From the Editor: Canada’s sudden shift on support for Israel at the UN
Michael Regenstreif, Editor
By Michael Regenstreif
The Jewish community in Canada, and the broader
pro-Israel community (you don’t, as the old ad said, have to be Jewish to like
bagels – or to support Israel), were shocked on November 19 when Canada
reversed its position and voted “yes” on a nonbinding motion at the United
Nations (UN) General Assembly affirming Palestinian self-determination;
attacking Israel’s occupation of “Palestinian territory,” including East
Jerusalem; and the construction of the separation wall by “Israel, the
The motion – sponsored by North Korea, Egypt,
Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, and the “State of Palestine” – was one of the same
recurring, one-sided anti-Israel votes that are passed each year at the UN.
This year, the motion was supported by 164 countries while nine (including
The only countries to vote against the motion this
year were Israel, the United States, and three Pacific island nations – the Marshall
Islands, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia – that are heavily
dependent on U.S. aid and generally follow its lead on UN votes.
Between 2006 and 2018, under prime minister Stephen
Harper, and during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first term, Canada reliably
voted against this motion and the other one-sided, anti-Israel motions at the
Although Harper’s Conservative government may have
been slightly louder than Trudeau’s Liberals in its support for Israel, until
now, at least, there was little difference between the two approaches. Official
government policy including support for a negotiated two-state solution and
opposing settlements in occupied territories, has remained unchanged.
So why the sudden change in that particular UN vote?
As Joel Reitman and Jeff Rosenthal, co-chairs of the
Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) said in a statement the day after
the vote, “the reversal of 15 years of Canadian opposition to the annual UN
ritual of Israel-bashing represented far more than a let-down. It contradicted
explicit commitments made by Liberal candidates during the recent election to
maintain the principled opposition to the 20 annual resolutions whose sole
purpose is to isolate and delegitimize Israel. This about-face felt more like a
The timing of the sudden shift was strange. There was
absolutely no indication during the campaign for the October 21 federal
election that a change in direction of Canada’s support at the UN was being
Israeli Ambassador Nimrod Barkan told the Globe and
Mail that Israel was only given a few hours notice that Canada intended to vote
yes on the UN resolution.
“It was a surprise … We had no inclination or hint
that Canada would change its vote on the regular annual UN resolutions and we
trusted Canada, knowing that this is a circus of anti-Israeli resolutions,” he
Further to the timing of the vote, it took place just
weeks after the election, and less than 24 hours before the new cabinet was
sworn in. By then, Chrystia Freeland would have been well aware that she would
no longer be our foreign affairs minister, and the identity of the new foreign
affairs minister was still to be confirmed.
So where did the impetus to change the vote come from?
Was it from bureaucrats at Global Affairs or officials in the Prime Minister’s
Office? Was it from the outgoing cabinet or incoming Liberal caucus? Was it
from Freeland or Trudeau? Or from Freeland’s successor, François-Philippe
Champagne? We don’t know the answers to those questions.
A number of explanations have been floated for
Canada’s about-face on the motion. One unnamed source at Global Affairs Canada
told the CBC the vote was an objection to the Trump administration’s
announcement the day before that the U.S. no longer considers Israeli
settlements in the West Bank to be illegal. If that’s the case, the decision
was sudden and made at the very last moment.
Another possible explanation is that the move was part
of Canada’s campaign to win a temporary seat on the UN Security Council in
2021. Canada’s support for Israel was the explanation for Canada not winning a
seat there in 2010. But, surely, Canada’s “no” votes on other anti-Israel
motions won’t make a Security Council seat any more likely.
As I write, on November 29, Trudeau has offered no
explanation, while Champagne after being sworn in as foreign affairs minister
said only, “I think people in the Jewish community in Canada and across the
world see Canada as an ally but there are times when we must express our
opinion and our position as we did yesterday at the UN.”
Meanwhile Liberal MP Michael Levitt reflected the
views of many in the Jewish community when he wrote on Facebook: “If the intent
of yesterday’s resolution on Palestinian self-determination was to affirm
international support for a two-state solution, its lack of context, failing to
recognize the historic and current security threats faced by Israel, undermines
The sudden turn on the motion by a government that
until now has maintained solid support for Israel at the UN – and, indeed,
Canada voted no on other anti-Israel motions at the UN last month – and which
embraced the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of
antisemitism, and absolutely rejected the anti-Israel BDS movement, while also
supporting Palestinian self-determination and a two-state solution, is highly
concerning. CIJA has launched a campaign to demand the government return to its
previous position. https://cija.ca/UN-vote/
Meanwhile, there have been three recent incidents on
Ontario university campuses in which criticism of Israel blatantly crossed over
the line to antisemitism.
On November 14, the University of Toronto Graduate
Students’ Union (UTGSU) rejected a proposal to support the availability of
kosher food at university cafeterias specifically because the group lobbying to
make kosher food available was the university’s Hillel branch, which it deemed
pro-Israel. After much coverage in the local media, the UTGSU issued an apology
for the wording of its original response to the proposal for kosher food
availability, while stressing it had not yet actually “deliberated the
request.” Meanwhile, the University of Toronto Students’ Union, which
represents undergraduate students, did offer its support for the availability
of kosher food.
And at York University, a pro-Israel event on November
20, was attacked by a violent mob chanting slogans like, “Intifada, Intifada,
go back to the ovens,” references to the violent Palestinian uprisings that
killed more than 1,000 Israelis, and to the Holocaust, in which the Nazis
murdered six million Jews.
As the IHRA definition of antisemitism clearly states,
“criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot
be regarded as antisemitic.” These incidents, though, went well beyond
legitimate criticism into antisemitism.
Meanwhile, in Montreal on November 28, the Student
Society of McGill University (SSMU) demanded that Jewish student Jordyn Wright,
a member of the SSMU legislative
council and board of directors, resign because she will be participating in a
Hillel trip to Israel and to Palestinian areas of the West Bank. There were no
such demands placed on a non-Jewish SSMU legislative
councillor who is also participating in the trip.
On behalf of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, let me
wish all a Happy Chanukah. This is our final edition of 2019. We look forward
to returning in January with the first of our 19 issues for 2020.