Playing to Win

By Max Fawcett | October 19, 2004

I received a call recently from a good friend of mine who shares my politics in general and my convictions about the American Presidential election in particular. We both support John Kerry and haven’t had reason to think twice about that decision. But when he called, he was irate about Kerry’s pronouncement that he would be an even stronger supporter of Israel than President Bush was, and would redouble American efforts to protect Israel’s rights in the Middle East. I tend to agree with him on most matters pertaining to the Israel-Palestine conflict – that is, we both believe that the Palestinian people deserve far more than they have been getting over the past fifty-odd years – but he took a step further than I was willing to. He said that he was withdrawing his moral support for Kerry and would back Bush instead, a decision driven entirely by Kerry’s position on Israel.

This single-mindedness is a character flaw that exists in supporters of both the Israeli and Palestinian causes. Failure to support their particular side of the debate is tantamount to treason, and anything else that they do, believe, or represent, is irrelevant in light of this supposedly damning evidence. It’s a parochial and counterproductive attitude, and I told my friend as much. We are both Trudeau disciples and I reminded him that his attitude, as expressed, was the very definition of the tribalism that Trudeau despised so much.

He agreed, in part, and admitted that he still supported Kerry but was disappointed. I, on the other hand, wasn’t surprised by Kerry’s position at all. Like it or not – and most don’t – politics is a game with a fairly specific and widely understood set of rules. Failure to adhere to those rules usually results in defeat or demotion, and there are few politicians who are brave enough to willfully break these rules. Despite his many character strengths Kerry does not have this particular kind of bravery.

Even if he did have it, I’m not sure he’d exercise it right now. The American election, now less than two weeks away, is crushingly important both in terms of the future of American society and the world as well. If Bush is re-elected he will continue his aggressive pursuit of a militaristic agenda in which America acts as a global policing force, punishing those who do not comply with its wishes with impunity. If Bush is re-elected, it is likely that he will appoint more socially conservative judges to the benches of the Supreme Court, and that may result in the overturning of Roe V. Wade. If Bush is re-elected, the American government will continue to pour trillions of dollars into a scientifically bogus missile defence shield that will only serve to undermine global security and raise the specter of nuclear war from the dustbin of history.

If John Kerry is elected, American may have an opportunity to move away from the brink of its current madness and return to behaving in a way that befits a civilized and democratic society. While he isn’t a Kennedy or even a Clinton, he is a far more desirable candidate to those who support multilaterism, social democracy, and international justice.

Remember that this election looks like another photo-finish, with polls indicating a dead-heat between the two candidates. It may well come down, yet again, to the state of Florida and its precious 25 electoral college votes. In other words, for John Kerry to do anything other than pledge his unconditional support for the state of Israel would be to take a risk that might tip the balance of a monumentally important election in George Bush’s favour. It is a risk that he is clearly not willing to take.

I have no doubt that my friend has a right to be annoyed with the pro-Israel bias in American politics because I share it. We’re both equally annoyed by the subtle but serious tilt in Canadian foreign policy towards Israel, articulated in a recent article by The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson, that is driven largely by a Liberal cabinet that is full of voices in favour of unconditional support for Israel but without a single strong voice supporting the Palestinian cause. But I understand that, as I mentioned earlier, politics is a game with very specific rules. I’m not sure my friend does, and more generally I’m not sure that the North American Muslim and Arab communities do either.

The Jewish community, both in the United States and Canada, does an admirable job of applying direct and unrelenting pressure on elected officials in support of their cause and their worldview. Any politician that criticizes Israel or supports the efforts of Palestinians is guaranteed a vigorous and often acrimonious response from the leaders of the Jewish community. Carolyn Parrish, a Liberal MP from Mississauga-Erindale, and independent but previously Liberal Senator Marcel Prud’homme, are both regarded as pariahs because they have consistently supported the rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people.

The Muslim and Arab communities, in contrast, are not nearly as coordinated in their efforts. They speak from multiple perspectives and through different contexts, a result of the fact that the Arab and Muslim communities are not tied as closely by their religiosity as the Jewish community is. It isn’t a matter of numbers, by the way – there are approximately 347, 955 Canadians of Arab descent according to the 2001 Census, and 348,655 of Jewish origin. There are also almost 1 million Muslims in Canada who, while not directly tied to the conflict in Israel, are sympathetic towards the cause of the Palestinian people. Their collective voice should be, judging by these figures, at least as strong as that of their Jewish counterparts.

But, of course, it isn’t. The Middle-East discourse in North America is dominated by Jewish voices in support of Israel, with the Arab-Muslim community acting as a passionate but largely unheard opposition. In Western democracies like Canada and the United States, the results you achieve are almost always proportional to the volume of your voice. I want to reiterate that I’m not criticizing the Jewish community for its behaviour. They are playing the game of politics by the book and, to this point, doing it better than their competition. In a democratic society like ours, this is both fair and rational.

So if my friend calls again and complains about a perceived bias towards one group over another, I’ll remind him of this reality. If you’re going to play the game of politics – and I believe that on an issue as important as this you have little choice – then you have to play it to win. To date, the Arab and Muslim communities have not figured out how to do this. Until they do, it is unlikely that much will change.

Ottawa, October 19 – 1136 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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