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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 Democratic and Green Parties. The real change took place in the 2006 federal election, when Cotler collected a share of the vote 10.5% (65.1%) lower than his 2004 turnout. This time, the Conservative Party candidate Neil Martin Drabkin, reaped the rewards of Cotler’s loss. In the 2008 federal election the trend continued, with Rafael Tzoubari of the Conservative Party of Canada increasing his share by 9.5%, to 27.3%, while Cotler lost a numerical mirror image in support; losing 9.4% of his support as his final share of the vote fell to 55.6%. In eight years, one of the most popular and internationally renowned and respected members of Parliament has seen his share of the popular vote drop by 25%. Clearly, something is afoot.

Similar changes have taken place across Canada. Winnipeg South Centre, a riding with a significant Jewish population and a Jewish Member of Parliament, has also seen a rise in the CPC’s fortunes. During the 2006 Federal election, incumbent Liberal Party Member of Parliament Anita Neville saw her share in the popular vote drop by 7.4%, while the CPC candidate Michael Richards increased his party’s showing by 4.5%. While Neville was able to increase her share in the popular vote in the 2008 Federal Election, her showing was still indicative of this current trend. She increased her share (3.0%) of the vote against a weak Conservative Party candidate, Trevor Kennerd, who was still able to increase his party’s share in the vote by 4.8%. As well, the riding was represented by a mediocre New Democratic Party candidate, student Rachel Heinrichs, who lost an astounding 7.7% share of the popular vote in comparison to her party’s showing in the previous election in the riding. It is also likely that Neville received a fair amount of New Democratic leaning voters who may have voted Liberal in order to prevent a national Conservative majority government. As it turns out, Neville was the only Liberal Member of Parliament elected across the entire Prairie region, in what turned out to be a near Conservative sweep.

Without question, the Jews of Canada have begun to support the Conservative Party of Canada more with every election. The real question is why this support has turned. While one must acknowledge the Jews movement into financial affluence, we must look beyond their increased wealth and social standing. There are several reasons why the Jewish vote might be moving towards the right. But before we can examine that issue, we must examine why the Conservative Party of Canada might want to woo the Jewish vote in the first place.

In 2003, after years of in party fighting, Paul Martin finally was able to wrestle control of the Liberal Party from the Prime Minister, Jean Chretien. One of Martin’s main supporters was Gerry Schwartz, who donated an unprecedented 12 million dollars to Martin’s leadership campaign. Under Martin’s leadership, and prior to it, Canada had always taken a balanced approach to both Israeli affairs and the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and had voted several times to condemn Israel in the United Nations, which upset many Jews. At the same time, the New Democratic Party also displayed several anti-Israel tendencies, which could explain why Jewish support declined for that movement and ideology. According to leading Jewish political scientist Larry Zolf, the modern Conservative Party received little Jewish support because they had a few too many socially conservative policies. It is conceivable that Conservative leader Stephen Harper realized that several seats had significant Jewish populations and that winning these seats in 2006 and 2008 could have pushed his government over the top from a minority to a full majority. Had Harper been able to attain a majority, he would have been able to pass any legislation that he wanted, without needing the support of the opposition parties. Harper displayed political genius in the handling of the party’s position on Israel. This position was clearly stated in early 2010, when Peter Kent released said, “Prime Minister Harper has made it quite clear for some time now and has regularly stated that an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on Canada.” The Conservatives gained two distinct advantages by releasing that statement. First of all, they are able to brand themselves as the only political party in Canada that always supports Israel (It would be political suicide for another party to take the same position on an important issue, especially for the Liberals to take the same position as the government that they are trying to oppose.) Secondly, the Conservatives are now able paint members of the Liberals, New Democratic and Green parties as not being pro-Israel, a stance which distances those parties from potential Jewish voters.

There are other reasons why the Harper Government may have taken a more pro-Israel stance. Traditionally, the Liberal Party has advocated for more distance in American-Canadian relations, while the Conservatives have advocated for more trade and more formal relations with the Americans. Historically, both Democratic and Republican parties in the United States have advocated for strong support of Israel. While previous Liberal governments may have moved away from these stances in order to distance themselves from American governments, it made sense for the Conservatives to support Israel as a building block for American-Canadian relations. 

An additional reason for Harper’s support of Israel also ties into American-Canadian relations. Canada is currently a strong supporter of the United States led War on Terror, and has Canadian soldiers are stationed in Afghanistan until 2011. Israel is the only legitimate democracy in the Middle East, and a fierce defender of American and coalition forces and efforts in the area. It makes sense for Harper and his strategists to ally himself with Israel, because of their shared ideals and goals for the region.

In conclusion, it is clear that the Jewish community is facing a very historic dilemma. While most Jews disagree with the Harper governments positions on social issues like abortion, health care and same sex marriage, they agree with him on his foreign policy, especially his stance on Israel. It will be very interesting to see if the trend of voting Conservative continues within the Jewish community, or if communities will look at the other policies that their elected Members of Parliament bring forward. However, this is not over. It is likely that at some point, Conservative support for Israel might wane and other parties might try and woo the powerful and influential vote. We are entering a new era of politics in Canada, one which is certain to be the most exciting and important era that this nation has seen in centuries.

 
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