By Esther Enkin and Ben Murane
Canada’s relationship with Israel is likely about to become the most strained it’s ever been. It will be vitally important for our government to anchor the relationship in our shared democratic values as Israel’s new government takes power.
Until now, Israeli governments have argued that Israel and Canada share the values of democracy and equality. Even though we have imperfections, they argue, Israel is a strong democracy. After all, does Canada not also have imperfections?
However, this argument and Canadian-Israeli ties have undergone increasing stress in recent years – and may reach a pivot point in the coming year. Israel has only itself to blame for this ongoing re-evaluation: a decade under Prime Minister Netanyahu’s successive governments has seen laws passed demoting Arabs to second-class citizens, incitement against political opponents, attempts to wholesale deport African asylum seekers, and near annexation of the occupied West Bank.
It would be wrong to blame the re-evaluation of Canada’s ties with Israel on anti-Israel propaganda. Already in 2018, the most extensive survey ever of Canadian Jewish attitudes revealed that a majority of the Jewish community doesn’t believe that Israel has been genuine in its desire for peace. In fact, young Canadian Jews are the most distrusting of Israel’s intentions, even in light of high levels of Jewish education and rising antisemitism.
Enter into this already-contested Canadian debate Israel’s most right-wing coalition in history. Prime Minister-elect Netanyahu is presently bargaining with not only his traditional partners – the warhawks and ultra-religious – but the openly racist, proudly homophobic, and defiantly anti-democratic Religious Zionism party. With centrist parties unwilling to sit in government with a Prime Minister under indictment, these extremists will receive the majority of their demands, including key cabinet posts.
Over the final weeks of campaigning, these extremists published detailed proposals for dramatic reshaping of Israeli law and society. They are repeating their demands as coalition negotiations get underway. These proposals include freeing Netanyahu from his corruption trials, legalizing gay “conversion therapy”, deporting “disloyal” citizens, creating a “Ministry of Migration” to encourage Arab citizens to self-deport, accelerated dispossession of Palestinian land, and a litany of judicial reforms aimed at unfettered majoritarian power by the government.
However, Israel’s saving grace is ironically the government that is being replaced. The previous ruling coalition was the most diverse in the country’s history – including an Arab party for the very first time. Under it, the scapegoating and incitement of Netanyahu’s past decade paused, and the fragile coalition nevertheless demonstrated an alternative that includes Jewish-Palestinian partnership.
Like in other democracies buffeted by the winds of populist illiberalism, the pro-democracy bloc and anti-democracy bloc each command about half of voters, and often one wins by a hair. It would be simply wrong to abandon those in Israel or elsewhere who exemplify shared values by fighting for their country’s democratic principles.
It will become vitally important for the Canadian government to demonstrate clearly that it opposes moves towards unfettered majoritarianism. This can be done in many ways both public and private.
Canada should refuse to meet Israeli politicians who are unabashed racists, such as the leaders of the far-right National Religious party. Our government should communicate clearly that circumscribing the power of Israel’s judiciary is a red line for any democracy. Canadian political leaders should also be prepared to affirm Israeli initiatives that do share Canadian values – such as those of Israel’s most significant civil and human rights groups, many of whom are funded by Canadian philanthropy.
Shared values of equality and democracy are the basis of the Israel-Canada relationship. We must be prepared when Israel’s new government tests the strength and depth of those values. For Israelis’ own sake, they must find Canadian democratic values to be unshakable.