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Canadians ambivalent about Israel on eve of the Jewish state's 75th birthday celebration

'As we get further away from the time of the re-establishment of the State of Israel and the nuance of history, it is less understood'

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The National Post has been celebrating the modern state of Israel ahead of its 75th anniversary on April 26, telling the remarkable story of its rebirth and resilience against all odds.

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Despite the strong relationship Canada maintains with Israel, Canadians have a mixed and uncertain opinion of the Jewish state, including on crucial, existential questions, a national opinion poll says.

While 33 per cent of survey respondents had a favourable view of Israel, 28 per cent expressed an unfavourable one — but the largest response, at 38 per cent, was they weren’t sure.

And while 36 per cent said the establishment of the State of Israel, which marks its 75th anniversary this month, was the right thing to do, 20 per cent said it wasn’t, but again, the largest response, at 44 per cent, was they didn’t know one way or another.

Despite the prominence of Israel in global affairs, political agendas and international news, and its often-polarizing place in the world, there remains in Canada an ambivalence, according to the National Post-Leger poll.

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What really strikes me is that a large number of Canadians really don’t have much of an opinion one way or another about Israel

“What really strikes me is that a large number of Canadians really don’t have much of an opinion one way or another about Israel. Throughout the questions, there’s always this fairly large portion of the Canadian population that is ambivalent,” said Andrew Enns, an executive vice-president at Leger, and lead researcher for the study on Canadians’ views of Israel.

Canada’s relationship with Israel has been a close one since its inception in 1948.

“Canada and Israel have strong, multidimensional bilateral relations, marked by close political, economic, social and cultural ties,” states Canada’s public policy on Israel. “Support for Israel, especially its right to live in peace and security with its neighbours, has been at the core of Canada’s Middle East policy since 1948.”

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The political support Canada offers has been steadfast through successive governments, under different political parties.

A series of questions examined attitudes of adult Canadians on a range of topics regarding Israel and its relationship with Canada.

Canadians agree that Canada should continue supporting Israel’s right to exist in the Middle East — but it is not overwhelming agreement.

Forty-four per cent said Canada should continue its support of Israel, 20 per cent said Canada shouldn’t, and 36 per cent said they didn’t know.

Men had a more favourable view on Israel than women (42 per cent to 25 per cent).

Albertans expressed the most favourable view among Canada’s regions, at 44 per cent, with Atlantic Canada having the least, at 25 per cent. Manitoba and Saskatchewan, taken together, had 39 per cent expressing a favourable view, followed by Ontario at 34 per cent, Quebec at 30 per cent, and B.C. at 29 per cent.

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Otherwise, unlike on many domestic issues, regional demographics made little difference in opinions on most of the questions about Israel. The poll found rough uniformity nationally.

Israel protest
Israeli military veterans wave national flags during a rally against the government’s judicial reform bill, along a highway near Netanya on March 28, 2023. Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP

Most Canadians don’t keep up to date with news about Israel — just 23 per cent said they did. Of those, only six per cent said they follow the topic “very closely.”

Those keeping up to date on news on Israel are more likely to be male than female (32 per cent to 15 per cent) and more likely to be black, Indigenous, or other people of colour rather than white (31 per cent to 21 per cent).

When asked what they first thought of when thinking about Israel, the top answer was historical sites (40 per cent), followed by the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability (36 per cent). Religion and culture were the third most top of mind aspect of Israel, named by 31 per cent.

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The older a respondent was, the more likely they were to say the region’s conflicts were most top of mind. It was named by 45 per cent in the oldest cohort (age 55 and over), 33 per cent of the middle cohort (age 35 to 54) and 26 per cent of the youngest (age 18 to 34).

Those who hold an unfavourable view of Israel overwhelmingly said conflict was at most top of mind (67 per cent), while those holding a favourable opinion focussed most on its historical sites (56 per cent).

Thomas Juneau, a professor specializing in the Middle East at the graduate school of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa said some of the data are surprising.

“Not being in favour of Israel’s existence, that has to be seen as a very extreme position,” Juneau said.

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“I think those who support a close relationship between Canada and Israel should be concerned.”

Juneau said, however, that interest among Canadians towards most international affairs issues is generally low.

“I’m sure Israel is not unique in that regard.”

Less surprised by the data was Shimon Koffler Fogel, chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

He said his organization has done a lot of polling on similar questions over the years.

“The findings of this poll are not dramatically different. The numbers have remained pretty stable … and they are not hugely different from results you find in the U.S.,” Fogel said.

“I’m not distressed by the numbers,” Fogel said.

“They remind us how important it is to continuously make the case for the Canadian investment in the bilateral relationship with Israel and the value that accrues to Canada from that relationship.

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As we get further away from the time and the context of the re-establishment of the State of Israel and the nuance of history, it is less understood

“As we get further away from the time and the context of the re-establishment of the State of Israel and the nuance of history, it is less understood, and people are less aware of it. It becomes a fuzzier proposition.”

Juneau said the large portion of Canadians expressing no opinion on such big-picture questions on Israel could have implications in the future.

“I don’t think in the short-term that the substance of Canada’s policy on Israel is going to change.

“It hasn’t changed through the change of government from (Conservative Prime Minister) Stephen Harper to (Liberal Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau. The tone and the rhetoric may change as it reflects new circumstances, but the relationship remains substantially unchanged.”

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The poll, though, suggests there is room for a significant shift in public support that could be reflected by politicians; that the large, undecided middle could shift one way or another.

Fogel doesn’t see it that way.

He said Canada’s position isn’t driven by polling data but by an interest in shared values, mutual interests and Canada’s historical commitment.

Fogel said a bigger threat to Israel’s bilateral relations could come from within Israel itself.

“What might impact on Canadian support is Israeli government behaviour.

“It would be a more important consideration by Canada if an Israeli government were to pursue a path that challenges the values that always underlined Canada’s relationship,” Fogel said, with a nod to the current political crisis and protests sparked by the Israeli government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary.

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“To the extent that a Canadian government perceives Israel drifting away from that, I can see it expressing criticism…. It won’t be polling numbers that do it.”

The public opinion poll studied responses from 1,549 adult Canadian residents through online surveys, randomly recruited through Leger’s online panel from April 14 to April 16. Results were weighted according to age, gender, and region, as well as by education and presence of children in the household to ensure a representative sample of the population.

As an online survey, traditional margins of error do not apply, according to Leger. If the data had been collected through the same-size probability sample, the margin of error would be reported as plus or minus 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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