Annamie Paul puts it all on the line – Jewish Insider

Last month, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election for Sept. 20 in hopes of expanding his party’s parliamentary plurality to a majority, the ambitious Liberal leader — inadvertently or not — presented Jewish candidates across the country with something of an inconvenient campaign timetable.

The final and most pivotal weeks of the election have coincided with some of the most important holidays in Judaism — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — during which observant Jews are forbidden from working. The election itself takes place on Monday. Sukkot begins at sundown on Monday evening.

The Canadian Green Party leader Annamie Paul, who is the only Jewish federal party leader in Canada, has found herself particularly thwarted by Trudeau’s ill-planned election schedule as she mounts her third and perhaps last campaign to represent Toronto Centre, a traditionally Liberal stronghold, in the House of Commons.

“This is what happens when we don’t have enough diversity in politics,” Paul, 48, lamented in an interview with Jewish Insider on Friday. “We miss things.”

Last Thursday, with just four days remaining until voters would head to the polls, Paul took a step back from campaigning to observe the Day of Atonement. But while she enjoyed seeing her sister and breaking the fast with her husband’s family, Paul was also exasperated that she had been forced to weigh her religious obligations against politics.

“I’ve had to suspend my campaigning three elections in a row because they’ve been held during the High Holy Days,” said Paul, who converted to Judaism in 2000. “There has got to be a way for us, in a secular society, to be able to respect people’s most important holidays. I mean, we would never have an election during the Christmas period or during the Easter break, for instance. That’s frustrating.”

Such grievances, however, are perhaps the least of Paul’s problems following months of party infighting in which Green members have conspired, among other things, to remove her as leader, revoke her party membership and deprive her of crucial campaign funds in the lead-up to what may represent one of the most consequential elections in recent Green Party history.

Now, Paul is wagering her future as a party leader — and even her status as a Green — as she vies for a position in Parliament, where the Greens now hold just two seats. “Because it is such a short and intense election cycle, because we did start the election cycle at a disadvantage,” Paul told JI, “I’ve had to try to be as laser-focused as I can.”

When Paul was first elected party leader last October, prevailing through eight rounds of ranked-ballot voting, her victory was heralded as a historic milestone. Not only was Paul the first Jewish woman to take the helm of a federal party in Canada, she was also the first Black party leader in Canadian history.

In a December interview with JI, Paul emphasized an ambition to expand her party’s traditional environmental advocacy mandate by spotlighting a broader array of social policies like universal basic income and the decriminalization of illicit drugs. Her background as a Black and Jewish woman, she argued, would allow “people more readily to imagine that I may have other things that I care about beyond the climate.”

“She’s deliberately tried to have a wider discussion about identity issues,” said Andrew McDougall, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, who lives in Paul’s parliamentary district. But such efforts, McDougall observed, have at times caused friction within the party.

No issue has been more troublesome for Paul than than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a somewhat curious point of tension for the recently elected Green leader, who is hardly outspoken on the matter. Though she has visited Israel twice, Paul told JI this past winter that she had no immediate plans to go back because she was trying to reduce her carbon footprint, and the party’s new election platform, released two weeks ago, makes no direct mention of Middle East foreign policy.

As violence escalated between Israel and Hamas in May, however, Paul felt compelled to weigh in on the party’s behalf, urging “restraint” and calling “on those in positions of authority to do all in their power to prevent further injury or loss of life.”

Despite her relatively balanced tone, Paul’s statement was received with hostility by party members who took a more critical view of Israel’s military actions — including, most notably, Jenica Atwin, at the time an elected Green Party member in New Brunswick. In a since-deleted tweet, Atwin publicly rebuked the party leader for what she viewed as insufficient support for the Palestinian cause. “It is a totally inadequate statement,” Atwin stated. “Forced Evictions must end! I stand with Palestine and condemn the unthinkable air strikes in Gaza. End Apartheid!”

It was the opening salvo in a bitter feud that has seriously hobbled Paul’s standing as a Green — and just the latest flashpoint in a contentious battle that has long been festering within the party.

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Paul is not the first high-ranking Green official to struggle with internal divisions over Israel. Previously, in 2014, Green Party President Paul Estrin, who is Jewish, was forced to resign after writing a blog post in which he defended Israel and criticized Hamas. Not long after that, in 2016, the party passed a resolution in favor of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. Elizabeth May, who was then leading the Greens, considered resigning in protest before the party agreed to a revised policy. 

The conflict largely seemed to have remained dormant until Paul took the reins.

For her part, Paul rejects BDS, opposes Israeli annexation of the West Bank and supports a two-state solution to the conflict — all fairly mainstream views in Canadian politics. 

“From my perspective, I certainly didn’t generate any division over Israel,” she told JI. “I put out two, and only two, statements on behalf of the party related to Israel and Palestine in May. Beyond that, I had never, leading up to that, ever made any comments whatsoever about Israel and Palestine.”

Still, her close affiliation with Noah Zatzman, until recently a trusted senior advisor, remains a major sticking point among rank-and-file Green members who have condemned the Jewish state. Not long after Atwin’s tweet, he jumped into the fray. “The progressive and climate communities,” Zatzman, who is Jewish, wrote in a combative Facebook post, had “displayed” what he described as “overt and virulent” antisemitism over the conflict in Israel and Gaza. “We will not accept an apology after you realize what you’ve done,” Zatzman said. “We will work to defeat you.”

Though Zatzman did not identify anyone by name, his comments were understood to be directed at Atwin as well as Paul Manly of British Columbia, who in May described Israel’s treatment of Palestinian families facing eviction in East Jerusalem as “ethnic cleansing.” 

In June, Atwin crossed the floor and joined the Liberals, sending shockwaves through the Green Party’s already fragile infrastructure. Tensions over Israel, she explained at the time, had largely influenced her decision to lock hands with the party of Trudeau, a frequent bête noire of the Canadian far left. The defection, which raised questions over Paul’s ability to maintain order within her ranks, reduced Green representation in the House of Commons to just two seats, including Manly and May, the former longtime party leader in British Columbia.

Paul has argued that Atwin’s surprise party switch was “manufactured” so she could cross the floor. But both May and Manly have blamed Zatzman — and, by implication, Paul — for Atwin’s departure, even as she has softened her position on Israel since joining the Liberals. 

As Paul strained to restore order, the party’s federal council passed a motion ordering that she publicly renounce her advisor or face a July 20 no-confidence vote. The council also mulled revoking her party membership.

Paul has refused to condemn Zatzman, who no longer works for her. She dodged the vote, but is by no means in the clear as she is poised to face an automatic leadership review following the election.

The party leader has “really struggled to stay in control,” McDougall told JI. “There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the Israel-Palestine dispute that has sort of torn up the party.” The fallout “has certainly filtered out to the public,” he said. “As the leader of the party heading into an election, there’s a lot on the line for her.”

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Paul acknowledges the stakes but deflects blame for the breakdown that has occurred on her watch, characterizing efforts to remove her from the party as racist and sexist. “It’s been very difficult,” she told JI. “It was an individual situation with an institution. I underline that because we say, generally, in Canada, that we recognize that there are things like systemic discrimination and so forth, and then we never seem to apply that to actual situations.”

Hamish Telford, an associate professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, largely agreed with Paul’s argument. “I think one of the things we have to assess in Annamie Paul’s leadership is that of racism and antisemitism,” he said. “It’s almost certainly been there behind the scenes, and that has certainly been part of her trouble.”

Paul said antisemitism “is the constant companion of Jewish people in politics.”

“I’m pretty sure there isn’t a day that goes by without antisemitic comments being lodged at me,” she told JI. “It has been a real eye-opener, the experience, and I am alarmed at how pervasive it is. I’m alarmed at how comfortable people are expressing antisemitic views. I’m alarmed at how often they go without a response.”

During her party leadership campaign last year, Paul was repeatedly subject to antisemitic attacks, including from a fellow party member who suggested that reporters should follow her into synagogues “to observe her membership drives and fundraising.” Others accused her of accepting bribes from Israel.

Such invective is part of a broader national trend that extends well beyond Green politics and appears to have intensified as the election nears. 

In mid-August, swastikas were found scrawled on the campaign posters of two Jewish Liberal candidates in Montreal, and earlier this month, a pair of candidates affiliated with the left-leaning New Democratic Party withdrew from their races for making antisemitic remarks on social media, including questioning whether Auschwitz was a “real place.”

In July, the Canadian government hosted a national summit on antisemitism. Paul was only invited the night before, but she was not allowed to participate in the discussion — an experience she described as insulting given her status as the country’s only Jewish federal party leader.

Paul was reluctant to dwell on party dynamics, insisting that she is now focused on the election. But she acknowledged that the dispute over Israel remains unresolved. “It certainly has had a very big impact on my ability to lead the party,” she told JI. Paul expressed hope that federal council members and other Green leaders would address any lingering tensions and “make it possible to have conversations about” the conflict “in a respectful, safe way for members within the party.”

But there seems to be little chance that will happen any time soon as a number of Greens who are hostile to Israel seek federal office. Rana Zaman — who was blocked from running as an NDP candidate in 2019 due to a series of social media posts in which she compared Israel to Nazi Germany — was recently nominated as a Green candidate in Nova Scotia. Zaman has since apologized for the tweets.

More recently, Michael LaRiviere, a Green candidate in Ontario, likened vaccine passports to “Gestapo” tactics during the Holocaust — echoing the view of far-right protesters across Canada who have used Nazi symbols such as yellow stars in objecting to vaccine mandates.

In addition, several Green candidates have expressed support for BDS, including those who have filled out questionnaires solicited by a group known as the Canadian BDS Coalition

The organization, which received responses from more than a dozen Greens, asked candidates a number of questions, including whether they will “agree to investigate and oppose Canadian tax-deductible status for any Zionist organizations registered as charities that violate Canadian law.” Some candidates have answered in the affirmative — though the question is misleadingly worded to suggest, with no supporting evidence, that Jewish and pro-Israel nonprofits are somehow engaged in illegal activities.

A loose coalition of Jewish groups and pro-Israel political consultants is now working behind the scenes to prevent candidates who have harshly criticized Israel from being elected this cycle, according to a source familiar with the effort who spoke with JI but asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter. The list covers 24 members of Parliament and two senators across five parties — including Green members Manly and May — who signed on to a recent letter calling for the Canadian government to condemn and sanction Israel.

As a national party figurehead who became the first Green member to assume federal office in 2011, May is not expected to lose her seat. Manly maintains a significant polling lead over his opponents, according to a Green Party survey he recently posted on his campaign website.

Paul, however, is facing more daunting odds as she goes up against Marci Ien, a first-term Liberal incumbent. Paul finished in a strong second when she competed against Ien in a 2020 by-election to replace former Finance Minister Bill Morneau. But this cycle, experts question whether Paul can muster the wherewithal to pull off an upset, particularly as she has struggled to wrest control of her party.

A recent bright spot came, in early September, when Paul was widely praised for performing well under pressure during a televised English-language leaders debate.

“Watching Annamie Paul standing so tall up there in the debates as she deflected dismissive mockery from the lightweight peacocks she was pitted against, you couldn’t help but admire her,” Jesse Brown, the publisher and editor in chief of the alternative news site and podcast network Canadaland, told JI in an email. “Her prospects are miserable, her position may be untenable, all that she really has going for her is that she’s right on just about every issue,” Brown added. “It’s a shame that doesn’t count for more.”

“Annamie Paul is almost certainly toast after this election,” said Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. “I thought she performed well in the English-language leaders debate, but it’s too little too late.”

Paul concedes that her race is “absolutely” an “uphill battle,” but, she argued in the interview with JI, “any place that I was going to run, unless I was running in the seat held by one of our sitting members, was going to be” a challenge. “We were starved of resources,” she said. “We didn’t get any funding, unfortunately, from the party.”

Still, Paul said her local team had managed to raise “enough money” to run a “fully funded” campaign. “We’re just looking to do all we can, every single day.”

“I ran in a place, a community that I care a lot about, that I wanted to represent, but also where I felt that we had, based on all of our analysis and everything else, a very good chance of winning if we ran a good campaign,” said Paul, a non-practicing lawyer who lives in Toronto with her husband and two sons.

Paul says she considered stepping down on multiple occasions amid mounting tensions within her own party. But one major reason she decided to stay put in the race was out of loyalty to Green candidates across the country who are seeking federal office. “The reason that I’ve committed to continuing — and wanted to continue — all the way through the election was that we have some really exceptional people running for us,” she said. “People that I helped to recruit.”

Though the Green Party failed to nominate a full slate of candidates for Canada’s 338 federal districts, Paul was optimistic that Monday’s results might still yield some surprise victories, allowing the party to grow its minuscule presence in the House of Commons. “There is a chance this election cycle, like in previous election cycles,” Paul intimated, “that there will be unexpected results for us in different parts of the country.”

Particularly promising, she said, are local races in Kitchener Centre, where she has campaigned, and Fredericton, where Atwin — the former Green — is defending her seat as a Liberal.

Paul has drawn scrutiny for staying mostly in her own district throughout the course of the month-long election cycle. But the Green leader has suggested that her somewhat controversial party status has caused her to wonder if she is unwelcome in some districts — and she says she has remained sensitive to that dynamic rather than pursuing an aggressive national campaign tour.

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Experts believe that if Paul doesn’t win her seat she will likely face pressure to resign or risk being ousted by party members at the upcoming post-election review.

Dimitri Lascaris, a Green member and lawyer in Montreal who ran a formidable campaign against Paul last year in the tight party leader election, suggested in an email to JI that he wasn’t ruling out another bid. “If for any reason Annamie Paul’s leadership should end within the next several months,” he said on Friday afternoon, “I would have to think carefully about whether electoral politics is the best way for me to contribute.”

In 2018, Lascaris drew scrutiny when he suggested that two Jewish members of Parliament were more loyal to “apartheid Israel” than their own party. Trudeau — whose initial plans for a majority appear to have fallen by the wayside as polls show a neck-and-neck race against the Conservative Party — criticized Lascaris’s remarks as “vile antisemitic smears.”

“I know that the community and young people have been watching everything unfolding very closely,” Paul said. “Even before all of this, there were questions when I speak with groups, when I speak with Hillels, when I speak with congregations, a lot of questions about politics, and was there actually a place, and would it be a safe place, a welcoming place?”

“Considering how long the community has been here, and how successful the community is, that’s certainly not reflected at the highest levels of politics,” Paul added. “We’re still also struggling to find our place.”

Paul isn’t conceding defeat just yet. But she is largely clinging to the belief that her persistence — even if it results in defeat — may clear a path for aspiring candidates who feel discouraged by a lack of diversity in Canadian politics. “I really wanted to show that, as a Black Jewish woman, despite all of those challenges, that I did make it to the debate phase,” she told JI, “that I could make it through.”

“I’ve gone further than others have been able to, and I hope that makes it easier for others,” Paul said. “But I know that there are those who have looked at my experience and also said, ‘Boy, that’s not for me.’”