Dec. 16, 2020
By ANDREW COHEN
Since its induced birth a decade ago, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has offered full-throated support for the government of Israel. As official advocate of Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, it suggests it speaks for Canadian Jewry.
That CIJA “represents hundreds of thousands of Jewish Canadians affiliated with the federation,” is as empty as its claim that it is non-partisan. It isn’t really, at least not when it comes to Israel.
CIJA can scarcely utter a discouraging word about the harshest policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, from expanding settlements on the West Bank, to undermining the multi-party Iranian nuclear treaty.
Three years ago, for example, when the United States announced it would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, CIJA quickly assembled an on-line forum of three panelists. All heralded the decision, a breathless exercise in propaganda from an organization which celebrates “educating Canadians about the important role Israel plays in Canadian life.”
Because Likud has been in power longer than CIJA has been in business, we don’t know how CIJA would react to a moderate government in Israel. But we do know how it reacts to a more moderate government in Canada on Israel: CIJA complains and complains.
In 2015, CIJA was quick to jump on Justin Trudeau, then in opposition, for “trivializing” the Holocaust. Yet it was unfazed when Steven Blaney, a Conservative minister, did much the same two days later.
More recently, when CIJA joined two other Jewish organizations in criticizing Canada’s vote at the United Nations in favour of Palestinian self-determination, it showed, once again, how CIJA is out of step with opinion at home and abroad.
CIJA issued a joint statement of protest with B’nai Brith and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. Each representative was quoted independently, as if none would take responsibility for the other – or, out of vanity, each insisted on his own megaphone.
Jon Allen, Canada’s former Ambassador to Israel, rejected their woolly-minded argument in the CJR. More than most Jews, he knows Canada is an unflinching friend of Israel. He explained persuasively why we voted with the rest of the world, including every one of Israel’s long-standing allies (other than the United States).
But that wasn’t enough for CIJA. Nothing is but the orthodoxy. This happens when your board of directors includes the perfervid John Baird, Stephen Harper’s foreign minister, beloved by CIJA; when he resigned unceremoniously in early 2015, CIJA saluted “his clear and conscientious foreign policy vision of which all Canadians can be proud.” Actually, many Jews were appalled, and helped defeat the Conservatives that October.
The Liberals can appoint Bob Rae as Canada’s Ambassador to the UN; they can avow moral and material support for Israel until the coming of the Messiah; they can appoint Irwin Cotler envoy on anti-Semitism (which CIJA uncharacteristically praised). CIJA is rarely satisfied.
Then again, why should anyone care what CIJA thinks? Its officers are unelected, unaccountable and untroubled by criticism, which it reliably ignores or dismisses. Sustained by the Federation, which is sustained by tax-deductible donations, CIJA says what it wants – and then says it speaks for us.
CIJA has lacked credibility since it was mysteriously established in 2011. Some say it was the product of a hostile takeover of the Canadian Jewish Congress, engineered by wealthy conservative Jews with the blessing of the governing Conservatives. That may explain its defensiveness.
For an organization which sees itself as a communicator, CIJA has clownish media relations. Despite its self-described legion of “analysts, public affairs specialists, web and social-media practitioners, relationship builders and media relations experts,” it is among the least responsive advocacy organizations I’ve seen in 43 years in journalism.
CIJA boasts of its work on Jewish issues in Canada (curiously, it does not have “Canada” in its name), which are detailed on its website. For fighting antisemitism, encouraging Jewish education, protecting kosher food, and other campaigns – wonderful. I applaud that, although it’s hard to judge its effectiveness or its value for money. Its budget is said to be $8 to $11 million, of which 40 percent, goes to advocacy on Israel. (CIJA refuses to say). To push this and other causes, it has 10 or so lobbyists.
For all its resources, though, how is CIJA the voice of “hundreds of thousands” of Jews in a country of 390,000 Jews? By what arithmetic, and with what authority?
The Canadian Jewish Congress, a venerable Jewish parliament, did not worry about its legitimacy. It had the confidence of Jews because it tried to represent all of them. It was a forum of conciliation between faiths, a voice of immigrants, and a champion of social justice. It had authenticity and loyalty. This we can say with confidence: The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs is not the Canadian Jewish Congress.
The Federation can address the problem with CIJA. It can tell CIJA to stop advocating for Israel in Canada, and focus exclusively on education and other domestic issues. It can allow donors skeptical of CIJA to designate their support to other worthy charities within the Federation. Or choose others outside it.
As the pandemic strains many charities heroically serving our community, CIJA is one progressive Jews no longer want to hear – and need no longer subsidize.
Andrew Cohen is an award-winning columnist with the Ottawa Citizen, a professor of journalism at Carleton University, and the author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History