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PM Stephen Harper announces first Israel trip at JNF gala dinner in his honor

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Toronto Jewish community leaders were all on hand on Sunday evening, Dec. 1, 2013 to fête Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Jewish National Fund's (JNF-KKL) annual Negev Dinner held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for his unwavering support of Israel, opposition to anti-Semitism, and Holocaust awareness. A total of 4000 people attended the event in honor of the Prime Minister with all the funds going to support the building of the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre in Israel. At the event, Harper formally announced that he will be making his visit official trip to Israel early in 2014.

The Jewish National Fund of Toronto hosted the 65th Negev Dinner gala event honoring the Prime Minister, which was chaired by Senator Linda Frum and Howard Sokolowski and attended by "public and government officials, Jewish community leaders and major donators" to Israel and the JNF.

The evening included a video tribute from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who called the Canadian Prime Minister a "true leader." In a sign showing their friendship Netanyahu referred to Harper by his first name Stephen throughout the video message. Netanyahu stated in his video message; "Stephen doesn't follow the herd. He has stood up for the truth, time and time again. Stephen doesn't want to be politically correct, he wants to be correct. He had the courage to stand up for what he believed." Concluding, Netanyahu expressed; "I salute you Stephen, not only as a personal friend, and a friend of Israel but as a great leader."

Harper's two most visible and trusted cabinet ministers Foreign Minister John Baird and Employment Minister Jason Kenney also attended the event with the Prime Minister. Israel's ambassador to Canada Rafael Barak, who spoke before PM Harper said; "Your friendship is just not talk, but is evident in your actions on the global stage. We are truly touched by your friendship and we admire your integrity."

The man of the hour also spoke briefly, where PM Harper announced what everyone suspected he would making his first official trip to Israel in early 2014, declaring that "It will be a great trip." Harper began by expressing; "I am honored by this particular gift…I value it [because] it is where it is. It is in that homeland of the Jewish people and that light of freedom and democracy in what is otherwise a region of darkness - the State of Israel."

The Prime Minister lauded Israel's democratic state; "In the world of diplomacy, we know how easy it is to drift away from Israel. We understand that the future of our country and of our shared civilization depends on the survival and thriving of that free and democratic homeland of the Jewish people in the Middle East."

Harper also stated that Canada and Israel share "common threats," alluding to Iran, Canada like Israel opposes the Geneva Accord signed by the P5 +1 superpowers last week saying that are, which eases Iran's sanction in exchange for them freezing their nuclear weapons program, but not completely dismantling it, saying they were "deeply skeptical" of the deal. Harper continued; "It is not just that Israel shares common values with us, Israel also faces common threats. The same threats that we face in Canada and throughout the Western world. Concluding, the Prime Minister reassured; "Israel will always have Canada as a friend. As long as we are there, Canada will hold firm."

The Prime Minister's office also released a statement about his upcoming visit to the region where
Harper will not only visit Israel, but also Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The statement read in part: "Canada recognizes the importance of building inclusive and stable societies, underpinned by democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. Our government will continue to take a strong, principled stand internationally, including at the United Nations, on all matters related to Israel and the Middle East. I look forward to visiting the Middle East early next year to explore ways of strengthening peace and security, stimulating sustainable economic growth, and promoting essential Canadian values, such as tolerance and human rights, across the region."

The Prime Minister was in his less formal mode, foregoing the usual suit and tie for a more relaxed look all in black. After his speech Harper performed a singing number with his band Herringbone and him on vocals and keyboard, as he did after his speech at the recent Conservative Party Policy Convention at the beginning of November. The Prime Minister began his performance with the Who's "The Seeker" with an encore that consisted of The Beatles "Hey Jude," Buddy Holly's "Oh Boy" and Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."

JNF Canada Chief Executive Officer, Josh Cooper declared the Canadian Prime Minister "raised the bar of what is considered to be a true friend of Israel." The chairman of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) David Koschitzky issued a statement after Harper's remarks; "This official trip is an important indicator of the dynamic relationship that exists between two great countries, which has grown and strengthened under the prime minister's leadership. This visit will provide Israelis with an opportunity to thank the prime minister for his steadfast friendship and support over many years."

The evening was not all smooth, outside the centre pro-Palestinian anti-Israel protesters were holding placards and banners and were objecting to JNF's "policy of apartheid." They were also protesting what they consider Harper's bias in favor of Israel, and his domestic and foreign policy record with the "Stop Harper!" rally that began as the guests arrived to the gala dinner. These protesters were particularly against Israel's plan to resettle the Bedouin from the Negev and also policy towards Palestinians in the Gaza strip.

According to a Haaretz report from Monday, Dec. 2, 2013 Harper will make his visit on January 19, 2014 and it will last for four days, during which he also visit Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. Although this will be the Canadian Prime Minister's first trip to Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has visited Harper a number of times in Canada.

Harper first aligned himself as a firm supporter of Israel in 2006 at the start his term as Prime Minister during the Israeli-Lebanon War, when he said Israel was justified to retaliate for Hamas kidnapping their soldiers, saying the military action was a "measured" response.

In 2010, Harper stood up for Israel at the United Nations, where the country was coming under attack, declaring; "When Israel, the only country in the world whose very existence is under attack, is consistently and conspicuously singled out for condemnation, I believe we are morally obligated to take a stand. I know, by the way, because I have the bruises to show for it, that whether it is at the United Nations, or any other international forum, the easiest thing to do is simply to just get along and go along with this anti-Israeli rhetoric, to pretend it is just about being even-handed, and to excuse oneself with the label of 'honest broker.'"

Harper's staunch support of Israel paid off, in the 2011 Federal Election over half of Canada's Jewish population voted for Harper and the Conservative Party. Jewish support officially veered away from the Liberal Party to the Conservative Party, a slow process that began when Brian Mulroney was the Prime Minister of Canada in the 1980s and early 1990s.

JNF Canada's CEO Josh Cooper explained that the Prime Minister was chosen to be honored by a committee; "The prime minister's outstanding support of the state of Israel, his efforts towards combating anti-Semitism and preserving the memory of the Holocaust made him an obvious choice." JNF Toronto President Faye Minuk also expressed; "It is a privilege to have Canada's prime minister as JNF Toronto's 65th Negev Dinner Honouree."

The Jewish National Fund of Toronto raised $5.7 million in donations from the one night alone. All of the funds donated from the gala dinner will used to build the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre. JNF CEO Copper explained the bird sanctuary was chosen because of Harper's "well documented love of animals, we felt this would be an appropriate project to present to him." The center will boast a "4,000 square meter visitor's center" to be built in the "Hula Lake Nature and Bird Park" in northern Israel, which a major junction for birds from Africa, Europe, and Asia during migration season. Each year JNF hosts a gala dinner that honors "community leaders and supporters of Israel."

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Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.

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