In 2013, Stephen Harper was feted at the Jewish National Fund’s annual Negev Dinner in Toronto, which organizers called their most successful fundraiser yet. The JNF announced that the proceeds would help build the “Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre,” and Harper announced that he would visit Israel for the first time. To seal the marriage, Steve played piano and sang Hey Jude. Trigger Warning: As you can tell by his cover of the Beatles, Steve is not overly concerned about crimes against humanity. There are some things you can’t un-see.
No one is going to vote for Harper because he’s groovy on Palestine. He cut over $30 million funding to UNWRA (the body responsible for providing education, health care and social services to Palestinian refugees), defunded NGOs with mandates to help Palestinians, and voted against a U.N. bid for Palestinian statehood. So it’s clear that Harper is no friend of Palestine. What’s unclear, however, is whether Harper’s ‘friendship’ is actually good for Israel.
Canada’s official government policies toward Israel haven’t changed profoundly—at least on paper. As reported in Ha’aretz, one of Israel’s biggest newspapers, Canada’s policy statement on Israel—published just six days before Harper arrived in Jerusalem—still doesn’t support Israel’s position on Jerusalem or Netanyahu’s position on Palestinian refugees. As the policy states: “Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967 […] The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.” The paper “opposes Israel's construction of the barrier inside the West Bank and East Jerusalem which are occupied territories.”
So Harper hasn’t changed Canadian policy. What he has changed is Canadian rhetoric. One might think that Harper’s friendship consisted primarily of hot air and empty rhetorical gestures: like playing classic rock at fundraisers. But in the case of Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inseparable from, and actually perpetuated by, an ongoing war of words. War doesn’t just involve guns, tanks, concrete and explosives: the war also rages in attack ads, boycotts, hasbara, social media, op-eds, lawsuits and just plain yelling at people. Watching arguments about Israel and Palestine explode over and over, I eventually realized: this is the war. Right here in the middle of Canada—where you’re more likely to be killed by a moose than by a terrorist plot—the battle for a stretch of biblical desert explodes into a war of words.
This rhetorical battleground is where Harper has drawn his battle lines. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict, when many nations felt Israel’s use of force was excessive, Harper defended Israel’s military response as ‘measured’; in January of 2009, when Israel was bombing Gaza, Canada was the only one of 47 to vote against a UN Human Rights council resolution calling for Israel to stop the military operation. Canada withdrew from U.N. anti-racism conferences in 2009 and 2011, accusing them of being forums to criticize Israel. But Harper is not just at war with the U.N. In 2015, the Harper government indicated it might use hate crime laws against Canadian groups that encourage boycotts of Israel.
For some, Harper's actions-or his rhetoric-will appear to be combatting anti-Semitism. For sure, anti-Semitism exists. European Christendom has been blaming Jews for the sins of the world for thousands of years (well, technically, just two thousand) and old habits die hard. And some of those anti-Semites are criticising Israel. But you know who else is criticizing? Dissenting Jews and left-wing Israelis. Amongst the BDS advocates I've met, about half are Jewish. Who the hell is Harper to tell us we can't criticise or argue amongst ourselves? Jews criticizing themselves is as old as our tradition. Read the Bible! It's a multi-millennial list of the ways the Jewish people have messed up over and over. Other nations write heroic tales of their origins; other peoples love to sing their own praises. But the Torah is basically an epic compilation of Jewish fuck-ups-starting on Day 7. We've been criticizing ourselves since before anti-Semitism was even invented! And I'll be damned if Stephen Harper is going to take my Biblical self-hatred away from me. Self-hatred is my birthright, Steve, and if you don't believe me, take a look at my schmeckle.
In 2011, Harper objected to a G8 communiqué intended to restart peace talks. He torpedoed the peace effort because it called for a return to Israel’s 1967 borders. For this he was called and personally thanked by Avigdor Lieberman—a politician who has been a key figure in the Knesset’s shift to the far right. Not the right—the FAR right. In what many take to be a call for violence against the Arab minority—or for beheading traitors—he has said: “Those who are against us, there’s nothing to be done – we need to pick up an ax and cut off his head.” He has called for a boycott of Arab businesses, and even for a boycott of Arab parties in the Knesset.
The shift to the far right, first signalled by Lieberman, has intensified and found its most radical form in the current Knesset—the most right wing in Israel’s history. Miri Regev, an IDF spokeswoman who is the new Minister of Culture, has threatened to withdraw funding from institutions and artists that are critical of Israel. Ayelet Shaked, recently appointed as Minister of Justice, has lobbied to limit the powers of the Israeli Supreme Court, increasing the power of politicians over the justice system—a move that many consider anti-democratic. Both would find a place in Harper’s cabinet. Naftali Bennett, from an ultra-orthodox nationalist party, is now Minister of Education, prioritizing civic duty and Judaism—nationalism and religion—over math and science. Regev has referred to Sudanese immigrants as “a cancer in our body.” So this Knesset isn’t just anti-democratic: a recent editorial in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz argued that this is “The Most Racist Knesset in Israel's History.”
Many Jews and Zionists are focused on the ‘existential threat’—the idea that Israel could be wiped off the map. But while they look to Iran, Hezbollah, or ISIS, they may remain oblivious to the deep internal threat—dare I say cancer?—posed to democracy from within Israel today. Like Lieberman, Netanyahu regularly calls Harper “a personal friend, and a friend of Israel.” But more precisely, Harper is a friend of right-wing Zionists. Limiting the power of the courts, cutting arts funding, de-prioritizing science, criminalizing BDS—the Israeli far right is clearly in line with Harper’s vision of Canada.
Harper’s primary action, on both domestic and international fronts, has been to negate criticism of Israel. At his speech to the Knesset, he explicitly stated that he would refuse to criticise the settlements—because, he declared, criticism of Israel is the new anti-Semitism. But criticism is not a question of blaming; it isn’t about morality or pointing fingers and saying who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. Criticism is about analyzing the situation. Criticism is about diagnosing the problem—in a medical, or dare I say scientific way (I know Steve isn’t big on science).
When Israel first occupied the Palestinian territories in 1967, David Ben-Gurion reportedly stated that if Israel didn’t get out quickly, the Occupation would destroy Israel. He wanted a retreat to the 1967 borders as soon as possible—and that was almost 50 years ago. So is Stephen Harper more Zionist than David Ben-Gurion? Ben-Gurion was no liberal, and he certainly wasn’t a friend of Palestinians. But he wasn’t distracted by rock songs and rhetoric: he had a lucid understanding of the poisonous potential of the Occupation to destroy not just Palestine, but Israel as well.
When we shut down criticism, we also shut down imagination. When the war of words silences debate and dissent, we limit our capacity to see new possibilities and generate new options. So we are left stuck in the present with more of the same old bullshit. Netanyahu, in the lead-up to the last election, claimed that there would be no Palestinian state under his leadership—in effect, proclaiming the Occupation to be a permanent state of affairs. So who profits if the conflict remains locked in this permanent state of war? The people in power—the ones who aren’t changing things—seem very content to leave the situation exactly as it is.
So what motivates Harper’s Hey-Judeophilia? According to some analyses, Harper’s mega-Zionism has helped Conservatives win only three ridings (in Toronto), and come October 19, may help him with a fourth (in Montreal’s TMR). Four ridings country-wide does not make Israel a strategic election gambit. Some think campaign funding might be the goal of his butchery of the Beatles. Those who have watched his cover of The Seeker may feel that Harper has drunk the evangelical Kool-Aid, and thinks he’s one of the Chosen. Much more likely, Harper just has a grade three level understanding of evil with some retroactive hatred of Hitler thrown in. Harper pays lip service to the Holocaust—but does anyone think, given his position on immigration and refugees today, that Harper would have done anything different than Mackenzie King, whose government’s policy was “none is too many”? The Holocaust is useful for Harper, as it is for so many politicians and ideologues: it enables him to point a finger at evil. Hollywood also loves Hitler: it gives the bad guy a face -- evil can be located in a single moustache. If Harper and Netanyahu really care about the Holocaust, they should remember that Hitler wasn’t just some individual psychopath; Nazism was what happened when the German right destroyed the German Left. Fascism results when you extend the logic of war—the idea that you’re with us or against us—to its extreme conclusion.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Harper is like Hitler. And I’m definitely not saying that instead of the moustache, Hollywood will remember Harper for his hair gel. Harper has clearly implied that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is best understood as a fight between good and evil, and that we must ‘take sides’. Harper has stated that Jew-haters end up hating everyone who isn’t like them, and that those who hate democracy begin their attack by plotting against Israel. He draws a clear line in the rhetorical sand: Israel is equated with democracy, while those who criticize Israel and attack democracies are lumped together and aligned with evil and anti-Semitism.
Harper’s mega-Zionism is based on a low-budget version of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ hypothesis: Jihad dressed up in a secular logic. And where is the epicenter of Harper’s battle? Jerusalem, of course. Jerusalem. Where if you live in the Old City—as I did for six months—you are surrounded by a veritable cornucopia of nutbars. Scattered throughout the cobbled alleys of the old city are legions of self-proclaimed messiahs shouting about good and evil and the end of days. Some wear tattered yarmulkes, some drag massive wooden crucifixes behind them, some are wearing tie-dye t-shirts that smell older than Golda Meir. The locals call this “Jerusalem syndrome.” And while it’s charming to watch this psychosis play out on the soapboxes of the Via Dolorosa, you don’t want your Prime Minister catching it.
Let’s set aside the goggles of war. Without fantasizing about good and evil, let’s ask: Does Harper’s friendship—his fundamentalist framework, and his war on critique—actually help Israel? We know Harper isn’t good for Palestine. Does that mean the support of Harper will make Israel more secure, healthy and safe in the long run? If we look at the current Knesset, Harper’s ‘friendship’ has helped enable the least democratic and most far right government in Israel’s history. In the ten years of Harper’s leadership, Israel and Gaza have fought the same war 3 times: Netanyahu referred to it as ‘mowing the lawn’—so he’s clearly happy to make this war a regular event. Mowing, of course, keeps the grass coming back thick and strong. Proclaiming the Occupation a permanent state of affairs, Netanyahu shows the absolute lack of imagination and creativity that is crippling right wing Zionism. And with Harper at its side, Israel is stuck in one of the most stagnant, repetitive cycles in its history. As the occupation creeps further and further into Palestine, suicide bombings are at a low, but Israel is having an existential crisis—from the inside out.
Israel needs criticism. ‘Now more than ever’, as politicians love to say. The futures of Israel and Palestine—which are intertwined for as far as we can imagine—depend upon a critique of the current state of stasis. The Righteous Manichean—whether Jew, Christian, Muslim or soulless politician—does not believe in self-critique. The fundamentalist locates evil out there in the world—in someone’s moustache or hair gel. But criticism does not have to be a part of a war of words. Criticism can be love.
Harper may or may not be an evangelical. What’s clear is that he doesn’t understand the Bible. Because the deep secret of the Torah—the epic tale of Israel’s mistakes and misdeeds—is that our self-hatred *is* love. We love that which is good in ourselves by critiquing that which is evil in ourselves.
Harper’s decade of anti-critical support has been a disaster for Israel. True friends don’t just take sides. Rather than turn a blind eye to our shortcomings, they point out bad habits and discourage self-destructive behaviour. True friends help us become our best selves by supporting what is good in us. False friends, however, enable our worst tendencies. With friends like Harper, who needs enemies?