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Zach Fleisher

 

Zach Fleisher

SWITCHING SIDES: THE SHIFT IN JEWISH POLITICAL SUPPORT IN CANADA

By Zach Fleisher, June 15, 2010

Zach Fleisher graduated from the Gray Academy of Jewish Education in May, 2010.

Since the advent of proportional and parliamentary democracy, various political parties and systems have relied on the strength of different ethnic groups and populations. This phenomenon is quite prominent with the North America. For example, George Wallace led his American Independent Party to victories in several states in the 1968 Presidential Election, on a platform that appealed to white, rural and Christian voters against de-segregation. Since the 1960’s, the Democratic Party has always attempted to appeal to African Americans, painting itself as a champion of civil and racial rights. Within Canada, the New Democratic Party has often appealed to recent immigrants and members of the working and lower classes within Canada. One of the most notable cases of wooing voters and general political party strength is that of the Jews within North America. 

Jews began arriving in North America en masse in the early 20th century, in order to escape the pogroms within Russia and Eastern Europe. These early Jewish immigrants were poor, having represented Europe’s lower class for centuries. As a result, they often formed enclaves, with thousands of Jews living in very, small tight neighbourhoods, much like the shtetls of Europe. These Jews often were involved in industry jobs, with a large number of them working in the garment industry. Because of this involvement, and their lower class status, Jewish political support often rested on the progressive, socialist and radical places on the political spectrum. It is believed that this support was gathered for two main reasons. First of all, some of the beginnings of communism and radical socialism had taken place in Jewish shtetls in Easter Europe and the Jews brought over a lot of these ideologies and attitudes to North America . Second of all, the left within North America was supportive of the Jews plight, as they represented both the immigrant and working classes. This level of socialist radicalism reached its peak in the 1920s and 1930s, and was clearly relevant in the 1935 Canadian election, where the riding of Winnipeg North, with its large Jewish population, featured two leftist candidates who actively pursued the Jewish vote: Tim Buck of the Communist Party of Canada and Abraham Heaps, a Jewish candidate for the Canadian Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the predecessor to New Democratic Party (NDP). Within Winnipeg, this tradition of radicalism continued in the Jewish community with the consistent r-election of Joe Zuken of the Communist Party of Canada as the north end’s representative on City Council.

As time passed, Jews began to become more affluent within their respective communities, and started to move up in terms of social status. By the 1950s, quotas on Jewish doctors and university students were lifted, and many Jews were able to freely pursue their education and their chosen career path. As Jews began to take advantage of these new opportunities, the radical element of their politics began to fade. However, this did not mean that that they shifted their views to the right and became Conservatives, for they still continued to support progressive and liberal causes and ideologies, with some emphasis on social action and justice. In Canada, for much of the mid 20th century, Jews supported parties like the CCF and the NDP. Jews would come out in droves to vote for Jewish candidates such as David Orlikow, Saul Miller and Sidney Green. As in America however, when the Jews began to become more affluent and accepted within Canadian culture and society their politics changed, shifting more towards the centre left Liberal Party of Canada (LPC), which responded by appointing the first Jew to cabinet, Herb Gray. Jewish support for the Liberal Party of Canada likely reached its highest levels in the early 1970’s; according to the Toronto Start, Jewish polling levels for the party regularly reached levels 20% higher than the national numbers. On the rare occasion when Jews didn’t support the LPC or the NDP, their support drifted only as a far as the moderate Progressive Conservatives. These Red Tories included Sidney Spivak, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba, and his wife Mira Spivak, who was later named to the Senate.

Despite this enormous voting history of Jewish in Canada, it appears as if the Jewish vote is beginning to shift to the right. However, because voting statistics within Canada are suspect at best in regards to determining the ethnic vote, one has to look at the clear evidence that the Jewish vote is shifting to the right. One primary example of this shift is the electoral performance within the district of Thornhill, Ontario, an area that is unique among Canadian ridings in that the plurality of its residents are Jewish. As the Jewish population had traditionally voted Liberal, Thornhill had almost always been represented by Jewish Members of Parliament. For the first few years, it was represented by Elinor Caplan, one of the most prominent Jewish members of the Liberal Party of Canada. Caplan usually cleaned up at the polls on election night. In the 2000 election, she garnered 64.49% of the vote, a victory that demonstrated that the predominantly Jewish voters in Thornhill overwhelmingly supported her, even against the Jewish Canadian Alliance candidate, Robert Goldin. Clearly, both the voters and Jewish voters within Thornhill supported progressive and liberal policies.

By the 2004 Canadian Federal election, a noticeable trend began to occur. Ridings with notable Jewish populations, among them Thornhill, began to start shifting towards the Conservative Party of Canada. By then, Caplan had retired and was not running for re-election. The Liberal Party of Canada had selected another Jewish candidate, Susan Kadis, to run, but the results were shocking. Kadis lost 10% of the vote in terms of voting percentage, while the Conservative Party of Canada and New Democratic Party’s candidates both gained over three percentage points. This was only the foreshadowing of what was to come. While the gains and losses in the 2006 election were minimal, the big news arrived in the most recent election (October, 2008). The Conservative Party of Canada decided to run an established media personality, Peter Kent, previously an anchor for Global News. Despite not being Jewish, Peter Kent was able to defeat the incumbent Member of Parliament by 5,200 votes. He gained 26,660 votes and 49.01% of the vote to Kadis’s 21,448 votes and 39.43% support. Not only was it shocking that Peter Kent won the seat; but that his substantial gains in percentage came mainly at the expense of Kadis. At the same time, the New Democratic candidate, Simon Strelchik, posted an insignificant loss in percentage and the Green Party of Canada candidate, Nobert Koehl, posted a percentage gain.

Similar shifts to the Conservative Party took place in ridings with concentrated Jewish populations across Canada during the 2004, 2006 and 2008 federal elections. The Mount Royal riding provides an extremely interesting example of this phenomenon. Historically, this riding has consistently turned out high popular voting levels for prominent Jewish Liberals such as Sheila Finestone, Irwin Cotler, with Cotler garnering a remarkable 92.0% of the votes in a 1999 by-election. As in Thornhill, the shift began during the 2004 federal election, where Cotler lost approximately 5.5% of the popular vote from the previous election, where he had collected an incredible 81.2%. Unlike in Thornhill, Mount Royal’s voters actually strayed away from the Conservative Party of Canada’s candidate, Matthew Fireman, who lost -1% off of the party’s previous showing, and instead distributed the vote lost by Cotler among the Bloc Quebecois, New D

 
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