The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs kicked off its “Grassroots consultation” with the Canadian Jewish community last weekend with events in Toronto and Ottawa. What did they talk about and what did they decide? Read more.
Canada’s largest and best funded Jewish lobby group has begun a Canada-wide series of “grassroots consultations”. The objective of the exercise, according to the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is to allow the Jewish community to express its views on CIJA priorities.
It could also be true that CIJA is in part responding to criticisms of its work from some elements in the Canadian Jewish community who feel the organization is too elitist and too pro-Netanyahu. “The reality is that Canada has a rich diversity of Jewish voices. You will find few reflected in the work of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs,” wrote Citizen columnist Andrew Cohen.
“From confronting BDS and strengthening ties with Israel, to enhancing Jewish community security and empowering social services agencies, everything we accomplish is because of you. Be part of our work. Make your voice heard. Participate in a grassroots community consultation this January.” –– CIJA website.
Consultations are planned in 9 major Canadian cities from Halifax to Vancouver. CIJA’s summary of the results of the Toronto and Ottawa consultations held last week are already available online.
What happened in Ottawa?
About 50 members of the Ottawa Jewish community turned out to participate in the well-orchestrated 2 hour session held at the Jewish Community Centre.
The consultation was led by CIJA staffer Martin Sampson who describes himself as a “pro-peace, pro-Palestinian, staunchly pro-Israel, non-Jewish Zionist”. In his introduction Sampson indicated that all views were welcome. He began by reminding participants of CIJA’s three main priority areas:
- Defense of Israel
- Defense of Jews in Canada
- Development of the Jewish Community in Canada
He then showed participants a slide with CIJA’s current top ten priority areas.
After this brief introduction, participants were divided into 5 tables of 10 and asked for their thoughts on what CIJA’s priorities should be. Sampson emphasised that priorities could be selected from CIJA’s list, or other topics could be added. At tables, each participant was invited to share his/her ideas, and at the end of approximately 3/4 hour, a facilitator tried to summarize and identify common priorities.
At the Ottawa meeting, the concerns of those in attendance pretty well reflected CIJA’s existing priorities.
Participants appeared to be a lot more concerned about defending Israel (e.g. fighting BDS) than they were about defending Jews in Canada from anti-semitism or promoting community development. In my group community development was never raised at all and fears about anti-semitism were only mentioned in the context of pro- and anti-BDS tensions on university campuses. Nobody mentioned, for example a spate of vandalism against Synagogues and the Jewish community centre in Ottawa just before Christmas. (A mosque and a church were also vandalized at the time.)
At my table ALL the participants (save me) were Zionists, but there were some differences in their attachment to Israel. While most wanted CIJA to be more vigorous in defending Israel, a few expressed the concern that they did not want CIJA to support everything Israel does.
At one other table, concern for encouraging a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians was mentioned.
However, the bulk of the comments were in the other direction. Here are a couple that struck me:
- One person expressed anxiety that “Zionism has become a 4 letter word”
- Another was angry about “media bias against Israel”
- A third thought CIJA should “bring back Stephen Harper”.
CIJA organizers admit that it is not possible to say how well/poorly the views of this group of 50 reflect the views of the larger Jewish community in the Ottawa region, estimated at around 11,000. It seems likely that this group represented more of the “hard line” Zionist Ottawa community, but this is conjecture. It seems reasonable to assume that many Jews who are not as interested in politics, or as attached to Israel, found other things to do on a Sunday afternoon.
A couple of non Zionist Jews (both associated with Independent Jewish Voices Canada) made thoughtful interventions and were treated with respect. Despite being clearly neither Jewish nor a Zionist, I was treated with cautious friendliness by the organizers. And while some of the individual participants were rather “cool” towards me, others made a point of introducing themselves and asking me more about my views (and about the course on Israel/Palestine I give at Carleton University) at the end of the consultation session.
Overall, I think anyone interested in understanding the fears and concerns of this segment of the Jewish community would find these sessions informative. A full list of the remaining seminars in other cities, as well as CIJA’s summary of the results so far is available on CIJA’s Grassroots consultation website.
“Raise the issue, but lower the temperature”
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