One of the most significant phenomena in current Canadian politics – i.e. the growing shift of Canada’s Jewish community from the Liberal to the Conservative Party – took a major stride last week when the top contender for the Liberal leadership accused Israel of committing a war crime.

Michael Ignatieff, a longtime Harvard authority on human rights and international law who came back to Canada two years ago to seek the Liberal leadership, seemed to stumble into the accusation.

In an interview with the Toronto Star last August, he was asked about the Israeli bombing of the Lebanese town of Qana during the Israel-Lebanon war. He replied that it was a “dirty war,” and he wasn’t “losing sleep” over Qana. But when this remark was condemned in Quebec as heartless, Ignatieff backtracked, saying he had erred in making it. Asked last Sunday on Quebec’s top-rated talk show for further explanation, he landed himself in hotter water:

“I demonstrated a lack of compassion. It was a mistake. And when you make a mistake like that you have to admit it. And I admit it because I was a human rights professor, and I’m a professor of the laws of war, and what happened at Qana was a war crime.”

With that, the roof fell in. Susan Kadis, a Toronto-area MP and co-chairman of his leadership campaign, resigned: “Michael is an intelligent person and I would think that he would have a better handle on the Middle East, given his years of experience on human rights and international law. I find his comments very troubling, since the Israeli response came in the light of the unprovoked brazen kidnapping by Hezbollah of Israeli soldiers.”

The Canada-Israel Committee expressed “profound concern” and demanded “clarification.” If clarification was not forthcoming, they added, they “would feel obliged to convey that message to our constituency.”

Ignatieff hastened to provide a somewhat confusing explanation. He described himself as “a lifelong friend of Israel,” and went on to say that “war crimes were committed in the war in Lebanon. I don’t think there’s any question about it, and war crimes were visited on Israeli citizens and on Lebanese citizens.” His conclusion: “We’ve got to be determined, as Canadians, to do whatever we can to make sure that military solutions are not sought in this conflict, because the consequences are more civilian deaths.”

This did not satisfy the Canada-Israel Committee, and the Israeli ambassador to Canada called the statement “upsetting and disappointing.” Bob Rae, Ignatieff’s leading opponent for the leadership, commented that it was “not wise” for him “to rush into such judgments.”

But this was not the first time leaders in the Canadian Jewish community have jumped into the leadership campaign. Heather Reisman, boss of Indigo Books and chairwoman of the Liberal Party’s national policy committee in the 1980s, announced in August that she was leaving the party to support Stephen Harper and the Tories.

Her announcement followed a similar statement by film producer Robert Lantos that he was taking off his “lifelong Liberal hat.” Ms. Reisman e-mailed a friend: “I’m right there alongside Robert. After a lifetime of being a Liberal, I have made the switch. It feels strange, but it is totally and unequivocally right.”

Her husband, Gerry Schwartz, head of the giant Onex Corporation, another senior Liberal and a confidant of ex-Prime Minister Paul Martin, followed the same path. He and his wife’s were among eight signatories to an ad in a Cornwall, Ontario, newspaper warmly supporting the Tories.

Also in August, another senior Liberal, Sen. Gerry Grafstein, publicly criticized Liberal house leader Bill Graham for his attack on Tory Prime Minister Stephen Harper over Harper’s outspoken pro-Israel policy. Harper has reversed Canada’s 50-year record as a neutral “broker” in the Middle East, said Graham. But neutrality on Israel is not Canada’s historical record, Grafstein tartly commented.

This exodus of Jews from the Liberal Party is an historic switch. All through the 20th century the dominant Liberals could count on strong Jewish support. While there were certainly some Jewish Conservatives, the community as whole tended leftward, as did Canadian academe. Within the last decade, however, Canada’s socialists have increasingly opposed Israel, much to the consternation of their long-time Jewish allies.

Meanwhile, it was not immediately apparent how seriously the Ignatieff incident might damage his leadership prospects at the convention in early December. A delegate count earlier this month gave him 30 percent of the committed convention delegates and Rae 20 percent, with the other six candidates ranging from 1 percent to 17 percent.

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