Will the next federal election turn on a nasty dispute over which political party is more anti-Semitic than the other?
Probably not. But given the controversy that unfolded recently in the House of Commons, it may not be for lack of trying.
Caught up in the dispute was Irwin Cotler, the former Liberal Minister of Justice and MP for Mount Royal riding in west-end Montreal.
Full disclosure: I spent most of my formative years living in that riding. I’ve known Cotler, who is a friend of my uncle’s, since I was a young child.
It has one of the largest Jewish populations of any riding in Canada. Mount Royal riding also has been represented by a Jewish MP in the House of Commons for more than a quarter-century. Before Cotler, the late Sheila Finestone held the seat for many years.
Not only is it one of the more Jewish-flavored ridings in the country, it is also one of the safest Liberal seats around. It has been almost 75 years since Mount Royal elected a non-Liberal MP. When I was growing up, our local MP was none other than Pierre Trudeau.
A mailbox, the joke goes, could win the riding thanks to its red color. A bad election for Mount Royal Liberals is when their candidate wins less than 65 per cent of the vote.
By that measure, last year’s federal election was not a good one for Irwin Cotler. He was reelected easily, with 55.6 per cent of the vote. But his Conservative rival won 27.3 per cent, an almost ten per cent improvement from that party’s showing in the previous election.
By comparison, when Cotler first ran for Parliament in a 1999 by-election, he won more than 90 per cent of all votes cast.
It was a similar story elsewhere in the country in the handful of Liberal ridings with substantial Jewish populations. In Toronto, the Liberals easily won ridings such as Eglinton-Lawrence and York Centre, but with pluralities instead of their frequent outright majorities.
As well, in the 2008 election, the Conservatives took suburban Thornhill, the riding with the largest percentage of Jewish voters in Ontario, although Thornhill does have a history as a swing riding, rather than as a safe Liberal seat.
All of this may explain the recent Commons kerfuffle over anti-Semitism. In a minority Parliament, parties look for any edge they can find to win the few seats that may put them over the top next time around.
For Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, hungry for a majority after twice falling just short, traditionally Liberal seats with sizable populations of ethnic minorities seem to hold the most promise. They are the kinds of ridings in which the Conservative Party made notable headway last year, and hopes to do even better when another election is called.
That helps to explain why households in Mount Royal and other ridings with large Jewish populations recently received taxpayer-funded Conservative party flyers that contrasted Conservative and Liberal actions on issues thought to be of interest to Jewish voters: anti-Semitism; Fighting terrorism; Support for Israel.
“(Conservatives) led the world in refusing participation in Durban II hate-fest against Israel,” one of the flyer’s bullet points read, referring to the controversial UN Conference on Racism. “(Liberals) willingly participated in overtly anti-Semitic Durban I.”
Not so fast, replied Cotler and other Liberal MPs from ridings targeted by the Conservative campaign. In the House of Commons, Cotler demanded an apology, pointing out that he had been an outspoken critic of Durban I, which he attended in 2001:
“Not only did the Canadian delegation and I myself speak unequivocally in condemnation of Durban but… Israel, at the time, publicly commended Canada for its participation and the nature of its participation in the Durban I conference.”
It is quite a stretch to paint an MP like Irwin Cotler – whose bona fides as a human rights activist and a supporter of Jewish causes are impeccable – with even the hint of an anti-Semitic brush.
Conservatives were careful not to criticize Cotler directly, but also offered no apologies for the flyers. Instead, they pointed to controversial statements made in the past by other Liberal MPs, including leader Michael Ignatieff.
Will these hardball tactics work? Tories risk a backlash if Jewish voters feel manipulated or turned off by playing politics with accusations of anti-Semitism.
But the party seems confident that the Jewish vote is ripe for the picking.