The Right Idea in the Wrong Bill at the Wrong Time

Canadian multiculturalism sits on a delightful contradiction that both extremes in the Israel debate aren’t absorbing.

The Canadian Jewish News

August 20, 2018

The Right Idea in the Wrong

Bill at the Wrong Time

I n 1957, former prime minister Lester B. Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping deploy the UN’s blue-helmeted troops in their first large-scale role: keeping the peace between the Egyptians and the Israelis in the Sinai after the 1956 war. Sixty-one years later, Canadian Jews should don blue-and-white kippot to try to make peace between liberal American Jews and Israelis, over Israel’s new nation-state law.

Who better than Canadian Jews to explain to postmodernist American Jews that it’s legitimate (and not racist) for a people to embrace their heritage and affirm their right to self-determination into law? And who better than Canadian Jews to explain to insensitive, demagogic Israeli politicians that it’s necessary (and not wimpy) for the majority to reassure minorities repeatedly – again and again (redundancy intended) – that their rights, language and uniqueness will not just be respected, but cherished?

Tragically, and characteristically, this whole mess was avoidable. The Israeli politicians who championed the bill sound like sheepish children who ignored repeated warnings, then professed surprise when their playing with matches ignited a forest fire. And their critics are like firefighters dispatched to extinguish a frying pan fire, but end up condemning the whole house.

To understand the law, and realize that its defenders are fundamentally correct, just read the darn bill .

Here are my thoughts on it:

a. Most of the bill is kosher apple pie and basic nation-building that defines Israel as a Jewish state with a Jewish calendar that speaks the Hebrew language and has a unique set of holidays, etc.

b. Many other nations affirm their national-cultural heritages in similar ways and, especially with Israel’s Declaration of Independence and Basic Laws guaranteeing its democratic character and commitment to equality, this law simply focuses on different dimensions.

c. There really is something fishy when any time Israel celebrates its national, Jewish character, it’s called “racist.” This is the kind of opposition that prompted the bill in the first place.

d. Ultimately, Israel’s democracy is defined minute-by-minute, day-by-day by all the democratic, pluralistic, liberal values in play there, not by one piece of paper or another.

Still, politics is all about perception and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government certainly should have been much more sensitive. It should have built a broad consensus behind this bill, which becomes a de facto part of Israel’s constitution, by playing to Israel’s best self and by reassuring the worried – not by riling up the yahoos and passing it by the narrowest of margins.

Here’s where Canadian Jewry comes in. Far beyond stereotypes about Canadian niceness and diplomacy, Canadian multiculturalism sits on a delightful contradiction that both extremes in the Israel debate aren’t absorbing. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act “acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage” and “recognize(s) the existence of communities whose members share a common origin.” In other words, it legitimizes nationalism, even ethnic nationalism, such as Jewish nationalism and Zionism.

At the same time, the bill vows to “promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation,” while “ensur(ing) that all individuals receive equal treatment and equal protection under the law.” 

That’s the kind of reassuring language that the nation-state law lacked. That unconscionable omission makes this bill the right idea in the wrong bill at the wrong time. It also provides Canadian Jews with an opportunity to tell those lamenting the death of Israeli democracy that they’re being ridiculous and should stop, while telling the Israeli leadership that they’re being obtuse and should fix it. Of course, say that in the nicest, most diplomatic, most Canadian way.

The writer is the author of the newly released  The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including  The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .

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Professor of History · McGill University Leacock 628 · 855 Sherbrooke St. W · Montreal, Quebec H3A 2T7 · Canada