The New Israel Lobby in Action

From the archive (legacy material)

David Noble | Canadian Dimension | 1 November 2005

This is not about Jews. It is not about race, ethnicity or religion. It is about power. The new Israel lobby in Canada — the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA) — has enormous power, derived from abundant resources, corporate connections, political associations, elaborate and able organization and a cadre of dedicated activists. Since its inception several years ago, this hard-line lobby has used its power, first, to gain political hegemony and impose ideological conformity on the matter of Israel within a heretofore diverse Jewish community, and second, to influence government decisions and shape public opinion regarding Israel — ostensibly in the name of all Canadian Jewry. From the outset, a primary focus of this lobby’s attentions has been the university campus, alleged centre of anti-Israel sentiment, conveniently construed as anti-semitism. Over the last two years, the lobby has by various means attempted to pacify these campuses and bring them into line, particularly Concordia and York. While the lobby has made some significant gains, at York their effort has been stalled.
In the fall of 2002, student protests at Concordia University led to the cancellation of a speech by right-wing Israeli politician Bejamin Netanyahu. The event sounded an alarm for some powerful people sympathetic to Netanyahu. “What happened at Concordia was, to many people, appalling,” Maxyne Finkelstein, executive vice president of the United Israel Appeal Federation of Canada, explained to the Toronto Star. “What happened at Concordia was a real shock.” According to a recent profile in Toronto Life, Concordia was a wake-up call for the so-called “power couple,” Heather Reisman and Gerald Schwartz. Reisman, niece of free-trade negotiator Simon Reisman, is CEO of Indigo/Chapters Books. Her husband, Gerry, Liberal Party chief fundraiser and former co-founder of CanWest Global Communications, is CEO of Onex Corporation. As fundraisers, both enjoyed “exceptional closeness to [Prime Minister Paul] Martin” and were eager to “flex their newfound political clout.” Trying to “decode their agenda,” Toronto Life noted that the first signs of their intentions had surfaced immediately after the Concordia controversy. “Shocked into action, Schwartz and Reisman summoned a group of fellow philanthropists, including Toronto tycoons Larry Tanenbaum and Brent Belzberg, to plot a counter-strategy.” Tanenbaum is co-owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and venture capitalist Belzberg owns Torquest Partners. The four gathered together a select group of like-minded and monied colleagues and “self-appointed” themselves the “Israel Emergency Cabinet,” intent upon lending “more conviction and financial muscle” to advocacy for Israel in Canada. The Toronto Star observed that “the membership of the emergency cabinet reads like a who’s who of power and influence among the Jewish community” and that “some members are well known for their hawkish opinions favoring Israel in the long and bloody Middle East conflict.”
In addition to Reisman, Schwartz, Tanenbaum and Belzberg, the group included Senator Leo Kolber, former director of the Toronto-Dominion Bank, Seagrams and Loews Cineplex; Israel Asper, co-founder and CEO of CanWest Global; Stephen Reitman, whose family owns Reitman’s clothing stores; Julia Koschitzky, whose family fortune derives from the IKO Group, global manufacturer of construction materials; and Stephen Cummings, CEO of Maxwell Cummings. Together, the group represented billions of dollars in assets, which its members knew how to use. Over the next year, through the facilitation of the United Israel Appeal Federation, which funded both the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC), the Emergency Cabinet morphed into the CIJA. Chaired by Tanenbaum, Belzberg and Cummings, CIJA eventually brought both the CJC and the CIC under its effective control. The stated aim of the new umbrella organization was to double the funding for Israel advocacy in Canada and make it more “pro-active.”
A Hostile Takeover
Not everyone was happy with the new extremist conglomerate. “What we are talking about here,” one official told Toronto Life, “is essentially a takeover of the country’s Jewish institutions.” Frank Dimant, executive vice president of B’nai Brith Canada, which belatedly — and grudgingly — entered into an agreement with CIJA, pointed out that “the group known as the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy had on its inaugural steering committee some of the most powerful men and women in this country.” CIJA co-chair Brent Belzberg himself acknowledged that “this is being seen as a bunch of rich guys telling the others what to do.”
According to the Forward, one observer described the CIJA’s incorporation of the CJC and the CIC as a “hostile takeover,” while another told the Toronto Star that it amounted to a “coup d’état by powerful financial interests bent on cementing their control over Jewish advocacy activities in the country,” adding that “these guys are used to getting their way.” “This is a group of self-appointed people who have very little linkage with the Jewish [masses] and they have private agendas of their own,” Thomas Hecht, former Quebec chair of the CIC, pointed out.
According to the Toronto Star, some members of the community believed that the CIJA “will put control of Jewish lobbying efforts in Canada into the hands of a few wealthy and powerful individuals.” “It’s the funders who will determine the policy,” B’nai Brith’s Dimant insisted; “they will be deciding policy for all those entities.” “I think it’s a process cloaked in secrecy right now,” he added, cautioning that, “It’s a dangerous move.” “The underlying theme is a total centralization of Jewish thought, opinion, and messaging. It’s an attempt to silence the activists in our community.” In the eyes of some Jews, then, the formation and agenda of the CIJA, which even in its name conflated the term Jewish with Israel, constituted a threat not only to Jewish critics of Israel, but also to Jewish moderates, a hijacking of Jewish identity in Canada by a well heeled and politically well connected cabal of zealots.
Success Stories
After its first year of operation, the CIJA boasted of its “success stories.” These included “new initiatives initially sponsored by Israel Emergency Cabinet,” like symposia, conferences and seminars designed to promote pro-Israel “education.” They more than doubled the number of visits, dubbed “missions,” to Israel arranged for Canada’s politicians and “opinion makers.” Among the most noteworthy of such efforts was a visit by premiers Mike Harris and Brian Tobin, which included meetings with Netanyahu, the ultra-right Israeli politician whose speech was cancelled at Concordia, and right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The CIJA also arranged for meetings in Toronto between federal, provincial and community leaders and Aviv Bushinsky, spokesman for Netanyahu.
The CIJA also created CIJA-PAC (alternately called the Public Affairs Committee and Political Action Committee). Under its managing director, Josh Cooper, a former Conservative candidate from Thornhill, CIJA-PAC set about “attracting, involving, informing and training strong advocates” and “establishing a coordinated rapid-response capability.” In Ottawa, meanwhile, CIJA influence had already achieved dramatic effects, through justice minister Irwin Cotler, a former CJC president, and the prime minister himself. The CIJA “has the ear of those who make decisions,” Belzberg boasted to the Canadian Jewish News. According to Toronto Life, “CIJA can already claim political dividends” with the shift in Canada’s posture regarding Israel at the United Nations. For the first time Canada sided with the United States on several Israel-related UN resolutions. “In foreign policy circles,” Toronto Life noted, “the turnabout qualified as a diplomatic bombshell.” “In case you missed it,” John Ibbitson observed in the Globe & Mail, “our Mideast policy has shifted.” According to Ibbitson, instruction for the change in policy came directly from the Prime Minister’s Office, where Paul Martin was “under intense pressure” from CIJA co-founder Gerald Schwartz.
Campus Action
Given that the formation of the Israel Emergency Cabinet had originally been prompted by events at Concordia University, it is not surprising that a major focus of CIJA activities has been the university campus. CIJA efforts in this arena centred on the new National Jewish Campus Life department of the UIA Federation, created specifically to train pro-Israel advocates and cultivate campus “influentials.” “In a key strategic move,” the CIJA website reported, “CIJA has contributed more than one million dollars for use on Canadian post-secondary campuses,” noting that “professionals to support Jewish student life have recently been put on campuses across the country.” “The National Jewish Campus Life has hired seven organizers at campuses in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver … to provide support to pro-Israel advocacy,” and “is developing an on-line resource for campus Jewish advocacy.” The CIJA spent a quarter of a million dollars “subsidizing the visits to Israel of campus leaders.” As well, “several student leaders have already been sent to training programs to become more effective campus advocates.”
“On the campus front,” the Canadian Jewish News reported, “CIJA has funded the hiring of seven advocacy experts in seven Canadian cities, who assist local student groups and address anti-Israel agitation on campus. CIJA has also recruited Jewish Agency shlichim [emissaries] who provide students with information, education, resources and someone to talk to when they experience difficulties” (the Jewish Agency for Israel is the international agency for Israeli immigration). As well, CIJA CEO Hershell Ezrin told the Canadian Jewish News that, “Professors at various schools have agreed to act as advocates in confronting anti-Israel colleagues.”The CIJA campus campaign coalesced in the formation of the new Canadian Federation of Jewish Students (CFJS), on CIJA’s recommendation, which was spawned by the CIJA’s National Jewish Campus Life subsidiary at a conference of 32 Jewish student leaders in Ottawa. In addition to engaging in “skillbuilding events,” the group met with foreign affairs minister Bill Graham, courtesy of the CIJA’s insider connections.
The new federation immediately set about to establish a board of directors, with each campus Hillel or Jewish student association holding two seats. “For campuses with large Jewish student populations, such as York University, the board will have one additional seat for each 1,000 Jewish students,” the Canadian Jewish News reported.
The Campaign at York
York was vitally important to the CIJA, and not only because of the large number of Jewish students in attendance. York was the watering hole for many leaders of the lobby. “Emergency Cabinet” members and later CIJA co-chairs Belzberg and Tanenbaum had close ties with York’s Schulich School of Business, where Belzberg sat on the advisory committee. Emergency Cabinet member and later CIJA director Julia Koschitzky sat on the board of the university’s influential Foundation, which was headed by Paul Marcus, former director of development at United Jewish Appeal. Other prominent pro-Israel advocates on the Foundation’s board included Alonna Goldfarb, H. Barry Gales, Maxwell Gotlieb, Honey Sherman and Howard Sokolowski.
Early this year York University president Lorna Marsden and her entourage, including a number of top York administrators (Paul Marcus and Stan Shapson among them) went on their own CJC-sponsored mission to Israel, underwritten in part, according to CJC national president Ed Morgan’s report to the Canadian Jewish News, by Gerry Schwartz and Julie Koschitzky.
“At York University,” the Canadian Jewish News reported, “where a student slate unseated an [sic] pro-Palestinian student government, CIJA ‘helped create a better environment for all students’ and ‘empowered’ Jewish students to get involved in politics,” according to CIJA co-chair Cummings. The successful effort of Young Zionist Partnership members Paul Cooper and Yaakov Roth and their Progress Not Politics (PNP) slate to take control of the York Federation of Students and reshape student politics there was supported by Josh Cooper, managing director of CIJA-PAC. It was supported also by Hillel at York, whose director Talia Klein, in the wake of pro-Palestinian demonstrations at that university, exclaimed to Aretz Sheva “Now it seems as if York has turned into Concordia.” Klein recently co-produced a film with Igal Hecht entitled Not In Our Name, which, as Hecht told the Jewish Tribune, condemns “these leftist Jews who choose to criticize Israel.” The political shift at York was supported as well by the student newspaper Excalibur, whose news editor, Aliza Libman, was a founding officer of CFJS.
Daniel Pipes Visits York
CFJS was just in formation when its York operatives invited Daniel Pipes to speak on campus, in what appears in retrospect to have been a deliberate provocation of York’s “pro-Palestinian” activists. It seems to have been an attempt to create a controversial environment at York akin to that created with Netanyahu’s proposed visit to Concordia, one which might invite stern corrective action by the York administration. Of course, this is only speculation, but it is not implausible. Pipes is a well known lighting rod for campus critics of Israel. Not only is he a tireless right-wing pro-Israel propagandist but — far more important — he was the editor of the notorious witch-hunt website “Campus Watch,” which devotes itself to smearing academics who do not stick to the Israel lobby’s line on Middle East politics. CFJS had to know the invitation would spark protests at York, as it had elsewhere — as did their mentors in the CFJS parent organizations.
When the York protests predictably emerged, almost immediately — as if on cue — the Israel lobby leaped into action. The spectre of Concordia is uppermost in everybody’s minds,” Hillel of Greater Toronto executive director Zac Kaye reminded the media. In the midst of the controversy, according to the Canadian Jewish News, Bernie Farber of CJC Ontario “spoke to [York president] Marsden directly.” A CJC Ontario organization editorial later boasted that, “we fought back attempts at keeping Daniel Pipes out of York University.”
Marsden’s insistence upon having Pipes speak, for which she was congratulated by the CJC’s national president, Ed Morgan, entailed a change in venue and a dramatic beefing-up of security. Her action signified for the Israeli lobby a triumphant reversal of the shameful Concordia debacle, in which the administration had caved under pressure in cancelling Netanyahu’s speech. More significantly, it set the precedent and the stage for the establishment of a regime of repression on campus.
The implementation of this new regime was carried out by President Marsden through the good offices of the university secretary and general counsel, Harriet Lewis; Office of Student Affairs operatives Bonnie Neuman, Debra Glass and Amelia Golden; and Communications and Media Relations directors Richard Fisher and Nancy White. The effort entailed the formulation and imposition of administrative policies that effectively restricted freedom of speech and assembly on campus. These measures included the charging of prohibitive security fees to student groups wishing to bring controversial speakers to campus, severe limits onleafleting, postering and tabling, and outright bans on the use of central campus space.
The Daniel Freeman-Maloy Incident and the Noble Affair
In the spring of 2004, President Marsden herself unilaterally and without regard for established university student disciplinary policies suspended pro-Palestinian activist Daniel Freeman-Maloy for three years on spurious charges, and banned him from the campus. Freeman-Maloy was the embodiment of Talia Klein’s worst nightmare: a leftist Jewish anti-Zionist. After a provincial court judge made it clear that Marsden’s actions would be subject to judicial review, she rescinded the ban. In the fall, however, the administration again initiated disciplinary action against Freeman-Maloy and other pro-Palestinian activists, who had engaged in a peaceful, off-campus vigil in support of the people of Gaza. At the same time, Marsden and her colleagues unveiled their revised Temporary Use of Space Policy, restricting such use to approved student groups and requiring those to complete an elaborate application for approval, including the names and past activities of all proposed participants. All activities in the Vari Hall rotunda, themain campus forum, which had traditionally been the site of demonstrations (and which had, indeed, had been designed by the architects with this in mind), were banned outright.
Later that fall I distributed a flyer suggesting, among other things, that the presence on the York University Foundation of a significant number of Israel lobbyists and fundraisers might help explain the administration’s repression of pro-Palestinian activists. Within 24 hours of its distribution, York University, the York University Foundation, Hillel, CJC Ontario and the UJA federation issued simultaneous press releases denouncing me — another leftist Jewish anti-Zionist — as anti-Semitic. These defamatory denunciations were published the following day by the Globe & Mail, and, the next day, by the Toronto Star. The remarkable efficiency of this effort appeared to confirm my suggestions. Among those publicly condemning my actions were, in addition to Lorna Marsden herself, Talia Klein, Zac Kaye and Dori Borshiov.
In the wake of the Noble affair and the disciplining of pro-Palestinian students, an “illegal” demonstration was held in the Vari Hall rotunda in defense of freedom of speech on campus. It was called by members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the union representing teaching assistants and contract instructors, and included graduate-student, undergraduate and faculty speakers, including myself. Later, some of the students were once again threatened with disciplinary action.
Finally, on January 20, another demonstration was held by a progressive political group in protest of the inauguration on that day of U.S. president George W. Bush. This time Marsden decided the demonstrators were “trespassing” on private property and called in the Toronto police to enforce the ban on unapproved speech and assembly. The police promptly assaulted the peaceful protest, beating and arresting students on their own campus. The administration alleged — preposterously — that the action of the police was provoked by student violence and they justified their decision as a defense of order. Curiously, although the demonstration focused upon the inauguration of Bush and York’s corporate and military ties, the students were immediately condemned for being anti-Israel.
How Free Speech Won the Day at York
There is a happy ending to the York story, one that is still unfolding. The Israel lobby’s campaign, designed to pacify the campus, has in fact had the opposite effect. In the wake of the mounting repression, a veritable York Free Speech Movement has emerged (roughly in time for the fortieth anniversary of its Berkeley antecedent). Defiant, unauthorized demonstrations have already been held in Vari Hall. The dramatic events of January 20 triggered outrage and sparked demonstrations, the largest in York’s history, supported by York students, faculty and unions. The university’s Senate officially condemned the administration for its use of force, and the York University Faculty Association (YUFA) called upon the Canadian Association of University Teachers to launch a formal investigation of York’s suppression of academic freedom and freedom of speech, an investigation now underway. Despite several attempts by the administration to force a suspension of the CAUT inquiry, it remains on track. At the same time, in response to intensifying demand from students and faculty, the Senate has undertaken a review of the revised Temporary Use of Space Policy, which had been formulated in secret by Marsden and her minions.
In the mean time, having been reinstated and having resumed his activism, Dan Freeman-Maloy has launched an $850,000 lawsuit against Marsden, which is now moving through the courts. Likewise, I filed a $10-million grievance against the university for violation of my academic freedom and defamation. The YUFA executive committee later voted unanimously to take the case to arbitration, which is scheduled for November. Finally, the PNP slate supported by the Israel lobby was overwhelmingly defeated in the latest York Federation of Students elections, replaced by a coalition of people with diverse sympathies. Similar changes in personnel have taken place at York’s student newspaper, the Excalibur.
The Israel lobby has had its day at York, and it appears to be over, especially now that their campaign has been exposed and our perceptions and understanding of recent events have been enlarged. The owl of Minerva, as the wise man said, takes flight at dusk. And now that the lobby has lost York, the new day dawning promises to be one in which robust debate and a diversity of opinion will once again be allowed to flourish on this proud campus, and where the thoughts, voices and actions of all members of the York community, including all Jewish members, will be freed from the constraints of compulsion and conformity.