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Organizing the Canada-Israel Alliance

Middle East

Under Paul Martin’s Liberals and Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, the Cana-dian government has rapidly shed any pretense at having an independent foreign policy. In Haiti, Canadian forces joined their U.S. and French counterparts in carrying out the coup d’ tat of 2004, overthrowing the elected Lavalas government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and instituting a foreign occupation of the country. In Afghanistan, similarly, thousands of Canadian troops are engaged in combat operations to defend the U.S.-led occupation and allow the U.S. military to focus its resources on Iraq. For years, escalating Canadian support for Israel has been part of this trend. In recent months, it has become more unabashed than ever.

The Canadian government, with the mainstream media in tow, is now providing full-out support to Israel in its U.S.-armed war against the people of Palestine and Lebanon. In the process with the active encouragement of a corporate advocacy apparatus closely linked to Israel and the United States it is shifting the tone of Canadian foreign policy further in the direction of aggressive, neoconservative militarism.

Prime Minister Paul Martin spelled out this increasingly overt identification with the Israeli state at the so-called United Jewish Communities (UJC) meeting of November, 2005: “Israel’s values are Canada’s values,” he declared.

The Harper government has taken this to its natural conclusion. In March, 2006, it made Canada the first of Israel’s allies to sanction the Palestinian Authority for the crime of holding a democratic election, justifying its contribution to this economic assault with off-hand references to Palestinian “terrorism.” As Israeli state violence escalated through the summer, claiming hundreds of Palestinian and more than a thousand Lebanese lives (not to mention the wholesale destruction of critical civilian infrastructure), Canadian diplomacy echoed Chief of Defense Staff General Rick Hillier’s tone.

Some of the crudest performances were provided by Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay in his descriptions of Hizbu’llah, an organization whose resistance to Israel western perceptions notwithstanding is supported by some 87 per cent of the Lebanese people, and whose combat record is incomparably cleaner than that of the Israeli military. For MacKay, this Lebanese party is “a terrorist army intent on death and destruction,” a group of “cold-blooded killers” “a cancer on lebanon.” Our Israeli allies, in contrast, can kill and destroy without ever jeopardizing their status as a “democracy” operating in “self-defense.”

As Canadian policy degenerates into overt alliance with Israel, a growing challenge from social movements is providing grounds for sober optimism. The landmark decision of CUPE Ontario to join the Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign has generated crucial momentum, helping to bring discussion of Israel as an apartheid state into the mainstream. The series of large demonstrations against the Canadian-Israeli alliance this past summer, the planned October 6 to 8 BDS organizing conference in Toronto, and the improving relationship between the Palestine solidarity movement and the broader anti-war movement all point to the potential for this challenge to strengthen and grow.

That said, efforts to create a base of popular understanding of Israel as an apartheid state, and to shift Canadian policy accordingly, face the challenge of overcoming the vigorous efforts of Canadian advocates for the U.S.-Israeli alliance. Given the impact of this advocacy, it is worth paying attention to the organizations and alliances that drive it.

Shared Values, Shared Systems of Organization

When Paul Martin declared that, “Israel’s values are Canada’s values,” he was speaking to a crowd of self-described “Israel advocates” that included prominent corporate leaders from across North America. Peter Mackay, for his part, made his most extreme comments about Hizbu’llah right around the time he attended an “Israel Crisis Response” information session hosted in Toronto by the same corporate networks.

This is hardly incidental. The networks at work around these issues are both active and influential in shaping Canadian foreign policy. The most important to pay attention to are those institutions associated with what is known as the United Israel Appeal Federations Canada (UIAFC).

To be sure, these networks do not operate in a vacuum. Irving Abella, a past president of UIAFC’s Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and co-founder in 2003 of a university faculty “Israel advocacy” organization in Toronto, once remarked, “Domestic interest groups succeed only when the policies for which they are lobbying are those seen by the government as in the country’s best interests” or, put differently, when their interests are made to converge with the government’s political agenda and class orientation. Strategically and institutionally, UIAFC is geared towards doing precisely that.


In UIAFC literature this strategy is referred to as the “shared values” model for advocacy. According to this approach, similarities between Canadian and Israeli policy are highlighted and built upon. Advocacy for a Canadian-Israeli alliance is part of a push for tightening relations with the United States framed in terms of the so-called “war on terror.” Given UIAFC’s composition, embedding its pro-Israel agenda in an alliance with Canadian establishment interests and the United States comes all too naturally.

In its present form, UIAFC is the product of a 1998 merger between a pair of connected, corporate-dominated systems: United Israel Appeal (UIA) Canada and the Canadian region of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF). The UIA has been the primary instrum-ent for Zionist fundraising in Canada since the early 1920s. It is directed by the Jerusalem-based Keren Hayesod (“Foundation Fund”), and is fundamentally oriented towards bolstering Israeli power. It does so with a strong base of support within the Canadian corporate establishment, Jewish and WASP alike, this base having become particularly solid in the last few decades.

The CJF, for its part, is directly integrated into the U.S. establishment. Its member organizations, which control and drive UIA campaigning, have roots in the local federations that historically represented the Canadian Jewish community’s urban corporate establishment. These were once grouped together in an independent Council of Jewish Welfare Funds, but underwent major changes in the 1970s. On the one hand, they used their financial power to impose themselves as the umbrella organization for all local mainstream Jewish organizations, forming such organizations as Toronto’s United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation and Montreal’s Combined Jewish Appeal (CJA). On the other, they merged directly with the U.S. Council of Jewish Federations. Today, the Canadian federation system remains dominated by corporate power, and functions as one component part of a U.S.-dominated framework organized into the regional categories “West,” “Southeast,” “Northeast,” “Central” and “Canada.” It was the 2005 annual meeting of all of these regions, hosted in Toronto, which occasioned Paul Martin’s declaration of support for UIAFC’s mantra of Canadian-Israeli “shared values.”

The UIA/Federation system has long been using its financial power to tighten control over mainstream Canadian Jewish organization. At the centre of its agenda has been support for Israel. After 1948, when Zionist forces took effective control of 78 per cent of historic Palestine declaring it the State of Israel and ethnically cleansing some 700,000 of its indigenous inhabitants the federations became intensely involved in fundraising for Israeli state-building. This support was redoubled after 1967, when Israel occupied the remaining 22 per cent of Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza Strip). It held entirely firm through the 1980s, as Israeli forces attacked Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and repressed rebellion within the West Bank and Gaza.

However, it was not until recently that this system, now organized as UIAFC, came to assert the decisive influence over Canadian foreign policy we are presently witnessing.


The context for this reorganization was set by the consolidation of power into UIAFC following the UIA/CJF merger, and the changing situation it faced with respect to Israel-Palestine.

In 2000, the Palestinian population of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip once again rose in revolt, beginning what became the Al-Aqsa Intifada. The uprising and the brutal Israeli repression that met it echoed internationally. Within the Canadian state, UIAFC viewed “growing anti-Israel agitation at universities” with great concern. Signs that Palestine solidarity was spreading to different social sectors as represented, for example, by the 2002 call for a boycott of Israeli products made by the Centrale des syndicates du Qu bec (CSQ) was seen as particularly ominous.

Indeed, UIAFC’s advocates had much to defend. In the early 1990s, for instance, the Canadian government with U.S. encouragement initiated negotiations with Israel for a preferential trade pact. This was a spin-off from the momentum of the emerging North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and it culminated in the signing of the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreemnt (CIFTA) in 1997. Canadian policy was steadily drifting towards increasing support for Israel, and the threat that Palestine solidarity movements could organize a viable challenge to this was taken very seriously.

Towards the end of 2002, UIAFC brought together a meeting of the Jewish community’s leading tycoons to mount a response. These included a range of powerhouses from within the federation system from CanWest Global CEO Israel Asper to Gerry Schwartz, CEO of Onex; from NHC Communications Inc. CEO Sylvain Abitbol to Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo/Chapters Books. In the coming months, approximately twenty of corporate Canada’s leading Israel advocates were brought together to co-ordinate a policy offensive under UIAFC’s auspices. This corporate board formally established itself as the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA).

The Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and Canada-Israel Committee (CIC) simultaneously had their budgets doubled and their leaderships put under the direct oversight of CIJA’s tycoons. Campus Hillels and allied organizations, for their part, were brought together and flooded with funds through a CIJA instrument called the National Jewish Campus Life (NJCL) initiative.

Meanwhile, the style and structure of the U.S. federation system’s American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was brought north of the border. AIP-AC functions through a system of political action committees, or “PACs.” For Canada, a Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy Public Affairs Committee, CIJA-PAC, was formed. As Canadian Jewish News reporter Paul Lun- gen explained, “AIPAC plays an advisory and mentoring role for CIJA-PAC.” From 2003 on, CIJA-PAC’s leadership attended each annual AIPAC conference. But was different from its mentor, its reliance on the “charitable” dollars from the feder-ation fundraising campaigns prohibiting it from participation in partisan politics.

Direct Involvement in Party Politics

In 2005, this changed. In May of that year, according to the Canadian Jewish News, AIPAC’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., “included a one-day event … aimed at helping Canadian and European communities develop the kind of grassroots organizational strength that AIPAC has shown over the years.” As early as 2004, CIJA officials had already said that the “ultimate goal” of the Canadian PAC should be “to act as a partisan entity that would support candidates.” Some months after the May, 2005 AIPAC tutorial, just in time for the Canadian federal elections, CIJA-PAC was disbanded to make way for an organization more suited to this work.

This organization was founded in November, 2005, as the Canadian Jewish Political Action Committee (CJPAC). It is worth recalling the unprecedented cross-partisan support for Israel on display in the elections of early 2006. Historically, the corporate base associated with UIAFC has been dominated by Liberal partisanship. CIJA’s Gerrry Schwartz, to cite one prominent example, was a key financial backer and adviser to Paul Martin. In late 2004, when the Martin government voted against key resolutions affirming Palestinian rights at the United Nations, Globe & Mail columnist John Ibbitson attributed the changing diplomacy to the combined influence of President Bush’s visit to Ottawa and Schwartz’s CIJA-related advocacy.

Circumstances have now shifted to provide the Tories with an opportunity to win over this base, and this is being actively pursued. In late July, for example, Conservative Party executive director Michael Donison sent out a fundraising appeal to prospective donors with a reminder that, since “not everyone is grateful” for Canadian support for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, “I must turn to you to ask you for your support.”

UIAFC, for its part, is playing this up. Early into the invasion of Lebanon, CIJA issued a press release in which Schwartz praised the Harper government’s “great courage” in playing a “leadership role” in international pro-Israel diplomacy. Some days later, a range of UIAFC notables took the occasion of the Conservative caucus meeting in Cornwall to take out an advertisement in a Cornwall paper, again praising Conservative foreign policy. Toward the end of July, the pressure for the Liberals to fall in line mounted, with the emcee of a UIAFC “Stand with Israel” rally proclaiming his new allegiance to the federal Tories, and with Heather Reisman publicly following suit.

UIAFC’s advocacy apparatus has too strong a base in the Canadian establishment, and is too thoroughly supported from the United States and Israel for its work to be stopped entirely. Its success is quite over-extended, however, and we cannot allow the networks behind it to continue to operate unopposed.

This article appeared in the November/December 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Canada: A New Imperial Power?).


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