Editors’ note: This is part one in a two-part series, focusing on Canada’s role in creating and supporting Israel. Part two can be found here.
Canada, most citizens would proudly tell you, is radically different from its hawkish and interventionist southern neighbour. It is often said that Canada opts for neutrality on the world stage. And when it does intervene, it does so under the auspices of UN peacekeeping missions, clad in the blue helmets embedded so deeply in the national psyche.
Those who maintain this line are worried that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s policies toward Israel are betraying these long-held and admirable Canadian ideals. They argue that Canada should return to the policies of a golden age when the country used to have a balanced approach to global conflicts.
But are Canada’s present pro-Israel policies really that different from those in years past? As Ali Dessouki argues in Canadian Foreign Policy and the Palestine Problem and Yves Engler writes in Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid, the answer is no.
Harper’s stance on Israel and Palestine today is in fact broadly consistent with the country’s approach to the question from the very beginning. Looking at the role Canada played in the three most defining moments of Arab and Israeli relations — the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956 and the June 1967 war — it becomes clear that Canada’s foreign policy has consistently supported Zionism, defended Israel, and suppressed Arab nationalism.
The birth of Israel and Canada’s role
When the UN decided to partition the British mandate of Palestine and award the majority of land to those seeking to create a Jewish state in 1948, a process of dispossession and displacement of the indigenous Arabs of Palestine began. Canada played an active, and even decisive, role.
When a special committee was formed at the UN to deal with the Palestine question, Canada sent a delegation headed by Lester B. Pearson, Undersecretary of State for External Affairs at the time and future prime minister. Pearson was elected chairman of the committee, and under his leadership the UN Special Committee on Palestine was established in 1947.
Canada's representative at the UNSCOP, Supreme Court Justice Ivan C. Rand, would go on to become a hero of the Zionist movement. In 1954 the Winnipeg Jewish community planted a forest in Rand’s name in Israel, as thanks for the role he played in the establishment of that country. In 1968 the Hebrew University of Jerusalem created the Ivan C. Rand Chair of Law. The Palestinians, meanwhile, offered no such honours.
Rand was one of the main architects of the UN partition plan, a fact noted by Dessouki, who quotes the Canadian Jewish Reference Book and Directory: “Judge Rand’s understanding and judgment influenced the commission to recommend the final solution to a problem that troubled the world – the establishment of a separate Jewish state in Palestine.” Not only did he criticize and intervene against the idea of a Jewish–Arab unity state at the UN, but he also, as noted by his biographer, “worked hard to ensure the maximum geographical area possible for the new Jewish state.”
Civilizational superiority as foreign policy
Rand’s support for Israel appeared to stem from his belief in the civilizational superiority of the West and from his religious convictions. Engler quotes Israeli historian Ilan Pappé in stating that Rand was “inclined to see it [creation of Israel] as a struggle between the forces of progress and democracy on the one hand and backward societies on the other.” In a foreword to Rev. William L. Hull’s book The Fall and Rise of Israel, which appeared years after the country’s creation, Rand wrote, “We believe that true Zionism is a move of God and that those who are true Zionists with a love of land God has given them will feel the urge to aid actively in Israel the rebuilding of Zion.” Of the Palestinian refugees that resulted from carrying out the will of God, he said, “The refugees expelled are in Arab lands, and the Word of God says that they shall not return to their cities.”
When the Arab states protested against the partition plan and demanded that the International Court of Justice be asked for its opinion on whether the UN had the jurisdiction “to forcibly execute” such a resolution, Canada voted no. Canada’s opposition was significant, as only a single vote prevented this issue from being taken to the court.
UNSCOP passed on its recommendation to the special committee, where Pearson was the chairman. Pearson was awarded the title “Lord Balfour of Canada” by Canadian Zionists just days before the final vote on the partition took place. Rabbi Pearson, as he was also called, worked tirelessly to ensure the implementation of the partition plan. Due to his mediation, the US and the USSR were able to resolve their differences over the fate of Palestine and agree on the idea of partition. A front-page article in the New York Times noted that the agreement between the Americans and Soviets was “a result of the tireless efforts of Lester B. Pearson.” The final accord between the two rival superpowers, which Maurice Western described as the “turning point of the Palestine debate,” was dubbed the Canada plan by observers. For his services, Pearson was awarded Israel’s Medal of Valor and the Theodor Herzl award from the Zionist Organization of America for his “commitment to Jewish freedom and Israel.”
Like Rand’s, Pearson’s support for Israel was rooted in Christian Zionism, which is also a major component of Harper’s support base. In his memoirs, Pearson referred to Israel as the “land of my Sunday School lessons,” where he was taught that “Jews belonged in Palestine.”