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“A few decades ago, ours was a Christian civilization, and Jews were the designated Others. Now it’s Judeo-Christian. Why not Judeo-Christian-Muslim? Muslims lived and warred in the European “West.” Spain was largely Muslim for 700 years. The Greek classical tradition was transmitted to Europe via the Muslim world, in Arabic. Western civilization, whatever it is, includes Muslims”

 

There’s something enigmatic in Stephen Harper’s foreign policy. Since he decided to cut and run from Afghanistan, it seems to have only one pillar: total support for whatever Israel’s government does.

It kicks in almost before Israel acts – as when he called the 2006 attack on Lebanon “measured,” before there was time to get out a tape. Or against Israel’s own position – as when he rebuked Canada’s delegates for not leaving an anti-racism conference though Israelhad asked them to stay. It extends to NGOs such as Rights & Democracy, where Harper appointees created chaos over issues concerning Israel, like a tiny grant to a human-rights group that even Israel’s attorney-general praised.

In an interview published last week, Peter Kent, the junior foreign affairs minister, said “an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on Canada.” It sounded like the guns of August, 1914. It was ridiculous. The Canadian Forces are overstretched, and Israel has perhaps the fourth strongest military in the world. Is this kind of myopic focus on one country and knee-jerk support for all it does appropriate to any government’s foreign policy – except Israel’s own? Surely it’s about more than buying a few Jewish votes.

So I’m grateful to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney for casting light on this behaviour. At a Jerusalem meeting, he said: “The existential threat faced by Israel on a daily basis is ultimately a threat to the broader Western civilization.” Aha! Then what we have here is a clash of civilizations, a new version of old dualisms such as Us/Them, East/West, commies/capitalists. That’s how foreign policy was often justified in the past. But why code it in terms of Israel? Because the old dualisms aren’t what they used to be.

They frequently carried, for instance, racist baggage: the white races against savages etc. Racism was official ideology back then. You caught a whiff of it last week when a British commander in Afghanistan told his troops they were going into “the heart of darkness.” Now anti-racism is official ideology. The clash of civilizations sounds like a less vile dualism, even if it’s kind of stupid.

But whatcivilizations? How do you separate them? A few decades ago, ours was a Christian civilization, and Jews were the designated Others. Now it’s Judeo-Christian. Why not Judeo-Christian-Muslim? Muslims lived and warred in the European “West.” Spain was largely Muslim for 700 years. The Greek classical tradition was transmitted to Europe via the Muslim world, in Arabic. Western civilization, whatever it is, includes Muslims.

Simplistic dualisms such as the clash of civs respond to some primitive human need for a reassuring division into us and them. The trouble is, they don’t work as well any more. The world has got too scrunched up, populations are intermingled and in touch. The lines blur, then fade. I mean, why does Jason Kenney refer to broaderWestern civilization? Is he trying not to offend Canadian voters of Chinese or Indian origin by including them as “Western”? It’s been a rough patch for those naturally inclined to divide the world starkly, which is how I picture Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney.

So they try to slip some of dualism’s waning power into foreign policy by way of Israel. Maybe that’s how humanity advances. You eliminate one silly dualism, like racism, and replace it with slightly less foolish or at least vaguer versions. Eventually, with luck, we might surpass dualism itself.

I want to end by mentioning Fanny Silberman, a luminous soul who survived Buchenwald and other Nazi camps. She died this week. She was my real-estate agent and pal. She knew I was critical of Israeli policies. It never diminished her warmth, not even when I switched agents. Her generosity and joie de vivre were boundless. Her response to life was inclusive and inspiring. That’s all.

Rich Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Globe and Mail.

This article was originally published February 2010 in the Globe and Mail and republished here with permission from the author

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