TORONTO – Prime Minister Stephen Harper basked in the glow of support from members of Canada’s Jewish community on Sunday, announcing a first-ever trip to Israel next year and then breaking into song at a gala fundraising dinner.
Hundreds of kilometres away from the battle-like atmosphere of Parliament Hill where the Senate scandal rages on, Harper was clearly relaxed and comfortable enough at the Jewish National Association dinner to belt out his own rendition of the Who’s “The Seeker” and a string of other classic songs.
But first, he announced an official visit to Israel, as well as Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
“I’ll tell you, friends, what I’m going to be doing in January — I’m going to be going and visiting the state of Israel,” he said to enthusiastic applause.
Harper called Israel a “light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness,” and reiterated that Canada will continue to back it in the United Nations and elsewhere abroad.
“We understand that the future of our country and of our shared civilization depends on the survival and thriving of that free and democratic homeland for the Jewish people in the Middle East,” he said.
Harper, who skipped his usual suit-and-tie look for a dark shirt open at the collar, then abruptly stopped his speech and launched into a musical interlude for his rapt audience.
“This really is a show of affection of love, and I really appreciate that, and I want to show you a bit of affection and love in return,” said Harper, who took charge on the keyboard and lead vocals with his backing band, Herringbone, for a run of 60’s and 70’s hits.
He started with the Who’s “The Seeker” and continued on with several more songs, including Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” to the delight of the thousands at the event.
And Harper tickled more than the ivories, getting the crowd laughing during some between-song joking about one of his bandmates having a “lost weekend.”
“He ended up in Boston at a baseball game in a drunken stupor. It’s a Herringbone fact.”
The Harper concert concluded with an encore of The Beatles “Hey Jude,” while a throng of the well-dressed crowd bunched around the stage, waving candles grabbed from dinner tables and snapping photos on smartphones.
Harper has been unafraid to sing in public in the past, getting up on the stage at the Calgary Stampede last summer and also performing at an Ottawa gala. But at seven songs the set list for Sunday night’s gig may be have stretched longer than the prime minister’s other musical moments.
After the set was over, Harper was lauded as a “real leader” in a video message by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Stephen doesn’t want to be politically correct. He wants to be correct.”
Sunday’s gala fundraiser was to acknowledge Harper’s staunch political support of Israel. His pro-Israeli policies have sowed resentment in Canada’s Arab and Muslim communities.
The dinner was put on by the Jewish National Fund’s Canadian chapter, which raised $5.7 million to build a bird sanctuary in Israel to be named after Harper.
Spokesmen for the Jewish National Fund and the Prime Minister’s Office wouldn’t say last week what persuaded the prime minister to lend his name to the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre.
Not everyone gave Harper a warm embrace.
Outside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre where the dinner was held, dozens of protesters turned out to protest Harper’s political agenda and his environmental policies.
“Harper, Harper, will you see, Palestine will be free,” they chanted.
“The main message really is to push Canada to end its complicity with these violations of international law that Israel commits,” said Palestinian activist Yafa Jarrar.