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Benjamin Shinewald: Don’t Assume Jewish Opinion On Iran Is Monolithic

April 3, 2012
IsraeliLeft440

This week, OpenCanada asked six experts on the Middle East about Canada’s current policy towards Iran. Below, Ben Shinewald, former national executive director and general counsel for the Canadian Jewish Congress, observes the evolving Canadian Jewish community. To read the other responses, click here.

Do you agree with the current Canadian government’s policy on Iran?

In general, I think it’s on the right track. It’s a policy that recognizes that Iran really represents a menace to the region and to the whole world. Like every country’s policy, the Canadian policy seems to be in a period of evolution. That is to say, it’s adapting to realities on the ground in Iran, insofar as anyone can figure out what is going on.

How has it adapted recently?

Just a day or two ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his office in Centre Block, and put a new nuance in the policy when he expressed stronger support for a peaceful outcome. It’s meant to convey the idea that Canada puts some of its international heft behind the diplomatic-sanctions approach rather than a military approach. But it’s really nuanced, and you can put the same kind of nuance on anything anyone is saying.

Is it a mistake for Harper to align himself so closely with Netanyahu, when the Israeli political environment is so diverse?

It’s kind of speculative, because if Netanyahu and Likud were not in power, we don’t know what our current government’s position would be. But there’s no doubt that Prime Minister Harper and the Conservative government have taken an approach that is very strongly supportive of the state of Israel right now.

Is Canada’s current relationship with Israel different than in the past?

Every relationship evolves. No relationship is static or it will wither. At a first blush, of course it’s different than it has been in the past, and at second blush, it’s certainly okay that it is different than it has been in the past, irrespective of what you think about that, because when you have changes in the world or changes of governments, that will affect the context in which the relationship happens. Our relationship is completely different with the United States than it has been in the past. It’s different with Mexico than it was before NAFTA. I could give other examples.

That being said, I think the current government has taken a strongly supportive position relative to Israel. I think the opposition is not out of step at all. I think there’s a very similar approach, but it’s really been expressed in a manner that is a bit more public than in the past.

What does the Canadian Jewish community think about this shift?

I think what’s happening now, for the first time, really, because of this fracturing that’s happening in the Jewish community in the western world, is that people – especially younger people – are starting to express their Zionism through a critical lens. So while in the past, there was a sense that you shouldn’t criticize Israel in public – and perhaps not even in private – today, an increasing number of people are saying that the way they express their Zionism, and the way they find meaning in their support for Israel, is by being a constructively critical supporter.

From their perspective, there’s no second-best here. There’s nothing nefarious – they love Israel, they very often travel there, they have family there, and some of them may even move there. But they are motivated in their Zionism in different ways than in the past. Before, their aim was to defend Israel against its critics – whether those criticisms came from a legitimate or illegitimate place (and they come from both). Now, however, they are motivated to use their own advocacy to advance an agenda that is transformative and addresses the problems of settlements, the Palestinians, and so forth in Israel, in a way that in the past, wasn’t really possible while still remaining a part of the mainstream Jewish community. It’s a fascinating issue that is a big trend, for sure.

Photo courtesy of Reuters