Harper In The Holy Land
Jerusalem—It Took Stephen Harper A Long Time To Get To Israel, Where He Picked Up An Honorary Doctorate At Telaviv University. The Accompanying Citation Had Been Passed By The University Senate In February 2008. They Likely Never Expected That The Most Pro-Israel Head Of Government In The World Would Take Six Years To Make His First Trip To Israel
Within months of taking office in February 2006, Harper shifted Canada's foreign policy toward stalwart support for the "Jewish State of Israel," as his preferred formulation has it. Indeed, in the second Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, Canada's pro-Israel position surprised many who previously thought that being an "honest broker" meant always splitting the difference between the opposing parties. One long-time Conservative campaign organizer, Jewish himself, offered this characterization of Harper's stand in the second Lebanon war: "The definition of political principle is reducing political donation limits while at the same time running the most pro-Israel foreign policy in Canadian history!"
It's a joke, but there is some truth to that. Harper's support for Israel is not the clumsy pandering of Joe Clark — let's move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem! — but a principled support that far exceeds whatever political payoff there might be. There are perhaps a dozen, at most, ridings where a shift in the Jewish vote from its traditional Liberal home to the Conservatives may lead to Harper making gains. But there are far more Muslims and Arabs in Canada than there are Jews so, on balance, support for Israel is not an obvious demographic winner. For a Prime Minister who ruthlessly controls his message and woos ethnic and religious minorities with exacting precision, it is astonishing that he has fought four federal elections without having at his disposal favourable footage of himself in Israel. It's fair to say that Israel is not primarily about electoral politics for Stephen Harper.
A Moral Imperative
It is a "moral imperative," Harper argued in his address to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, where he promised Israelis that "through fire and water, Canada will stand with you." It was a stirring peroration to a speech in which the Prime Minister explained that his unprecedented and unmatched support for Israel is not a matter of political calculation, but a principled obligation and "also a matter of strategic importance, also a matter of [Canada's] own long-term interests." At the gala dinner for the two prime ministers, Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu spoke in more expansive, even universal terms, praising "my friend Stephen" for understanding that Israel is a "civilizational test" and a "parable for all nations." That's lofty rhetoric that would seem absurd if said, for example, about Morocco. Of course, Morocco is not Israel. Israel alone is Israel. I have been to Israel more than a dozen times — as a pilgrim, leading pilgrimages, with my family, on a private retreat, for Christmas, for Holy Week, for board meetings, for the papal visit of 2009 — but never for something quite like this. I was invited to be part of the delegation accompanying Prime Minister Harper on his January 2014 visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (West Bank).
When the Prime Minister makes an official visit of unusual importance, he often invites various leaders from business, culture, education and other sectors to accompany him. The visit thus is not only government to government, but includes civil society as well. This delegation was the largest one to have accompanied him on any trip. Given the holiness of this land, it included several religious leaders. One news report noted that there were "twenty-one rabbis and one priest," which led to a lot of bad jokes. Rabbis and priests are easier to spot given our dress, but there were also several senior evangelical Protestant leaders with us. The Christian contingent was strangely chosen though. There were no Orthodox leaders, though they are the largest Christian presence in the Holy Land, and no other Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans or Methodists. (I was put forward by the Canadian Jewish community, for my work with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.)
The high point of the visit was the Prime Minister's address to the Knesset. Stephen Harper is the first Canadian prime minister to whom that honour has been extended, and the warm reception he received was an occasion of pride for Canadians. He sought to explain why his government has been, both in terms of Canadian history and in comparison to other western countries today, unusually vigorous in its support for Israel. Harper put it plainly: "It is the right thing to do."
"The special friendship between Canada and Israel is rooted in shared values. Indeed, Israel is the only country in the Middle East which has long anchored itself in the ideals of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. And these are not mere notions. They are the things that, over time and against all odds, have proven to be, over and over again, the only ground in which human rights, political stability and economic prosperity may flourish. These values are not proprietary. They do not belong to one people or one nation. Nor are they a finite resource. On the contrary, the wider they are spread, the stronger they grow. Likewise, when they are threatened anywhere, they are threatened everywhere."
The Prime Minister added another reason for supporting Israel's right to a secure existence — the memory of "the shadow and horrors of the Holocaust." He characterized Israel's story as essentially that "of a people whose response to suffering has been to move beyond resentment and build a most extraordinary society, a vibrant democracy, a freedom-loving country with an independent and rights-affirming judiciary, an innovative, world-leading 'start-up' nation."
An Aboriginal Argument
Both arguments for Israel are true — it is a liberal democracy and a refuge after the Holocaust. But there is a third — or I would argue, a first — argument that Harper did not make in the Knesset. An argument that would have resonated with the Jewish and Christian religious leaders in the delegation: The land of Israel is the Biblical home of the Jewish people. It is what Liberal MP Irwin Cotler of Montreal — also present for the visit but not part of the official government delegation, as only Conservative MPs were included — has called the "aboriginal argument" for Israel, namely that Jews are an aboriginal people, living on their ancestral land, speaking their language, preserving their culture. It is an argument that Stephen Harper agrees with, even if he did not make it in the Knesset.
"All of my life, Israel has been a symbol — a symbol of the triumph of hope and faith," the Prime Minister said in 2008, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel. "After 1945, our battered world desperately needed to be lifted out of post-war dark-ness and despair.... From shattered Europe and other countries near and far, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob made their way home. Their pilgrimage was the culmination of a two-thousand-year-old dream."
Israel as a homeland of the Jewish people — a promised homeland, the object of a providential pilgrimage, a return after a calamity of Biblical proportions, an in gathering after two millennia of expulsion and exile — is a language that must resonate with any Christian who looks at history through the eyes of Biblical faith. Contemporary questions of justice and peace, liberty and security, not only for Jews but also for Arabs, are critical, but the fundamental outlook has to be shaped by Biblical history.
For if Israel were to cease to be a liberal democracy, or if the Holocaust were to fade from memory — if Israel were to become Morocco — would the Jewish people have any less of a right to a homeland in Zion? The land of Israel is the Promised Land for the theatre of salvation. It is for that reason that the Jewish people came and established their capital in Jerusalem some 3,000 years ago. Biblical faith does not determine prudential political judgments. Christian faith does not demand Zionism, but it is congenial to it. So to be in the land of Israel as a pilgrim first and foremost was complemented, not compromised, by the presence of the Prime Minister, who came first as a statesman, not a spiritual seeker.
Yet there is inescapable ambivalence for the Christian visiting from abroad on a government delegation. Ambivalence does not mean any less enthusiasm for fraternal relations with Jews or support for Israel's existence, but the necessary ambivalence that accompanies any identification of the saving Gospel with political arrangements.
At the level of the universal Church, Christians desire good relations with Jews, and those good relations mean caring about the security of the modern State of Israel because Jews the world over care about it. At the level of the particular Church, of those Christians — Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and, increasingly, small groups of evangelical Protestants — who live here, Christian solidarity and fraternity pulls one in the opposite direction. None of the local Christians I met was pleased with the visit of Stephen Harper, whom they view as Israel's friend and, for that reason, their adversary. The local Christians here are Arabs. (There are some Hebrew-speaking Christians, but they are very few in number, and many of them are expats who learned Hebrew in Israel but who are not themselves ethnically Jewish.)
To be a Christian and an Arab is to be conflicted in a way that to be a Muslim and an Arab is not. The Islamic view can be rather simple, namely that the land of Israel was once Jewish and then Christian, but was conquered by the Muslims in the 7th century and what became Muslim land ought to remain Muslim land, no matter how many foreigners come or how long they stay. In this telling, the Jewish State of Israel, backed by its Western Christian allies, is just the latest usurper. Christians cannot think this way, even as the Palestinian cause becomes increasingly Islamified. Christians read the Hebrew Scriptures and are taught by Saint Paul that the covenant with the Jews is irrevocable. So a Christian Arab ought to think theologically in a favourable way about an aboriginal homeland for the Jewish people. Yet that same Christian Arab knows that while the erection of the modern State of Israel in 1948 is celebrated by Jews as their independence day, Palestinians refer to it in Arabic as the naqba —the catastrophe —and mark it every year with lamentation.
Even before one gets to the very real questions about the practicalities of the Israeli presence in the occupied territories, there is a more fundamental ambivalence among local Christians. It is hard to seek peace with Israelis when their very presence is a reminder of the defeat — military and diplomatic — of the Arab nations. Many feel that to be a Biblical Zionist, or to accept the aboriginal argument for Israel, means to be a disloyal Arab. And if these Christians are our brothers in Christ, then we, too, are touched by that ambivalence, even though we do not feel it in the same way.
The Same Question
During the Gaza War, in January 2009, I was leading a group of Christian pilgrims from Canada in the Holy Land. We were received in an audience by the Holy See's representative in Jerusalem at the time — Archbishop Antonio Franco. A genial and gentlemanly diplomat unafraid to speak frankly, he said that leaving aside the particular issues between Hamas in Gaza, the PLO in Ramallah, and the State of Israel, the fundamental question remained the same as in 1948: Was the modern State of Israel a naqba, or not? Could Arabs accept a Jewish homeland in the historic land of Israel in principle, with the particular configuration to be worked out? Hamas could not, but the answer in large parts of the Arab world is obviously yes — Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel, and before Syria descended into civil war, there was hope that peace was possible between Jerusalem and Damascus, too. The Christian prays that the answer is yes, that Biblical faith and practical politics may arrive at a common position.
For Christian pilgrims from abroad, accompanying the Prime Minister or not, it is easier to see with the Biblical eyes of faith, exempt as we are from the practical realities of local politics. But Biblical faith is nothing if not grounded in the realities of this land, obtained by blood and bloodied ever since. There is milk and honey in this land but also fire and water. It is possible to come as a proud and principled Canadian, a Christian grateful for the return of the Jewish people to their aboriginal homeland, and at the same time remain troubled at the dim prospects for peace and be in solidarity with the ambivalence of our fellow Christians. It is not only possible, but necessary. I have been to Israel many times, but this time more than any other, I realized the necessity of coming and the necessity of returning, maintaining all the identities that we bring, and respecting the identities of the friends —Israeli and Palestinian — that we encounter.
You remember the moose in the shades? It was 10 years ago that The Economist put sunglasses on a moose and declared that Canada "with its mix of social liberalism and fiscal rectitude" was cool. Being cool, as any teenager will tell you, is a rather transient thing. Things that are cool today are cool partly because they weren't cool before. Things that used to be cool aren't cool now because they used to be cool before. Indeed, the word cool is less cool than it used to be.
But The Economist, the fine magazine that thinks it's cool to call itself a newspaper, still uses words like cool. In 2004, Canadian politics were as cool as The Economist could imagine — budget surpluses and gay marriage. As in high school though, being cool in politics is hard to keep up. Remember Tony Blair's election in 1997, after 18 years of Margaret Thatcher and John Major? It was "Cool Britannia" time, and even the venerable British Airways updated its livery to appeal to a new generation that did not understand words such as livery. Then came Iraq and a grubby power struggle with Blair's deputy, and dreamy Tony was no longer cool. Not to worry, for on the horizon was the coolest man who ever bothered to run for office: Barack Obama. Poor old John McCain, with his prisoner of war past and his inherited wealth, never had a chance against the cool cat from Chicago. Yet five years on and Obama, unable to launch a website but able to launch a thousand drones to kill with cold-hearted precision, is not so cool anymore.
So Canada can take comfort that in its preview of "The World in 2014," we have been found lacking by The Economist: "uncool Canada" is their judgment. We should have known that it couldn't last. Yes, corporate tax rates are way down, a return to budget surpluses is around the corner and there is a "cool new trade deal with the European Union," but where's the fun in all that good government? The purpose of prosperity is to enjoy a little weed and other indulgences, no? Alas, Canada is going in the wrong direction on marijuana, stiffening criminal penalties rather than making it free from your family doctor. Back in 2004, Canada was on the cutting edge of trendy causes, trumpeting the Kyoto Protocol for climate change and the Kelowna Accord for Aboriginal peoples. Coolness can be a matter more of style than substance, and the coolness of Kyoto and Kelowna were more about intentions than actions, as neither was implemented. Now Canada is not very trendy at all, what with its oil sands and refugee reforms and general lack of socially libertine novelties, which would strike most Canadians as just fine.
Despite his tendency to jump onstage to sing "Hey Jude," Stephen Harper lacks a certain coolness. As do most of our prime ministers, whether the long-serving Mackenzie King or the just-passing-through Joe Clark. Pierre Trudeau was an exception, though one expects The Economist would not have found his economic record very cool. Trudeau fils seems to offer plenty of coolness, but not much else.
Canada can do without The Economist's imprimatur of coolness, though one expects real coolness is rather allergic to the imprimatur of anyone. The Economist's coolness caters to those who are able to afford the luxury of being cool. Smaller government allows the wealthy to keep more of their wealth, which enables them to cope with the dislocations of social libertinism, be it family breakdown or drug rehab. The combination of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism as the new politics of the centre-left was the great innovation of the 1990s, first pioneered by the ultra-cool, saxophone-playing Bill Clinton, and then followed by Jean Chrétien and Tony Blair. Clinton was willing to end welfare for the poor, but defended partial-birth abortion. Paul Martin's record was that of a deficit-slayer who campaigned for the premiership as a stalwart defender of the world's most extreme abortion licence. The Economist found it all very congenial for the centre-right. Be suspicious when elites of both sides converge. Sometimes coolness is just another word for being cold.
Ross Douthat On Pope Francis
Time magazine did not say the Pope was cool. But they might as well have. Nine months after they first heard of him, they named him Person of the Year. The award has been given twice each to Presidents Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama, so it is an ambiguous honour at best.
What then should Christians think when a pastor is feted with fevered laudations by those who otherwise seem to wish Christianity ill? Should Catholics be embarrassed that Time chose Francis not because of his opposition to the prevailing culture, as they did Pope John Paul II in 1994, but because of his presumed sympathy to it?
One of the keenest observers of Pope Francis in particular, Catholicism more generally, and indeed, an indispensable voice in the conversation about faith in our common life is Ross Douthat, the most readable columnist at the New York Times. Convivium is hosting a conversation with Douthat at the Manning Networking Conference on February 28 in Ottawa, and our conversation will likely touch on how the fascination with Francis can be understood in the current religious moment. Is he challenging the culture or capitulating?
"It's been the story of religion in the West for over 40 years," writes Douthat. "The most traditional groups have been relatively resilient. The more liberal, modernizing bodies have lost membership, money, morale. And the culture as a whole has become steadily more disengaged from organized faith.... Of late, this process of polarization has carried an air of inevitability. You can hew to a traditional faith in late modernity, it has seemed, only to the extent that you separate yourself from the American and Western mainstream. There is no middle ground, no centre that holds for long; and the attempt to find one quickly leads to accommodation, drift and dissolution. And this is where Pope Francis comes in, because so much of the excitement around his pontificate is a response to his obvious desire to reject these alternatives — self-segregation or surrender — in favour of an almost-frantic engagement with the lapsed-Catholic, post-Catholic and non-Catholic world."
Frantic or not, there can be no doubt about what Francis has accomplished. First, he is being discussed in every sector of society, usually with great enthusiasm. Second, the more distant one is from the Church, the more enthusiastic his reception. I was recently at a dinner party where nobody aside from myself was a Catholic, and none was even an occasional churchgoer. The enthusiasm for Francis was universal and undiluted. Most priests and bishops I talk to report the same.
"The idea of such engagement — of a 'new evangelization,' a 'new springtime' for Christianity — is hardly a novel one for the Vatican," Douthat continues. "But Francis's style and substance are pitched much more aggressively to a world that often tuned out his predecessors. His deliberate demystification of the papacy, his digressive interviews with outlets secular and religious, his calls for experimentation within the Church and his softer tone on the issues — abortion, gay marriage — where traditional religion and the culture are in sharpest conflict: these are not doctrinal changes, but they are clear strategic shifts. John Allen Jr., one of the keenest observers of the Vatican, has called Francis a 'pope for the Catholic middle,' positioned somewhere between the Church's rigorists and the progressives who pine to [Anglicanize] the faith."
Those who are in professions where drawing distinctions and defining differences is encouraged — the academy and the newsroom, for example — may well respond, as they allegedly say in Texas, that all one finds in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos.