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Why is the Israeli military still recruiting in Canada?

For three quarters of a century Canadians have been recruited inside this country to fight in Israel’s military

Canadian PoliticsMiddle East

The Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv hosted a party with Canadian “lone soldiers” in the Israel Defense Forces on January 16, 2020. Photo from the Embassy of Canada to Israel/Twitter.

There’s a Canadian law that makes it illegal for the armed forces of any foreign state to recruit soldiers within our borders, but you’d never know it the way Israel and its supporters operate within this country.

The Foreign Enlistment Act states:

Any person who, within Canada, recruits or otherwise induces any person or body of persons to enlist or to accept any commission or engagement in the armed forces of any foreign state or other armed forces operating in that state is guilty of an offence.


For three quarters of a century Canadians have been recruited inside this country to fight in Israel’s military. Finally, however, there is an organized effort to stop this practice.

Recently, a formal legal complaint was delivered to Justice Minister David Lametti detailing recruitment effort by the Israeli military inside Canada and calling on the federal government to apply charges under the Foreign Enlistment Act where appropriate. Additionally, an open letter was released today demanding the Trudeau government take action to ban the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from conducting any domestic recruitment efforts.

Signed by Noam Chomsky, musician and activist Roger Waters, filmmaker Ken Loach, author Yann Martel, former NDP MP Jim Manly, poet El Jones and more than 150 others, the open letter points out that “the Israeli consulate in Toronto has advertised on several occasions that they have an IDF representative available for personal appointments for those wishing to join the IDF.”

Last November the Israeli consulate in Toronto openly announced a military recruitment effort. According to their notice, “an IDF representative will conduct personal interviews at the Consulate on November 11-14. Young people who wish to enlist in the IDF or anyone who has not fulfilled their obligations according to the Israeli Defense Service Law are invited to meet with him.”

A number of groups help bring and support Canadians in the Israeli military. Gerry Schwartz and Heather Reisman’s Heseg Foundation for Lone Soldiers supports non-Israelis in the IDF. Elsewhere, at its Toronto office, the Friends of Israeli Scouts’ Garin Tzabar program has provided Hebrew lessons and support services, as well as help with transport and accommodation in Israel, for Canadian “lone soldiers.” Nefesh B’Nefesh’s also helps non-Israelis join the IDF.

“Lone soldiers” are Jewish citizens of a foreign country serving in the Israeli army. It is estimated that as many as 6,000 such soldiers with dual citizenship are currently enlisted in the IDF.

When I served as Vice President of the Concordia Student Union in 2002, Hillel, a Jewish student group, provocatively handed out flyers advertising volunteer opportunities in the IDF. In the aftermath of an effort to block then former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking on campus, Hillel shockingly advertised a recruitment program for the Israeli army.

While the number of Canadians serving in the Israeli military is always in flux, a January estimate put it at 78. In 2017 it was 230 and during Israel’s 2014 destruction of Gaza (which killed 2,200 Palestinians), 145 Canadians were thought to be fighting in the Israeli military. At least 25 individuals from the Greater Toronto Area fought in Gaza during Israel’s 22-day 2008/2009 assault, which left 1,400 dead. During Israel’s 2006 assault on Lebanon the Canadian Jewish News reported that dozens of Canadian youth left home to join the IDF.

Israeli military recruitment in Canada is a longstanding practice. The most important and well-documented recruitment took place during the war unleashed by the 1947 UN Partition Plan and the subsequent ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Representatives from Haganah, the primary pre-state Zionist military force, recruited 300 experienced Canadian soldiers to serve in Israel’s ranks a decade after Canada adopted the Foreign Enlistment Act to stop Canadians from fighting against General Franco’s fascist forces in Spain.

The Haganah’s main recruiter in Canada, the heir to Tiptop Tailors, Ben Dunkelman, claimed “about one thousand” Canadians “fought to establish Israel.” Dunkelman wrote, “the Haganah command had decided to recruit experienced combat soldiers to serve in the Jewish forces. They wanted me to get to work on recruiting an infantry brigade of English-speaking volunteers, which I would lead in action.” More than half a million dollars ($5.5 million in today’s money) was raised to pay for the travel and living costs of the Canadian troops.

During the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, Israel’s small air force was almost entirely foreign, with at least 53 Canadians, including 15 non-Jews, enlisted. Montreal’s Sydney Shulemson is considered the “father of the Israeli Air Force” and, in a highly mediatized move, Canada’s top Second World War fighter ace, Buzz Beurling, went to fight for Israel.

Ottawa did little to stop Canadians from joining Israel’s wars despite outlawing recruitment for a foreign army during the Spanish Civil War. Far from stopping it, Canadian diplomacy helped gain the release of Canadians detained in Lebanon en route to fighting in Palestine.

Moreover, Canadians engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians “by the summer of 1948,” according to researcher Dan Freeman-Maloy. “He [Dunkelman] was in command of a Brigade actively depopulating Palestinian villages by force—a unit so heavily comprised of recruits from Canada, the United States and South Africa that it came to be known as the ‘Anglo-Saxon Brigade.’”

The Israeli military’s belligerent, violent character has not abated since then. In his 2008 book Defending the Holy Land: A Critical Analysis of Israel’s Security and Foreign Policy, University of California professor and historian Zeev Maoz notes, “there was only one year out of 56 years of history in which Israel did not engage in acts involving the threat, display, or limited use of force with its neighbors.”

Over the past half-century and more, Israel has bombed Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia and Iraq. In recent years the Israeli military has also bombarded Syria on a weekly basis and has multiple boots on Palestinian necks to uphold its oppressive security apparatus confining the country’s ethnic minority in a rapidly diminishing, non-contiguous territory. To enable this control, the IDF administers a brutal occupation in the West Bank and regularly kills Palestinians in Gaza.

Canada’s Liberal government needs to uphold the Foreign Enlistment Act and apply Canadian law regarding recruitment for the Israeli military within our borders. It’s long past time to disrupt the flow of Canadians into one of the world’s most reactionary military forces.

Please take a minute to email Justice Minister David Lametti and ask him to investigate the IDF’s illegal recruitment practices in Canada.

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.

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