Stephen Harper looked ever so relaxed, standing among friends, as he spoke to thousands assembled for a glitzy annual gala at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Dec. 1. He strode across the stage in an untucked black shirt and slacks, a wardrobe giveaway that he would perform with Herringbone, the Harper-led musical act that informally serves as the Conservative party’s house band. Harper spoke for several minutes without notes—a relative rarity for the Prime Minister—and the crowd reciprocated with an immediate, and prolonged, standing ovation. Then, the Prime Minister played a few tunes. The warmth in the room was palpable as the Jewish National Fund feted Harper at its Negev Dinner, as thanks for his long-standing and unapologetic defence of the Israeli cause.
Conservatives won the support of 52 per cent of Jewish voters during the last federal election, a departure from prior elections stretching back for decades. Conservative politicians have coalesced behind the Prime Minister, and now stand in lockstep with his stridently pro-Israel agenda. Tim Hudak, Ontario’s Opposition leader, leapt to his feet when Harper announced that he would visit the Middle East in 2014. Julian Fantino, the veterans affairs minister, beamed as the Prime Minister belted out the words to the Who’s restless hit, The Seeker. Karen Stintz, a Toronto mayoral candidate set to take on Ford Nation, soaked in the festivities. Harper, who almost never pours his heart out in public, acknowledged that the affair was “a show of affection and love,” and assured the crowd the feeling was mutual. The people behind the gala made one thing clear: No longer are Jews nervous about voting Conservative.
That wasn’t always so. Liberals used to be able to count on waves of Jewish support at the polls, and they benefited from the perception among Jews that extremists in the Conservative ranks were not to be trusted. But there was no strict ideological opposition to right-leaning parties, says Shimon Fogel, the CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. He says the last Conservative prime minister was held in similarly high regard. “There was significant affection for, and appreciation directed at, Brian Mulroney,” says Fogel. “It didn’t translate uniformly to the party that he represented.” The emergence of the Reform movement, and the Canadian Alliance that followed, only spooked wary Jewish voters. Frank Dimant, the CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, recalls that Israeli officials, long accustomed to their Liberal counterparts in Ottawa, were “very skeptical” of the fractured right wing. But then, in 2004, along came Harper and the united right.
Dimant’s first encounter with Harper wasn’t altogether warm, he says. In fact, it was “a little bit cool.” When the Jewish leader asked the then-opposition leader if he’d continue a tradition of booting anti-Semites from caucus—an agreement B’nai Brith arranged with prior Reform and Alliance leaders—Harper inquired sharply about whether or not Jewish leaders had sought the same assurances from the Liberals. “That floored all of us, quite frankly,” says Dimant. But don’t mistake that for disillusionment on Dimant’s part. “I’ve seen him many times over the years, privately and with delegations, and have found him to be forthright,” he says.
Eventually, Harper’s approach connected with the broader Jewish community. “Jews started to realize that they finally had a leader who felt the same way about their issues as our community,” says Sen. Linda Frum, whom Harper appointed to the Senate in 2009. “I think Jews had been Liberals because they figured they would get the most sensitivity for their perspective. But I think they’ve figured out, slowly, that this was an illusion.” Frum insists the community simply grew tired of Liberal abstentions at the United Nations and the notion that, when Israelis and Palestinians quarrel, Canada should “consider the grievances of both sides equally.” When Harper infuriated Israel’s critics by declaring the country’s 2006 rocket attacks on Hezbollah a “measured response,” Jews loved what they heard. The friendship was sealed.
Those remarks, and similarly friendly comments that have helped define Harper’s foreign policy, may have emboldened his opposition at home—but they also assured him of thousands of new friends. Dimant recalls the reception that Harper received at a 2006 event where he wasn’t even the guest of honour. Walter Arbib, a Jewish-Canadian philanthropist, was supposed to gather all the accolades—but everyone wanted to talk to the Prime Minister. “He couldn’t eat his meal because people didn’t stop coming over to shake his hand,” says Dimant. And, if any Israelis clung to any doubts about their new Conservative friends, those have long since vanished. “I think it’s fair to say that he’s the most popular politician in Israel, bar none, including any of their own. He’s a rock star in Israel,” says Frum, adding that Israelis are “thrilled” that a new visitor’s centre at an environmentally sensitive bird sanctuary, built partially with the $5.7 million raised at Harper’s Toronto tribute, will bear the Prime Minister’s name. “The fact that they’ve chosen to associate it with Stephen Harper’s name is as meaningful a tribute as I think Israel can offer,” says Fogel.
The political advantage in Canada to such a pro-Israel stance is unclear. “Going after the Jewish vote is not great political strategy,” says Frum. “I think it’s almost a disadvantage,” says Dimant. A handful of ridings, including key constituencies in Toronto and Montreal, can be tilted by Jewish support. But that’s about it, in stark electoral terms. Frum says the polls are not what drives Harper’s support for Israel. “These are his genuine, and true, and deeply held convictions, and he feels he has no choice,” she says. “He’s not going to take a different position because it’s politically advantageous.” Indeed, the Prime Minister told the gala audience in Toronto that his affection for Israel comes not from political ambition, but rather his father’s own fervent belief in the then-fledgling nation.
Nevertheless, Liberals want to win back the Jewish vote they counted on for so long. Justin Trudeau, the Liberal leader, recently reiterated his party’s position that Canada “must always be a strong, true friend of Israel.” His chief fundraiser, Stephen Bronfman, claimed Trudeau was a closer friend to Israel than the Prime Minister, because he’s actually visited the place. That advantage evaporates next year, when Harper sets off for Israel, especially because, Dimant claims, the trip’s not a token drop-in. “I think it’s going to be both a political journey to Israel, but also a spiritual journey,” he says.
As he accepted his Toronto tribute, Harper referred to the countries surrounding Israel as a “region of darkness,” juxtaposed against a Jewish state that he called a “light of freedom and democracy.” Canadians may disagree about the substance of that characterization, but everyone can agree about one thing: On matters of Israel, the Prime Minister is utterly immovable.