By Yves Engler
Fernwood Publishing/Red Publishing
Toronto, 2010, 168 pages.
Most Canadians today would probably agree that their country's foreign policy is pro-Israel. Even Canada's “liberal” supporters of Israel complain that siding so explicitly with Israel damages Canada's role of a peacemaker. It signals a shift away from the country's perceived balanced approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But in his latest book, Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid, Yves Engler contends that Canada's lopsided support for Israel is neither a recent shift nor the product of current government policy. Engler argues that the support goes as far back as Zionism itself, long before current conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Pocket-sized, thin and with an appendix of web sources for activists, the book may be easily pigeonholed as an anti-Zionist activism manual. But Engler, an iconoclast of Canada's foreign policy mythmaking, delves deep into the diplomatic, economic, ideological, religious and security ties between the two countries that span over a century.
The material is already out there, but the author skillfully constructs a coherent narrative that brings it together into one accessible volume. His well-referenced and easy-to-follow exposé leaves little doubt of the strength and longevity of the Canada-Israel relationship.
Engler adheres to a Chomskian interpretation of this alliance. Namely that it is driven more by Canada's backing of American-led imperialism rather than the appeasement of the Zionist lobby. The latter, Engler claims, plays an undeniable role in funding Israeli apartheid. But in terms of steering policy in Ottawa, it is pushing against an open door.
Engler stresses the fact that the roots of Zionism in Canada are Christian rather than Jewish. He chronicles Canada's involvement at every stage of Zionist history by citing the prominent role Canadian Zionists played. Businessman and Christian Zionist Henry Wentworth Monk was campaigning to buy land in Palestine long before Herzl “thought of a Jewish state”.
In 1881, Monk proposed setting up a National Jewish Fund. Clergymen like Albert Thompson and Charles Russell spoke of turning the "wilderness" of the holy land into the “very garden of the lord”.
But Monk's efforts bore little financial fruit. By 1906, Canadian Zionism had raised a mere $6000 in support funds. Things changed during World War I. About 400 Canadian soldiers took part in British General Allenby's invasion of Ottoman Palestine. Some were mobilised by then-president of the Zionist Societies of Canada, Clarence De Sola.
Following Britain's Balfour Declaration in November 1917, which declared support for a Jewish national home in Palestine, Canadians raised close to half a million dollars for Zionism between 1919 and 1921.
Canadians took part in the Nakba, the forced expulsion of Palestinians from Palestine. The main recruiter for the Zionist Haganah militia in Canada — and heir to giant retailer Tip Tops — Ben Dunkelman put the number of Canadians who fought to establish Israel at 1000.
Canadian participation left its clearest mark perhaps on Israel's air force. Engler states that the Zionists' central base commander was Canadian Sde Dov, while Canadian Sydney Shulemson is considered the “father of the Israeli air force”. At least 53 Canadians are believed to have enlisted in Israel's small air force during the 1948 war.
Canadian undersecretary of state for external affairs (and later prime minister), Lester B. Pearson, chaired the UN Committee on Palestine in 1947 (UNSCOP). Canadian Supreme Court Justice Ivan Rand was also a member of the commission and is considered by some as the chief architect of the UN's partition plan of Palestine. Pearson actively lobbied and advocated for the partition.
Engler identifies the Pearson era as a time of gradual transfer of Canada's services from British-led imperialism to that of the US. When the Eisenhower administration was hesitant to directly sell heavy weapons to Israel (lest it upset Arab governments and by extension Washington's Cold War planning in the region), Ottawa struck the arms deals in lieu of Washington.
This set the stage for a much more institutionalised form of cooperation between Canada and Israel that spanned the intelligence, military and business fields.
Engler cites reports by Canadian diplomats on the close cooperation between the two countries' spy agencies. The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Israel's Mossad not only share information, but also conduct joint operations according to these sources.
One of the most contentious issues surrounding joint security operations is the use of Canadian passports in Israeli assassination operations. Israeli agents who carried out the 1997 botched assassination attempt of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Amman entered Jordan on Canadian passports. Engler traces this practice all the way to the 1970s.
In By Way of Deception, former Mossad agent Victor Ostrovsky described Israel's passport forgery factory and laboratory and claimed that in the 1980s he saw more than a thousand blank Canadian passports, which were Mossad's favourite.
Fighting "terror" eventually led to forging formal CSIS-Mossad relations under the rubric of a border and security agreement between the two countries — even though they don't share any borders!
Intelligence ties were matched by military ones. Israel was invited to joint military operations with the North American Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Canadian skies.
In addition, Canadian companies actively maintain technical infrastructure of the Israeli military-industrial complex that sustains its occupation of the Palestinian territories and apartheid policies.
Canadian support for the Palestinian arm of this infrastructure, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority and its security apparatus, was also fostered in the last few years and grew after the election of Hamas to power in 2006.
On the financial and business front, Engler points to the charity status in Canada of discriminatory institutions like the Jewish National Fund and the millions of dollars invested by Canadian banks and communities in Israel Bonds (the highest per-capita investment in the world).
Attempts to legally challenge the JNF’s charity status in the 1990s failed.
Engler points out that support for Israel is bipartisan. He singles out Pierre Trudeau as the only prime minister who at times did not toe Washington's line of uncritical support. Jean Chretien comes a distant second. But even Trudeau's criticism remained in the realm of words.
Engler does not spare the Canadian left from his critique. Canadian unions, he points out, purchase close to $20 million worth of State of Israel Bonds annually.
Engler argues that there has been a "significant reversal" in left-wing support for Israel since the mid-1980s, and more so in the wake of the mounting boycott, divestments and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli apartheid across North American university campuses.
Engler lists a number of long-term goals such as halting all weapons sales to Israel, revoking the JNF's charitable status, pressuring unions to divest from State of Israel Bonds and rescinding security agreements with Israel.
More generally, he calls for “de-ethnicising” the conflict, emphasising that it is not an Arab or Jewish question but one about basic human dignity. This is the direction the anti-apartheid and BDS campaign has taken for many years now.
Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid is a harsh reminder of what this campaign is up against. Engler seems to think the issue is mostly about ignorance. But just as one cannot underestimate the power of moral argument and human solidarity appeals, one must not overestimate it.
Calculations of cost and benefit are crucial. Israel will only relent when the cost of its apartheid system outweighs the benefits.
This is the logic behind mainstreaming BDS beyond the conscientious few. There are billions of dollars in education, industry and business at stake in the joint building of apartheid between Canada and Israel.
The question Engler's book forces us to consider is: after showing the ugly face of Canadian-Israeli collusion, how can one make ending it more beneficial than costly for most Canadians?
[Hicham Safieddine is a Toronto-based researcher and journalist. Abridged from Electronic Intifada.]