Rethinking Canada’s Peacekeeping Myth

Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid
By Yves Engler
168 pp, Fernwood/RED, $14.95 CAD

Countless books have been written to date on the Israel/Palestine question, exploring everything from the origins of the conflict and current obstacles to peace, to the role of the major world powers involved and vested interests at stake. But few books have yet to examine in any depth the nature of Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East, much less call into question the key political, economic, and ideological forces at play. Yves Engler’s Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid not only succeeds on both counts but manages to do so with convincing authority, putting to rest the popular myth that Canada is, or has ever been, an ‘honest broker’ in the region.

Far from merely yet another account of the ongoing conflict or a historical survey of Zionism – both of which it no doubt is – what distinguishes this book from countless others in the field is its decided focus to put Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East, and therefore the issue of Canadian complicity, front and center in the debate. Meticulously researched and comprehensive in scope, scarcely before has Canada’s historically one-sided support for Israel and the underlying geo-strategic motives behind it been so systemically documented in a single book.

Engler’s overall analysis in the book is informed by the understanding of Israel as an ‘apartheid state’, which, according to the author, represents the antithesis of contemporary Canadian values and the worst of this country’s own dark colonial past. About the ‘Nakba’ or the ethnic cleansing of over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes by Zionist militias in 1948, upon which that state of Israel was founded, Engler writes, “This was the first major act of apartheid waged against Palestinians. Refusing to allow them to return is an ongoing form of apartheid.” But the Nakba was only the ‘original sin’; under international law, Israel satisfies virtually all of the central criteria of an apartheid state – exclusive land ownership laws, a vast matrix of military checkpoints and separate ‘Jewish only’ settlements, and the ‘apartheid’ wall in the West Bank highlight only the most flagrant examples of institutionalized racism found in Israel today.

Canadian ties to Zionism are not only well rooted in this country’s past but as old as Canada itself, Engler argues. “Zionism’s roots are Christian, not Jewish,” he writes. Paying careful attention to historical accuracy, Engler outlines in detail the rise of Christian Zionism in Europe and all its major players. Although ‘biblical literalism’ provided the basic impetus for the emergence of Christian Zionism in Europe, Canada’s support for Zionism was originally spurred by loyalty to its closest ally Great Britain, the major world power and key patron of a ‘Jewish homeland’ in historic Palestine throughout much of the 20th century.

When UN Resolution 181 recommending the partition of Palestine passed in 1947, Canada faithfully supported the plan – despite the fact that, at the time, Jews in Palestine comprised only 30% of the population but would be awarded over 55% of the land. Former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, then one of Canada’s senior UN representatives, was instrumental in seeing the partition plan come to fruition. Contrary to popular belief, Engler argues, Canada’s support for the partition plan was due much less to the influence of a powerful Zionist lobby as to the legacy of Western anti-Semitism. As Engler writes, “The way to understand Jewish Zionist lobbying is that it pressed against an almost open door […] the anti-Semitism underlying Canada’s ‘none is too many’ policy towards Jewish refugees explains support for Israel.”

But old-fashioned geopolitics offers a far more precise explanation of Canada’s support for the creation of the state of Israel. According to the author, in order for Canada to avoid a major diplomatic rift between its two major allies at the time, Britain and the US, securing a deal that would satisfy the interests of both parties was paramount. Following the fallout of World War II, whereupon the US supplanted Britain as the new global hegemon, Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East gradually shifted towards the American sphere of influence. Under the new geopolitical order, Israel would come to represent a vital strategic asset of US imperial interests in the world, essentially serving as a Western colonial outpost in the heart of the oil-rich Middle East.

Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and much of the Syrian Golan Heights since 1967 has done little to change the nature Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East. Already deep ideological, economic, and military ties between Canada and Israel have only grown more pronounced over time. The two countries signed the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (CIFTA) in 1997, Canada’s first ever free trade agreement outside of the Western Hemisphere. But Canada’s support for Israel also assumes much more nuanced forms, although no less harmful in effect, Engler argues. For example, the charitable status of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in Canada helped found ‘Canada Park’, an Israeli national park built atop destroyed Palestinian villages in the illegally occupied West Bank. Canadian aid and charitable funds to Israel have a long history of subsidizing illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank, among various other violations of international law.

Neither should Canada’s reflexive, one-sided support for Israel today be seen in any way as an aberration; instead, Engler insists, it must be understood in the context of a long and consistent historical continuum of Canadian foreign policy interests in the Middle East – regardless of which political party happens to be in power. Carefully consulting the historical record, Engler leaves little doubt about the overall continuity of Canada’s support for Israel, from both the so-called ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ of the political spectrum. Whether it is the Liberal Party of Paul Martin or the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper, the book dismantles not only Canada’s ‘peacekeeping myth’ but also the notion of even remote debate or political variety concerning key foreign policy issues in this country. As Engler writes, “The trajectory of this country’s foreign policy has been clear: The culmination of six decades of one-sided support, and two years into the Stephen Harper government, Canada was (at least diplomatically) the most pro-Israel country in the world.”

The author explains how under the familiar banner of ‘anti-Semitism’, the historical memory of the Holocaust has been shamefully manipulated by Canadian politicians and Zionist lobby groups alike as a means to shield Israel from legitimate criticism. Of course, such a clearly harmful and morally bankrupt foreign policy, stubbornly sustained for so long, without logical pretext, cannot survive unopposed forever. While Engler admits that the broader, grassroots Left has made significant strides in recent years to combat the widespread abuse of anti-Semitism for political gain and the growing ties between Canada and Israel in general, it remains a long and uphill struggle.

Although Engler flatly rejects the baseless charges of anti-Semitism routinely made against vocal critics of Israel such as, for example, the organizers of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), he claims that the plight of Palestinians receives much more international attention than do the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, or Tibet, for that matter. “The point of our protest must not just be Palestinian suffering but rather Canadian complicity with that suffering,” Engler argues. He goes on to write, “By not focusing on Canada’s responsibility for the conflict Palestinian solidarity activists have opened themselves up to attacks regarding their single-minded devotion to Israel’s crimes. To undercut this self-serving argument, which is often an insinuation of anti-Semitism, it is important to make our critique of Canadian foreign policy more explicit.”

Here Engler is uncharacteristically a little careless, unwittingly playing into the hands of the very same political forces whose aims he so skillfully and thoroughly exposes throughout the book. In reality, Palestine solidarity activists such as those who organize IAW are no more blameworthy for giving specific attention to the Israel/Palestine question than organizers of Congo Awareness Week are for focusing on the DRC or the Canada Haiti Action Network for focusing on Haiti – both of which, it might be added, showcase clear examples of Canadian complicity. Any activist, among whom I might count Engler, knows that organizers simply cannot do everything. They are overworked, outstretched, and under-resourced; the fact that events such as those mentioned above even happen at all is an achievement in itself. So long, I think, as our activism remains rooted in a universal standard of social justice, and we strive wherever possible to highlight common links and build genuine solidarity between various struggles in Canada and abroad, it is possible to take up a given cause without necessarily compromising the integrity of our aims or falling victim to narrow parochialism.

Regarding the growth of Palestine solidarity in Canada in recent years, and the level of international attention surrounding it, Engler fails to acknowledge the degree to which Palestinians themselves have made it possible – both through their own sustained resistance, and practical appeals to international solidarity in the form of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. He argues that it has been largely the belligerence of Israel and, most recently, the brutal military assault on Gaza in 2008/2009 that has caused ordinary Canadians to begin to see Israel for what it is and question Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East, resulting in the largest Palestine solidarity demonstrations in this country’s history. But Israel has always been openly belligerent – this is nothing new. In fact, it has been the growth of the Palestine solidarity movement across Canada – led by Palestinians – that has put the Israel/Palestine question on the political agenda like never before, and channeled these large demonstrations into part of an organized campaign (as opposed to short-lived expressions of outrage). This is an unintentional, yet critical oversight – one that puts far too much emphasis on Israel itself as a measure of public opinion.

But make no mistake, Canada is a real actor in this book. While the trajectory of Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East has been more or less consistent over the past six decades, Engler is sure to carefully put Canada’s aims in their unique historical context. There is no grand plot or shadow Zionist lobby manipulating Canadian foreign policy from afar (i.e. Walt and Mearsheimer), nor is Canada merely subordinated to the whims of US imperial interests; instead Canada is authentically portrayed as a power in its own right, equipped with its own geopolitical aims and interests. Engler’s mistrust of Canada’s motives in the Middle East is not borne out of cynicism or spite but rather a clear historical pattern of harmful Canadian intervention abroad. No doubt, as someone who admittedly began his career as a writer by studying Canada’s shameful role in Haiti, he is surely well versed in the ugly side of this country’s foreign policy tradition elsewhere in the world.

The scope and breadth of the book is initially quite daunting and even a little overwhelming, leaving virtually no historical fact or detail uncovered, yet avoids becoming at all pedantic or trivial in outlook. Each chapter builds fittingly upon the one prior to create a comprehensive historical narrative; anyone still not convinced after reading this book of Canada’s one-sided support for Israel and the fundamental need to change the nature of this country’s foreign policy may well never be swayed. For such a relatively short book (in total, only approximately 150 pages) it is surprising just how much history is covered in this gem of a resource. Written in a simple, lucid style, Engler allows the facts to speak for themselves, yet does not shy away from announcing exactly where he stands.

Canadians can no longer plead ignorance of what is being done abroad in their name. This book not only gives its readers the tools to understand Canadian complicity in Israeli apartheid, but in doing so, puts the onus on us to take action in order hold our own government to account. Engler’s proposed solution is as blunt and straightforward as his prose; not wasting words, he writes, “Only when Canadians understand the reality of Israel, when they learn that their government takes the side of Israel despite its glaring human rights violations, will change be possible.”

According to the author, supporting the growing BDS campaign and targeting all Canadian institutions with any political, financial, or military ties to Israel is a good way to begin to take meaningful action. Engler also makes a few recommendations of his own, including: halting all Canadian weapons sales to Israel, revoking the JNF’s charitable status in Canada, and boycotting Chapters/Indigo (which the author himself has done with this very book). Canada’s foreign policy history in the Middle East and its one-sided support for Israel are rife with hypocrisy; this book is a welcome remedy to that hypocrisy.

Ali Mustafa is a freelance journalist, writer, and media activist. He is also an editor of the New Socialist webzine. He resides in Toronto. His writing can be found at: