When a private citizen holds a world view filled with forces of light and darkness, with heroes and villains and mystical bonds tying fates together, that’s generally her own business. When that person is the Prime Minister of Canada, however, and that world view bears on the nation’s foreign policy, it’s of wider public interest.
Earlier this month, a black-clad and strikingly relaxed Prime Minister Harper appeared at the Jewish National Fund’s Negev Dinner, making a few informal remarks before rocking out with his band. Those remarks, which mostly reaffirmed his ardent regard and support for Israel, were parsed by commenters over the past week largely in terms of their relation to Conservative inroads among Canadian Jewish voters.
That’s true enough — but it’s also true that vote-seeking can’t explain the Prime Minister’s Middle East policy. Jewish voters (48 per cent of whom did not support him in the last election) make a relatively small electoral difference, one that pales by comparison with larger groups of voters displeased by the government’s approach. As Carleton professor Mira Sucharov correctly notes, “[w]hen it comes to Israel, Harper’s policies are more about ideological conviction than electoral calculation.”
Supporting Israel’s existence and security, and seeing a strong affinity between it and Canada, does not require the scaffolding of Harper’s world view.
Yet even those who accept that view tend not to pay much attention to the details of the underlying ideology. This is a mistake — because at the Negev Dinner, Harper said some things that are remarkably odd coming from a Prime Minister of Canada, and that demand closer scrutiny of the world view they express.
First, consider the Prime Minister’s description of Israel as “that light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness.” As a number of pundits have noticed, the comment is unlikely to go over well in the West Bank and Jordan, where the Prime Minister will be visiting next month. Nor is it helpful to any Canadian interests advanced by foreign minister John Baird in his dealings with Arab countries (including on a seven-country Middle East tour last April).
Given the stakes involved in Harper’s decision to use the “region of darkness” phrase, it can’t just be a rhetorical flourish used to complement the “light of freedom and democracy” metaphor. It must be considered as an actual belief that he chose to express. So in what sense does our Prime Minister actually believe that the non-Israeli Middle East is a region of darkness?
A second puzzling thing Harper said at the Negev dinner is 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.” This is much more than a statement of support for Israel or a wish for its continued flourishing. On the face of it, it is simply bizarre. What could lead Harper to such a dramatic belief in shared fate between Canada and Israel?
Some light on these questions is shed by a July 2011 Macleans interview, in which the newly elected majority-government Prime Minister expounds at length on Canada and global affairs. The interview is important and deserves to be read in full — along with Roland Paris’s commentary on the opaque scaremongering that pervades it. However, three concise excerpts can serve to illuminate the core world view underlying Harper’s Negev Dinner comments:
•[T]hose societies that promote those values tend to share our interests, and those that do not tend to, on occasion, if not frequently, become threats to us.
•[W]hen I look around the world at those who most oppose the existence of Israel and seek its extinction, they are the very people who, in a security sense, are immediate — long-term but also immediate — threats to our own country. So I think that’s a very clear choice.
•[T]he real defining moments for the country and for the world are those big conflicts where everything’s at stake and where you take a side and show you can contribute to the right side.
So it seems the Prime Minister orients his thinking about global affairs around a set of beliefs that see other societies and countries as unequivocally holding our values or not; as sharing our interests or not; as being threats to our security or not. It is a black-and-white world view of “defining moments,” “big conflicts where everything’s at stake,” and imperatives to support “the right side” unwaveringly lest the forces of evil prevail. To anyone who believes all those things, Harper’s Negev Dinner remarks about Israel and Canada are perfectly cogent.
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To those who don’t — those, for instance, who see societies as internally diverse, and with values and interests that can partially overlap or diverge from other nations — it’s liable to seem an alarmingly simplistic and dramatic world view to form the basis of a rational foreign policy. A former chief of the Israeli Mossad can plainly state that [t]he interests of United States and Israel are not identical,” but our Prime Minister would not be prepared to say the same of Canada. Even as Baird goes to Bahrain this week to advocate Canada’s views at a regional security summit of Arab nations, his boss views the region chiefly through the prism of its antagonism to Israel, as one of darkness, alien values and pervasive threats.
Supporting Israel’s existence and security, and seeing a strong affinity between it and Canada, does not require the scaffolding of Harper’s world view. Indeed, Canada would be a better supporter of Israel if our government regarded its actions with less than automatic endorsement, and with a recognition that Israel (like Canada) sometimes falls short of the liberal democratic values it professes. Such nuance would give Canada the international credibility it now utterly lacks in promoting Israeli interests — and broader Middle East ones as well.
Anyone would have a hard time thinking clearly about a complex issue if the fate of a nation, Western civilization and the world seemed to be at stake. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister of Canada is labouring under such a handicap. If he could fix it, more than his own powers of insight could be improved.
Published in the Toronto Star, December 11, 2013