A series of recent polls showing significant levels of negative views on Israel and its conduct in Gaza highlights a growing gap between Canadian public opinion and this country’s political class, according to Palestine solidarity activists.

A Leger poll published this month and commissioned by the staunchly pro-Israel National Post showed 45 per cent of Canadians “agree that Israel is committing genocide in the Gaza Strip,” representing a two per cent increase from a similar Leger poll taken in January.

In the June poll, 23 per cent disagreed that Israel is committing a genocide, down from 31 per cent in the earlier poll. The number of those who responded “don’t know” increased by six per cent to 32 per cent of those surveyed.

Israel is currently on trial for genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which said in January that South Africa’s case against Israel was “plausible.”

International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan, meanwhile, requested arrest warrants for Israeli government officials accused of committing war crimes in Gaza, many of which have been thoroughly documented by journalists and human rights groups around the world.

To date, Israel’s war on Gaza has killed at least 37,718 people, including more than 15,000 children. 

Also this month, Angus Reid published a poll that showed 55 per cent of Canadians have a negative opinion of Israel, compared to 29 per cent who view it favourably.

The numbers are starker when broken down by age, as just 20 per cent of males aged between 18 and 34 and 14 per cent of females in that age group view Israel favourably.

Opinions of the United States, Israel’s leading international patron, were also significantly lower among those younger demographics than their older counterparts. A different Angus Reid poll found that overall opinions of Israel were 12 per cent more favourable in the U.S. than in Canada.

Another Angus Reid poll taken in February indicated shifts in public sympathy as Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza dragged on.

When Israel launched its bombing campaign immediately after the Hamas-led attacks of October 7, 28 per cent of those surveyed said their sympathies lay with Israel, compared to 18 per cent who said they were more sympathetic to Palestine.

Sympathies for one side or the other in the February poll were “near-even,” while one-third said their sympathies were “about equal” for both sides.

Meanwhile, 50 per cent of those surveyed said Israel’s attack on Gaza was “too heavy-handed,” a five point increase from November. The February poll put the number of Canadians who believed Israel was committing genocide at 41 per cent, compared to 32 per cent who disagreed.

Despite the significant proportion of those who hold negative opinions about Israel’s attack on Gaza, Canadians appear to be slightly more divided about how Canada should relate to Israel.

The Leger poll from this month showed that 26 per cent of Canadians feel this country is “too supportive” of Israel, compared with 12 per cent who believe Canada is not supportive enough. Twenty-three per cent “think the support is about right.”

A recent academic study, published in the journal Canadian Jewish Studies, found that among non-Jewish Canadian adults, 49 per cent agreed that “the war Israel is conducting in Gaza is an example of genocide.”

As well, 34 per cent agreed that Israel is an apartheid state, and 38 per cent agreed that Zionism, the nationalist ideology upon which the state of Israel is based, is “a form of racism.”

However, 36 per cent disagreed with the view that Canada should not impose sanctions on Israel, compared with 43 who agreed, while 44 per cent disagreed with support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Nevertheless, the study’s author, University of Toronto sociologist Robert Brym, wrote: “Overall, these results suggest that Israel may be losing the battle for Canadian public opinion.” However, the study also showed “a substantial minority of Canadian adults lack crystallized attitudes toward Israel or are reluctant to state their opinions.”

The study also found that “Canadians’ opinions about Israel are considerably more negative than are their opinions about Jews.”

Years Of Decline

Corey Balsam, executive director of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), said he believes there has been a decline in support for Israel in Canada for years before the launch of Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, despite the state investing heavily in public relations campaigns intended to polish its image on the world stage.

The effectiveness of such campaigns, Balsam explained, has been more difficult to maintain given Israel’s current far-right government, which includes a convicted racist and supporter of terrorism in a key ministerial role.

But this ideological trend within Israel is not new, Balsam said, as Israel’s move towards more explicitly right-wing politics dates at least as far back as Avigdor Lieberman’s tenure as Israeli foreign affairs minister in 2009.

Since that time, Israel has embarked on several brutal bombing campaigns in Gaza and attacks on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

In September 2020, IJV published findings from a poll that found 84 per cent of Canadians said they would support an investigation by the ICC into Israeli officials accused of war crimes or other alleged human rights violations.

The same year, another IJV survey co-sponsored with two other advocacy groups found that “three out of four Canadians want their government to oppose Israel’s annexation of large parts of the West Bank, while almost half support the use of sanctions.”

Balsam believes the polls taken this year and in 2023 may be understating the decline in support for Israel, and its actions, among Canadians.

He said that some Canadians might be reluctant to explicitly declare a particular “sympathy” to one side or the other, as prompted by the February Angus Reid poll, despite recognizing that Israel’s actions are wrong.

“My sense is that if anything, [the polls] underestimate the support for Palestinians.”

Balsam also believes that among some of those who support Israel, there is a disconnect between their perception of Israeli politics and society, and the reality on the ground.

“I still hear from people in my parents’ generation and they seem to maintain this view of Israel which is just not accurate, and it is informed so much by the Hasbara efforts,” he explained, referring to a Hebrew word that describes a key part of the Israeli government’s propaganda efforts.

Those with distorted views about Israel may include Canadian MPs who have taken sponsored trips to Israel that showcase a carefully curated picture of life in that state while whitewashing its crimes, said Balsam.

Even with the success of these propaganda efforts, however, Balsam said there is only so much that well-resourced lobbying groups can do in the face of abundant information about the horrors currently unfolding in Gaza and the violent actions that have occurred under other recent Israeli governments.

“I think this trend will likely continue in the same direction, depending on world events,” said Balsam.

Ending Special Treatment

Michael Bueckert, vice president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), told The Maple that while polling on Canadian attitudes towards Israel has been haphazard in recent years, he believes there is a sense among the Canadian public that Israel has received special treatment under international law and that it should be subject to the same rules as every other state.

He also noted, however, that while a significant number of those surveyed in recent polls might agree that Israel is committing a genocide in Gaza, that does not necessarily always translate into support for major changes in how Canada treats Israel, especially given the number of those surveyed in the Leger poll who felt that Canada’s support for Israel is “about right.”

Still, Bueckert agrees with Balsam that big picture attitudes towards Israel have been shifting in a negative direction since well before October 7. 

He referred to a CJPME-commissioned poll published in September 2023 which found that among those with an opinion on the matter, 38 per cent agreed Israel is a “state with segregation similar to apartheid.” Just 11 per cent of those who responded described Israel as a “vibrant democracy.”

Two months later, an Angus Reid poll found that 43 per cent of Canadians believe “Israeli policy towards Gaza is a form of apartheid,” compared with 27 per cent who disagreed with that assessment.

Bueckert said this was surprising given the fact that allegations of Israeli apartheid are typically treated with little credibility in Parliament and Canadian media, despite multiple international human rights organizations concluding that the term accurately describes how Israel treats Palestinians. Apartheid is a crime under international law.

“These opinions, even though they’re widespread in civil society and human rights organizations, they’re just not reflected to any degree within the media or by the political class,” he explained. “They’re seen as fringe views, or as illegitimate somehow, and politicians will bend themselves over to avoid saying these things.”

A search of the House of Commons Hansard archive shows that only three Canadian MPs — the NDP’s McPherson and Mathyssen, and Liberal MP Chandra Arya — raised the issue of Israeli apartheid for discussion during debates following the publication of Amnesty International’s report on the matter in February 2022.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, a radical supporter of Israel, mentioned the allegation of Israeli apartheid once, but only to dismiss it as “offensive and absurd.”

After the Amnesty report was published, the Trudeau government explicitly rejected the view that Israel maintains a system of apartheid. A CJPME report later revealed that the government made that decision without identifying any specific problem with or criticism of the report.

Similarly, Bueckert said, the view that Israel is committing genocide held by a significant portion of the Canadian public is also not reflected in political discussion in Canada.

“Basically, politicians will refuse to say whether they agree with this, and almost no politicians will use the genocide word,” he noted.

In response to South Africa’s case being presented at the ICJ, the Trudeau government confusingly stated in January that while it supports the world court’s mandate, it does not necessarily accept the premise of the genocide case against Israel.

In March, a non-binding motion in Parliament only passed with votes from members of the Trudeau government after it was significantly watered down to drop calls for the immediate recognition of Palestinian statehood and sanctions on Israeli officials who incite genocide.

Meanwhile, analysis by The Breach has shown that since Israel began its latest war on Gaza, Canadian media coverage has consistently skewed in favour of Israel and downplayed the violence in Gaza.

Despite this, the June Leger poll showed 23 per cent of respondents felt “mainstream media” coverage was generally more favourable towards Palestinians, compared with 17 per cent who felt it was more favourable towards Israelis. One-fifth said the coverage has been “generally balanced.”

Softening Support

Besides the slight increase in those who believe Israel is committing a genocide as shown in Leger’s findings, Bueckert noted that there was also a decrease in those who disagreed and a slight increase in those who said that they don’t know.

He believes this may be due to a softening of support among those who might not be considered “hardcore” supporters of Israel, but who would otherwise typically defer to Israel’s narrative of events.

“I think that does suggest that the hardcore or even latent support that Israel had has softened pretty significantly,” said Bueckert. “People who are willing to defend Israel’s actions are disappearing.”

He also noted that Angus Reid’s recent polling on the favourability of countries among the Canadian public found that 52 per cent of Conservative Party voters view Israel favourably. While that constitutes a majority, it indicates more mixed opinions within the support base of the party than is reflected in its unequivocally pro-Israel messaging.

Meanwhile, only 22 per cent of Liberal voters view Israel favourably. The Trudeau government has largely supported Israel throughout the conflict while taking what many pro-Palestine activists regard as largely inconsequential steps towards restraining it. 

“It’s totally not what you would expect, based on how these parties act,” said Bueckert. “It’s like there are these guardrails built in to prevent the political class and the national conversation from reflecting what people actually think, or what’s happening on the ground.”

“People see what Israel is doing, and that should be a huge wake up call to Parliament.”

Alex Cosh is the news editor of The Maple.