the long hours of voting – proceeded to lay it on quite thickly. “There are members in this House whose relatives fought and died for Canada in the Second World War and others whose relatives perished in the Holocaust. Such a vile and universally condemned gesture is particularly shocking in this place of honour and tradition. The heat of partisanship never justifies a vicious personal attack that sullies the reputation of our parliamentary democracy.”
Responding in the House to Oliver, Easter vehemently denied making the gesture.
“Mr. Speaker, I would agree that such a salute, as the member said, would be vile and unacceptable in this place… However… there was no such salute from me. I sat in my chair and I pointed at the Prime Minister… It was not a wave and it was not and should not have been construed as a salute. No such thing happened on my part… If I had made that gesture, I would have recognized that it was wrong and I would have apologized to the member, because I agree 100 per cent that such a salute should not be made in this place. I accept that.”
Speaking this week to the Canadian Jewish News, Easter said that he considers Oliver to be a “wonderful” guy and believes the minister wouldn’t have made such an accusation unless he truly believed he saw Easter and Fry make a Nazi salute. But, he added, “I never gave a Nazi salute in my life.”
Fry, meanwhile, also denied Oliver’s accusation. “This gesture represents such a heinous era in our global history and carries such painful memories for so many people that I am appalled and saddened that the minister would accuse of me of such an act,” she told The CJN.
On June 15, the day after Oliver allegedly saw what he saw, Justin Trudeau, the MP for the Montreal riding of Papineau and a will-he-or-won’t-he prospective Liberal leadership candidate, tweeted, “The real problem I have with Stephen Harper’s (and the CPC’s) worldview? He doesn’t believe in ‘tikkun olam.’”
The Hebrew phrase Trudeau cited refers to the rabbinic injunction to repair or heal the world.
He was commenting on a June 15 Globe and Mail opinion piece co-written by former Canadian Jewish Congress CEO Bernie Farber, lawyer Clayton Ruby and Dr. Philip Berger in which these three prominent progressive Jews criticized the Conservatives’ new refugee policy as being too harsh for, among other things, reducing medical coverage for refugee claimants.
York Centre MP Mark Adler, a rookie MP who is also Jewish, leapt to Harper’s defence in the House of Commons.
“On this side of the House, under the leadership of this prime minister, this government acts every day to uphold the Canadian values of freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” the eager backbencher said. “Furthermore, considering the many awards and accolades that the prime minister has received from the Jewish community and other humanitarian organizations, I find the statement outrageous.”
Fair enough. Adler, I’m sure, would like a cabinet post some day. That’s perfectly understandable.
Then he said this: ”Given the strong humanitarian record of the prime minister, I urge all members to stand in recognition of the great works that have been accomplished in the spirit of tikun olam by our government under the leadership of our principled prime minister.”
I hope Adler was put up to that statement, as in, “Hey Adler. You’re Jewish. Get up and defend the PM. It’ll mean more coming from you.”
I guess it’s hard to say no when you’re a rookie MP.
Nevertheless, it was smarmy.
Don’t misunderstand: I don’t think Trudeau deserves a free pass amid all this partisan posturing.
I tend to agree with him that Harper and his government don’t understand the concept of tikun olam, and their changes to federal refugee policy are certainly not in the spirit of that notion.
Yet I would urge the young potential heir to the Liberal throne to keep the references to my religion’s ideals out of parliamentary politics. If he really feels the need to inject some faith into a policy debate, I’m sure he can find some teachings from his own Catholic background that would fit the bill.
Oliver and Adler are both rookie MPs elected in 2011, and they both unseated longtime incumbents in what used to be safe, mid-town Toronto Liberal ridings with sizeable Jewish populations.
But that doesn’t give them license to use their Jewishness against their partisan opponents. That’s just unseemly, and I’m not just saying that because they’re Tories. (That’s an entirely different shortcoming.)
It’s especially offensive to use the Holocaust to bludgeon a political adversary.
Yet it’s not the first time this kind of thing has happened in Parliament, and it probably won’t be the last, but it’s worth flagging as inappropriate every time it occurs.
I hope these two neophytes have learned a lesson on parliamentary conduct from these recent incidents, although somehow I doubt it.