A friendship with few benefits

Harper's cheerleading for the Jewish state was excessive enough that it verged on the absurd

Jason Ransom/PMO

The epic bromance between Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on full display this week in the Israeli Knesset, where Harper made a glowing speech about the Jewish state and its hawkish leader. Harper promised Canada would stand with Israel “through fire and water.” He commended Netanyahu on his steely resolve in the face of unjust international pressure and, most controversially, he denounced the phrase “Israeli apartheid” as anti-Semitic. (At this, Arab Israeli MKs Ahmad Tibi and Abu Arar began to heckle the PM and walked out of the room.) Harper’s 250-person delegation to Israel, complete with six cabinet ministers and 21 rabbis, received a royal welcome in the Holy Land. Reaction to its success, however, was cooler at home. After Harper made his speech, social media was full of indignant responses to what many perceived as the PM’s suggestion that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. In fact, Harper was equating selective criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism: He also said, quite explicitly, that “no state is beyond legitimate questioning or criticism.”

Which raises the question: If Harper wanted to convey that one can criticize Israeli government policy and be a fierce friend to the country at the same time, why didn’t he do just that? His exceedingly sunny speech seemed to imply that either a) he had no objection to any Israeli policies, such as settlements in the West Bank, or b) he thought that simply to mention his reservations would amount to an act of disloyalty. His cheerleading for the Jewish state was excessive enough (even for a Jew) that it verged on the absurd.

When comparing the world’s “old anti-Semitism” to its “new anti-Semitism” (defined by the Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions movement) he said, “As once Jewish businesses were boycotted, some civil-society leaders today call for a boycott of Israel.” Really? Modern boycotts of Israel do sometimes come from an anti-Semitic place, but they are in no way comparable to Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses in 1930s Leipzig—or business boycotts of any kind, in any place. The Israel Defense Force is not a helpless Jewish shopkeeper. It’s grotesque when anti-Zionist activists compare Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to the Third Reich’s treatment of the Jews—as they often do—but it is no less grotesque for Israel’s sympathizers to compare a peaceful political boycott of the Zionist government to the overtly racist Nazi policies that preceded the Holocaust. False equivalencies are false both ways.

There is no doubt Harper is a friend of Israel’s, but what kind of friend is he?

Barak Ravid, writing in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, argues that Harper’s speech “will be remembered mostly for the things he did not say and for the truths he chose to sweep under the carpet.” Among those truths is Israel’s continued settlement expansion into the occupied West Bank (one of the biggest barriers to peace), a policy toward which the Conservative government has been pointedly silent. When asked in Ramallah prior to his historic Knesset address if he would discuss permanent Israeli settlements in the West Bank—something the government of Canada officially opposes—Harper said, “Any attempt to have me, while present in the Middle East, single out the state of Israel for criticism, I will not do.” He may not admit it, but it seems as though the Prime Minister has come to equate any open criticism of Israel’s actions as singular, selective and unfair. Harper appears to be under the impression that, in order to unequivocally support Israel, he must support practically everything it does. As Ravid writes (also, as anyone who watches the show Intervention knows), “This is not how a true friend behaves.”

True friendship is not blind endorsement, something the authors of the Talmud, Judaism’s central Rabbinic text, knew very well. Consider the story of R’Yochanan and Reish Lakish. In it, R’Yochanan, a religious scholar, befriends Reish Lakish, a highway bandit who, it turns out, has a great mind for the Torah. They become very close, devote their whole lives to studying scripture together and seldom agree on anything. (Reish Lakish famously refutes every proposition R’Yochanan makes 24 times). But because of Reish Lakish’s constant objections, R’Yochanan is always able to find the correct answer to whatever scriptural conundrum plagues him. One day, annoyed by a particularly vexing problem in a study session, R’Yochanan insults Reish Lakish, who, in turn, becomes very ill. Out of spite, R’Yochanan refuses to pray for him, and Reish Lakish dies. Sick with grief, R’Yochanan finds a new study partner, a man named R’Elazar who is as complacent and boosterish as Reish Lakish was critical and combative. R’Elazer agrees with absolutely everything R’Yochanan says. In the eyes of his new friend, R’Yochanan can do no wrong. Eventually, in the absence of constructive criticism, R’Yochanan goes mad and dies.

Israel doesn’t need a cheerleader. It needs a friend like Reish Lakish.