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Hill Dispatches: The ethnic politics game

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In 2009, the Conservatives distributed flyers that said Montreal Liberal MP Irwin Cotler had attended the "overtly anti-Semitic" 2001 human rights conference in Durban, South Africa.

Leaving aside the question of whether the criticism of Israel at that event did or did not slip over into what could be called anti-Semitism, associating Irwin Cotler with any kind of anti-Semitism is more than a bit absurd.

Cotler's main work, prior to politics, was as a law professor at McGill and expert on human rights.

At McGill he headed a human rights institute.

But Cotler was also very active in the Canadian Jewish community, and served a term as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

In that capacity, he was a strong advocate for the Jews of the Soviet Union, who did suffer both from historic anti-Semitic attitudes and from the Soviet regime's willingness to pander to those ancient prejudices.

Cotler worked hard on behalf of jailed Soviet Jewish dissident Nathan Sharansky, for instance. It was due, in part, to Cotler's efforts that Sharansky was able to emigrate to Israel.

A strategy for winning big city seats

Cotler's record has not deterred the take-no-prisoners Harper Conservatives. They have had the Liberal MP and his Montreal riding on their target list for a number of years now.

It is no secret that the Conservatives have been actively courting the Jewish vote, primarily through an almost eerily "ready-aye-ready" policy of utterly uncritical support for Israel and virtually everything its government does.

In contrast, the United States government -- supposedly Israel's greatest friend, ally and benefactor -- is far more willing to call Israel out when it believes its ally has stepped over the line.

Just the other day, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Israel and the world that the U.S. believes the best approach to Iran's nuclear capacity is diplomatic, not military. And the Secretary chided the current government of Israel for its unwillingness to "take risks" in pursuit of a lasting peace in the region.

"Israel can reach out and mend fences with those who share an interest in regional stability -- countries like Turkey and Egypt, as well as Jordan," Panetta told his audience at the Brookings Institute, "The dream of a secure, prosperous, Jewish and democratic Israel can only be achieved with two states living side by side in peace and in security....  Now is the time for Israel to take bold action and to move towards a negotiated two-state solution."

The American government knows that even this polite and respectful "encouragement" will be seen by many, in both Israel and the USA, as some kind of "betrayal" of its main ally in the Middle East.

Panetta explicitly recognized that when he said: " ... there is a view that this is not the time to pursue peace and that the Arab awakening further imperils the dream of a safe and secure, Jewish and democratic Israel. But I disagree with that view."

A Middle East policy motivated by electoral math

Can you imagine the current Canadian government ever saying anything on the lines of what Panetta said?

The Harper approach has been to play the Middle East policy card strictly for domestic political advantage. And it has worked, so far.

Thornhill, York Centre and Eglinton-Lawrence, onetime Liberal strongholds in Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area, are now all in the Conservative camp, in part due to a shift in Jewish votes toward the Conservatives.

There was a time, as recently as the 1970s, when the NDP got the largest share of Jewish votes. It was the NDP that had the first Jewish national party leader, David Lewis, and the first Jewish premier, Dave Barrett of British Columbia.

During much of the Trudeau era, Jews tended to support the Liberals.

Middle East policy was not the key issue then, although in 1979 Joe Clark's Progressive Conservatives made a clumsy effort to play that card, by promising to move the Canadian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That promise probably helped the Tories win the Toronto riding of Saint Paul's and their candidate, Ron Atkey, briefly served as Immigration Minister.

But it all fizzled when Clark actually won the 1979 election and cold realism forced him to back down from the promise.

Not much residual loyalty to Liberals because of Trudeau

Trudeau's appeal to the Jewish community likely had more to do with the fact that he ended decades of a de facto, polite, "gentleman's agreement" sort of anti-Semitism by appointing the first Jewish cabinet minister (Herb Gray) and the first Jewish Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (Bora Laskin).

The Liberal regimes of Mackenzie King and Louis St-Laurent would never have done anything of that sort. Under King, the best David Croll -- Herb Gray's predecessor as a Liberal MP from Windsor -- could hope for was an appointment "upstairs" to the Senate (where he authored a still-quoted report on poverty in Canada).

Despite that history, for a great many members of today's Jewish community memories of the days when they were victims of prejudice have faded.

Today, it is Harper's Conservatives who get the biggest piece of the Jewish vote, in cities such as Toronto. The pro-Israel policy probably has a lot to do with it. And there are also, no doubt, many Jews who feel sympathy with a small-c conservative agenda.

That is why the Conservatives believe they can take Irwin Cotler's seat -- Mount Royal, in the centre west Montreal.

Since 1940, the Mount Royal riding has been one of the safest Liberal seats in the country.

It was Trudeau's own riding from 1965 until his retirement, and he always won with enormous margins. Cotler was first elected in a by-election in 1999 with over 90 per cent of the vote.

But in each subsequent election Cotler's share of the vote has gone down. Last time, he squeaked in with only slightly more than 41 per cent of the vote.

Conservative Saulie Zajdel's strong second-place showing last election was the Conservatives' best result on the entire island of Montreal. In most Montreal and Montreal-area ridings the Conservatives trailed very badly, coming in third or fourth, sometimes with less than 10 per cent of the vote.

Mount Royal Riding is "low hanging fruit"

Now that the Conservatives have managed to penetrate into the heart of urban Toronto, with members such as Joe Oliver and Mark Adler, they want to do the same for Montreal.

Their best hope -- maybe their only hope -- is Mount Royal. From an electoral point of view it is certainly the lowest hanging fruit in Montreal and area.

That is why Conservative "marketers" have been calling voters in the Mount Royal riding to tell them that Cotler will be retiring soon, precipitating a by-election. They then invite those voters to support the Conservatives.

The only problem is that Cotler has not announced his retirement and no by-election is in the works.

Exercising "freedom of speech"

So the whole exercise seems like a game of deliberate deception, and the Conservatives don't even try very hard to argue otherwise. The best defence the Government House leader Peter Van Loan could come up with was that those who made the calls were exercising their "freedom of speech."

Some have argued that it may represent a new low in Canadian political tactics.

"Politics is a blood sport," Professor Ned Franks of Queen's said, "But that doesn't mean you have to resort to dirty blows."

In the end it may actually work.

Cotler may not be officially contemplating retirement. However, he will be 72 next May and well over 75 when the next election comes around. Spending all those years, at this time of life, on the opposition benches may not be exactly what he had in mind when he ran, again, last time.

The Conservatives might be kicking themselves over one thing, though. These dirty tactics might encourage Cotler to hang on to his seat for longer than he might have otherwise.

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