Socialist Studies Review (Fall 2010)

Canada and Israel
Building Apartheid

By Yves Engler  

The minority Conservative government of Stephen Harper has drawn popular and media attention for its policies and statements relating to Israel/Palestine. As Yves Engler notes in his new book, the Conservatives have publicly claimed for Canada the role of being the most “pro-Israel” country in the world (94). But what happened before Prime Minister Harper? Engler’s concise and informative history of Canada’s foreign policy towards Israel answers this in ways that will be disquieting for Canadians who support the image of their country as a middle power, peacekeeper and helpful fixer on the international stage. Far from being an “honest broker,” this accessibly written account shows that well before Harper there was “Canadian support for the dispossession of the Palestinians, for a state building a nation based on one religion, and for the last major European colonial project” (4).

In a tightly packed Introduction, Engler argues that Israel is an “apartheid state,” (5) due to the absence of formal equality accorded the non-Jewish indigenous inhabitants and their descendants of historic Palestine - that is Palestinian Arabs who may be Muslim or Christian. The denial of the right of return to Palestinian refugees stands in dramatic contrast to Israel’s “Law of Return” which privileges those that are defined as Jews - wherever they may be - for settlement and Israeli citizenship. The deprivation, human rights abuses, and bantustan-like conditions experienced by Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, contrast with the mantra of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East. In Israel proper, laws privilege Jewish land ownership such that Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship are legally excluded from owning a whopping 93% of the land (7). The ten chapters that follow the Introduction concentrate on delineating the role played by the Canadian state, Canadian officials and Canadian citizens in, as the book’s subtitle suggests, “building apartheid.” The book concludes with consideration of how the course might be changed.

A specific strength of Engler’s account is that he illustrates that going back to the nineteenth century there was strong support by Canadian state officials for modern Zionism, a political project that came to coalesce around the goal of forming a Jewish state in historic Palestine. This, he suggests, was because in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some of the most active and vocal Zionists in Canada were Christian and their views, based on a particular biblical interpretation, were linked to British-Canadian nationalism. Thus, illustrating the erasure of the presence and claims of the non-Jewish inhabitants in historic Palestine, Engler cites future Prime Minister Arthur Meighen, then Solicitor General, declaring in 1915 that “I think I can speak for those of the Christian faith when I express the wish that God speed the day when the land of your forefathers shall be yours again. This task I hope will be performed by that champion of liberty the world over - the British Empire” (14). Likewise, a slew of twentieth century Prime Ministers, including William Lyon Mackenzie King, R.B. Bennett and Lester Pearson expressed similar views. Indeed, so instrumental was Lester B. Pearson in forging support for the partition of Palestine within the fledgling United Nations that Engler notes he was dubbed by some the “‘Lord Balfour’ of Canada” (24), in reference to British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour whose 1917 declaration promised British support of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. It is interesting that Pearson also credited his Sunday school lessons for learning that “the Jews belonged in Palestine” (25).

After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Engler traces how official Canadian support for the Zionist project continued to the present. This support is sustained not only by a Christian evangelical tradition that links with Israel, but by real ties between Canada and Israel in the spheres of intelligence, military and business, as well as by geopolitical considerations stemming from American empire. As summarized by Engler, “Canadian policy towards the Middle East has largely been designed to enable U.S. imperial designs on a strategic part of the planet” (133). Thus, in his account, the post-World War Two Canadian Prime Ministers whose policies were relatively more independent of the United States (Trudeau and Chrétien) also presided over “the least ‘Israel no matter what it does’ governments in Canadian history” (134). An entire chapter devoted to the Harper Conservatives illustrates how the current government has provided justifications of Israel’s bombing of Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008-2009) as well as having engaged in stronger patterns of voting in the United Nations in support of Israel. While not covered, events around the time of the release of the book suggest the trend continues. In particular, the Conservative government also defunded organizations advocating for, or aiding, Palestinian refugees (for example, Canada’s Christian multi-denominational human rights group KAIROS, as well as UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency which has traditionally garnered support from Canada).

Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid is an intervention designed to capture Canada’s role in Israel/Palestine in a way that counters “a pro-Israel perspective” suggested in other books (4). It is not a standard scholarly book which painstakingly outlines supporting and/or competing theories, evidence and interpretation from a variety of sources. It also lacks an index. But it succeeds in providing a strong, clear and compelling narrative that scholars, especially those who address Canadian foreign policy, really need to contend with in scholarship. The work is highly readable and will certainly appeal to a wide audience, perhaps precisely because it is not a standard scholarly book. The author’s knack for picking pithy quotes and examples to substantiate his claims make for memorable reading. I suspect that Engler is right that many Canadian readers on finishing the account provided may be “troubled, upset and even angry at what is being done in their name” (139).

The book’s most formidable value lies in how it identifies ways forward for unions, for activists, and for Canadians of all backgrounds - including Arab and Jewish - to deal with issues relating to Palestinian rights along with the democratization of Canadian foreign policy. It is perhaps not surprising, given its increasing traction, that supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) campaign designed to compel the Israeli state’s compliance with international law is featured. But so too are such issues as halting weapons sales to Israel, revoking the Jewish National Fund’s charitable status in Canada in light of its support given to West Bank settlers, and re-formulating Canadian foreign policy so social justice, rather than empire, comes first. For those committed to progressive social change, this is an important and timely book.

–Reviewed by Yasmeen Abu-Laban, University of Alberta

Socialist Studies 6(2) Fall 2010

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