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Mira Sucharov

Refocusing Jewish groups towards AIPAC-style Israel advocacy could make them less relevant

by Mira Suchaov and Mira Oreck,posted June 2011 originally published at

With the imminent folding of the Canadian Jewish Congress into a large, umbrella group, those who wish to preserve the most vibrant aspects of the tradition of multicultural politics in Canada have cause for concern. What has been an important legacy of domestic social-justice priorities is in danger of being abandoned, and the critical opportunity for encouraging more constructive engagement with Israel may also be squandered.

All reports from the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy’s (CIJA) closed-door meetings suggest that it is leaning towards the inevitable merger of several groups (including the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and the Canada Israel Committee (CIC)) into one organization geared predominantly towards Israel advocacy. This amalgamation would not only be a symbolic loss for the Canadian Jewish community, but would be a strategic error that could cost the community its most important support base: the next generation of critically engaged citizens.

This merger would create the impression that the Jewish community stands unified on all issues, and that it has a singular focus on Israel, when, in fact, neither statement is true. By diluting its domestic agenda and sidelining the variety of voices that exist among Canadian Jews – and particularly among the younger generation – the organized Jewish community would be further narrowing its base.

The social-justice agenda of the CJC has always attracted a wide cross-section of community members. For some, this was because of a passion for the defence of the Jewish community in the face of anti-Semitism. For others, it was because of a belief that Canadian Jews have a responsibility to advocate not only for themselves, but also for other communities at risk.

Many within the Canadian Jewish community have argued that streamlining the domestic and international agendas makes sense given the perceived relationship between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. But this logic breaks down when one realizes that Canadian Jews – including many solidly Zionist groups – do not automatically agree with every action that Israel takes.

In order for this new organization to enjoy widespread legitimacy, it would have to apply the same civil-rights standards to Israel that the CJC has long advocated for in Canada. This would mean being willing to challenge the Israeli government on actions that compromise Israel’s democratic values and Jewish ideals. The new organization would have to be willing to accept that criticizing Israeli policies is no different than criticizing Canadian policies. It would have to admit that critiquing Israeli politics is not necessarily a betrayal of the Jewish state, but rather an expression of the democratic character of modern Zionism itself.

Any Israel advocacy organization trying to engage the generation of Jews for whom connection to Israel no longer means automatically supporting all of its policies needs to consider pressing Israel towards making critical concessions for peace, including on issues related to West Bank settlements.

One has to imagine that the leaders of CIJA have been closely following the Jewish political developments south of the border, where Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League is losing his stature as a tireless civil-rights hero and gaining a reputation as a hardline supporter of Israel’s most stubborn and controversial actions, while, at the same time, organizations such as J Street that are offering a clear alternative are rapidly gaining supporters. If this experience has taught us anything, it is that domestic issues of concern to the Jewish community and uncritical advocacy efforts on behalf of Israel do not belong together.

The new CIJA-sponsored organization hopes to make a mark through a unified operational base. A big-tent approach certainly has its merits, but only if it is truly pluralistic. Given the mainstream Jewish community’s record on Israel advocacy, however, we have our doubts that this will be the case.

We are concerned that this new umbrella organization will stifle critical thinking and civic engagement by attempting to mimic the uncompromising policy tilt of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in the United States and discredit any legitimate efforts towards civil rights in Canada. An organization of this nature may groom good public-relations spokespeople, but it will not necessarily create critically engaged citizens.

Now is the time to rethink Canadian Jewish advocacy and engagement with Israel. Is it going to be reactionary or reflective? Will it gain inspiration from a backward-looking siege mentality or a more expansive possible future?

The time is ripe for a renewed investment in an independent Jewish advocacy organization – one that supports civic engagement and debate, and one that is not afraid to push Israel on issues of critical importance to democracy, long-term regional stability, and universal human rights. This would be good for the Canadian Jewish community, and it would be good for Canada.

[This was originally published in ]

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