Jackson Doughart
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Nuance in the Near East

Prince Arthur Herald, 22 January 2014

Jeffrey Simpson’s take on the Prime Minister’s visit to Israel and the West Bank, from the Globe and Mail’s Saturday edition, predictably echoes the cry of Canada’s liberal class: support for Israel is fine so long as it is of little consequence; support for Israel that is meaningful, and thereby inviting of criticism from those ambivalent or hostile toward the Jewish state, is imprudent and uncivilized. What Canada ought to preach, in their view, is the standard line of pseudo-neutrality which makes no distinctions either practical or moral.

Simpson’s piece is much more about Stephen Harper than it is about Israel. In fact, the Government’s robust stand is perhaps the sole reason that the mainstream press critically examines the topic at all. Harper’s moralism (the way he “sees the world, like Canadian domestic affairs, in rather Manichean terms”) embarrasses them not because of a principled disagreement, but because it reveals their lack of principle. Their position is as absent in conviction as it is clear in intention: to offset any respect that Harper could earn for his efforts related to the Middle East, to the end of elevating the view of their preferred politicians.

The faction that Simpson represents is not actively hopeful of ill fate for Israel, which separates it from other groups on the Left: e.g. the nuts at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, members of the American Studies Association who boycott Israeli academics, and fringe anti-Israel groups such as Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and the organizers of Israeli Apartheid Week. No, the Simpson crew is liberal but not of this radical temperament. It wants to demonstrate that Harper is reckless and that his stance on the Palestine question shows the need to restore the Liberal Party to power. This is a pure partisan effort, nothing more.

Even so, the attempt to pile on about the suspicious motivations of the government loses its juice when the accusations contradict each another. Simpson portrays Harper first as a provincial no-nothing without any appreciable interest in international affairs. Next he is a caped crusader headed to the Holy Land to advance his Medievally-simplistic preference for liberal democracy. (Simpson can’t even resist a jab about the relevance of Harper’s Evangelical faith — a wink and nod to the bien-pensants to applaud another uncovering of the “Armageddon factor”.) Then he is a steely amoral practitioner of ethnic vote grabbing, being led around by the electoral power of Canada’s Jews.

On the latter point, at least Simpson is honest enough to state his argument plainly; this contrasts with the op-ed of Jan. 2 by Professor Peter Jones, also in the Globe, which chided “angry assertions of simplistic moral absolutes that play well to certain domestic constituencies”. Talk of euphemism!

The attribution of cynicism to the Government’s policy ignores how stupid it would be to support Israel on the pure ground of votes and polling. Any political party in Canada that was solely trying to get to power without espousing any real political preference would surely advance an anti-Israel line, which could help to make inroads in Quebec and among Muslim immigrants. Do the Conservatives really care so much about Thornhill and Mount Royal that they would sacrifice other “ethnic votes” for effectively no reason?

The more convincing assessment is that Harper’s Middle East stance is informed by a reasoned conviction about the need for strong international support for Israel and about the dubious intentions of its neighbours. Such a position of principle can of course be challenged, but it would have to come from a more sophisticated line of reasoning than the one provided by Simpson. He thinks that Canada should espouse a more “nuanced” view that is less strident and “abrasive”; yet he clearly wants it to be on moral grounds, and not merely strategic ones.

Ultimately, Simpson is endorsing a world view that approbatively accommodates both Israel and Hamas, both Israel and Hezbollah, and both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the last of which hardly possesses the legitimacy to enforce any peace agreement that it could negotiate. How else could one have nuance without including all relevant players in the dispute? In other words, one is to whitewash all relevant moral distinctions in the interest of advancing moral clarity! This is a fanciful, square-circling notion that demonstrates muddled thinking, not nuanced thinking, and one that is consensually prevalent among Canada’s media and commentary elites.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com