By Gil Troy, National Post, 5-4-12
On Nov. 8, 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combatting Anti-Semitism, which gathered dozens of legislators from over 50 countries in Ottawa. Harper’s address stood out for its warmth, its passion, its power.
“I know, by the way, because I have the bruises to show for it, that whether it is at the United Nations or any other international forum, the easiest thing to do is simply to just get along and go along with this anti-Israel rhetoric, to pretend it is just about being evenhanded, and to excuse oneself with the label of honest broker,” Harper said. “There are, after all, a lot more votes – a lot more – in being anti-Israeli than in taking a stand. But as long as I am Prime Minister, whether it is at the United Nations, the Francophonie or anywhere else, Canada will take that stand, whatever the cost.” He explained: “Not just because it is the right thing to do, but because history shows us, and the ideology of the anti-Israel mob tell us all too well, that those who threaten the existence of the Jewish people are in the longer term a threat to all of us.”
In this, Harper articulated a vision for Canadian foreign policy far beyond a repudiation of anti-Semitism and bold support for Israel. Harper’s talk about “taking a stand, whatever the cost,” and his concerns about “a threat to all of us” – with “us” meaning the liberal democratic West – positioned Canada as a leading player in the Western democratic fight for survival. At a time when the United States under Barack Obama is flirting with isolationism and realism in foreign policy, Harper embraced idealism as an essential force in shaping his foreign policy.
Surprisingly, and most especially, that November in Ottawa, Harper’s idealism proved contagious – and all-party.
At a conference, Michael Ignatieff, reaffirmed his disgust at the way accusation of the crime of apartheid, as perpetuated for decades in South Africa, was being inaccurately and immorally applied to Israel’s actions in its national conflict with the Palestinians. In 2009, Ignatieff had first denounced the absurdity of “Israel Apartheid Week,” a week devoted to linking democratic Israel to the cruelties of racist, apartheid South Africa.
Further to Ignatieff ‘s left, Thomas Mulcair, new leader of the NDP, positioned himself as a thoughtful, reasonable progressive who refuses to join the pile-on against Israel. Mulcair affirmed his deep commitment to democracy and the rule of law, refusing to sacrifice core ideals to follow one trend or the other. In that spirit, he said he was embarrassed, as a graduate of McGill Law School, that McGill hosts Israel Apartheid Week. Finally, he de-scribed an ugly moment in an anti-Israel demonstration, when protestors wanted to attack a Jewish-owned business. He quoted Martin Luther King’s teaching that, “he who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
The Mulcair-King formulation goes even further than Harper’s affirmative, idealistic vision. While neither Harper nor Mulcair seems interested in getting Canada mired in every fight against evil on the planet, the simple comfort, from left and right, with language about good and evil in both foreign and domestic affairs is refreshing. We have come a long way from Jean Chrétien’s snivelling, split-the difference, don’t rock the boat, accommodationist foreign policy.
Moreover, claims of a backlash have been exaggerated. When Canada failed to get a seat on the Security Council in the fall of 2010, critics were quick to blame Harper’s support for Israel. In fact, internal regional bloc politics at the UN were the problem. Even more important, in May 2011, the Canadian electorate gave Harper a majority. Thus, claims that Harper and his party would suffer at the polls for befriending the Jewish state proved empty.
Canada can stand tall as a force for good in foreign affairs, defending democracy and Western civilization, as necessary, without overstretching. And in a world with too many forms of aggressive ethnic nationalism, which indeed sometimes seems to be “winning,” having this positive, constructive, tolerant, civilizing, civic vision can be most welcome, as Canada plays a new, affirmative and assertive role in its long, successful run as the world’s conscience.
Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University. A longer version of this article appears in the April issue of Policy Options magazine.
Canada, back again as the world’s conscience, as the world lacks one — Policy Options, April 2012