Representatives of Canada’s largest and most vocal pro-Israel lobby group, the Centre For Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), have since the organization’s founding defended Israel when it is publicly criticized on a range of issues, including in regards to illegal settlements and civilian killings.

Now, with Israel’s most far-right government since the country’s founding, at least one prominent CIJA representative has spoken approvingly of certain elements of the government’s agenda, despite CIJA itself admitting in its official communications to some concerns about extremist ministers.

How did CIJA get started and what is its mandate?

CIJA In The News

CIJA was established under its current name in 2011, following a controversial merger of a number of advocacy groups, and has a stated mandate to “protect the quality of Jewish life in Canada.” In practice, much of its public-facing work focuses on defending the Israeli state from criticism.

In 2016, the magazine Jewish Currents noted that CIJA and its broader network has “proclaimed itself the single address for matters related to Israel and Jewish advocacy.”

In November 2012, CIJA’s CEO Shimon Fogel suggested in an interview with CTV News that the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) campaign for UN observer status was a sign of the PA leadership “playing up-the-ante games with Hamas over who can be more strident and who can be more rejectionist.”

The same day, then-CIJA spokesperson Steve Mcdonald told Sun News that “the Palestinian Authority is playing a very dangerous game” by campaigning for non-member observer status while in a state of conflict with Israel, before calling suggestions that Palestinian refugees be given the right to return to their homelands “unacceptable.”

In response to media coverage of Israel’s 2014 siege on Gaza, Fogel authored an article titled “Four key facts about civilian casualties in Gaza.” The piece argued that news coverage had “to a disproportionate extent” focused on civilian deaths, and blamed Hamas for the casualties.

CIJA has also offered comments disparaging critics of Israel outside the region. Last year, after the NDP proposed a 13-point peace plan aimed at resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, CIJA condemned the party’s supposed view “that every challenge faced by the Palestinian people is not only the fault of Israel but also entirely up to Israel to solve.”

In Montreal, after Concordia’s student union invited Ali Abunimah, the publisher of Electronic Intifada, to give a talk, CIJA condemned the invitation and called Abunimah a “radical anti-Israel militant.”

Netanyahu’s Return

Last November, Israel’s legislative elections saw the return of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party to power, with support from the far-right anti-Arab party, Otzma Yehudit, outraging many observers, including within Israel. The coalition named Itamar Ben-Gvir, a convicted racist and supporter of a right-wing terrorist group, head of the country’s security services.

When Israel’s ambassador to Canada announced his intention to step down from his post early because of the direction taken by the new government, Fogel was quick to clarify to The Canadian Press that this need not be interpreted as a sign of “acrimony” towards the new administration.

In December, Fogel told CBC News that “there is some unease within the Canadian Jewish community” regarding Ben-Gvir’s past statements, but CIJA nonetheless publicly congratulated Netanyahu on the “formation of a new Israeli government” in a statement published the same month.

The statement also expressed the organization’s “admiration for Israel’s vibrant democracy and civil society.” Despite noting “some disturbing and inflammatory rhetoric employed by some coalition partners,” CIJA emphasized its confidence that “Israel will demonstrate its commitment to pluralistic values and embrace all Jews regardless of their beliefs or practices.”

Meanwhile, the organization has heard speakers at its online town halls downplay concerns about the new government. At one such event in February, former Israeli legislator Einat Wilf described current political divisions in Israel as a “tragedy” and noted issues of “real concern” relating to the new government, adding that she would favour a centrist administration with right-wing extremists excluded.

However, when she was asked how she thought the new government might “isolate or delegitimize” Israel, she replied: “That is the least of my concerns. Over the years, what I realized is that those who speak out against Israel and Zionism don’t actually care about facts.”

Meanwhile, CIJA’s Israel office director, David Weinberg – a former defence lobbyist and founding vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security – offered the Netanyahu government a qualified defence.

In a Jerusalem Post article published in November, Weinberg wrote that while the far-right coalition members’ “unpolished and threatening” behaviour might make for a “rough and tumble period” and stoke fears about Israel’s foreign relations being jeopardized, he was more concerned about reactions from “foreign and hard-left observers.” He argued that supporters of Israel should “ignore” those critics of the Netanyahu government.

According to Weinberg, “Ben-Gvir-Phobia” is “a disease,” which he defined as “a purposefully blown-out-of-proportion fear of the right wing that serves as cover for people who apparently weren’t comfortable with staunch Zionist and real Jewish identity to begin with.”

Weinberg also assured his readers that Netanyahu was “unlikely to allow Israel to be yanked off its traditional democratic-liberal and core-consensus Jewish anchors.”

During an online town hall meeting hosted by the Jewish Policy Center last November, Weinberg said Israel’s voters shifted rightward in the election to “push back on Arab violence without apology,” and incorrectly predicted that Netanyahu would not give Ben-Gvir a ministerial post overseeing internal security.

He further described Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, of the far-right Religious Zionism Party, as “Israeli patriots who pray for the success of IDF soldiers three times a day.” Weinberg added, however, that it was not his intention to “whitewash Itamar Ben-Gvir’s problematic public record.”

The Judiciary

Weinberg also has connections to an organization that played a key role in Netanyahu's efforts to control Israel’s judicial appointments, which come in the wake of the prime minister’s own corruption scandal. CIJA itself has hosted town halls where some have criticized the proposed changes, but others have argued that concerns about the measures are overblown.

At one such event, former Likud leadership candidate and Jerusalem deputy mayor Fleur Hassan-Nanoum defended the changes. “What angers me is the hyperbole around this reform,” she said. Hassan-Nanoum also complained about “hysteria on the streets” and “ignorance” behind the backlash, referring to mass protests in Israel against the proposed changes.

Weinberg, meanwhile, wrote an op-ed in January titled “Judicial reform is reasonable and right.” He explained:

“Given the current makeup of the Court, decisions that employ such infinitely flexible principles invariably are skewed towards the progressive side of the political spectrum… And thus, the Court has ruled in recent years with a liberal fist on allocation of (Jewish National Fund) land, Palestinian residency rights in Israel, the operation of Palestinian Authority headquarters in Jerusalem, rights of foreign converts to citizenship, Haredi draft deferments and stipends to yeshiva students, commerce on Shabbat, and so much more…This is not ‘the end of democracy,’ but rather a long-overdue fix to Israeli democracy.”

In addition to serving as a CIJA director, Weinberg has also been identified by the Ottawa Citizen, The Jewish Policy Center and on his own blog as a senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum.

In 2018, Haaretz described Kohelet as the “right-wing think tank that ‘quietly runs the Knesset.’” According to reporting by the Times of Israel last month, the think tank “formulated the ideological foundations for the government’s radical judicial overhaul program” but called for “compromise” on the move in the face of massive public opposition.

According to the Times:

“Kohelet researchers played key roles in developing many of the new government’s policies regarding the judiciary, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin citing Dr. Aviad Bakshi, the head of the institution’s legal department, as one of the scholars he consulted in drawing up the far-reaching proposals.”

Weinberg, for his part, praised the work of the think tank, calling its work “revolutionary.” Last December, he wrote: “Kohelet has helped transform the intellectual landscape of Israel. Its deep research, broad scholarship, and wise management has given the Israeli right wing moral self-confidence to advance its views.”

Eventually, in the face of massive protests, the judicial overhaul was delayed. CIJA’s CEO issued an approving statement soon after: “It is our hope that the decision to suspend the judicial reform proposal will allow Israel time to build towards a broad consensus.”

Defending Occupation

More broadly, CIJA’s positions differ radically from other Canadian groups like Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), a progressive organization that supports calls to end Israel’s “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” and “the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.”

IJV also runs a campaign called Together Against Apartheid, opposing Israel’s system of apartheid as identified by human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem.  

By contrast, CIJA flatly rejects the evidence presented for Israeli apartheid, and some of CIJA’s directors have defended Israel's occupation and its expansion of settlements.

In a 2018 YouTube video, Fogel claimed that the “West Bank Security Barrier,” set up along the Green Line from 2000-2005, actually “saves Palestinian lives too.”

In 2015, Weinberg told Israel National News:

"(Israel's government) can't let the international community or the Palestinians dictate the terms of a framework for peace … Israel’s baseline position at the outset of the talks should be that 100 percent of the West Bank belongs to Israel by … political experience, legitimate settlement, and security necessity."

In 2017, Weinberg referred to a trend of supposed “Islamicization in Jerusalem,” which he suggested was advancing via a network of “civic associations, nonprofits, and grassroots organizations.”

More recently, Weinberg responded to settler vigilante attacks on Palestinians in Huwara by calling for the Israeli Occupation Forces to carry out such attacks instead. Despite lamenting the attacks as “immoral” and “marring Israel’s reputation around the world,” Weinberg wrote:

“It is, of course, professional IDF soldiers, not overheated settler youth, which should be ploughing through Huwara, arresting and interrogating terrorist suspects and bulldozing every building from which Israeli Jews have been shot at.”

Such views are concurrent with Weinberg’s other recent writings. In a February 2023 column, titled Israel’s best response to Palestinian terror is more settlements,” Weinberg argued that the IDF should destroy certain Palestinian homes to “punish” Hamas and Fatah alike. He explained:

“Settlements are the best Israeli response to Palestinian terrorism because they exact an actual price from the Palestinians for their recalcitrance. … Israel can and should raze Palestinian homes that give shelter to terrorists and expel the families of terrorists too … A policy of proud settlement in response to terrorism – alongside continuing military action where possible — will allow Israel to regain the initiative, to recover from a dangerous loss of self-confidence, and to exact a real price from the Palestinians for their recalcitrance and barbarity.”

Weinberg has used similar rhetoric in past columns. Regarding Israel’s 2014 siege on Gaza that killed over 2,300 Palestinians, overwhelmingly civilians, Weinberg asked in 2018 if Palestinians suffered enough:

“The question is whether Israel used enough force in Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and inflicted enough pain on the enemy to purchase a sizable chunk of time as respite before the next round of ‘grass mowing.’”

CIJA and Weinberg did not respond to requests for comment from The Maple for this story.

Michael Bueckert, vice president of the advocacy group Canadians For Justice and Peace in the Middle East, said the statements cast a poor light on CIJA. “Canadian journalists and parliamentarians should regard CIJA’s analysis of Israeli-Palestinian affairs with extreme skepticism and avoid participation in their lobby junkets and similar events.”

In particular, Bueckert noted, “CIJA’s Israel office director is a long-time public advocate for illegal and dangerous policies which reflect, and even go further than, the extremist priorities of Israel’s far-right government.”

Mitchell Thompson is a writer with PressProgress and occasional radio producer based in Toronto.

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