By MYRON LOVE
Most non-Jewish Canadians don’t know much about Israel,” notes Martin Sampson.
Speaking to a gathering of Friends of Israel, the director of Communications and Marketing for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) pointed to a recent survey that indicated that 40% of average Canadians aren’t sure if Israel is a democracy and 11% are convinced that Israel isn’t a democracy.
As well, just 11% of Canadians think that there is a media bias against Israel while 30% see a media bias against the Palestinians. “Most non-Jewish Canadians pick up their information about Israel from the media,” Sampson pointed out, “and the information they pick up on is generally mainly from the headlines.”
While Sampson acknowledged that there is a media bias against Israel, in Canada for the most part, he attributes that most often to lack of context and the media dictum “if it bleeds, it leads” – meaning violence and conflict are what grab the headlines.
Sampson reported that CIJA focuses its pro-Israel lobbying activity primarily on politicians, university professors and the media. “There is no point in trying to take on anti-Israel activists in argument,” he noted. “It just gives them credibility and our surveys show that the average Canadian doesn’t react well to the two groups fighting with each other.”
The speaker read quotes from all three major national party leaders (Harper, Mulcair and Trudeau), all of whom spoke out very strongly in support of Israel. “One of our main objectives politically,” Sampson said, “is that there be no daylight between the political parties’ views on Israel. If anyone steps outside the consensus, we let them know immediately.”
As an example, he cited a proposed Liberal statement last summer after the Gaza War which the Liberals quickly changed, he said, after CIJA’s intervention.
Sampson also cautioned against drawing too much attention to anti-Israel activists. He noted as an example a $25,000 anti-Israel ad campaign launched last year in Vancouve byr an anti-Israel group to run on the sides of Vancouver buses. “I would have preferred to ignore the ads,” he said. “In reality, nobody pays any attention to bus ads.
“But the decision was made to fight these ads. The result was that the anti-Israel ads garnered $1 million worth of free publicity as a result of the controversy and – to many Canadians – it looked like the pro-Israel side was trying to censor the other side. Canadians believe strongly in freedom of expression.”
The BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement on North American campuses, Sampson noted, is hateful, divisive, anti-Semitic and has been completely ineffective. Not a single university has cut ties with Israel or companies selling products to Israel, he pointed out.
“The BDS movement does not resonate with Canadians and is fizzling out,” he reported.
In confronting anti-Israel speakers, Sampson suggested, the most effective counter strategy is to ask questions in a way that an audience can see the faulty logic. “Ask about what the speaker sees as an alternative solution,” Sampson suggested. “It is surprising how often the speaker quickly shuts up or starts stumbling around trying to answer.”
Sampson reported that CIJA is currently undertaking field surveys to see what Canadians’ views on the Israel/Palestine situation are now with a larger sampling in Quebec and larger cities. CIJA is also conducting interviews with Canadian élites to see where they are at on the issues.
CIJA was established in July of 2011 for the purpose of achieving greater impact, efficiency, and responsiveness of Jewish advocacy across Canada. CIJA is now responsible for all activities previously administered by Canadian Jewish Congress, Canada-Israel Committee, Quebec-Israel Committee, and the University Outreach Committee. CIJA works closely with its Jewish Federation partners across Canada, providing strategic advice and advocacy solutions both tailored to local conditions and consistent with the Jewish community’s national advocacy priorities.
Sampson is in his third year working for CIJA. He considers himself “an accidental Zionist”. His career has been working in public relations. His introduction to the Israel file came about after he was asked to take on a PR project for the Canada Israel Committee, one of CIJA’s predecessors.
“When CIJA offered me this position,” he said, “I liked the fact that I would have a lot of autonomy, the subject matter was interesting and it would connect me to a high purpose.
“I am not religious,” says Sampson, who is the son of a Polish-born mother and British-born father who met in Canada. “But I believe in the right of the Jewish people to have their own homeland. And I don’t understand why Israel is continually singled out for criticism and is having its legitimacy questioned.”