As Holocaust Memorial day returns, a survey of Canadian Jews explores “Jewishness” and its relationship to the State of Israel

holocaust day ceremony ottawaHolocaust Memorial ceremony in Ottawa on April 21st. Canadian Jews remain traumatized by the memory of the 6 million Jews who were deliberately murdered by Nazis. A recent survey of Canadian Jews by the Environics Institute shows the memory of the horrors of the Holocaust looms large in their attachment to the State of Israel. But it also showed some surprising differences between Canadian Jews and their American counterparts.  Read more…

There are about 400,000 people in Canada who identify as Jews, or about 1.2% of the total Canadian population. 82% of them are concentrated in 4 Canadian cities: Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Canadian Jews tend to be well off (though not all), well educated and well connected. Jews make a considerable contribution to Canada in many fields including arts, culture and education.

The strong attachment of the majority of Canadian Jews to the idea of a Jewish State, and their political and economic importance in Canadian society make the “Israel lobby” an important factor in Canadian foreign policy – particularly with respect to the middle east. Those who would like to change Canadian policy toward a more “balanced” approach can benefit from a deeper understanding of the “Jewish experience” in Canada.

A landmark study of Canadian Jewry carried out by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, published in March last year, has 84 pages of interesting information about Jewish identity, religious practice, experience with discrimination, intermarriage and feelings toward Israel, among other topics.

1 - 3 education

80% of Canadian Jews have a bachelors degree, three times the Canadian average. (Statistics Canada)

It paints a portrait of a community that is educated, cohesive and urban. It has markedly lower rates of intermarriage and assimilation than in the United States. But it remains fearful of anti-Semitism and retains strong emotional connection to Israel. 

At a recent public meeting at the Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa, Dr. Keith Neuman, Executive Director of the Environics Research Institute reviewed some of the key findings. Some of the findings were particularly interesting for those interested in understanding (and influencing) the attitudes of Canadian Jews with respect to the Israel/Palestine issue.

Please find below a listing of a few of the interesting findings (the report lists more than 25 in all) complete with excellent graphs. A good deal of the text below is taken directly from the clear explanations in the report itself with a minimal editing by CTIP

Finding 1:

Canadian Jews are more religiously conservative than American Jews

3 - 1 by denomination

There are several different Jewish denominations of which the largest are called “Conservative”, “Orthodox”, “Reform” and “Reconstructionist”. For a discussion of the history and differences, better refer to Wikipedia or your favorite source.

In Canada, the Conservative Jewish denomination is the strongest. This is in marked contrast to the US, where Reform is considerably stronger.

Finding 2:

Canadian Jews tend to have mostly Jewish friends

3 - 6 jewish friendsCanadian Jews have a high tendency to form friendship with other Jews. “Jewishness” appears to be more important to Canadian Jews than “Catholicism” is to Catholics or “Anglicanism” is Anglicans.
Apart from formal membership and affiliations, being Jewish is felt to be about social connections with family and friends.

More than half report that either all or most of their current friends are Jewish, compared with those who say only some, hardly any or none of them are Jewish.

As with many other aspects of Jewish life covered in this survey, American Jews are much more open to forming friendships non-Jews; only one-third of American Jews say that all or most of their friends are Jewish.

Finding 3:

90% of Canadian Jews are raised with “Jewish” upbringing and worry about assimilation4 - 1 parents and upbringing

The vast majority of Canadian Jews have two Jewish parents and were brought up in the Jewish religion. This is in contrast to the experience of American Jews, who are much more likely to have “mixed” parents.

Membership in the Jewish religious community is based primarily on parentage (usually the mother)  — unlike other world religions, in which membership is unrelated to ethnicity.

jewish experience crowd

On March 4th, Dr. Keith Neuman of the Environics Institute outlined the results of a new study into the “Jewish experience in Canada” to a predominantly Jewish audience in Ottawa

Like many other ethnic groups, Canadian Jews continue to worry about being assimilated. When shown statistics on the frequency with which American Jews “marry out” (i.e. marry a non-Jew), (“I have hundreds of assimilated cousins in the USA“, noted Newman), the audience of Ottawa Jews showed some concern.  There was discussion about whether this trend would eventually come to Canada, and how to stop it

In a follow up discussion with one of the panelists, I asked whether she thought Jews would also feel concern if told that young Muslim Canadians were to start assimilating into the mainstream. “Probably not,” she said, explaining that “the post-holocaust Jewish fear of extermination (among Canadian Jews) motivates a strong desire to keep the group intact.”

Being Jewish in Canada often means participating in “Jewish education”. This can include attendance at an overnight summer camp, or Hebrew school or Sunday school. Close to one-half of Canadian Jews have attended a Jewish day school or yeshiva and have done so for an average of nine years.

Just over four in ten adult Canadian Jews report having attended one of these types of schools. This is almost twice the proportion of American Jews with a similar experience.

A panelist at the Ottawa event noted that Jews who do 7 years of Hebrew school are far less likely to “marry out”. By a show of hands, at least 2/3 had either attended Hebrew school or a Jewish overnight summer camp. Several remarked that it had been a formative part of their youth.

Finding 4:

Canadian Jews are particularly aware of and sensitive to discrimination against all minorities in Canada

6 - 1 perceived discriminationMost Canadian Jews claim to be “liberal” in their political values.

Canadian Jews are much more likely to recognize discrimination experienced by Indigenous Peoples (60%), Muslims (51%) and Black people (49%), and to a lesser extent gays and lesbians (38%) than is the general Canadian population.

The survey examined perceptions of the frequency of discrimination experienced by Jews, as well as that of five other marginalized groups in Canada as a basis of comparison. These results can be compared with the views of the population at large through other Environics Institute research.

Many Ottawa Jews have been involved in a range of human rights/anti-discrimination activities, including being active in welcoming (mostly Muslim) Syrian refugees, for example.

But on the other hand, at the Ottawa meeting there was also a recognition that being Jewish in Canada today is a considerable advantage. “My Judaism confers a white privilege on me”, noted one of the panelists.

6 - personal discrimination

Most Canadian Jews believe that Jews in Canada experience discrimination.  One-third say they believe Jews “often” experience discrimination in this country,  while another 50 percent say this happens “sometimes”. Only a few indicating it takes place rarely (11%) or never (2%). Newman noted that survey data shows that most Canadians don’t believe that discrimination against Jews is very widespread.

Some of Jewish perception of discrimination against Jews may relate to the Israel/Palestine situation. In recent years, the actions and policies of Israel have attracted criticism from outside the community (and have even divided Canadian Jews).  This situation has put many Jews in an uncomfortable position when these issues become a topic of conversation or debate. A significant proportion of Canadian Jews say they have been criticized for defending actions of the State of Israel in the past 12 months. (Of course, the reverse can also be true. Jews who are seen to criticize Israel too strongly can be accused of being “self-hating” by other Jews.)

Finding 5:

Compared to American Jews, Canadian Jews are more emotionally attached to Israel, travel there more often and spend more time there

7- 1 connection to IsraelAlmost half of Jews in Canada say they are very emotionally attached to Israel, with another three in ten somewhat attached, and only one in five feeling not very attached at all.

Most have visited the country at least once, with many having made multiple trips.(This identification with Israel was evident at the meeting itself held in the Solway Jewish Community Centre (JCC) decorated with equal numbers of Israeli and Canadian flags.)

By comparison, only 30 percent of American Jews say they are very attached to Israel, with an equal proportion who feel not very or not at all attached.

7 - 2 travel to israelFor many Jews, attachment to Israel is reflected in time spent in the country.

Eight in ten Canadian Jews say they have visited Israel at least once. Many  have been to Israel three or more times.

By comparison, only four in ten American Jews have ever been to Israel.

Among those who have visited the country at least once, one in five lived in Israel for a period of six months.

Another seven per cent of Canadian Jews report being born in Israel, although their reasons for leaving and moving to Canada were not recorded.

Finding 6:

Many Canadian Jews distrust the Israeli government’s peace efforts  but they distrust the Palestinian leadership even more

7 - 3 - commitment to peaceHow do Canadian Jews view the Israeli and Palestinian governments? Regarding the Israeli side only 35 percent believing the current Israeli leadership is making a sincere effort to bring about a settlement, compared with 44 percent who disagree, and another 21 percent who have no clear opinion. 

There is considerably more agreement among Canadian Jews about the current Palestinian leadership, with only seven percent saying it is making a sincere effort for peace, compared with 76 percent who disagree and another 18 percent who do not express a clear opinion.

Finding 7:

Nearly half of Canadian Jews really think “God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people”. The other half don’t agree or aren’t sure.

One of the central obstacles to any resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict is the belief that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people. Canadian Jews are evenly divided on this. Forty two percent say “yes”, and forty one percent don’t believe this is literally true. The remaining 17% do not express a clear opinion either way.

Not surprisingly, belief in the land being granted by God is most widely held among Jews who are Orthodox/Modern Orthodox (75%)

Conclusion

The relatively self-referential nature of the Jewish community in Canada is reflected in its education and friendship patterns, its post traumatic fears about the Holocaust (and a possible resurgence of anti-Semitism), and its consensus around the necessity of having a Jewish State. That near consensus among 400,000 Canadian Jews explains in large measure the effectiveness of the so-called Israel lobby in shaping Canadian public opinion and public policy towards a pro-Israel position. (There is nothing comparable in Canada on the Palestinian side of the equation.)

Not all Canadian Jews agree with Zionism of course. But the Environics survey seems to support the notion that the overwhelming majority of Jews feel very attached to the idea of a “Jewish State” – even if they might have strong criticisms to make of some of the actions of the Israeli government.

A deeper appreciation of the “Jewish Experience” will help non Jews understand what Canadian Jews think and why they think it. Those who would like to change Canadian policy toward a more “balanced” approach on the Israel/Palestine issue should check out the “2018 Survey of Jews in Canada”, by Environics Research.

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Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue.

Want to learn more about what we do? Go to http://www.ottawaforumip.org.

Contact us at: ofip.chair@gmail.com.

18 comments

  1. Thank you Peter for bringing this study to our attention. It is as you say making a significant contribution in understanding the Canadian Jewish community and its relationship to Israel.

    What is less obvious (at least to me) is understanding how we might be able to pursue the holy grail of Israel/Palestine activists i.e. “changing Canadian policy toward a more “balanced” approach on the Israel/Palestine issue” with or without the “2018 Survey of Jews in Canada”, by Environics Research.” Share some specific ideas or thoughts might be very helpful.

    1. Hey Robert, thank you.
      Your question is well posed and certainly too large to be dealt with here.

      Here is one point I would start with.

      I think the survey data points to the fact that most of the 400,000 or so Canadian Jews are haunted by fears. (Whether you and I believe those fears to be exaggerated or even “cultivated” is not really relevant.) The fear is real enough.

      Those fears push them to embrace Zionism, which is today the overwhelming consensus in the Canadian Jewish community.

      My observation from my university courses and church lectures, is that most Canadians think those fears about threats to Jews have some legitimacy. That leads them to support – at least passively – the idea of a Jewish State even if they have some strong criticisms of it. In other words, even though they wouldn’t describe themselves as “pro Zionist”, that is their political position.

      Others may disagree with me. Perhaps we need a separate discussion about this.

      1. Peter,
        You wrote, “Whether you and I believe those fears to be exaggerated or even “cultivated” is not really relevant.” It is relevant because it determines what we should do to make things better. If the fear is of something real and not exaggerated, we need to work to remove the cause of that fear. If the fear is exaggerated, we need to find ways to make that apparent to the fearful. If the fear is deliberately cultivated, we need to make that clear to all involved.

        In my view, fear of persecution is real but the belief that persecution is unique to Jews is cultivated. When people understand the persecution suffered by other people in other times and at other places, they will realize that the way to protect Jews is to fight persecution against all groups and not to try to protect Jews at the expense of other groups.

      2. good points. (as usual)
        IMHO the fear has a small but legitimate basis in Canada, is often exaggerated, and also cultivated by those with an agenda.

  2. Thank you Peter, very well written piece, I suspect that most of the differences that the survey ‘revealed’ between US and Canadian Jews can be attributed to a single reason : the surveyed Canadian group that identified itself as Jewish was the core element of the Jewish community while in the US it included a wider more inclusive group with some of the periphery of the Jewish community
    (Think about the John Goodman character in the Coen’s brothers movie “Big Lebowski”)

  3. There are clear differences between Canadians and Americans so nobody should be surprised that there are differences between American Jews and Canadian Jews. The higher cohesiveness of the Canadian Jewish community is in part attributable to the government’s policy about subcultures. While Canada touts multiculturalism, the US stresses that it is a “melting pot” – a policy that encourages assimilation.

    On the other hand, this post does not address the question that bothers me the most. How can so many people who, lime myself went to Hebrew School can support a policy that violates so much of what I was taught therel. The principles that I learned in those classes (and in services )would not permit me to do what Israel does. It is as if Israel has added an exception to each commandment, e.g., “You shall not steal except from Palestinians”. The Settlers, who appear to be very orthodox and religious, seem the most likely to do this. They can recite the Torah and then walk outside to destroy Palestinian trees and buildings. It is hard to understand and I wish someone could explain it to me.

    1. Hello David Lorge Parnas: You wrote:

      “How can so many people who, lime myself went to Hebrew School can support a policy that violates so much of what I was taught therel. The principles that I learned in those classes (and in services )would not permit me to do what Israel does. It is as if Israel has added an exception to each commandment, e.g., “You shall not steal except from Palestinians”. The Settlers, who appear to be very orthodox and religious, seem the most likely to do this. They can recite the Torah and then walk outside to destroy Palestinian trees and buildings. It is hard to understand and I wish someone could explain it to me.”

      Orrthodox Jews make up an important component of the settler movement, but many settlers are not orthodox. The people who you refer to who “destroy Palestinian trees and buildings” represent a tiny fringe of extremists. Such criminal behaviour is deplorable and there are Israelis who work actively to thwart it. But to talk about settlers in general as people who destroy Palestinian trees and buildings is very much to misunderstand them.

      I am taking “settler” here to mean any Israeli who is living in the territories that were captured in 1967. This is the broadest possible definition which even includes my sister who lives in a Jewish neighbourhood in what used to be no man’s land in Jerusalem. If that is what is meant by settler, I know many settlers and none of them have ever damaged Palestinian trees or buildings, nor would they support such activity.

      The majority of settlers live where they do for non-ideological reasons and try their best to get along with their Palestinian neighbours. A smaller group are there because they believe that they are doing holy work by settling in territory which is part of the land of Israel. I know some of these people and they too mostly want to live on good terms with their Palestinian neighbours. They expect to be protected by the Israeli military from violence, but they are not themselves looking for conflict.

      A small group of extremists have racist or ultra-nationalist views and favour finding a way to expell the Palestinian population. There are elements in this group that regard the present Israeli government as insufficiently zealous and have little respect for Israeli law.

      For a very good exposition of the history and the different currents within the settler movement (as well as that of the Israeli peace movement which arose during the same era), I recommend Yossi Klein Halevi’s book “Like Dreamers.”

      1. Dear Mr. Roytenberg,

        We all know that no large group such as the Israelis who are living in the territories that Israel occupied in 1967 is homogeneous.

        Obviously, they are not all as hate-filled, super-nationalistic, and bigoted as the extremists who seem to act as their spokespeople or those who go out of their way to interfere with the Palestinian Arabs who are trying to eke out a living on the ever-shrinking areas remaining for them.

        Not all celebrate triumphantly as the settlements and roads reserved for them grow inexorably. Not all claim to be doing “holy work” by settling in territory that they claim as part of the land of Israel. Surely, some are not motivated by a desire to do a Mitzvah (a good deed done from religious duty) but simply find that they can have more space at a better price than they could get if they remained in the area that Israel claimed to accept in the 1940s.

        We know that many would be willing to live on good terms with their Palestinian neighbours as long as those neighbours do not try to claim land that they were forced to leave or rights that they have lost.

        However, all of them are part of a system that keeps taking houses and land from people who have no place to go and giving it to other people (many of whom have left safe comfortable homes to come to a place where they believe they can make a myth come true).

        All of them seem to me to be violating the precepts that I was taught in my childhood synegogue and I do not understand how people who claim to identify as Jewish can support that. I wish that the survey had asked respondents how they reconcile their support for Israeli policy with what we were taught as children.

  4. This is a fair and accurate portrait of the relationship of Canadian Jews to Israel. Thanks for explaining the situation so well.

  5. Thanks for this, Peter. Very interesting. A few of the questions were a bit biased but the picture painted is helpful and probably fairly accurate. Daina

  6. Hi Peter
    Thanks for summarizing the report, which shed light on things I was not aware of before. In addition, the comments have also been very interesting to read.
    Despite the many differences pointed out in the report between American and Canadian Jews, the Israel lobbies in both countries seem to exert considerable influence on government policy, generally favorable to Israel.

  7. This thread touches on three fundamental aspects which must be dealt with if anything positive is ever to develop in Israel-Palestine:
    1/ “fear” real or imagined or anticipated etc. cannot be a carte blanche or “get out of jail” card. There are ways to deal with fear besides Israel’s record of actions and policies. There has been zero pushback from west on this excuse.
    2/ related to above, Jews throughout the world must open their eyes and stop ignoring the core dissonance between their religious/cultural credo and their political agenda/actions. Start to live your universal beliefs vs tribal interests.
    3/ stop absolving members and groups profiting from a settler-colonial enterprise whether is ideological, religious, economic or plain ignorance. Motivation does not matter – the action of creating victims does.

    Clearly all 3 above observations have to do with Israelis, Zionists and Jews. However much the western mainstream narrative try to place the burden of “peace” or “quiet” on Palestinians or Arabs or Muslims, they are not the issue or cause. This is not to say they are non-actors or incidental but they are not the “drivers” of the conflict. If Israel-Palestine was truly resolved in a fair and just manner by abandoning Zionism and working towards the last remaining “solution” – One Democratic State for all citizens with equitable compensation and affirmative action to not leave Palestinians 80+years in the political-economic hole we would have more peace in the region than at any other time in last 120 years. It may not be perfect but it would not be any worse than most regions in the world today.

    1. Hey Lou, The Environics report answers how they defined who is a Jew for the purposes of the survey.
      For me, in Canada, I is a matter of self definition – a “Jew” is anyone who says they are Jewish, just like I would accept anyone saying they are “Catholic” or “Quebecois”.
      In Israel, however, being a Jew is different. It is a legal category that confers rights to Jews but not to others.

      1. Peter, It is not that simple. Lou’s question is a good one. There are many Jews, including many Rabbis, who would not agree with your definition. Recall that after the attack on a Pittsburgh Synagogue, a Rabbi in Israel opined that the building was not a Synagogue. The opinions about people with some non-Jewish ancestors and about converts are especially varied. It is easy to find Rabbis who will not accept converts by certain broadly respected Rabbis as Jewish. I have seen Zionists refer to organizations like IJV as “so-called” Jewish organizations. The best that writers or speakers can do is to begin by stating the definition that they are using.

      2. thank you David. I am not attempting to define who is/is not a Jew. I know that even Jews debate this.
        I am happy to accept however people identify themselves.

    2. To Peter’s response, we have to accept an individual’s self-identification just as we would Catholic or Quebecois. To do anything else opens up a can of worms and puts us into twilight zone of irresolveable question with multiple claims to authority and exclusive jurisdiction.

      Should we get caught up with the question you pose, however much interesting, it would tie us up into paralysis or silence about the question at hand which has to do with settler-colonialism and justice. I know this is not your intention, but we need to be cautious not to fall in such logical, rhetorical traps. The question can be legitimately posed on its own (academic, cultural or religious etc) but without having it become a stumbling point or red herring taking away from the larger discussion such as the one we are having in this thread.

      Respectfully,
      Robert M

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