There are many diversions in this carnival world—canasta, bubble wrap, Donald Trump’s hair—but none so entertaining as a politician trying to persuade us the emotions he puts on for a living are real. Michael Ignatieff may profess bemusement, in interviews with the foreign press, at the “theatricality” of it all, but your average pol would never concede the point. They are like those movie co-stars who must pretend to be dating in real life.
Mind you, it doesn’t take much to persuade us in the media. We are as invested as they in the pretense that, when the Member for Diddly-squat is observed to be “shaking with rage” or “visibly distraught,” he is actually experiencing something like the named emotion. Hence the readiness of so many media outlets to advertise the Liberals’ hurt feelings at those Tory pamphlets accusing them of anti-Semitism.
They don’t actually accuse them of anything of the kind, you understand. But, next to being the subject of a vicious personal attack (“you can say what you want about me, but leave my family out of it”), there is nothing a politician lives for more than to be unjustly accused of something—even if he has to levy the charge himself. The opportunities to play the victim are too tempting.
What did the Tory literature (“these vile flyers”—the Toronto Star), widely distributed in Liberal ridings with large numbers of Jewish voters, actually say? Not that the Liberal party was anti-Jew, or even anti-Israel, but only that it had not been as robust in the defence of Israel as the Tories have been.
This seems to me an entirely plausible, even obvious point. Indeed, at the time of the Israeli intervention in Lebanon, back in 2006, that was the Grits’ chief complaint—that the Tories, by siding so firmly with Israel in its campaign against Hezbollah, had departed from the Liberals’ traditional “balanced” approach in the Middle East; that they had forsaken Canada’s alleged historic role as “honest broker” in the region.
In his recent summation of the many ways Stephen Harper had “transformed” Canada, Star columnist Thomas Walkom mentions the shift in position on Israel no fewer than six times. He’s right, if a little obsessive: where previous Liberal governments typically abstained on UN votes touching on Israel, the current government—to be fair, the trend began during Paul Martin’s brief reign—has tended to vote with Israel.
Now, this may be a good thing, or it may be a bad thing. It’s always possible that Harper is too unquestioning in his support for Israel. And it’s not obvious that the standard by which the two parties’ foreign policies should be assessed is who is quickest to take Israel’s side in any dispute. But if the question is who has in fact been the stauncher supporter, it hardly strikes me as controversial to conclude it’s the Tories, still less the outrageous libel the Liberals would have you believe.
As to the specific charges in the Tory handbill, there are three. One, the Tories note that whereas their leader defended Israel’s conduct in the 2006 conflict, Michael Ignatieff publicly accused it of “war crimes.” That’s true: he did, though he later apologized for it. (As he should have. There’s nothing wrong with saying such a thing, provided you can back it up. Whereas Ignatieff, perhaps anxious to compensate for previous statements that he would not “lose any sleep” over Lebanese civilian deaths, offered up the accusation, without evidence, in the middle of a chat show.)
Two, the Tories claim the Liberals “opposed defunding Hamas and asked that Hezbollah be delisted as a terrorist organization.” Both are half-truths at best. The Liberals asked that any cuts in funding for Hamas be redirected to humanitarian aid for the Palestinians. And while it is true that Borys Wrzesnewskyj, then the Liberals’ deputy foreign affairs critic, proposed delisting Hezbollah in 2006, he was forced to step down over it.
It is true, however, that the Liberals were reluctant to ban Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups in the first place. Though the Liberals are correct to say they were the first government to ban them, in late 2002, that was only after months and months of pressure, even legal action: remember Bill Graham’s protests that it would be unfair to ban Hezbollah, as it had a “social” wing distinct from its “military” wing? (“It contains lawyers. It contains doctors. It contains teachers. It contains social workers . . . ”)
The third Tory charge is that the Liberals “willingly” participated in the UN’s notorious Durban conference on racism in 2001, which descended into a series of one-sided attacks on Israel amid open displays of anti-Semitism. I’d call this a jump ball. I take Irwin Cotler at his word when he says Canada only stayed on, after the United States and Israel had left, at the behest of Israel, to counter some of the viler attacks. But that’s not what was said at the time. Rather, it was reported that Canada had decided to stay, over the loud protests of Canadian Jewish groups, “in an attempt to broker an acceptable declaration on a range of issues, including the Middle East conflict.” Even-handed to the last.
The Tory pamphlet is harsh, simplistic, perhaps tendentious in places. But it is well within the accepted bounds of political debate, particularly as it has evolved in Canada. It does no honour to either side to note that the Grits have distributed similarly inflammatory flyers (“No vaccines, just body bags”)—like the Tories, on the public dime. If, as they have lately proposed, the Grits would now like to ban such taxpayer-funded propaganda, the Tories should take them up on it.