When we sat down in early summer to discuss how we’d cover what was expected to be a five-week fall campaign, CJN editor Yoni Goldstein asked me to write a weekly column about election topics of Jewish interest. The idea – a departure from past practice of mostly limiting ourselves to rather pedestrian riding profiles – made me a bit nervous.
To echo a current catchphrase, I felt like I was just not ready.
My main concern was finding material to write about, since Jews and Jewish issues had never figured very prominently in a federal election before, even in 2011, when exit polls suggested that for the first time, a majority of Jews had voted Conservative, largely on the strength of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s vocal support for Israel.
But after the longest campaign in modern Canadian history, I can declare that my anxiety was definitely misplaced. Jews and Jewish issues have been more conspicuous in this election than in any campaign in living memory. Jews were news, as they say.
From the many debates and panels held by Jewish groups, shuls and schools across the country, to efforts by the Canadian Jewish Public Affairs Committee urging Jews to volunteer for the party of their choice, dayeinu – it would have been enough.
But there was so much more to write about, much of it centred on Israel and which party could best be counted on to support the Jewish state.
Most notably, there was a nasty dustup over businessman Barry Sherman’s decision to host a fundraiser for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau at his Toronto home. Sherman was pilloried in a widely circulated email by a former magazine publisher, who said Sherman was “betraying the memory of the six million” because of Trudeau’s choice of advisers, and his brother’s views on Israel and the Iran deal. In an unprecedented move, the Jewish Defence League picketed Sherman’s house on the evening of the fundraiser.
Meanwhile, perennially embattled York Centre Tory MP Mark Adler found himself at the centre of a national debate for noting in campaign material and on his website that he’s the son of a Holocaust survivor, and for claiming he was the first child of a survivor elected to Parliament (he wasn’t, as we were first to report).
And who can forget the social media gaffes by candidates from all parties, many of which were about Israel and Jews? A number were uncovered by the upstart satirical news site True North Times (TNT), run by three young Montreal students, two of whom are Jewish (read The CJN’s interview with them here). It showed how a candidate’s digital footprint could one day resurface to bite them in the posterior – which might give pause to Jews embroiled in ugly political debates on social media.
Among TNT’s finds was NDP candidate Alex Johnstone, a Hamilton school board official who refused to step aside despite admitting to not knowing what Auschwitz was after making a tasteless joke about it on Facebook. Another TNT target who did resign was Winnipeg NDPer Stefan Jonasson. He once compared haredi Jews to the Taliban on social media.
One non-TNT casualty was Calgary Liberal candidate Ala Buzreba, 21, who quit over comments she made as a teenager on Twitter, saying a supporter of Israel should have been aborted with a coat hanger.
Jews also jumped into the fray when Syrian refugees became a major election issue. A group of prominent Jews criticized the position of the governing Tories on the issue, while others came to the Conservatives’ defence, and – though not directly tied to the election – synagogues in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal mobilized to sponsor Syrian families to come to Canada.
This column was written before local and national election results were known, but what can be said with some certainty is that this was arguably the most divisive federal election in Canadian history for the Jewish community.
In the aftermath, there are fences to be mended and a measure of unity to be reclaimed. It makes one hope that Jews and Jewish issues can return to being relative bit players the next time around.
This wRant was originally published as a Campaign Notebook column in the The Canadian Jewish News.