For forty years, Republican operatives have been consistently frustrated in their energetic and well-funded efforts to win the support of Jewish voters for their presidential candidates. Looking toward the first battle of the post-Obama era in 2016, battered conservative activists might take encouragement and inspiration from the surprising success of their Jewish counterparts north of the border.
In the Canadian elections of May 2011, the most recent national balloting, Jewish Canadians decisively deserted their traditional home in the center-left Liberal Party and migrated en masse to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s resurgent Conservative Party. For the first time, a majority of Jews (52 percent, according to an Ipsos-Reid exit poll) cast their ballots for the Tories, while less than half that figure (24 percent) remained loyal to the Liberals. The rest of the Jewish votes went to the far left, labor-dominated New Democratic Party (16 percent) or split among a number of minor or regional parties. Harper won a clear majority of the Canadian Parliament and a decisive plurality of the popular vote, beating the runner-up NDP by nearly 10 percentage points. Remarkably, the Conservatives proved far more popular among Canadian Jews than they did with the population in general. Harper’s party won the Jewish vote with a majority virtually identical to its performance among Protestants, while the Tories lost decisively among Catholics and the 17 percent with “no religious identity.” Harper’s unprecedented success proved so striking that it led Toronto’s right-leaning National Post to think the unthinkable with a headlined commentary at the height of the U.S. presidential campaign of 2012: “Will American Jews Follow the Example of Their Neighbors to the North?”
As it happened, the election returns in the United States brought only a minor shift to the right in the Jewish community. Barack Obama still drew a commanding 69 percent of Jewish voters, despite a record on Israel that looked shaky and ambivalent at best. Mitt Romney proudly cited 40 years of personal friendship with Bibi Netanyahu and a history of support for Israel every bit as fervent and unequivocal as Stephen Harper’s, but he could attract no more than 30 percent of the Jewish electorate.
In fact, the record in both countries suggests that the decisions of Jewish voters involve complex factors well beyond the simple question of which candidate offers the firmest friendship to the Jewish state. In Canada, for instance, Harper’s predecessor as Tory Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney (1984–1993), earned a reputation as one of Israel’s most outspoken and unwavering defenders on the world stage, but Reagan never made a dent in the Liberal domination of the Jewish vote. In the same era, Mulroney’s American friend and colleague Ronald Reagan emerged as the most ardently Zionist president to that point in history, but still lost 67 percent of Jewish voters to the tepid nonentity Walter Mondale in 1984.
The essence of Reagan’s Jewish problem, as with another passionately pro-Israel Republican, George W. Bush, involved his identification as a friend of the Evangelical right more than it reflected any substantive concerns over his Middle East policy. Fear of Christian power and influence helped to guarantee that leaders like Reagan and the second President Bush would find their love for the Jewish people unrequited, at least in their own country. From the era of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s to the powerful present-day activism of John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, many (if not most) American Jews remain stubbornly suspicious of any alliance with Evangelicals. In no small part because of media caricatures, secular Jews in particular retain a sincere if irrational fear of Christian conservatism as a toxic source of anti-Semitism, intolerance, apocalyptic delusions, and theocratic conspiracies.
Frank Dimant, the CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, reports that the Canadian Liberal Party traditionally relied on similar strategies to scare wavering Jewish voters back into line, but during the premiership of Jean Chretien (1993–2003) such scare-mongering began to lose its potency. “The community no longer accepted the wild assertions that the Alliance or Conservative parties were riddled with anti-Semites,” he wrote in the Huffington Post. “On the contrary, in the historic battle conducted by [one-time Canadian Public Safety Minister] Stockwell Day in the House of Commons…to ensure that the entire entity of Hezbollah be listed for what it was—a terrorist organization—it became evident to grassroots Jewry that the tide had to change.”
Evangelical Christians look vastly less threatening to Canadian Jews in part because the born-again population remains far less formidable north of the border. According to the most recent estimates, Protestant Evangelicals make up 7 percent or less of the overall Canadian population (Prime Minister Harper is one of their number), and 26 percent of Americans, queried in exit polls after the 2012 presidential election, identified themselves as “white Evangelical or born-again Christians.” In the United States, liberal nightmares of a theocratic takeover by fanatical Bible-thumpers may look less plausible in the five years since George W. Bush left the White House, but in Canada such concerns never gained traction in the first place.
Moreover, the Canadian Jewish community (nearing 400,000, it now ranks as the fourth largest in the world, after Israel, the United States, and France) provides a far more promising target for conservative conversion than the predominantly secular and unaffiliated Jewish population in America. Morton Weinfeld, professor of sociology at Montreal’s McGill University, told the Daily Beast that Canadian Jews “by many common metrics—ritual observance, visits to Israel, Jewish education, marrying other Jews, etc.—are more ‘Jewish’ than American Jews.” For one thing, most Canadian Jewish families came to their country some 30 or 40 years later than typical American clans, in part because Canada remained more open to Jewish refugees in the dark years before the Holocaust. This means that in Canada the Jewish community as a whole has had less time to assimilate than its American counterpart. Even today, one in every four Canadian Jews was born abroad. (In the United States, the figure is one in 10.) And just as immigrant populations—particularly recent arrivals from Israel, Iran, South Africa, and the former Soviet Union—combine with nativeborn Orthodox to provide Republicans with their most enthusiastic Jewish support in the United States, the same newer arrivals flocked in disproportionate numbers to back Stephen Harper in Canada. Meanwhile, a reported 74 percent of Canadian Jews have visited Israel, but less than a third of American Jews have bothered to make the trip. It makes sense that those who view traveling to Jerusalem as a personal priority will also prove more likely to consider support for Israel an important factor in how they vote.
Stronger Jewish identity in Canada, together with much less visible Evangelical influence, makes its Jews less fearful that Christian enthusiasm will threaten their future or the distinctive identity of their children. At the same time, the steadily increasing clout of another religious group serves to drive Jewish voters toward the Tories, with Muslims representing more than 3 percent of the electorate in 2011 exit polls, or nearly four times their percentage of the presidential vote in the United States in 2012.
Since Muslims amount to less than 1 percent of the overall U.S. population (according to the Census Bureau), American Jews have the luxury of largely ignoring the political role of Islamic communities and can fret instead about the far more numerous legions of Christian Evangelicals, despite the fact that these fervently Christian neighbors insist they love us and love Israel. Canadian Jews, on the other hand, pay little mind to the thin ranks of Evangelicals and can worry more appropriately about the multiplying Muslim cadres, who openly declare their resentment of Jewish influence and angrily voice their reflexive condemnations of Israel.
Election results in Canada reflected obvious tensions between the Muslim and Jewish communities. Jews tilted more than two to one for Prime Minister Harper over his Liberal challenger Michael Ignatieff, while Muslims provided even more lopsided margins for the left, preferring the Liberals by a ratio of nearly four to one. In his successful 2011 reelection bid, Canada’s resolutely pro-Israel prime minister earned the backing of only 12 percent of the rapidly growing Muslim community—indicating that his Middle Eastern policy cost him far more by way of Islamic enmity than it gained him in terms of Jewish friendship. In fact, Muslim votes for the Liberals and the NDP outnumbered Jewish votes for the Conservatives by a ratio of nearly six to one. Jeffrey Simpson reported in the Globe and Mail a few months after the election that “public opinion surveys, including some taken by Canadian Jewish organizations, have alarmed leaders of the Canadian Jewish community because they’ve also shown Israel’s growing unpopularity in Canada. That’s another reason to believe that Mr. Harper’s position is driven by profound personal conviction rather than political calculation….For him, it was a black and white matter.”
With the young and dashing Justin Trudeau as the freshly minted leader of the Liberals, the Canadian left hopes to blur those clear distinctions with the Jewish community. After all, party propagandists will tirelessly remind Canada’s Jews that Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, enjoyed special rapport with Canadian Jews after he assumed the premiership in 1968. In fact, as a famously swinging young bachelor prime minister, Pierre even dated the recently separated Barbra Streisand in 1969 and 1970 before he married his wife (and Justin’s mother), Margaret, in 1971.
This odd connection with one of the greatest Jewish icons of pop culture might work in the younger Trudeau’s favor, especially if Streisand heads north to warble “The Way We Were” in campaign events in honor of his late father. But one can reasonably assume that Canadian Jews will show the good sense to continue to value love of Israel over love of Streisand. And perhaps, as Jewish Americans face the upcoming contest of 2016, they will pay less attention to their bizarre fears of Republican closeness to Evangelicals and more to the courageous conservative commitment to Jewish survival.