Canadian Jews debate democracy and the future of Israel

An unprecedented public debate has broken out among Canadian Jews about the ongoing protests in Israel and the role of various Jewish organizations in Canada. A lot of the fire has been aimed at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs for attempting to stifle criticism of the right wing and anti-democratic agenda of the current Israeli government. A few of the critics have even raised the issue of equal rights for Palestinians. Read more.

Eighty six percent of Jewish Canadians say “caring about Israel” is either essential or important to their Jewish identity, according to a 2018 poll by Environics. Its an impressive statistic.

But that doesn’t mean that they all agree on what they would like Israel to be. A fierce public ebate has broken out among Canadian Jews regarding the Israeli government’s political agenda and how the Canadian Jewish community should respond.

A first salvo was launched on March 17th by columnist Andrew Cohen whose op ed in the Globe and Mail entitled “The unspeakable silence of the Canadian Jewish Establishment”, was aimed straight at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and its head Shlomo Fogel. “Today no one believes CIJA speaks for Canadian Jewry..” argues Cohen. “It champions Israel, about which, let it be said, its chief executive officer, Shimon Fogel, cannot utter a discouraging word.”

The riposte was not long in coming. In a sharp article published four days later, Yais Szlak, Adam Minsky and Exra Shanken representatives of three of largest Jewish Federations in Canada jumped to CIJA’s defense. “The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), has the full support of Canada’s Jewish Federations”. they wrote. It was a direct rebuttal of Cohen’s article without mentioning him by name.

Old debates – now going public

It is new that this debate among Jews is taking place in public, and it is also new that major mainstream media like the Globe and Mail is publishing it for all of Canada to see.

Jewish Canadians are similar to other Canadians in their support for the Canadian ideals of democracy, human rights and equality. This makes it difficult for them when it comes to Israel. In a heartfelt article entitled For this Canadian Jew, my relationship with Israel is complicated, Marsha Lederman wrote “You can love a country and hate what it’s doing.”

Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, (…) is a man whose views are so abhorrent that in his home, he hung a picture of the Jewish terrorist who killed 29 Palestinians at a 1994 massacre in Hebron”, she continued. “He is a man who on election night last November, declared that it was time for “us” to be the landlords of the country. The implication being that others would be the tenants, at best.

The Globe and Mail was not the only major media to reflect the intra-Jewish debate in its pages. On March 31, Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton and University of Ottawa professor Joel Westheimer warned about democracy “backsliding” in Israel in an article in the Ottawa Citizen. But they also went further, pointing out that for Palestinians democracy has never been on the Israeli agenda.

“Its not lost on us that Palestinians never enjoyed the rights that 700,000 Israelis are now marching for.”, they argued. “Canadian as well as American Jewish organizations have a responsibility to speak out directly in the name of democracy and of fundamental human rights for both Jews and Palestinians,

The debate among Canadian Jews is civilised compared to the intensity of the discussions among Jews south of the border. In a short video entitled “An interesting afternoon at Washington Square” American Jewish intellectual and political commentator Peter Beinart, explains how he was invited to speak at a rally for Israeli democracy, but was then shouted down when he dared to mention rights for Palestinians.

What would it take for Israel to be truly democratic?

While legitimately concerned about their own rights, it seems that few of the demonstrators on Israel’s streets are concerned about the democratic rights of the 20% of Israel’s population who is not Jewish, and even less about the millions of Palestinians who live under Israeli military occupation or as refugees not allowed to return home.

But Palestinians have been thinking for a long time about what real democracy in Israel would look like. In 2007, the Palestinian Israeli human rights organization Adalah published a draft constitution for Israel which would really set the basis for equality of all of its citizens. Its proposal is based on the concept of a democratic, bilingual, multicultural state. It draws on universal principles and international conventions on human rights, the experiences of nations and the constitutions of various democratic states.

Progressive Canadian Jews might want to consider what steps would be necessary to make Israel truly democratic not just for Jews, but for ALL its citizens.


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 Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

Want to learn more about us? Go to Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine

4 comments

  1. A one democratic state for both Palestinian Arabs (Christians, Droose & Muslims) and Israeli (Jews) is the best solution for a reasonably sustainable solution. Otherwise they will be wars …

  2. Thanks for this Peter. The short video by Peter Beinart was so passionate and compelling in speaking up for Palestinian rights. And as he rightly pointed out maintaining the judicial status quo is little comfort to the Palestinians.

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