Canada’s Conservatives courting Jewish voters, clumsily

Canada’s federal election campaign has a distinctly Jewish irony: The country’s solidly pro-Israel prime minister reached out to Jewish voters with Rosh Hashanah cards just weeks before an election that falls on another Jewish holiday.

For the second consecutive year, the holiday cards sent by Prime Minister Stephen Harper triggered questions about privacy and religious profiling. At the same time, there’s much consternation among the country’s 370,000 Jews that the vote takes place Tuesday, Oct. 14 — the first day of Sukkot.

The combination of events prompted Montreal resident Lev Berner to sum up the feelings of some Jewish Canadians when he was quoted in the Montreal Gazette newspaper as saying that Harper is “conscientious enough to reach out to possible Jewish voters, yet ignorant enough to schedule the election on Sukkot.”

The latest polls show Harper is within striking range of winning a majority government in Canada’s 308-seat House of Commons. His main rival, Stephane Dion, leads the opposition Liberal Party, which has traditionally received the support of the majority of Canadian Jews.

Issues facing Canadian Jews include increased racist and anti-Semitic activity, especially online; the threat posed by Iran; and support for Israel at the United Nations and in international negotiations.

B’nai Brith Canada, which called the election’s scheduling “regrettable yet understandable,” noted that electoral laws “provide ample alternatives for voters to cast their ballot on days other than the scheduled election date.”

In a statement posted on the Canadian Jewish Congress’ Web site, Canada’s chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, lays out the options available to Jewish voters unable to vote on Sukkot. An estimated 25 percent of Canadian Jews are Orthodox.

Canadians will be able to vote by mail or in person at a local Elections Canada office until Tuesday, Oct. 14, if citizens first registered for a special ballot.

Elected with a minority Conservative government in January 2006, Harper has a record of solidly pro-Israel moves and statements, to the delight, for the most part, of the country’s Jews.

Just weeks after their election, the Conservatives ended all contact with the Hamas government and suspended assistance to the Palestinian Authority. “Not a red cent to Hamas,” said then-Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay. “This is a terrorist organization.”

Since then, Harper has declared Canada’s “unshakable support” for Israel and has said, “Our government believes that those who threaten Israel also threaten Canada.”

The Conservatives also scored points in the Jewish community with a $3 million program to help beef up security at places of worship and ethno-cultural buildings. To date, they have allocated more than $600,000 to 19 synagogues, Jewish schools and communal buildings.

Dion, the Liberal Party candidate, has pledged $75 million to help ethno-cultural centers and houses of worship improve security.

In January, Canada became the first nation to announce it would boycott next year’s U.N. anti-racism conference, a follow-up to the 2001 Durban conference in South Africa. Ottawa cited the “circus of intolerance” directed at Israel at the 2001 Durban parley.

There’s no hard data on the voting patterns of Canadian Jews. But one informal study showed that during the 1970s, the years of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, they voted Liberal at a rate 20 percent higher than the national average.

The Conservatives’ policy statements have triggered vigorous discussion in the Jewish community about whether Jewish voters should move from their traditional Liberal base to support the Conservatives.

“There’s lots of talk in both Montreal and Toronto about Jews considering supporting the Conservatives,” said McGill University sociologist Morton Weinfeld, one of Canada’s foremost watchers of Jewish voting trends.

Some socially minded Jews are torn between Harper’s support for Israel and his domestic conservatism, Weinfeld added.

If Conservatives are handed a majority government, these Jews fear it could unleash drastic cost-cutting measures in social programs for children, immigrants, the elderly and other vulnerable populations.

Weinfeld predicted a drop in Jewish votes for the Liberals, but noted that it might be modest. “I think the Jewish liberal tendency will persist but at a reduced margin,” he said.