Politics·Analysis

Poilievre wades into Middle East conflict during speech to Montreal-area synagogue

While Pierre Poilievre tends to focus on bread-and-butter domestic issues, a recent speech at a Montreal-area synagogue provides one of the most comprehensive glimpses yet of his views on Israel, conflict in the Middle East and antisemitism — and how a Conservative government might handle them.

Blames Oct. 7 attacks on Iran, says Conservatives would 'defund antisemitism'

A man in a blue suit speaks at a podium, with the flags of Canada and Israel nearby.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks at a conference on antisemitism, in Ottawa on Oct. 17, 2023. Last week, during a speech at a synagogue in Côte Saint-Luc, Que., he provided a comprehensive glimpse into his views on Israel, conflict in the Middle East and antisemitism. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

It can be one of the thorniest issues for Canadian politicians — highly divisive and filled with decades of fighting, with potential for political blowback from one side or the other.

While conflict has raged in the Middle East in recent months, federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has tended to focus on bread-and-butter domestic issues, such as inflation and the Liberal government's carbon tax.

In the House of Commons, Poilievre has referred to Israel or Gaza only a handful of times.

However, during a speech at a Montreal-area synagogue last week, Poilievre provided one of the most comprehensive glimpses since becoming Conservative leader of his relationship with Israel, his views on the conflict in the Middle East and the history of the Jewish people.

His speech at Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation — an Orthodox synagogue in Côte Saint-Luc, Que. — also potentially foreshadows the approach a Poilievre government would take on issues such as the Middle East, which he described as a difficult question, and antisemitism.

Officials from Poilievre's office have not yet responded to requests from CBC News for comment.

The synagogue is located in Liberal MP Anthony Housefather's riding of Mount Royal. Housefather, a longtime Liberal who is Jewish, is currently reflecting on his future in the party after most of his fellow caucus members voted on March 18 in favour of a controversial but non-binding NDP motion to work toward the recognition of the State of Palestine as part of a negotiated two-state solution.

Conservatives, three Liberals, including Housefather, and independent MP Kevin Vuong voted against the motion.

Speech gets standing ovation

At the March 26 event at the Quebec synagogue, Poilievre was introduced as the "next prime minister of Canada." A video of the event that was shot by a member of the audience, who allowed CBC News to view it, shows Poilievre's 33-minute speech peppered by applause and standing ovations. Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman, the party's deputy leader, later posted video of the speech to YouTube.

WATCH: Poilievre delivers speech at Montreal-area synagogue

The event provided a showcase for Poilievre's knowledge of Jewish religion and culture. He recounted the story of Purim, where the Jewish people refused to relinquish their religion, and sprinkled his speech with familiar expressions, referring to himself as "a simple goy from the Prairies."

Poilievre recounted his hitchhiking trip to Israel in his youth and the impressions it left on him — such as participating in a Shabbat in Betar and hearing songs being sung in Hebrew.

"The Jewish people are the only people I know of who, in the same language, worship the same faith on the same land in the same country as they did 3,000 years ago. That is a true indigenous people," Poilievre said to applause and cheers.

Israelis and Palestinians both maintain that they are indigenous to the area.

Poilievre talked about staying in a kibbutz near Ein Gedi, a historic site and nature reserve located near Masada and the Dead Sea — then standing in the Golan Heights in the north, watching missiles being fired from Lebanon.

"We literally witnessed with our own eyes Hezbollah lobbing missiles into northern Israel and the courageous IDF forces flying back into south Lebanon to retaliate against the attack," he said.

The Canadian government does not recognize permanent Israeli control over the Golan Heights.

Poilievre said when he returned to Canada, he helped launch "a full-scale campaign to criminalize Hezbollah."

Palestinians 'a chess piece in an evil chess game'

As he has done in recent months, Poilievre blamed the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel on Iran, saying it has been occupying Gaza through its intermediary, Hamas, and wanted to prevent peace accords.

About 1,200 people were killed in the Hamas-led attacks on southern Israel and about 250 people were taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies. More than 32,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed during Israel's military response since then, health officials in the territory say.

"It was the fear that discord would come to an end and that hope would take root that most terrified the regime in Iran," Poilievre told the audience. "And so, they orchestrated the attack. The Hamas leaders travelled to Tehran. They got funding and weapons from Tehran and ultimately co-ordination."

WATCH | Poilievre condemns actions of Hamas:

Poilievre says Hamas is 'determined to maximize' death and suffering

5 months ago
Duration 1:17
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, asked about civilian deaths in Gaza, said Israel has the right to defend itself and Hamas is 'in violation of international law by using human shields.'

"I'm sorry, but I refuse to believe that rag-tag terrorists in Gaza were able to accumulate all of those weapons and all of that intelligence and co-ordination on their own," the Conservative leader said to applause. "This was an outside job."

Poilievre repeated his past call for Canada to ban Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, saying it was responsible for the downing in 2020 of a Ukraine International Airlines plane that killed 55 Canadian citizens and 30 Canadian permanent residents.

"This group operates legally on Canadian territory," he said. "It can recruit, co-ordinate, mobilize, fundraise legally on Canadian soil over three years after they murdered 55 of our citizens."

People look through the rubble of demolished buildings.
Palestinians look through debris and inspect the damage to a residential building after an Israeli airstrike in the Maghazi refugee camp, in central Gaza Strip, on Friday. (Ismael Abu Dayyah/The Associated Press)

Poilievre said his heart goes out to the families of dispossessed Palestinians, saying the "Palestinian people have been made by the Iranian regime and other dictators in the regime, in the region, into a chess piece in an evil chess game."

"I understand why the political pressures are high, and I understand why our Muslim friends and neighbours are suffering and are legitimately speaking out for the suffering of their loved ones in Gaza and in the West Bank."

Poilievre told the audience he says the same things in mosques as he does in synagogues: "I love meeting with the Muslim people. They are wonderful people. When the issue of Israel comes up, I say, 'I'm going to be honest with you. I am a friend of the State of Israel, and I will be a friend of the State of Israel everywhere I go.'"

Poilievre wants UN relief agency to be defunded

Poilievre accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of delivering different messages to different groups for political gain.

"He sends one group into synagogues to say one thing, and then he sends another group of MPs into mosques to say precisely the opposite."

Poilievre said he believes in a negotiated two-state solution, with Palestinians and Israel living in peace and harmony. He said a Conservative government would stand up for Israel's right to defend itself and would reject any motions or resolutions at the United Nations that it believes unfairly target Israel.

Two politicians shake hands at an event.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, shakes hands with Poilievre at a rally in support of Israel, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa on Oct. 9, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The Canadian government should defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and ensure that "Canadian aid actually goes to the suffering Palestinian people and not to those promoting terrorism in UNRWA," he said.

"We, as a rule, around the world, common-sense Conservatives under my leadership will be cutting back foreign aid to terrorist dictators and multinational bureaucracies and using the money to rebuild the Canadian Armed Forces."

Poilievre pledged to "remove the bureaucracy and streamline the funding" for the federal government program that funds security infrastructure for places of worship and to "defund antisemitism."

"We will go line by line through all the groups that get dollars from the federal government, and we will defund every single one of those that promote antisemitism in our country."

Poilievre recalled a trip he made to Auschwitz, a concentration and extermination camp primarily for Jews that was run by Nazi Germany in Poland during the Second World War, and said it left him in tears. In April 2009, when he was parliamentary secretary to then-prime minister Stephen Harper, Poilievre attended the Conference Against Racism, Discrimination and Persecution in Geneva, and also visited Auschwitz and Birkenau to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.

He praised the resilience of the Jewish people.

"I don't know what the world will bring tomorrow. I don't know, much less 100 years from now. But I do know this, that a thousand years from now, whatever is going on, on Fridays, as the sun goes down, there will be a Shabbat in Israel," Poilievre said to a standing ovation. "Those songs will be sung. The Jewish people will go on."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Thompson

Senior reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.

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