Allison Hanes: Housefather is down, but not out

The MP for Mount Royal is reflecting on whether he still belongs in the Liberal Party after a “deeply hurtful” vote by the House of Commons on the Israel-Hamas war.

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No one can accuse Anthony Housefather, the Liberal MP for Mount Royal, of hiding what he stands for — even when his positions aren’t popular.

He was the lone vote against the Liberal government’s update of the Official Languages Act, adopted last year — bucking the party line because he felt references to Quebec’s controversial Bill 96 in the federal legislation sold out the anglophone community. For sticking his neck out, he was stripped of his parliamentary secretary role (although later reinstated), but worse, he was unfairly vilified for being anti-francophone.

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On Monday, he found himself out of step with his party again, when he was one of three Liberals who voted against a watered down version of a New Democratic Party opposition day motion that originally called for Canada to recognize a Palestinian state, a clear departure from this country’s longtime foreign policy.

When he rose in the House of Commons, Housefather offered a passionate defence of Israel at a time when world sympathy in the aftermath of Hamas’s attack is shifting, with more than 31,000 Palestinians killed in the war in Gaza and the risk of famine rising among the more than a million displaced.

“I am a Canadian. I am a Jew. I am a Zionist,” Housefather began, giving voice to a Jewish community that is still in shock, since about 1,200 Israelis were massacred by Hamas and as many as 250 hostages taken to Gaza, over 100 of whom remain captive. Many Canadian Jews feels under siege for supporting Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, as virulent antisemitism rises in Canada and attacks target schools and synagogues in Montreal.

“Right now, the Jewish community is demoralized and intimidated,” said Housefather, one of only eight Jewish MPs. “This motion would create one winner and one loser. Most Canadian Muslims will vastly support this motion. They are feeling lots of pain right now, watching the events that are happening in Gaza. If this motion is adopted, Canadian Jews will feel tremendous pain because the way the motion is constructed would clearly create a false equivalency between the state of Israel and the terrorist organization Hamas.”

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He said unilaterally recognizing a Palestinian state would “reward” Hamas for carrying out “the deadliest pogrom against Jews since the Holocaust” and abandon Israel, “our democratic ally and our friend.”

But after a heavily amended text more in line with Canada’s position — a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a ceasefire in Gaza and a ban on selling arms to Israel — was adopted 204-117, what hurt Housefather more was that many of his fellow Liberals gave a standing ovation to the NDP MP who moved the original.

Housefather isn’t concealing his feelings of betrayal. He left the chamber that night and finished voting electronically. He is now reflecting on whether he still belongs in the Liberal Party.

“My main question is whether my values and my views today fit,” he said in an interview. “I never fit in a box. Like most English-speaking Montrealers, I’ve been a Liberal reflexively because I believed the Liberal Party is the one that has protected minority rights in Quebec better than others. And with what happened last year on the language bill, with what’s happening here, I’m having a very serious reflection as to whether that’s still the case.”

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Housefather said there’s no point in denying his sense of isolation.

“Most politicians would never say this. I just always believe in being an open book. I think that’s what I think makes me more genuine, if people know what I really think. So I’m in a period of reflection, and I think there’s a lot of other people out there who are in a period of reflection,” he said. “I never hide what I believe and I never shirk from my principles.”

Housefather acknowledged that the non-binding motion that passed after much horse-trading between the Liberals and the NDP was an improvement on the original. But he deplored the way the final version was tabled at the last minute, preventing Eglinton-Lawrence MP Marco Mendicino (one of the other Liberal nay votes) from speaking and without allowing time for proper study or understanding.

“That is absurd, ridiculous protocol,” he said. “So regardless of my feelings about the substance, the process was wrong.”

For the record, Housefather supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He believes lasting peace must be achieved through negotiations by the parties, in keeping with the principles of the landmark Oslo Accords of the 1990s.

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But Housefather said the vote — and all the drama surrounding it — never should have happened.

“When there’s an opposition day motion that goes against Liberal policy, that goes against government policy, the government’s position is 99.9 per cent of the time: Just vote it down,” he said.

This is what he told Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he first found out about the NDP motion, which was delayed by tributes to the late former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

But they decided otherwise, as the Trudeau government attempts to walk a tightrope to avoid angering either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel supporters, but ends up pleasing neither.

The same balancing act is happening in the U.S., where, entering a critical election year, President Joe Biden’s staunch support of Israel in the wake of Oct. 7 is being eroded by fierce criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s quest for “total victory” in Gaza, resistance to a truce, and post-war plans many describe as unfeasible.

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in the U.S., is so frustrated with Netanyahu for being an impediment to peace he went so far as to call for his replacement, drawing accusations of interference in a fellow democracy and rebukes from Republicans.

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But even political leaders abroad who have traditionally backed Israel are increasingly sensitive to the turning tide of public opinion at home — and unable to ignore the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza.

The same rifts are straining the Liberal caucus, as the minority government is pulled in one direction by its alliance with the NDP, while watching the Conservatives soar in the polls.

That’s why so much is at stake in Housefather’s choice.

Will he go independent? Will he join the Conservatives, who voted against the amended NDP motion? Not only is the château-fort riding of Mount Royal in play, but potentially much of the Jewish vote in Canada.

“The Jewish community is not monolithic and certainly, over recent years, the community has been half and half over whether they identify with the Liberals or the Conservatives or whatever,” Housefather said. “I think most people who identify with the Liberals are having the same struggles right now as I am.”

Housefather said he hasn’t given himself a timeline for making a decision about his future.

“I want to know if I fit and I want to know which way the party is moving, the caucus is moving, and whether my views and values and, more importantly, my constituents’ views and values, still best fit there,” he said. “Because whatever I am, I’ve won nine elections in this riding, both municipal and federal, because I think I am an average person from the riding. And when I speak, I speak for the average person.”

One thing is certain, he said: “I’m staying in politics. I’m running for re-election in Mount Royal. Let there be no doubt about that.

“I believe I am the best spokesperson for the people of Mount Royal and I think most of them think that I am. They know I will fight for them on language, on other issues. And whether people agree with me or not — because sometimes people don’t agree with me on these issues — at least they know I’m a person who will say exactly what I believe, and they can respect me for that.”

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